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KU's stadium reveal represents 'another mission almost complete'

Current Jayhawks in awe of what plans for football's new home mean for the progress and momentum of the program

9 min read
This rendering depicts the view toward the northeast corner of the new David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, set to open in 2025. [Kansas Athletics photo]

University of Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod called it “a once-in-a-generation project” and said they were aiming to make it “an outdoor Allen Fieldhouse.”

KU AD Travis Goff used the words intimacy, community and energy to support his belief that KU’s new stadium project will bring a world-class football facility and one of the finest game day venues in the country to Lawrence.

And head coach Lance Leipold called the vision a “game changer.”

"What a day, what an event, what an opportunity.”
— Kansas football coach Lance Leipold

All profound thoughts and words about a project that has been promised for what has seemed like forever. But to the current members of the Kansas football roster themselves, Tuesday’s long-awaited unveiling of the plans for the Gateway District project surrounding David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium meant something different.

For most of them, it’s not a vision to look forward to or something to start a countdown toward. At least half of the roster will never play a snap there. But there is pride associated with the project all the same, and for a lot of these guys, that’s enough.

“It’s another mission almost complete,” junior defensive end Jereme Robinson told R1S1 Sports. “I remember when I very first got here, 2019, it was my gray shirt year, and my whole mission was just to change the program – get Kansas football rockin’. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Nothing says “rockin” quite like the promise of a $300 million overhaul of the stadium and surrounding areas. Wins, sellouts and bowl berths made all of it possible. And the belief held by scores of people that those things were just the beginning is what led to action at a rate that Goff and Girod admitted has been faster than anyone could have expected.

"I remember when I very first got here, my whole mission was just to change the program – get Kansas football rockin’. And that’s what we’re doing.” — KU junior Jereme Robinson

There are economic factors, political components and multi-use initiatives that have taken the project from a simple stadium makeover and transformed it into something worthy of the moniker Gateway District project. And KU’s leaders are planning for the new district to be the primary entrance to KU’s campus and a year-round destination rather than just a football stadium used for six games each fall.

But to the players who have made it possible, and those who might one day play in it, the promise of a new facility that could make Kansas the envy of nearly everyone in college football — at least temporarily — is the latest chapter in the program's rapid rebuild in which everything finally feels right.

“I’m going to try not to get emotional, but it’s something I’m passionate about, man,” senior defensive end Hayden Hatcher told R1S1. “When I came here, I had other opportunities, but I saw what could be built here. In the beginning years, it was rough. A lot of dudes were leaving and a lot of thoughts came into my head like did I really make the right choice, you know? But just to see that stadium project be announced, it means the world to me. All those doubts I had go out the window because that’s the legacy I’m leaving.”

Robinson, along with a dozen or so of his teammates, was in attendance during Tuesday’s announcement. They were joined, of course, by Goff, Girod, Leipold, Kansas governor Laura Kelly and a handful of notable former KU greats like Todd Reesing, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Darrell Stuckey.

Harris, who won Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos, was one of those who spoke to the room of nearly 300 coaches, partners, powerhouse donors and other Kansas staff members on Tuesday. His message was simple — enjoy this.

During his remarks, Harris spoke directly to the players in the room on a couple of occasions, telling them how special the program can be and how it’s up to them to both make it that way and take advantage of it.

“This is what we’ve been waiting on, right,” said Harris, taking a journey back to 2007, when the players he played with routinely said things like, “I can’t wait until we get a new stadium.”

After several missteps and a little mismanagement, that day has finally come.

The new facility will not open until 2025. Construction will begin in December, at the completion of the upcoming season, and Goff noted that by the start of the 2025 season only the west and north sections of the stadium will be complete, bringing the total to 70% of the renovation goal. From there, they'll finalize plans to renovate the east stands and connect it to the south end. Those plans, though discussed, remain somewhat open-ended.

As a result of the work that will be begin mere months from now, KU will play in front of a significantly reduced capacity crowd — at the same location — during the 2024 season as construction continues.

"I had other opportunities, but I saw what could be built here." — KU senior Hayden Hatcher

Hatcher and Robinson both know they’ll be long gone by the time things get to that point, but just the thought of the next generation getting to experience it makes them smile.

It didn't hurt that the first step in the process was to upgrade the current locker room and weight room so this group of Jayhawks could reap some of the benefits of the momentum they helped create.

The first phase of the stadium overhaul will include even more upgrades to the Anderson Family Football Complex, with more square footage, new amenities and training spaces for the players and a tunnel connecting the locker room to the field all part of the plans.

Goff called those steps a "significant, dramatic renovation," which is saying something given the changes the facility underwent during the past few months.

