Planning "The Finest Stadium In The Country"

Word had been expected, just not quite so soon. But news about Polk-Dement Stadium is too good to delay. Mississippi State has announced a $40 million ‘master plan’ to entirely re-make PDS as, in the words of athletic director Scott Stricklin “the finest stadium in the country.”

This master plan (see video on HailState.com) is the first published results of a project begun in fall 2013, and is the work of Wier Bonner Allin Architecture firm of Jackson, national stadium experts Populous, and in consultation with famous MSU alum Janet Marie Smith. As Stricklin stressed, this is not a final rendering much less a ‘blueprint’ for the end goal.

But it is a necessary step in what sets up as a lengthy procedure to put a new from ground-up venue on the college baseball map.

”Obviously we’re very excited about the concept and vision for the Dudy Noble master plan,” Stricklin said. “One of the things we talked about early on in this process was Mississippi State and this baseball program deserve to have the finest stadium in the country.”

Which once upon a time the current stadium was considered, when it reopened in 1987. Many great teams, many great seasons, have been celebrated by many, many, many Mississippi State fans since. So much so that replacing a venue drenched in history might seem somewhat blasphemous. “But it’s time to re-set the bar,” says Stricklin.

”We’re just privileged to be part of such a great tradition here at Mississippi State, and in doing something new we’re honoring the tradition,” Coach John Cohen said. “In 1987 we set the bar with our facility, and we all feel its time.”

Regarding time though, there is no announced or even speculated schedule to begin tearing down the current concrete hulk or play the first game in a brand-new stadium. Which, Stricklin clarified, will retain the Polk-Dement name; just as the playing area keeps its Dudy Noble Field name. In fact these are among the few absolute facts announced Tuesday.

Construction scheduling will depend on how quickly Mississippi State accumulates sufficient funding for the formal go-ahead. This target appears to be a $20 million goal set for the Bulldog Club to raise from private funding and other gifts. That process is already underway (MSUBulldogClub.com) with reportedly over $3 million having been raised since last fall; a chunk of that going to pay for the architectural studies, research, and presentation of this first master plan.

Also, the announced $40 million figure is an approximation, and an indication that some aspects can and likely will adapt as this process is finalized. The best indicator of this is that no target seating capacity is being set just yet.

What is clear though is that Mississippi State intends the new stadium to maintain this program’s strangle-hold on the NCAA campus attendance record(s). The single-game mark primarily, which was re-written this past April when 15,586 watched the Diamond Dogs rally past Ole Miss 6-5 in extra Saturday innings. That count surpassed the 14,991 record set in 1989 when Cohen was playing outfield for State.

So to the coach/alumnus the proposed stadium plan is “a vision of the future of our program. And it’s exciting. In the last 30 minutes I’ve talked to recruits, I’ve talked to staff, I’ve talked to fans across the country, I’ve talked to guys I played with. There’s a great deal of excitement.”

This stadium would be a double-tiered grandstand with chairback seating and an elevated concourse encircling the playing field for full view of game action. Stricklin, who has attended professional games for his own ideas to apply, noted that such a concourse doesn’t exist anywhere in the college game right now.

And while there are campus baseball venues with skyboxes and suites, the new PDS will take these premium areas to an entirely new level. Instead of the current 18 skyboxes, opened in 2000, plans call for approximately 50 (depending on final blueprints) with half in the main grandstand and half behind left field. There will also be club level and loge seating, common now in renovated football stadiums but rare for baseball.

And those outfield suites will be all the more unique with two bedrooms, bath, kitchen, living space…and year-round availability instead of use only in-season. Stricklin said while the current names for stadium and field won’t change, naming rights might be available for the skybox area or the circular entrance by rightfield. Which, Cohen added, will become a Ring of Honor. “A place that will tell the rich history of our program, that doesn’t exist in college baseball like that.”

Indeed the additions will duplicate features today only found in big league ball parks, something Smith has earned her professional fame for and that Populous specializes in. But there is one part of Dudy Noble Field that can’t be duplicated any where, any level; and that has been a nearly-radioactive aspect of all stadium discussion.

So State and Stricklin went great lengths today to assure there will always be a Left Field Lounge. It will simply be brought into the future too.

”The first thought is don’t mess it up!” Stricklin said. “We want to modernize it but retain those special things.”

Modernization means there will be 86 permanent spots with electricity, storage, and common concourse connecting to the stadium proper. Yet Stricklin stressed he doesn’t want a ‘cookie cutter’ look to spots in the famous Lounge, so there is still an outlet for the celebrated ingenuity of Diamond Dog fans. Just within a context that meets safety standards—something never considered in more innocent legal times—and doesn’t require the Lounge population to haul their rigs in or out every spring.

The 86 figure was set by current occupation and today’s pass-holders will have first rights to claim the new spots. And while there will be a cost increase to cover the added features State says the Lounge will not be considered nor priced as ‘premium’ seating.

The other touchy subject reflects how the current stadium was funded, when Mississippi State sold the seats as one-time gifts with the understanding holders had permanent claim. They have since, as long as season tickets were purchased annually. In the new stadium those ticket holders will A) be guaranteed the opportunity to acquire a chairback seat(s); and B) receive credit and consideration for gifts associated with their original chairback gift.

There remains much more to settle from technical standpoints. Such as lighting, an increasing issue now that the SEC Network will be showing State games. Stricklin said when showing some renderings to Will Clark last week, the Bulldog legend immediately pointed out items like stadium lights, bullpen location, and more. “A guy that spent 15 years in major league baseball picked up those things,” Stricklin said.

So, “We know we’re going to get a lot of feedback. We’ve thought of a lot of things, but we haven’t thought of everything.” Which is a further reason why the athletic director will not put a time-line on this project, though he quipped he would like to have it done for next year if the money was available.

”It’s exciting where we are,” Stricklin said. “We have a long road ahead of us, and we have to figure out some funding. And we’ve a lot of work to do on the design process. I think this has showed to get somewhere you have to have a plan, and right now.”

For his part Cohen is encouraged by the initial steps, but his immediate attention turns to getting his 2015 team on campus and beginning fall practices. Those start on an individual basis August 18 by the way, first day of classes. Cohen is also hat-brim-deep in ongoing recruiting for 2016 and beyond.

Interestingly though, “We have not used a new facility in any of our recruiting,” Cohen said. “The commitments we have, the geographic commitments we have, it’s not about the facility with us. It’s about the Mississippi State family. To me this facility will help recruiting, how can it not? But the main thing it does is to honor our fans.”

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