Phase III of Neyland Stadium renovations completed
Strong tradition of Tennessee football keeps Vol fans constant
The football team and the head coach won't be the only new thing Tennessee fans will see Saturday.
They'll also get to see Neyland Stadium's new look when the Vols open the season against UT Martin at 6 p.m.
"Our fans, based on the limited reaction I've already seen over the last two weeks, they've been shocked by the change to the exterior of the stadium," UT athletic director Mike Hamilton said.
"We've talked now for four or five years about where we're headed with our renovation plan, but if you didn't sit in the particular area of the stadium where the concourse was affected or you didn't buy premium seats in the west club, perhaps you haven't really seen it yet.
"To have the transformation that's occurred in the offseason is really nothing short of phenomenal."
The biggest changes have come at Gate 21, the focal point of the stadium where the pregame Vol Walk and Pride of the Southland Marching Band's show culminate.
The new plaza includes an arched brick entrance and a remodeled amphitheater, where the Vol Network's pregame call-in show will broadcast live.
The brick exterior extends from the plaza to cover the entire exterior of the stadium's west side, and includes designs similar to those of Ayres Hall, UT's most iconic campus building.
The bricks have given the 89-year-old stadium a much fresher image.
"That was a big part of the equation," Hamilton said.
"We went around and looked at older stadiums around America that had been renovated. The old south end zone has got beautiful arches and brickwork, but you can't see it because it's covered up by steel work.
"Trying to draw that out to the facade of the stadium was an important element, and also trying to help the stadium blend in more with the campus and look, frankly, classier. I think we've accomplished that with what we've done so far."
Inside the stadium, the Tennessee Terrace, 1,800 new seats on the west side upper deck, will be opened for the first time.
Another new addition won't be seen until November, when a twice-life-sized statue of Gen. Robert Neyland will be unveiled the Friday before the Vols host Ole Miss for homecoming.
Blair Buswell, who sculpts the busts used in the NFL Hall of Fame, is doing the statue, which will stand in the Gate 16 area.
"That will be a neat thing to have in our stadium that we haven't had before," Hamilton said.
The work on the stadium went into overdrive as the season rapidly approached, but, save for the statue, the job is done.
"Obviously they've been working around the clock, particularly over the past three of four weeks," Hamilton said.
"This is the fourth phase of construction since we started the project, and inevitably, the last three or four weeks you always wonder if this is going to get done.
"They always seem to come through in the end, and there's a great pride by the contractor and the subs that work on it, as there should be."
With the conclusion of this most recent phase, the stadium's master plan is 60 percent complete.
Major construction won't be started again until December of 2012, when the stadium's south side and Gate 10 will be redone.
Until then, ongoing maintenance such as painting and the possible replacement of the sound system will occur.
But for now, the stadium will leave a significant impression on Vol fans, Hamilton said.
"I think it's going to have a huge visual impact on our fan base."
Patrick Brown is a freelance contributor.