TJ Meagher will always remember August 29, 2014, as one of the most exhausting and rewarding days of his life. The Associate Athletics Director for Capital and Special Projects at the University of Houston arrived on campus at 4 a.m. that day to make sure every final detail had been addressed when the Cougars football team opened its new field, TDECU Stadium — a project more than 5 years in the making and the first major capital project for the University in more than a decade — that night against the University of Texas-San Antonio.
“When the doors opened and fans started coming in, it was just an unbelievable moment to look down there and see this field; it’s like a masterpiece had come together in that one moment when the ball was kicked off,” Meagher says. “To be honest, I almost felt like I could collapse after kickoff, that’s how exasperating and draining it was to get to that moment. But it was so fulfilling, it was overwhelming.”
The stadium was symbolic of a new era at the University of Houston, and only one year later, the Houston football team would fulfill another dream: a 13-1 season that included the American Athletic Conference championship as well as a 38-24 victory over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Cougars went undefeated at TDECU Stadium — averaging 42 points per game — in a venue that had quickly become an undeniable home-field advantage for the rising football team under the guidance of first-year head coach Tom Herman.
The long journey Meagher and the University of Houston took to get this point was filled with numerous challenges and decisions, perhaps none more important than selecting the playing surface that would go into TDECU Stadium.
The $125 million stadium replaced Robertson Stadium, a venue that was 70 years old, had approximately 30,000 seats and a grass field. “We needed modern amenities, concessions, premium spaces, a better experience for our student-athletes, our student body and our fans,” admits Meagher. “There were a lot of things that needed to be addressed, and the only way that was possible was through new construction.”
The University of Houston evaluated three different sites but chose to rebuild where the previous stadium was located, and there were inherent challenges with that location. University leadership agreed the stadium would work better on the site oriented east-west, instead of north-south like traditional outdoor stadiums, because it wouldn’t fit squarely on the existing plot of land while creating issues with bordering streets. A sun study was conducted to determine how sun exposure would impact the field of play with an east-west orientation.
“Once we made the east-west decision, the process became much more simplified and the decisions became much easier to make,” Meagher says.
One of those decisions involved a major piece of the puzzle, the playing surface. Meagher and his team looked at grass but determined transitioning to a synthetic turf system had too many advantages over grass, starting with the costs associated with maintenance and upkeep of a grass field, which requires daily cutting and striping. Synthetic turf also affords additional programming opportunities, as the athletics department liked the idea of hosting high school football games, concerts and other non-athletics events. And there was also branding opportunities that aren’t as plausible an option with grass, but not all turf systems are created equal, something Meagher keenly understood as he thoroughly examined the best vendors and products for the facility.
“The most functional part of a football stadium is the field,” says Meagher. “Nothing else matters as much to the game as what they’re actually playing on.”
He met with half a dozen synthetic turf vendors, opting to partner with the one that had already earned his trust with their work in a previous project, UBU Sports. The Downers Grove, IL-based company had worked with the University of Houston the previous year when it replaced one of its outdoor grass practice fields with synthetic turf.
“We consulted with our architect and he brought us the leaders in the industry, and that’s what got us talking to UBU Sports,” Meagher says. “It resonates very strongly when the NFL has that kind of confidence in a synthetic turf product.”
UBU Sports CEO Mark Nicholls has been closely involved with the development of a variety of modern stadiums, and helped shape the vision that the University of Houston had for its field.
“Stadium design is evolving rapidly; suite amenities, conversion options, premium concessions, and Wi-Fi connectivity are just some of the important considerations of modern stadiums,” Nicholls says. “One of the self-evident facts that remains is that everyone in the stadium will be staring at the field throughout the event. To ignore the brand value opportunity inherent in the field design would be a mistake.”
For TDECU Stadium, Meagher opted to use the same product those NFL teams use, the Speed Series S5-M, which is the same product installed on the practice field as well. The scientifically advanced synthetic turf system features Harmony slit-film fiber and a mixture of resilient particles and sand infill that ensures a fast, firm, safe and durable playing surface. The Speed Series incorporates ISO Grid fiber spacing, ensuring consistent playability throughout the field, and features a dynamic multiple layer ARMOURWEAVE backing system that ensures dimensional stability and long-lasting seams.
While providing the student-athletes with the same playing experience so many professional athletes get to enjoy, Meagher wanted to distinguish the TDECU Stadium field from other colleges in a way that only a synthetic turf system can provide.
“The University of Houston clearly stated their priorities at the beginning of the process,” says Nicholls. “They wanted to maximize player safety, provide the highest level of football-specific performance for their athletes, and create branding for the program that was worthy of the University of Houston, its player and fans.”
