The House That Johnny Built
In just four years as football coach at Texas A&M in the 1950s, Paul “Bear” Bryant led his Aggies to an undefeated season and Southwest Conference championship, and produced the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner, John David Crow.
Bryant left College Station at the end of the ’57 campaign to take the head coaching job at the University of Alabama, his alma mater. While helming the Crimson Tide, Bryant became a sporting legend. His teams dominated the Southeastern Conference, winning 14 league titles and six national championships.
More than a half century later, Texas A&M finally followed in the Bear’s tracks and joined the SEC, leaving the Big 12 Conference and ending—at least to date—its long-standing football rivalry with the University of Texas.
In 2012, the Aggies posted an 11-2 record in their first season of SEC play. That year, they earned a regular-season victory over an Alabama team which would go on to win the national title. In the season-ending Cotton Bowl game, the Aggies thrashed Oklahoma and finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll.
That marked the school’s best end-of-year ranking since Bear Bryant’s 1956 squad went 9-0-1.
The unexpected success of the Aggies’ inaugural SEC season took place under the leadership of a first-year head coach and the on-field direction of an unproven redshirt-freshman quarterback who went by the nickname of “Johnny Football.”
By the time the book was closed on that 2012 season, Coach Kevin Sumlin’s star player, Johnny Manziel, had become the second Aggie to be named winner of college football’s coveted Heisman Trophy.
And about the same time Manziel hoisted the Heisman in New York City, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents announced that the storied Home of the 12th Man, Kyle Field, would undergo a $485-million “redevelopment.”
System regent Jim Schwertner announced that upon completion of the project he wanted the venue to be officially renamed as “Kyle Field: The House That Johnny Built.”
The excitement Manziel and his Aggie teammates generated during the school’s first year of SEC play no doubt played a significant role in generating the private-sector financial support needed to significantly change the superstructure of Kyle Field.
But which “Johnny” was most responsible for the dramatic upgrade?
A longtime Texas political powerhouse and the former comptroller of the State of Texas, John Sharp assumed the helm as chancellor of the Texas A&M System on September 6, 2011. From the outset, the former Aggie student-body president made it clear he intended to do things differently.
After two unsuccessful runs for Texas lieutenant governor, Sharp retired from politics and entered the private sector where, he said upon becoming chancellor, “I made enough money so that I don’t have to have this job.”
Sharp added, “I can truly do what Sam Houston once said: ‘Do right and to hell with the consequences.’”
As chancellor, Sharp immediately began looking for ways to bolster the System’s coffers. As Texas controller, Sharp had been so successful at streamlining government finances that in 1993 then-President Bill Clinton asked him for help in doing the same thing with the federal government.
One of Sharp’s earliest budget-cutting moves within the A&M System was to outsource campus services at the College Station flagship campus.
That same idea had paid dividends at other System schools, but cutting the flagship financial outlay for such things as food, maintenance, and landscaping services was a risky and, initially, a publicly unpopular endeavor.
Many longtime campus workers feared for their jobs.
Outsourcing wound up saving millions of dollars while most of the individuals who did the day-to-day work kept their jobs. The move also enabled Sharp to funnel more money toward education and research, the primary missions of all institutions of higher learning.
John Sharp is a man who understands not only politics and finance, but also human nature. In his time as chancellor, he’s been a catalyst in enhancing both Texas A&M’s brand and overall image.
In the late stages of the Aggies 2012 football season, when it appeared that Manziel could emerge from “out of nowhere” to win the Heisman, the school’s 12th Man Foundation hired the architectural firm Populous to do an initial feasibility study of enlarging Kyle Field.
Sharp liked the idea and threw his full support behind it.
Of the 32 stadiums in major league baseball, 20 have been designed by Populous, dating back to its days as the HOK Group. The Kansas City-based company, founded in 1983, drew up plans for the San Antonio Alamodome, construction on which began in 1993; and, more recently, designed the Toyota Center, Minute Maid Park, and NRG Stadium in Houston.
Craig Kaufman was the Populous architect who led the Kyle Field redevelopment.
“There were parts (of the stadium) that dated back to 1927,” Kaufman said. “Over decades there (were) pieces here and there added and changed and modified. It was a patchwork of design and wasn’t really tied at all as a unified station.”
Sharp championed the Kyle Field redevelopment. At all levels, support for the endeavor was enthusiastic and giving was generous.
