A flag and a spruce tree were fitting symbols atop the East Stadium's final steel beam Thursday.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

There Is No Topping Off Story Like Nebraska

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

Late Thursday afternoon, a chancellor, a vice chancellor, an athletic director and a construction company owner were wearing hard hats when they signed a 545-pound, 25-foot steel beam. Then they watched that historic beam rise seven stories above them. A second or two after the beam was hoisted into its final placement atop Nebraska’s East Stadium, those four leaders heard a bell tower ring out a song that not only commemorated the occasion, but made them all smile at once.

Harvey Perlman, Prem Paul, Tom Osborne and John Sampson are seasoned professionals, but even they would admit there is no “topping off” story like Nebraska, just like there is no place like Nebraska.

Tradition almost demanded that the chimes play from the Mueller Tower a half block down the street. Even though the Carillon Towers didn’t move into the neighborhood until 1949, 26 years after Memorial Stadium was built, it was the only logical local resident to throw out a welcome mat and play Nebraska’s familiar fight song at the same time.

“Every ceremony has its own charm,” said Sampson, whose construction company also expanded Nebraska’s West Stadium and North Stadium suites and seats before taking on the East Stadium. “The designers (from The Clark Enersen Partners) were very sensitive to the campus from the start. They wanted the East Stadium to join the neighborhood. From the first look at the renderings, you could tell this was going to fit right in.”

Spruce Tree, Flag: Symbols for Topping Off

The fight song was a bonus in a ceremony that included the two most popular customs in a topping off event that celebrates the final beam in a construction project, a tradition that traces its roots all the way back to immigrants placing a tree on completed structures in barn-raisings and housewarmings. “Topping off” is a milestone marker, so  Sampson Construction attached a spruce tree to the last steel beam to symbolize that no iron workers had been injured and added an American flag to salute freedom and patriotism.

Osborne pointed out Nebraska was celebrating 50 straight consecutive home football sellout years. He drew a laugh from 60 "topping off" witnesses with the acknowledgement that he was on the coaching staff when the streak started against Missouri in 1962 and still remembers that game, "which means I'm getting old." That game drew a capacity crowd 36,501.

NU’s athletic director kicked off the ceremony, recognizing a number of official guests and relating that a survey helped Nebraska determine there was a need for 6,000 to 7,000 additional season ticketholders. When Perlman followed Osborne at the podium, the first person he thanked was his hand-picked athletic director. If Bob Devaney and Osborne had not turned around Nebraska’s football fortunes, Perlman said, Nebraska’s capacity might still be 36,000 instead of the 92,000-seat stadium it will become 11 months from now.

“Today’s a signal of exciting things to come,” said Paul, UNL’s vice chancellor for research and economic development. “We’ve been working together for several years on this project, and now it looks like it’s going to happen very soon. We only have 11 months left, so now’s the time to finalize the research projects and the equipment we need in the labs so we can pursue the grants we want to pursue. When you see a house get built at this stage, you can actually think about moving into it.”

Taking a Breath, Recognizing Hard Work

John Ingram, NU’s associate athletic director for construction and capital planning, said the East Stadium project will include about 6,200 additional seats, 2,000 of which will be in the club level, as well as 38 new suites and more than 3,000 reserved seats in the 15 rows above the suite level that will stretch from one end zone to the other.

“I think it was good today to stop, take a breath and recognize all the hard work that’s been achieved by the construction and design teams and the project team that’s implementing Coach Osborne’s vision right on schedule,” Ingram said. “I think they’ve done an incredible job of recreating the essence of Memorial Stadium and integrating all of it into the academic community. That’s what we did. This building stair-steps into the campus. There are different elements to every construction project, and the bold statement we're making with this one is the space we’re building for academic research. What we’re saying is: 'We’re not just athletics or just football ... we’re education, we’re science and we’re looking for great achievements that require collaboration.'”

Nebraska is more than concrete, columns, cranes, steel, bricks and mortar. It’s academics and athletics coming together like no other time in history. Dr. Dennis Molfese, the UNL psychology professor who will lead the proposed Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior in the East Stadium research area, attended Thursday’s ceremony.

He remembers talking to Doak Ostergard 2½ years ago when the Athletic Department’s director of outreach asked Molfese if he thought an expanded football stadium would be a good place to build a research lab.

One Thing Led to Another, Then Another

“It was great vision,” Molfese said, pointing out that Paul called him three days later expressing his excitement about the idea.

Molfese and Ostergard discussed the need for concussion research “and everything just clicked after that,” Molfese said. In April of 2010, David Hansen, chair of UNL’s Department of Psychology, asked one of his professors to write a business plan.

No wonder Molfese was among those smiling when he heard the bells ringing to the tune of Nebraska’s fight song. “It’s taken tons of people and lots of hours, and we’re moving ahead,” he said. “We have 22 schools trying to do what we’re already doing here, so we’re looking forward to pulling it all together.”

Nebraska appears destined to become an epicenter for collaborative research related to health and performance. Most Ivy League schools and seven fellow Big Ten Conference institutions have shown equal interest in joining Nebraska’s efforts.

Gate 20: The Past, Present and the Future

When the tree comes down and the flag moves elsewhere, the spotlight will shine on Nebraska’s renovated East Stadium.

“It'll be an iconic facility,” predicted Maggi Thorne, who assists Ingram.

Underneath the topped off steel beam will be a three-story glass façade entrance to Gate 20. Thorne sees that area as a symbol of the past connecting with the present.

That entrance already declares that “Through these gates pass the greatest fans in college football,” Thorne said. “It’s going to be iconic because that gate will be just like a full-size picture frame of Gate 20. It will just light up, especially at night. This probably will be the last major expansion of Memorial Stadium, so we’re bringing the past and the present together. It’s all about tradition and history and Nebraska fans.”

Big Red fans are, after all, the ones who connect the past with the present. And thanks to this likely final major stadium expansion, Nebraska will influence the future like college athletics has never seen, or even imagined, before.

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