AT ITS MOST BASIC, A BIG 12 FOOTBALL STADIUM IS BUT A patch of grass surrounded by stands of concrete, wood or steel. But for seven or eight Saturdays each fall—and in our minds forever—are layered in the cheers, the tears, the sun-dappled colors, the singing of the alma mater, the taste of barbecue and brew, the romances (and marriage proposals) and the devotion of generations (some dearly departed, some yet unborn) to the Cyclones, the Longhorns, the Sooners. As such, the buildings become community cathedrals. And we love them—perhaps never so much as during a time of change such as the conference is undergoing now.
George Lynn Cross, Oklahoma's president from 1943 through '68, once declared, "I would like to build a university of which the football team could be proud." Across the Big 12, that sentiment also encompasses pride in stadiums. The most awe-inspiring have pretty near all these ingredients.
PASSION AND SUCCESS WHEN ASKED FOR THE MOST ESSENTIAL ingredient of a stadium, Barry Switzer, who won three national titles as Oklahoma's coach, is succinct: "Winning!" What about tradition, Coach? Mystique? History? "The history is enhanced by the fact that they are winning programs," he declares.
Certainly this explains what's in the air on game day in Norman, where in 13 seasons Switzer's successor Bob Stoops is 77--3 at Memorial Stadium. There may be a chicken-and-egg factor at work. "Kansas State [now the Bill Snyder Family Stadium] has always been the toughest place for Texas to play," says Bill Little, a four-decade fixture in the Longhorns' media relations department. "That's partly because [Manhattan] is so isolated. But it's also because ... [they] have a strong fan base of students that has really supported the Wildcats."
Such intensity has been ramped up by moving the spectators closer to the action. No one has noticed this more than Chris Del Conte, athletic director at rookie Big 12 member TCU, which on Sept. 8 against Grambling State will unveil its $164 million face-lift of Amon G. Carter Stadium. "The atmosphere inside is what makes a great stadium," he says. "The student-athletes feed off that energy. We're [aiming to] create the Camden Yards of college football. We have 45,000 seats, and every seat's a great seat. The stands are right on top of the action. The noise level [will] create an unbelievable place to showcase our passionate fan base."
THE ELEMENTS THERE'S NO DOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE IN this conference, so it can be broiling for the opener and freezing for the finale. Fans have to be a almost as tough as the players! In this regard West Virginia's Mountaineer Field will fit right in, especially for that Dec. 1 finale against Kansas when the field may well be blanketed with snow.
The conference also has its unique weather quirks. "The standard idiosyncrasy in this league is the wind," says Little. "It changes the kicking game immensely." Little also notes that "Oklahoma State [Boone Pickens Stadium] is really unusual because it runs east-west. That can cause an issue in the late afternoon, when a receiver or punt returner has to look into the sun."
TRADITIONS THE TOUCHSTONES MIGHT BE AS IMPORTANT AS touchdowns, whether they involve cheering the entrance of the Sooner Schooner or Texas Tech's Masked Rider, or hearing the ringing of the Victory Bell at Iowa State, or delighting in the frolics of mascots such as Baylor's Judge, Texas's Bevo, Kansas's Big Jay and Baby Jay or Iowa State's Cy.
EATS AND DRINKS TCU'S DEL CONTE HAS DONE SOME FIELD work, witnessing "the passionate fan base that gets out at dawn. You see the coals going and the crack of the first beer." Accordingly, he is stocking his stadium with grub "from healthy all the way down to barbecue" (which, in Big 12 country, is health food!). In honor of the Horned Frogs' new affiliation, he also promises a "Big 12 Hamburger."
BELLS AND WHISTLES A CONFERENCE THAT INCLUDES Texas naturally boasts the largest high-definition video screen in college football. The Godzillatron at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium checks in at 55 feet tall and 134 feet wide. The topper is the stadium at Oklahoma State, renovated for $286 million. Even Sooners are impressed. "Boone Pickens has built the Taj Mahal of football stadiums," says Switzer of the business magnate and financier who donated $228 million to the project. "Their suites [99 of them], their amenities—there's nothing better."