Groundbreaking for the project took place on November 9, 2013, immediately following the Aggies final home game of the year. That contest, a 51-41 win over Mississippi State, also marked Manziel’s final home game as A&M’s quarterback. He left for the NFL following his sophomore season.
More than 88,000 fans were in attendance to witness his College Station finale.
Phase I of the redevelopment project began with the demolition of the east-side deck. That portion of Kyle Field where students watch games was reconfigured, adding a third tier of seating. A south end-zone complex, completing the stadium’s bowl configuration, was also added in Phase I.
On December 3, less than a month after demolition work began, 28-year-old Angel Garcia died on the job. While working on site, Garcia fell from the fourth level of the north end-zone complex. His family filed a lawsuit and was later awarded $53 million in damages.
Neither Texas A&M nor the Texas A&M System was held legally responsible.
Phase I work continued through the tragedy and was completed shortly before the beginning of the 2014 season. Phase II plans called for the west-side stadium to be demolished with reconstruction including the addition of suites and luxury boxes diminishing the total seating capacity of the west grandstands.
But with the opening of the 2014 season, that work had yet to be done. With the addition of the newly-built east deck and south end-zone complex, Kyle Field’s seating capacity reached an all-time high. More than 104,000 fans attended the 2014 opener, setting stadium, state, and conference highs.
For the moment.
Later that year, more than 110,000 fans watched as Texas A&M hosted Ole Miss. The official attendance that day—110,633—remains SEC and state-of-Texas records.
Michigan holds the all-time college football attendance mark at over 115,000.
With the planned seating capacity of the Kyle Field redevelopment project targeted for just over 102,000, the record-breaking attendance figures of 2014 prompted A&M administrators to breathe a sigh of relief.
“When this thing started it was the most nervous time in my life,” John Sharp said upon completion of the project. “Folks didn’t think we could fill up a 102,000-seat stadium.
“We sold all 102,000 tickets (for the 2015 season) in 18 minutes,” Sharp added.
The media fact sheet created by Populous before the project began called the endeavor “the most extensive redevelopment of a collegiate athletic facility in history.” The company went on to say the Kyle Field redevelopment would mark “the first stadium in history to be designed in response to demographic and market research.”
Some 24,000 Aggie fans queried via an online questionnaire provided data which “directly shaped the design and premium amenities.”
Those amenities in the new west-side stadium deck included a nearly 30,000-square-foot Hall of Champions event and meeting space. In addition, the plan created a three-story Founders Club, a Legacy Club featuring an 11,000-square-foot lounge and nearly 1,500 premium stadium seats. A new press box came along with the west-side renovations.
In addition, nearly 100 luxury suites were added at locations throughout the stadium, and canopies over both the east- and west-side grandstands were also built.
Those canopies are critical beyond their ability to offer a shady respite on autumn afternoons.
The acoustical properties of those canopies amplify crowd noise and direct it toward the playing surface. That gives the Aggies one of the most definitive home-field advantages in college football.
The new Kyle Field was unveiled with Texas A&M’s 2015 season opener against Ball State on Saturday, September 12. A standing-room only crowd of 104,213 saw the Aggies win 56-23.
A&M jumped out to a 49-3 first-half lead over the Cardinals that day. The Aggies’ starting quarterback, Kyle Allen, threw three scoring passes before intermission. In the runaway, Allen was replaced late in the second quarter by true-freshman Kyler Murray, son of Kevin Murray, a standout quarterback for Texas A&M in the mid-1980s. Kyler tossed his first touchdown pass as an Aggie in the second half against Ball State, the Aggies’ only second-half score of the game.
Eventually, Kyler Murray—like John David Crow and Johnny Manziel before him—went on to win college football’s premier prize. Sadly for Aggie fans, Murray transferred to the University of Oklahoma after his 2015 season at A&M. His Heisman Trophy was won as a Sooner.
Had he remained an Aggie, perhaps there would have been serious consideration to renaming A&M’s palatial football palace to “Kyler Field.” Signage changes would have been pretty simple.
Today, Kyle Field is the fourth-largest college football stadium in the country, behind Big 10 venues at Michigan, Penn State, and The Ohio State University. But in the “arms race” that college football recruiting has become, no site exceeds the grandeur and tradition of the Home of the 12th Man.
And, remarkably, John Sharp’s “fixer-upper” project came in on time and under budget.