For many, the spot at UNC Charlotte will forever be known as “Obama Field.” It was where 25,000 people gathered on intramural fields four years ago to hear then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama on the rainy evening before he was elected president.
Since then, the fields have been relocated, and 160,000 cubic yards of red clay scooped out to form a bowl for a new campus building. There’s enough seating around the bowl for 15,306 people, who will overlook a centerpiece formed by two lines and 100 yards of green Hellas Matrix synthetic turf in between.
For now, the new building is generically called “Football Stadium.” It includes a 46,150-square-foot field house named the Judy W. Rose Football Center for athletic director Judy Rose, and a field honoring former Bank of America chief Hugh McColl and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
After a groundbreaking on April 28, 2011, the stadium is set to be complete this month – a little less than a year before the 49ers’ inaugural football season kicks off.
The $45 million stadium – paid for by student fees, seat licenses and private funds – is expandable to 40,000 seats. It is part of a complex that includes the football center and two practice fields. A press box with media seating, a “University Box” and television and radio booths extend atop the west stands.
The top floor of the Rose Center includes coaches offices and meeting rooms, an academic center with 50 to 60 study carrels and computers for all 49ers athletes, a tiered classroom that may double as a post-game interview room and a hospitality deck overlooking McColl-Richardson Field.
The field-level floor includes locker rooms, weight and training rooms with whirlpools and a players lounge.
“We may be a startup program, but this stadium has all the amenities of a strong, established program,” said Tom Whitestone, associate athletics director for media relations. “We have built this facility up to make it impactful right off the bat.”
‘Kind of like a toothache’
It’s no secret that UNCC has been on a building spree since Phil Dubois was installed as chancellor seven years ago.
Twenty-three projects have been built or are under construction or being planned since then, costing about $500 million.
The buildings, including parking decks and residence halls, will accommodate UNCC’s evolution as a serious urban research university and growth that could reach 35,000 students by 2020.
The projects include a new building in uptown, designed to blur the distance between the main campus and the city, an alumni center, a larger motorsports laboratory, a building for bioinformatics research and EPIC (the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center) built to train engineers for the energy industry.
But none, perhaps, will raise the university’s profile quicker than the football stadium.
When Dubois returned to UNC Charlotte for a second stint – he was provost for more than five years starting in the early 1990s – he vowed he’d not consider football.
But the sentiment for a team from students and alumni was too strong.
“It was kind of like a toothache,” Dubois said. “Not much good happens if you let it fester … We gave it a complete and full examination and I’m pleased with the decision. Most importantly, it didn’t shove to the side many of the equally important things that we’ve wanted to accomplish.”
Each new building has its place and purpose, he said. The Center City Building drew attention from locals who still considered UNCC a commuter school built on an outpost separate from the city. EPIC strengthened the school’s partnership with the energy industry and the $37 million PORTAL building under construction will highlight the university’s role in “incubating and advancing innovative research,” Dubois said.
“Football will have its place too,” he said. “Simply because of the role that college athletics plays in the public mind, it will gain lots of attention.”
A design that fits in
The stadium isn’t set apart from the school. It’s blended with the same clay-colored Hansen “Morrocroft Special” brick used to build surrounding buildings on the university’s Charlotte Research Institute campus, said Dan Van Dyke, a senior associate at Charlotte-based Jenkins Peer Architects who has directed the stadium’s design and construction.
By the time Van Dyke arrived on the project, Dubois and other university officials – including Rose – had decided they wanted a stadium that was truly a part of the campus and sports complex.
“It had to blend with the existing context of the buildings in the area,” he said.
So the stadium was designed with a traditional architecture with a touch of Georgian to co-exist with nearby buildings like Grigg Hall and Duke Centennial Hall that rise from the north end zone.
By design, the goalposts split both those buildings, lining up with the “Orbis” sculpture that can also be seen from the stadium.
It was an intentional choice “to keep the axis of the stadium centered between the two engineering buildings … rather than alter the axis on a more true north-south line,” Dubois said. “What might be good for wide receivers is not necessarily good for the look of the campus.”
The bowl was created to lower the field so the view wouldn’t be blocked, Van Dyke said.
If and when the stadium seating is expanded, the new seats will rise from the east and west sides to keep the view, he said.
Coaches have told Van Dyke that when they’re on the field, the surrounding buildings feel like the edge of the stadium.
“That not only enhances the sound, but psychologically makes the stadium feel more enclosed or bigger – more imposing,” Van Dyke said.
Building a foundation
Last week, 85 players – 30 on scholarship – dressed in the new locker room for their first conditioning session as a team.
From the home-team tunnel, Napolean Sykes, the outside linebackers coach, snapped a photo of crews working on the turf.
“I’ve been following the progress photographically,” said Sykes, who helped start the football program at nearby Mallard Creek High School. “It’s feeling very real.”
Minutes later, the players began filing out of the locker room for a practice field beyond the east stands.
“We’re making history today,” one said.
“Yea, baby,” said another. “It’s game day, baby.”