Meagher admits there was a time when he considered conforming to industry standards where there isn’t a lot of details or graphics, but a conversation with Mack Rhoades, then-Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Houston, inspired Meagher to push for a field design that would be as unique as the architecture of TDECU Stadium.
“He’s the one that pushed me and said our fans and administration expect us to brand this as an iconic look; this stadium is unlike anything anyone’s ever built, we can’t be afraid to do that on the field,” Meagher says. “It was that kind of motivation and leadership that was impossible to ignore so we abandoned the idea of just replicating the practice field.”
CREATING A MASTERPIECE
Creating the perfect branding and graphics expanded beyond simply the fans at the stadium or those watching it on a television, tablet, computer or smartphone. TDECU Stadium is located on a popular Hobby Airport route so nearly 1,000 flights per day were going to see the field design. Meagher worked with UBU Sports and his internal graphics staff and they went through iteration after iteration, even examining other teams’ field designs ranked as most popular by certain websites. After reviewing numerous options, the team turned their attention to a new detail: the skyline.
One of the more popular aspects of Robertson Stadium was the northwest gap in the stadium that perfectly centered downtown Houston. Recognizing how much fans and donors enjoyed that look, Meagher worked with the architect to frame the downtown skyline and in turn, put that in end zone, but they were up against a tight deadline to get this done before the first football game. One of the people that inspired Meagher and the University of Houston to meet this goal was Nicholls.
“Mark had the strength to say we’re not going to do this unless it’s completely right. We were zero hour to get this thing finalized but he knew how important it was to us and he believed in what we were doing,” says Meagher.
What followed might be described as beautiful artistry. Meagher and his team opted to put the word ‘HOUSTON’ in the west end zone with the outline of the city supporting it, but there was a delicate balance involved in the sizing of the letters with the shadow effect of the downtown skyline. “If you made the letters too big, you would’ve covered it all up and people wouldn’t have understood what we did there, and if you made the letters too small, you wouldn’t have had the right marriage between the background and the lettering,” Meagher continues.
‘HOUSTON’ was done in a tonal gray and white over the blended skyline with Houston’s iconic red matching the big iconic ‘UH’ at midfield. The word ‘COUGARS’ was placed in the east end zone, along with the cougar head. Fearing the cougar head would get lost if it was too small, the graphics team pushed an impressionistic look so instead of seeing the full head, it would be a portion of it. This was an approach that was effectively implemented at the basketball arena.
“Admittedly, it was an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” says Meagher. “We have a university font but we did a nice two-tone thing with it in terms of white and gray, and then we have the reds that are blended in the background that are the same two tones as our midfield logo. When it was finally right, we almost had a sense of awe like, this is it. This is exactly what we wanted.”
While Meagher was at peace with the design, translating that image from a computer screen to the actual field was now his biggest concern. As he put it, “How in the world do they do this level of detail in the end zones when you’re talking about it being 30 feet deep and as wide as a football field?”
“They nailed it perfectly,” Meagher says. “It was amazing how precise they were able to do it. It was truly craftsmen-level work to pull off what we saw on a page in a laboratory to the field on that scale and level. It was nothing short of extraordinary and was an unbelievable commitment to do that level of detail. I could not be more proud of what we have done.”
“TJ Meagher led the team at University of Houston in creating one of the most progressive branding statements in the NCAA,” Nicholls explains. “The field design at TDECU Stadium is a new standard against all future stadium surfaces will be measured.”
LEADING THE WAY
Today, excitement engulfs TDECU Stadium and the growing University of Houston community. Coach Herman’s football team is ranked in the top 10 heading into the 2016 season with a firm eye on even bigger things this year. Part of that excitement for current student-athletes as well as recruits is having the opportunity to play on an UBU-NFL quality field, according to Meagher.
The road for the University of Houston was unknown entering this process as it didn’t have any sports teams playing on synthetic turf. Finding the right partner to go on this historic journey with, one that could not only be trusted but was invested in the Cougars beyond simply winning the project, was key to Meagher.
“We wanted to have somebody that could get the right people on the field to make sure the highest quality work is done so that it’s seamless and performs as well in year one as it does in year seven or eight,” Meagher says. “We needed that partnership and commitment to excellence because that’s what we’re about to our student-athletes, university, staff, fans and donors, and that’s exactly what we got from Mark and UBU Sports. We’re very happy with the decision that we made.”
Nicholls echoes that sentiment. “In my over 30-year career in the synthetic turf industry, I have rarely had the opportunity to work with professionals like the leadership at the University of Houston,” Nicholls says. “They innately understood that the field was the largest branding statement on campus, and were resolute in their determination to create something special.”