"We're very early in the process," said athletic director Scott Stricklin. "The Bulldog Club is doing a feasibility study, all the options for the future of Dudy Noble Field, the best place to watch college baseball in America." And when Stricklin said ‘all' the options, he wasn't exaggerating.
"Improve, renovate, update, start over, there's nothing off the table."
Two architects from the firm of Wier+Boener in Jackson attended the session. Mississippi State has a relationship with the outfit based on plans for softball and tennis facility work. On top of that nine of the ten partners are Mississippi State alumni. One, Jack Allin, moderated the session.
"Our goal is to create a master plan of stadium improvements," Allin said. "We hope to create a new, unified aesthetic where fans and players, and future players, say ‘that's a good-looking stadium', and create a top-tier facility for our student athletes and accommodate our staff's needs. And of course create the best game-day experience for our fans."
Stricklin said the athletic department is also receiving input from Populous, the noted national stadium builders who have had a hand in 23 current professional parks as well as Omaha's TD Ameritrade where the '13 Diamond Dogs concluded their College World Series season. And while she is primarily busy for now with a $200 million project at Dodgers Stadium, famed architect and MSU alumnus Janet-Marie Smith will be involved as a consultant.
Setting the ultimate format and schedule will be a complex process. The goal is simpler. "Mississippi State deserves to have the very best facility in the country," Stricklin said. "Not kinda good, not up there with the best, we deserve the very best. And it's going to take making good decisions, and it's going to take resources."
An estimated 150 Bulldog baseball fans attended what Stricklin called a ‘listening session' for the athletic department and architects. Allin set many of the talking points, organized to encourage commentary on almost every facet of a Mississippi State game day. This involved parking, ticketing procedures, access to and then around Polk-Dement Stadium as well as the famous outfield areas, and more. Actual architectural nuts-and-bolts were minimal.
But, as Stricklin made clear, big changes are ahead for the stadium and environs. Fans, he said, "had a huge hand in making this facility possible, and at the time it was revolutionary. We turned the whole baseball stadium facilities in the SEC on its ear. But, times have changed." Because, as Stricklin said, the success Mississippi State had in the form of SEC and NCAA attendance records led everyone in the league to take a look…and to copy as well as improve on the original.
Now it is time for Bulldog baseball to again set the standard. "We want creativity," said Stricklin. "We want ideas that challenge these guys (the architects) to come up with something unique and special and once again set the world of college baseball on its ear."
What State really did was force much of the country to open up their wallets and invest in college baseball. The original, circa 1967 Dudy Noble Field, with no stadium name needed at the time, created enough buzz in the then-insular sport with big and raucous crowds starting in the late 1970s. A seams-bursting turnout for the 1985 Starkville Regional and not-so-veiled challenges by Coach Ron Polk spurred construction of the current stadium which opened in February '87.
In the 27 seasons since there have been 31 crowds of 10,000 or more, including three during this June's Regional and a 14,562 gate for ‘super Saturday' which was the second-largest campus crowd in NCAA history. The largest, of course, was set by Mississippi State in 1989 on another super Saturday, when 14,991 watched the Diamond Dogs sweep a set from Florida. Though many a fan there that June 2007 day is eternally convinced an even larger throng overflowed PDS to watch State defeat Clemson and advance to another College World Series.
In recent years there have been varied upgrades to the stadium, not least complete replacement of all chairbacks three seasons ago with a ‘refacing' and painting of the original concrete interior. Vinyl decorative wraps of the support pillars and some concrete fascias have lent a more modern look but this dressing doesn't disguise the facts. PDS has fallen behind at least half its SEC counterparts, and now both Alabama and Georgia have announced costly upgrade projects that will put them too ahead of State in the stadium standings.
Underneath, the home locker room has had frequent makeovers, while both dugouts were done-over as well with improved drainage. Just this past fall the field had a new, artificial surface installed from foul-lines out to the fences as well as around home plate. The playing field itself was completely resurfaced, including a new draining system, for the 2011 season.
Coach John Cohen, who was a redshirting transfer when PDS opened in '87, is naturally fond of the stadium he played in, on teams that won SEC Championships and NCAA tournaments. An aging stadium hasn't kept the Diamond Dogs from rebuilding into College World Series form, Cohen agrees.
"I believe our setup is one of the best in the nation because of the Palmeiro Center. The other thing is the weightroom we get to share with football. We have that going for us. It makes the overall recruiting picture better. But, recruiting is everything. We can't win ball games if we don't get the very best kids, and it's an arms race."
And a state-of-art stadium is one big weapon to battle recruiting competition. Part of any renovation or upgrade or whatever is done will coincide with seating and ticketing that State hopes brings more fans to midweek games and places them where they will show up on TV. This is an increasing image-issue since, after all, the SEC Network will debut next August and 2015 baseball games will be on TV for prospects to see.
Cohen absolutely wants a stadium capable of continuing this program's tradition of setting attendance records for big weekend series and NCAA tournaments. But the trick is structuring everything to look good on TV on Tuesdays, too. "Every day is a recruiting opportunity for us. It's one thing for Super Bulldog Weekend and Regionals and super regionals, but every game we play from this point forward is on TV. So a kid in southern California l is considering us, he watches the side-angle and ‘nobody' is at the game, that's a challenge for us."
Ticketing and seating policies are not W+B's task. They are charged with designing a stadium format that keeps fans coming. To this end Allin ran through a long list of topics, and got an earful of responses. Some were purely practical such as more shuttles for the farthest parking spots, reducing bottlenecks at concession stands and restrooms, clearer directions to and through the stadium area, handicapped zones, and always more gates. Other suggestions about removing some obstructions, such as supports for protective netting; or more legible numbers on the scoreboard; and plaza-type entries to the stadium and more had obviously already been considered by State and firm, as Allin had some answers ready. A suggestion about an underground parking garage did seem to surprise him though.
"There's no crazy idea out there," said Allin. "The more input we have the better the end product will be." Though, he likely got a little more input than expected when differences of opinions regarding the Left Field Lounge inevitably arose.
The radioactive topic was also anticipated, with the largest portion of the crowd indicating they prefer none. A few brave folk did raise growing concerns, shared by MSU administrators unofficially, about the safety factor of all the cobbled-together outfield rigs. Their worries were immediately outweighed by the majority, but things did get tense for a while; just as when one fan brought up the potential for a full re-seating of the new stadium when done, as has happened with basketball and will with football.
"That's an administrative call," Allin said wisely.
Top administrator Stricklin is very aware how carefully any Lounge issues must be handled, but wanted to give loyal fans their fair say. As to any sort of time-frame for the eventual project, there is none for now.
"Those are great questions and we don't have enough information to answer either one," Stricklin said. "It depends on scope and scale. We're doing more major work, we've got a good team and we want to give them time to do their work. We don't really have a timetable for collecting all the information."
What Mississippi State has is a commitment to once again house the Diamond Dogs in kennel befitting their national stature. "And maintain what is already the best atmosphere in college baseball," Cohen said.