“It meant so much to me that coach Leipold got the locker room and the weight room done so that we get a part of it,” Hatcher said. “But someday I’m going to be able to come back with my kids and see this stadium and be like, ‘I played a part in this.’”

More than viewing the physical structure itself, the belief held by those at KU is that the program and on-field product also will be something to worth experiencing.

“It’s their work,” Leipold said of his current players. “It’s their hours that they put in. That’s going to be the future. (There’s a) passion and belief about what can happen here. We just got a sliver of it last fall, and this shows that this university is committed to being successful in Power 5 football. This is a statement for recruiting, to maintaining staff members and our fan base. We’re not (just) existing anymore. … What a day, what an event, what an opportunity.”

R1S1 asked the KU leaders on Tuesday how much input the athletes had in the design and desires associated with the new stadium.

“With us having been so embedded with this group the last couple of years, having really gotten to know what are you looking for in a head football coach, what are you looking for in terms of investment and commitment from KU, I think we just picked up on, hey, at the end of the day what they want is the best home-field advantage we can possibly provide,” Goff said.

This new vision certainly has the look of something that can deliver that.

“The momentum was already real, but today it went to another level." — KU running back Devin Neal

From an upgraded atmosphere complete with a tunnel connecting the locker room to the field and seats that sit 100 feet closer to the field on the west and north sides, the new stadium figures to be one of those you ooh and ahh about when you see it on TV in another city.

There are also plenty of upgrades in store for the KU fan base, from more restrooms and food options to more leg room in the seats and a bigger, better video board. While that might not mean much to players in most programs, to the current players in this program even that is relevant since many of them may someday sit in those very seats with their friends and families.

“Our field, in my opinion, (has) a very unique feel,” Hatcher said. “We have a beautiful campus, and just being able to have that unique, Lawrence, Kansas feel, that would be great. Like Allen Fieldhouse is like none other, if we can have something unique that when you walk in you think, man, there’s no place like Kansas, that’s what I’m looking for.”

From players to staff members to assistant coaches and more, Leipold said the Jayhawks put “a lot of research into this,” and now are on the way to making it fit the KU footprint.

When asked if any of his players shared their instant feedback about what they saw in the video and renderings on Tuesday, Leipold said simply, “They’re amazed.”

The Jayhawks had a similar reaction last week, when they toured their new locker room and weight room, which quarterback Jalon Daniels and linebacker Rich Miller had a part in creating when they traveled to the locker manufacturer to provide input on what the players would want.

And Robinson said having that moment fresh in his mind was enough reason for him to believe that the new stadium, when complete, would be equally as impressive.

“Based on what our locker room and weight room look like, I’m pretty sure they’re going to hook us up,” he said, grinning.

“(The players told us), ‘It’s exactly what it looked like. It’s exactly what you told us,’” Leipold added of the reaction to the locker room and weight room changes. “And that’s one of the things you want to be is delivering on what you say you’re going to do. The unfortunate thing is about half the guys in the room may not ever play in it. It’s kind of mixed feelings for them, but they see it and they know they’re a big part of it. When it (opens), it’s going to be another positive injection in this program and it’s exciting.”

If things go well for him, KU running back Devin Neal, a junior from Lawrence who joined Harris as the player representatives to speak during Tuesday’s festivities, will be another one of those current players who never plays in the new stadium.

But that didn't matter to Neal on Tuesday. When he spoke, he spoke from the heart about what a commitment of this level means to the program, the community and kids who are now in the shoes he once was, growing up dreaming of playing at KU.

“The momentum was already real, but today it went to another level,” Neal said, adding that just seeing the video and renderings of what’s to come gave him “chills” for what’s ahead. “We’re laying another brick today and it’s a major one. We scratched the surface last year, but we still have a lot of work to be done. The bricks are just starting to be laid, and when they’re all in place there’ll be no stopping us.”

Us. We. Team. Family.

Those are the words that define Kansas football these days, and it’s not just the players that suit up on Saturdays who can use them. It’s former players, it’s soon-to-be former players, it’s coaches, it’s administrators and before too long it will be an entire community and state full of people who can look to the steel and concrete the sits just off of 11th and Mississippi and be proud of what they see.

Goff and KU safety Kenny Logan discussed that very idea about two weeks ago. The words Logan used and the pride in his voice during their conversation made Goff more certain than ever that this was the right time for this project and these were the right people and players to be delivering it.

“That was really neat,” the KU AD said Tuesday. “In his case at least, it really resonated that his legacy is going to be profound here at KU, and there’s many of them just like Kenny.”

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