Dudy Noble Field Is The New Palace Of College Baseball

Image credit: (All photos courtesy of Mississippi State)

Approaching from the east, visitors don’t see Dudy Noble Field until they are upon it. It rises from the Mississippi State campus like a cathedral, resplendent in its grandeur.

Visitors approaching from the west see it in its rightful place in the Starkville skyline along with Davis Wade Stadium, where the football team plays, and Humphrey Coliseum, the basketball arena.

No matter what direction visitors come to it, Dudy Noble Field is striking. The $68 million rebuild of one of college baseball’s iconic venues was completed this year and produced the sport’s best venue. The right field entrance opens on to the Adkerson Plaza and a beautiful view of the field. The home plate entrance is adorned by statues depicting Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, Thunder and Lightning. The stadium’s two decks topped by a row of suites keep the fans on top of the action. The Left Field Lounge remains filled with tailgaters stretching from foul pole to foul pole, partying beyond the outfield fence as they have for the last 50 years. And rising above the Lounge is the high rise of the Left Field Lofts, a condo building overlooking the field.

Over the last decade, college baseball has undergone a building boom and programs from Boston College to Coastal Carolina to Indiana to Washington have built new ballparks. Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park was built to replace Rosenblatt Stadium as the home of the College World Series. But the size and scope of Dudy Noble Field set it apart. No other program has ever attempted a project as audacious.

But this is Fabulous StarkVegas where baseball and Dudy Noble Field have long held a special place in the Mississippi State community. That made this project delicate for everyone involved from former athletic director Scott Stricklin, who set the ball in motion in 2013, to John Cohen, who was Mississippi State’s coach when the project began and is now its athletic director, to Wier Boerner Allin Architecture, the Jackson-based firm that Stricklin tapped to lead the project.

The journey to the stadium’s completion was a long one, fraught with potential stumbling blocks. But Mississippi State cleared them all and now has a powerful statement on college baseball’s potential. Cohen said the athletic department estimates the “New Dude” will bring in $3 million in revenue annually. In a decade, when the suite and lounge licenses expire, it is projected to bring in $8 to 12 million. By then, Mississippi State plans to have the stadium paid off.

Standing atop the Left Field Lofts as game time approached at midseason, Cohen said the finished product is even better than he had envisioned. He first thought about the Lofts about seven years ago during a walk through the stadium to lunch. The stadium project became his when he was promoted to athletic director in November 2016 and it was important to him that it was a success for Cohen and the future of Mississippi State athletics.

“We wanted to do this the right way,” Cohen said. “Because if you don’t do this the right way and the people who are buying into this concept don’t buy into it, it’s harder to get them to buy into what we’re going to do in the future.”

The partners at Wier Boerner Allin — Jamie Wier, Michael Boerner, Jack Allin and Eric Whitfield — all graduated from Mississippi State School of Architecture about 20 years ago and came back together to form their firm 10 years ago. Soon after, they unexpectedly won a bid to redesign Mississippi State’s tennis and softball stadiums.

In February 2013, not long after the completion of that project. Stricklin called Boerner to see if they would be interested in putting together some conceptual designs for Dudy Noble Field.

“Finding out that this was one we were going to work on really meant so much because of the tradition of the program and of the fans,” Boerner said. “There are a handful of projects in Mississippi—maybe—that would be this meaningful.”

In the early stages, the plans were for a renovation. The old Dudy Noble Field had bleachers down both lines that weren’t connected to the main bowl of chair-back seats and its suites didn’t fully ring that bowl.

More pressingly, the Left Field Lounge had become a concern. The Lounge was born 50 years ago when fans began tailgating beyond the left field wall. Soon, they were driving in their trucks to get a better vantage point. Over time it grew into an assortment of life-sized erector sets lining the outfield fence as fans built elaborate rigs to host parties. It was an accident waiting to happen.

Stricklin wanted to unify the seating bowl, find a way to modernize the Lounge and build Cohen’s condos. He tasked WBA with figuring out how to do it.

They worked on the project throughout the spring of 2013, as Cohen guided the Bulldogs to a runner-up finish at the College World Series. Allin, Boerner and Weir all traveled to Omaha to see the CWS and during a conversation with Stricklin at Mr. Toad’s, a popular Omaha bar, sketched out the stadium on the back of a coaster.

The project soon became a complete rebuild of the stadium, and WBA brought on Populous, one of the biggest firms in the nation, as consultants. Mississippi State alum Janet Marie Smith, who designed Baltimore’s Camden Yards and is the Dodgers’ senior vice president of planning and development, also consulted.

During the planning process, Stricklin and WBA held three town hall meetings to listen to fans’ concerns, especially regarding the Lounge, which was the most delicate part of the project. The meetings were spirited but helpful. Among the ideas that came out of them was implementing storage space into the new Lounge.

