It is not uncommon for a college football team to change its uniforms every single year. In the current recruiting climate, programs are looking for the newest dazzling innovation that can bring the best players to their school, and ultimately wins as well. Until recently, the University of North Texas was not known for change. This stagnation touched every part of the program, right down to the football field itself.
When Wren Baker took over as the athletic director at UNT in the fall of 2016, he put his ear to the ground. He wanted to know what students, alumni, and fans wanted to see from the Division I program in order to improve it. Had he physically put his ear to the ground on Apogee Stadium’s field turf, home of the Mean Green football team, he would have been in pain.
“The heat would just radiate, you’d feel it like somebody had a stovetop on underneath the field,” he said.
More Than Wear & Tear On The Turf
In need of replacement, the turf field was wearing down and absorbing heat from the Texas sun that made the surface significantly hotter than air temperatures.
“Usually the turf temperature would be 20 to 30 degrees hotter than the air temperature. And so, we really started to focus in on student-athlete safety,” Baker said. “We decided that we wanted to replace the product and we wanted to replace it with something that was going to use modern technology to make it a lot cooler.”
Baker said that turf is expected to last around 10 years, but in his experience at five other schools he had not seen a surface hold up for more than eight. Apogee Stadium, built in 2011, could not put off an installment much longer.
A new playing surface is being installed in time for the 2018 football season, after two years of research. The new field will be safer for players due to developments in the materials that support the turf.
“The previous product, the infield was primarily rubber. Almost like ground up tires and it soaked up lots of heat,” Baker said. “This new product is more of a cork-based infield and its better bounce for concussions and injuries and that kind of stuff but also it doesn’t soak up heat at the same rate.”
A New Era, A New Image
The new turf coincides with a program rebrand that puts an emphasis on pride and the athletics department’s uniqueness. In fact, the school paid more for a custom Kelly-green end zone design that matched the team uniforms.
“One of the first things I noticed when I came here is the end zones. Mean Green is written in black so that doesn’t seem to be ideal,” Baker said. “I felt like if it was just that our colors were just green and white that would be one thing but when your name is Mean Green you need to kind of to own it, in obnoxious way almost.”
When Baker first arrived on campus, he did not enact the sweeping changes that some might have expected. Now, as upgrades to facilities are coming to fruition, he is happy he had the wherewithal to hear from those that knew UNT best.
“We listened, and we collected the feedback. The feedback that we would get we would share the results of that,“ he said. “I think the big key is to be transparent, and we tried to be very transparent as we collected feedback.”
Invest In The Future
A new indoor practice facility will also be added to the UNT campus soon, something Baker says is vitally important in the recruiting process at the Division I level. The university also has plans to increase digital signage so that it is visible from the highway in order to improve brand awareness. This does not come without a cost, and there are detractors that say the funds could be better spent elsewhere. Still, Baker believes the return on investment will be worth it, and seen on the field.
“You want [recruits] to see that you’re improving things. Some people say ‘how many facilities do you need, how many graphics do you need? How many of this, how many of that?’ Here’s the reality for these young people: They’re 17, 18 years-old, they’re making a huge decision,” he said.
Baker stressed the importance of these upgrades in the recruitment process of the area’s top prospects not only because they are impressive structures but what they represent.
“When they start to weigh evidence of who’s invested in their growth and development, facilities are important,” he said.
Because of the new turf, football players will not be the only ones to perform at the eight year-old stadium. After the home opener against SMU on Sept. 1, a wrestling ring will be placed at midfield to host UNT alum Kevin Von Erich in a professional wrestling bout.
“Being the first college football game to feature pro wrestling really made sense for us, to kind of marry two brands together,” Baker said. The most famous North Texas wrestling connection being “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who played for the team in the late 1980’s.
The athletic director, who previously served as a deputy athletic director at University of Missouri and University of Memphis, also hinted that events like monster truck rallies and other community events would be able to use the stadium with more frequency due to the improved turf surface.
Before that though, there is football to be played and thanks to a safer, cooler and more technologically advanced surface, the UNT Mean Green will be able to play to their potential in 2018.
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