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Texas calls on Omaha architectural firm to build stadium worthy of program

by Mitch Sherman, Omaha World-Herald staff writer
Reprinted with permission.

OMAHA, Neb. -- No baseball team can make it to the College World Series every season. One program, though, more than any other, believes it should.

There's a conspicuous absence of burnt orange this year at Rosenblatt Stadium. Defending national champion Texas, a record 32-time CWS qualifier, lost two weeks ago in the NCAA regional round after visits to Omaha in five of its past six seasons.

Three local architects and their Omahafounded firm are out to help Texas make sure its failures to reach the CWS remain rare.

The university broke ground June 6, two days after the Longhorns' season ended, on a $21 million project to overhaul its aging stadium.

A trip to Disch-Falk Field, which opened in 1975, is more like going to watch a performance at Sea World than a baseball game. With its steeply angled and cramped, half-bowl grandstand, Disch-Falk has become notably outdated among the new breed of fan-friendly college stadiums.

It only makes sense that Texas, with more resources, financial power and championships than nearly all its contemporaries, would update the facility.

But here's the irony: UT looked for its vision of the future to a group of Nebraskans who work not 60 miles from Haymarket Park, the baseball home of the Longhorns' chief Big 12 rival, Nebraska.

"I think actually, it worked in our favor that we were from Nebraska," said Amy Thompson, the DLR Group project development specialist whose cold call to Austin one year ago sparked the relationship between her firm and Texas.

DLR designed Lincoln's 5-year-old gem of a stadium that has helped earn the Huskers a spot among the sport's elite. Haymarket Park, in fact, served as the inspiration for UT coach Augie Garrido as he plotted to renovate Disch-Falk.

"Haymarket is the model," Garrido said. "It's a darn good model for college baseball. The energy that it creates is because of the layout and the detail connected to it. It's exciting. We feel it when we play there."

To Garrido, the DLR architects were not from Nebraska; they were from Omaha.

"Coach Garrido does not separate the city of Omaha from the College World Series," DLR architect Jay Palu said. "It's one for him."

Said architect Greg Garlock: "I think, ultimately, they liked Haymarket Park and how we brought Nebraska's stadium to a new level. They think we can do the same thing for Texas. That's much more important than where we're from."

DLR's list of projects includes Qwest Center Omaha, the initial Memorial Stadium skybox structure and an array of work around the country.

Stan Meradith, a 54-year-old York, Neb., native, leads the project. Meradith was recruited to DLR nearly two decades ago to start a Tampa, Fla., office. He spearheaded the firm's entry into the design of spring training facilities. DLR helped build complexes for many teams, including the Twins, Marlins, Athletics and the Yankees' Legends Field.

His partners on the Texas project are 30-year-old Palu and Garlock, 38.

Palu, of Loup City, Neb., received his graduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and soon cut his architectural teeth.

Garlock, from Hastings, Neb., played football at NU during his undergraduate study. Before coming to DLR, Garlock worked for HOK Sport in Kansas City, a giant firm responsible for the design of Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, Petco Park, Heinz Field and Reliant Stadium, among other professional venues.

The Disch-Falk renovation requires a unique approach for the architects. Meradith is quick to note that UT could have built a new stadium for less than it will cost to transform the old one.

But Garrido would have it no other way.

"It's about the spirit of Texas baseball," the coach said. "The community and the university don't want to lose what's been done here since 1975. We would rather keep the soul of the program and will by building around the memory."

The new Disch-Falk won't look like Haymarket Park. Within the framework of the old stadium, Meradith and his crew are limited. But a major facelift is coming.

"I have a true passion for doing this," Meradith said. "We're all passionate about doing Disch-Falk, but you feel a weight on your shoulders. You feel a responsibility. Somebody gets one crack at this. The facility probably won't be renovated again for 20 to 30 years.

"We owe it to the fans who live and breathe Texas baseball to do it right."

The new Disch-Falk will still feature an artificial surface, but plans call for a FieldTurf-like playing field to soon replace the unsightly AstroTurf. The grandstand is getting a major overhaul. Other changes include a Texas baseball hall of fame, a new press box, club-level seating, improved lighting and the addition of an indoor facility.

If all goes according to the Texas plan, Disch-Falk Field will provide a home field equal to the Longhorns' place in the hierarchy of college baseball.

Some Texas officials expect that even ESPN will take notice, in effect marking Disch-Falk as the centerpiece for any expanded future coverage of the sport.

"As (Garrido) sees it, Texas is the elite baseball program in the country," Meradith said. "He just wants to have a facility that is worthy of the program."

Eight of the nation's premier college parks:

Baum Stadium (Arkansas)
Updates to the HOK-designed park made it the SEC's top venue after coach Dave Van Horn arrived for the 2003 season. New seating can accommodate more than 9,000.

Plainsman Park (Auburn)
Baseball America ranked it as the nation's top stadium three years ago. Recent improvements include a new drainage system, playing surface and strength complex.

Baylor Ballpark (Baylor)
The Bears consistently rank among the nation's attendance leaders in this cozy setting along the Brazos River. The park opened just in time for postseason in 1999.

Hammons Field (Missouri State)
The centerpiece of downtown Springfield, the 8,000-seat stadium also serves as home to the Class AA Cardinals. It cost $32 million to build and opened in 2004.

Haymarket Park (Nebraska)
Superior design, with its open concourses and abundant berm seating, makes it perhaps the nation's most fan-friendly college facility. Designed by DLR and opened in 2001.

Lubrano Park (Penn State)
Another DLR project, the stadium will open next season for the Nittany Lions. It holds 6,000, houses the Class A Altoona Curve and features a mountainous backdrop.

Eddy D. Field Stadium (Pepperdine)
Opened in 1980, the Waves' home field includes few amenities featured in the nation's top parks. But no other school can offer the Malibu setting, complete with an ocean view.

Sunken Diamond (Stanford)
The Cardinal play in a laid-back environment well suited for California baseball. Some locals describe the picturesque park as the best place to watch a game in the Bay Area.

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