When the plan to make the Lounge structures permanent and somewhat uniform, there was still outcry. The Lounge had made Dudy Noble unique and now there would be significant changes.

There is no doubt the Lounge has changed in the new park and some of the longtime occupants miss the old setup. But the new Lounge has many improvements beyond the fact no part of it is in danger of falling over. Every Lounge space now has electricity and on-site storage and it is now more accessible to all fans. It is connected to the rest of the stadium by a full 360-degree concourse that allows handicapped fans to join the fun.

“The people out in those lounges, that’s an extension of their homes,” Whitfield said. “Being out there is a family tradition for most of the people out there and they’re very serious about that. I think that touches on the culture of Mississippi and the South.”

To help sell the plan to the public and to help Mississippi State’s fundraising efforts—it raised $23 million—WBA painstakingly produced 50 computer models as well as countless renderings and videos.

Remarkably, it all came to fruition. Even the earliest renderings and videos look nearly identical to what stands in Starkville today.

The new Dudy Noble Field was the most ambitious college baseball stadium project, but it is far from the only new one opened around the country. There is a building boom in college baseball, one that has especially swept through the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences, which have combined for 10 new stadiums in the last decade or so.

The building boom has been concentrated in those two conferences, which, not coincidently, are the two richest, but has touched every corner of the country.

Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis, who was hired last June to take over the program, is working in another new stadium after getting to work at new stadiums at every stop of his career, from The Citadel to Louisville to Indiana and, now, Mississippi State.

Lemonis has seen the boom up close and has been a beneficiary. He has always been able to recruit to new facilities. To him, it speaks to the health of the sport.

“It shows we have more fans drawn to the game,” he said. “More TV, more publicity than ever and it’s a big deal. The reason we have this many seats is, man, the people are coming. It’s the same across our league but it’s also across the country. People are putting an investment into baseball and it’s fun.”

Jason Michael Ford was Populous’ project manager for Dudy Noble Field and has more than 15 years of experience as an architect. His first baseball assignment was renovating Michigan’s Ray Fisher Stadium in 2007.

In that time, the conference TV networks that have brought so much more money into college sports have grown. As that has happened, baseball has benefited, as athletic departments look for more ways to stand out.

“If you look at the Power Five (conferences) specifically, they’ve all got great football and basketball facilities,” Ford said. “Baseball is next in line for where they’re starting to spend dollars and really enhancing their recruiting draw within the conference.”

The Lounge gave Dudy Noble a ready-made signature element that sets it apart from other venues. The creation of the Lofts only served to enhance that. Other new stadiums have worked to find their own unique charm. Coastal Carolina’s Springs Brooks Stadium plays off Myrtle Beach’s boardwalks for its outfield concourse. Texas A&M built a soaring entrance at Blue Bell Park. Washington’s Husky Ballpark played off the sight lines onto Lake Washington to create the stadium’s backdrop.

But while those visuals are important and make for a great TV experience—ESPN placed its announcers in one of the Lofts for its first broadcast at the new Dudy Noble—Ford said the most important aspect in any college stadium are the players’ experiences. That, he said, differs from minor league stadiums.

“Student-athletes in every collegiate ballpark I’ve worked on is No. 1,” Ford said. “Any dollars they spend on enhancing a facility is with student-athletes in mind.

“College baseball is all about, ‘How do I get the best kids for my 11.7 scholarships and how do I differentiate myself?’ ”

Dudy Noble has all the player amenities—a new locker room, a players’ lounge, a team meeting room, a batting tunnel outfitted with HitTrax and a pitching lab outfitted with Rapsodo. While they aren’t the headline features, they are integral to the project for Cohen and Lemonis.

Since the “New Dude” opened in February, some small problems have been identified. Concession lines can get long when the stadium is packed. A small portion of the stadium struggles to see the right field scoreboard, one of the biggest in college baseball. There are about 30 seats that have a partially obstructed view, and the press box didn’t quite come out as it was envisioned. The original plans called for two condo buildings, not one.

Cohen said he’s heard the concerns the fans have raised and is working to solve them. Overall, he’s thrilled with the stadium. He especially likes how close fans can get to the action down the lines and on the circular Adkerson Plaza, which juts out into the field, giving the right field corner a curved exterior wall.

“I love the plaza, I love the way the outfield fence curves,” he said. “You’re on the field in the berms and you’re sitting right on ground level. That’s my favorite thing about this facility.”

Lemonis came to Mississippi State too late to be much involved in the construction or planning. He weighed in on some final details and created a spot on one of the walls in the player’s area of the stadium to honor the players who earn their degrees.

He has one last thing he’d like to add to the stadium.

“A national championship sticker on the wall,” Lemonis said. “That’s probably the only thing we’ve got left to put in. I think our fans are waiting on it.”

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