Decades-old vision becomes reality with SEZ groundbreaking

AUSTIN — Texas broke ground Saturday on Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium’s new south end zone facility with local and state politicians, university leadership, prolific donors, and the faces of the athletic department on hand to celebrate their vision of Texas having the best football facility in the country.

Major donors valeted their cars and had to walk past cheerleaders and Bevo XV to get to the event on the Fondren Roof inside the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center. UT vice president and athletic director Chris Del Conte, in a navy jacket rather than his popular burnt orange jacket, greeted everyone in attendance as a local band softly played country music hits.

Hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar prepared guests not only for the Walhalla Valley Wagyu beef sliders, but also for the realization that the first tangible sign of progress toward a decades-long dream had finally taken place.

“The thinking about this has evolved over the years, and it wasn’t until Chris Del Conte started as athletic director about a year and a half ago that the ideas just gelled among the football program, the athletic director, and the university,” UT president Greg Fenves said at the ceremony. “This is just a marvelous celebration to not only dedicate and ground-break a new facility for our beloved stadium, but to think about what is the future of Longhorn football, the future of Texas athletics as a true symbol of the University of Texas.”

The renovation is set to address the growing gap between Texas and other national football powers in facilities. All four participants in last season’s College Football Playoff have made significant additions or renovations to football facilities in recent years.

Before Tom Herman became the head football coach at Texas, no major renovations to the south end zone facility had taken place in almost two decades. Herman and previous athletic director Mike Perrin addressed some of the problems temporarily with face lifts to the locker room and weight training facility, but Herman knew what many fans had thought for so long: Texas had been lapped in the facility department.

He told a story Saturday about when he first arrived as head coach in 2016, the same wallpaper, carpet, and many of the same pictures that were inside Moncrief when he was a graduate assistant in 2000 hadn’t changed. The need for an update was made known to Perrin and Fenves, but when Texas added a man with fund- and building-raising experience in Del Conte, it accelerated the process from idea phase to more concrete progress.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Del Conte said. “The building that we’re under, the building where we’re about to build a brand new building and renovate, was built for Darrell Royal and renovated for John Mackovic.”

As a result, Del Conte turned to donors he would consistently refer to Saturday as “team owners” for help in making his, Herman’s, and Fenves’ dream a reality. UT regents Steve Hicks and Jeff Hildebrand were in attendance. So too were Mike A. Meyers and representatives of the Moncrief family, names who have appeared on the side of several important campus structures.

In addition to these longstanding donors, several “team owners” Del Conte mentioned like Kurt Arnold and Scott Freeman can easily claim to have lowered the average age of those wearing ceremonial hard hats made to look like Longhorn football helmets and holding custom silver shovels that likely won’t be used again. With their help, Texas has raised $125 million for the $175 million project.

“They just are ready to make that investment,” Fenves said. “We are so honored to have that investment from our fans.”

The point of these types of facilities is to improve the student-athlete experience for members of Texas’ football team. The new scoreboard, adjoining suites, and additional amenities will be the part of the renovation fans experience. Everything else is for a younger constituent base.

“This new project will certainly put us in the upper echelon of training facilities and at the same time really enhance our game day atmosphere too by bowling in the south end zone,” Herman said. “It should make things a lot louder down there. Our students will still be down there. It serves a lot of purposes but mainly for our student-athletes.”

Ultimately, as Del Conte himself put it, Texas wanted to make sure there would be no doubt in a visiting prospect’s mind that it was committed to winning championships in football.

The two in attendance closest to the age of those prospects, Sam Ehlinger and Zach Shackelford, made sure to profusely thank the donors for their generosity while explaining the progress the team has made since the Sugar Bowl.

There’s an excitement around Longhorn football at a level likely not seen in more than a decade. Ehlinger remembered the last time Texas was within reach of realizing national championship aspirations, and spoke about growing up during Mack Brown’s successful mid-2000s run.

“To be able to see the University of Texas football program win national championships and what Austin was like in that time and the excitement, the buzz, the way the university handled itself with class through all the success, this facility and these contributions and where this program is headed really reminds me of that time,” Ehlinger said. “I’m so excited to be a part of this.”

Del Conte told reporters construction would begin in earnest 10 days from Saturday. When the project is completed, the building designed for the man whose name is affixed to the stadium will be no more. Texas hopes its replacement will do what the Neuhaus-Royal Athletic Center did when it first opened.

“The standard was set by the University of Texas years ago for others to follow,” Del Conte said. “Were now setting that standard again and it’s an exciting time for us.”