Taking the Field
Whitaker Fields Complex at the University of Texas at Austin
By Dave Ramont
In 1916, the National Park Service was created, actor Gregory Peck was born, and the Chicago Cubs played their first game at Weeghman Park (modern-day Wrigley Field). And, Berry M. Whitaker came to the University of Texas (UT) to establish an intramural sports program, one of the first organized programs in the United States. The original sports offered included baseball, basketball, football, track, cross country, handball and tennis.
And now, UT at Austin has completed a major renovation of their Whitaker Fields Complex, which hosts outdoor events for their Recreational Sports (RecSports) program, which includes both intramural and club sports, with nearly 260,000 participation hours being logged at the complex each year. Upon re-opening in the spring of 2017, the facility was officially re-named Charles Alan Wright Fields at the Berry M. Whitaker Sports Complex, or Wright-Whitaker Sports Complex.
The facility has been at its current location since the late 1960s, and had not been renovated since 1980. "It was worn down pretty significantly, so this renovation came at a much-needed time," said Jennifer Speer, director of communications, assessment, development and IT at the University's Division of Recreational Sports.
An impressive 89 percent of UT students participate in some form of RecSports. As far as outdoor intramural offerings, the Wright-Whitaker Sports Complex is home to basketball, flag football, pickleball, sand volleyball, soccer, softball, Ultimate and tennis. And 10 of the university's 46 club sports call the facility home, holding activities ranging from practices and matches to tournaments, clinics and other special events. These sports include both men's and women's lacrosse, soccer, Ultimate and rugby. Quidditch and archery are also offered.
In addition to synthetic and natural grass fields, the renovations included a support building and a gateway building with single-entry access. "The idea was, we had the same footprint, but how do we modernize it? So we created what we call our gateway building, which is our main facility support," Speer said. "There's an ID check, lounge space, meeting space, equipment checkout, restroom facilities, lockers and garage space." There's also a vending area, built-in projector and screen, Wi-Fi access and flat-screen TVs.
Speer explained how they have synthetic turf at another of their locations, and they'd seen the benefits of that. "So we were able to put that in so that our students can now not be affected by the weather." They also re-did all the grass fields with efficient irrigation and drainage. "The drought in Central Texas had definitely affected our fields, so we needed to make sure that we addressed some of those underlying issues," said Speer, adding that there are now 12 natural grass fields and six that are synthetic. They employ a grounds staff of five full-time workers.
In 2016-2017, there were 9,800 participants in UT's intramural program and 2,300 unique participants in the Sport Club program. "We have almost 500 flag football teams, almost 300 soccer teams and roughly 300 softball teams, so this complex gets used heavily," according to Speer. "Not to mention all the student organizations that want to program it for their own tournaments, so whether somebody wants to have a kickball tournament or their own flag football tournament that isn't necessarily organized by RecSports."
Other upgrades and amenities include four lighted basketball courts and 35 lighted tennis courts, with five of them being lined for pickleball. "We were able to add four lighted sand volleyball courts, which was huge; we've already seen a great increase of traffic on those," said Speer, who also relates how they added other amenities like a covered pavilion, an outdoor lounge and a fire pit, while not infringing on the much-needed activity space. "Those amenities are designed really well; we have a center spine that we don't eat up a lot of the fields with."
The old facility support building has also been updated, and is now the intramural hand-out room and intramural training space, explained Speer. "We actually have a classroom/training area in there, so when we're running big tournaments we have support for our officials, and even for some of our Sport Club events. We have locker storage rooms for all of our Sport Clubs so that they can have secured areas out there."
Speer also tells us how they like to involve students in all of their projects, and when renovation plans were being made they included a committee of students, including intramural and Sport Club representatives. "They got to guide the design and then got to sit through a lot of the planning process to tell us the good, the bad and the ugly, and we could make adjustments with that."
RecSports at UT also employs about 1,000 students each year throughout their facilities and programs, including at Wright-Whitaker Sports Complex. "They're responsible for opening the facility on time, checking IDs, First Aid issues and setting up special events—being the ambassadors. We love the fact that our students have that responsibility and succeed with it on a daily basis," Speer said.
UT boasts the third-oldest college recreational sports program in the country, and they have a wall-of-fame to highlight the tradition. "Since 1916, our directors kept all these amazing records, and so we have 100 years of intramural champions," Speer said. And with the renovations to the Wright-Whitaker Sports Complex, the traditions continue.
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