Texas A&M track and field coach Pat Henry walks into a spacious meeting room with approximately 150 assigned chairs lined up side by side, looks out at his athletes and wonders how for 15 years he pulled off mandatory team gatherings.
“I can’t believe we had meetings in that little dressing room [adjacent to the old track site] with 140 people, sitting on the floor looking at the back of each other’s heads, standing against the walls,” Henry said. “Now we have a meeting room that I can sit each athlete in a chair, and we have a video area up front and show things. To me, it’s the best room in the building.”
The building is the E.B. Cushing Stadium, the new $39.8 million home of the Aggie track and field team. The coaching staff and athletes moved into their 90,500-square-foot home at the start of the semester. On Monday, they had their first training session, and on Saturday, Texas A&M will welcome teams to an outdoor track event for the first time in 15 years.
Over those 15 years, Henry, who was recruiting for LSU the last time A&M hosted a meet, has led the Aggies to eight NCAA outdoor track and field titles, including winning both the men and women’s titles in 2009, ’10 and ’11.
“Initially, when I took the job at A&M, this was something that was the next project to get done, to build an outdoor facility with Texas A&M, because the old facility was way outdated when I got here,” Henry said. “There was no electronic infrastructure, there was no press box, there was no anything, and this is year 15. For the time they built it, it was an adequate facility, but [now] it is a training facility basically with some metal bleachers, which was OK but not a place you could put on a meet like we can today.”
Cushing Stadium is a state-of-the-art facility, from the athletes’ locker room, to the nearly 2,300-seat covered stands, to the IAAF-certified Beynon track surface designed for speed, daily training and resiliency to the elements.
Two of the more unique features of the track are a straightaway in the middle of the oval and the four pole vault runways. The straightaway allows fans to have a better view of the sprints and hurdles and is made of a harder surface than the oval track to help athletes reach optimum speeds. The only other track in the country that features a similar straightaway setup is at LSU. The four pole vault runways are placed at different angles and directions so that the wind can be at the vaulters’ back.
“We had a company hired to do the wind reading, and they placed those runways at the angle which is best for the winds we predominantly have,” Henry said. “A lot of that is about safety, because when you start vaulting 18 feet into the wind, that’s not good, not a safe environment.”
Discus, hammer and javelin competitions will be held on Anderson Track and Field Complex — built in 1986 — adjacent to the Cushing layout. All other events will take place on or inside the nine-lane oval at Cushing, which has wider turns than most tracks in the country to give runners an easier and smoother transition into the straightaways.
“If there are records to be run, then the athletes will come,” Henry said of the advantages the track allows athletes, both from Texas A&M and other programs.
The facility is for much more than just meets. Behind, under and above the stands are coaches’ offices, meeting rooms, video rooms, a student-athlete lounge, locker rooms, a press box and camera wells conducive for major meets and areas to entertain recruits and their families. There is even a barber shop in the facility.
“This is my 46th season, and it’s a testament to Texas A&M, it’s a testament to commitment to all sports, not just football,” Henry said. “Huge commitment to football — and there should be — but there is a commitment to all sports here, and that’s continued through one athletic director after another.”
The vision of the track site started with athletic director Bill Byrne before he hired Henry in summer 2004. Plans were made and renderings drawn up, but there were other projects — most prominently the renovation of Kyle Field and Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park — to be built first.
“This is basically a Bill Byrne and Pat Henry deal from when he got hired,” said Kevin Hurley, senior associate athletics director for facilities and construction. “[Present Director of Athletics] Scott Woodward, when he first got here, the track had not broke ground, and so Scott had to give the green light and go to the president and get approval before construction started. ... He needs to be commended, because he could have said ‘I don’t want to do any of this.’ ”
Construction, which was hindered by Hurricane Harvey and 2018’s autumn, which was one of the wettest in College Station history, began two years ago, three years after a feasibility study began.
The Davis Diamond softball complex, which sits directly to the north of Cushing Stadium, and the track project were under one construction contract. The softball complex cost $28.6 million and was completely funded by donors. It was finished in April 2018.
Cushing, which was not quite 100 percent funded by donors and had to get financing to complete the construction contract, received its NCAA track certification on March 27.
“Coach Henry has done a great job in terms of cultivating people and bringing people not necessarily in [the] track community into the fold and into his program because they are winning, so that opens doors, generated support, generated buy-in,” said Hurley. “The 12th Man Foundation has cultivated people that might not have been track oriented but they are Texas A&M oriented, and 12th Man has bridged that gap.”
Cushing Stadium will host four meets this spring and is already contracted to host the Southeastern Conference meet in 2020 and the 2021 NCAA West Preliminary meet. Per request, there will be temporary stands put up between the back straightaway of Cushing and Anderson.
The outdoor track completes a trio of venues — Cushing, Gilliam Indoor Stadium and the Watts Cross Country Course (adjacent to the Hildebrand Equine Complex) — for the Texas A&M track and field program.
“I think if you look at all the schools and label a school that has the best facilities for all three together, there is no one that can compete with us,” said senior intermediate hurdler and NCAA champion Robert Grant. “We have Arkansas coming over here to take a look at our indoor facility, because they want to make improvements to theirs. Soon, we will have people coming to look at our outdoor facilities so they can try and upgrade theirs.”