This story originally appeared in the September 2021 edition of the Air Force Academy Checkpoints magazine.
By Elizabeth Wyman
Think of Wrigley Field. Madison Square Garden. Lambeau Field.
Some of the most iconic and recognizable athletic venues in the country have evolved and stood the test of time to provide fans with more than an event to watch. They offer an experience to be remembered.
Falcon Stadium stands at 6,621 feet above sea level, nestled just two miles southeast of where this country’s future second lieutenants spend four years of their lives preparing to be the leaders of our nation’s defense.
It’s a stadium with nearly 60 years of touchdowns, goals, concerts and graduations. A place that tells the stories of this country’s Air Force just by taking a walk inside.
The Air Force Academy Foundation along with the Air Force Academy Athletic Corporation have announced a multiphase Falcon Stadium renovation project as part of the Defining Our Future campaign in support of the Air Force Academy to prepare for the facility’s next generation. The immediate phase will amount to $70 million, with philanthropy from the Foundation providing $35 million as part of the campaign and the remaining half financed by Athletic Corporation revenue. The current phase is part of a multi-phase plan to upgrade Falcon Stadium and will total about $180 million when finished. “I truly believe that when it’s complete we will have the Wrigley Field of college sports,” says Air Force Academy football coach Troy Calhoun ’89. “When you see the ivy on the outfield walls, you know you’re at Wrigley field,” he added. “And when we get the renovation finished, and when you see the aircraft static displays, that wing-like overhang on the east side, the reseating of the cadets that puts them in prominent view every time you’re playing on national TV, and most of all the blue of Falcon Stadium, you’re going to know exactly where you are.” More than a Football Stadium Calhoun, entering his 15th season at the helm of the Falcons, has been involved in many notable moments in the history of the stadium. From wearing the blue and silver as a quarterback in the ’80s to guiding the Falcons to bowl games in 10 of his 14 seasons, the longest-tenured active head coach of the service academies has a favorite memory that doesn’t involve football. “Not only [when] there’s a big tackle or when touchdowns are scored, but to this day, there is nothing that gives you more goosebumps than when you see those cadets march onto the field to formally accept their commission,” Calhoun says. It’s an iconic day every May when the cheering for the football team in the stands turns to the celebration of a cadet’s four years of hard work as they join the Long Blue Line. Falcon Stadium will always be more than a football stadium. “I think the enhancements make it more attractive for a myriad of events,” Air Force Academy Director of Athletics Nate Pine said. “It hosts Falcon football and Falcon lacrosse in our sporting teams, but with graduation every year, and being visited by the president of the United States every four, it’s a big-time venue with a lot of eyeballs on it.” The proposed renovations will allow the stadium to become a world-class event center, bringing top-tier athletic and entertainment talent to southern Colorado. The Academy got a taste of what that future could look like when the NHL Stadium Series came to Falcon Stadium in February 2020. “Not only are we now going to provide a modern venue for football, but it’s a chance to attract more concerts and large sporting events — like the NHL Stadium Series,” Calhoun says. A Modern Look Falcon Stadium has undergone some recent renovations, including two new scoreboards, ribbon boards in each end zone, and the renovation of the Blue and Silver Club. Prior to the 2018 season, renovations were completed on the home and auxiliary locker rooms, the media center was upgraded, the medical services were improved, and a VIP green room was added. “They’ve (renovations) provided us a huge step forward,” Calhoun says. “Not only on the field, but in terms of who we can attract regarding officer candidates and truly to support the cadet training experience.” Designed by industry leaders HKS Inc., the same architecture firm that orchestrated the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium and the Los Angeles Rams’ SoFi Stadium, the next of five phases revolve mostly around the modernization of the east side of the stadium. The proposed plans include a dramatic new stadium entrance, an updated event space, relocation of the cadet section and a heritage plaza. Improved seating, concessions areas, restrooms and merchandise space will offer fans a more modern and comfortable feel as they take in an event. “We need to continue to invest and improve our fan experience in Falcon Stadium,” Pine said. “There is a lot of competition out there for entertainment dollars, and there is a lot of expectation in our fan base in what they’re seeing in other venues, so we need to make sure we continue to be relevant from an experiential standpoint every bit as much as we want to be competitive and win games on the field.” The heritage plaza will pay homage to Air Force and Air Force Academy history, honoring those who have served and informing all who pass through the stadium about what it means to be a cadet. “The renovation is going to have to complement the modernist design of the Academy at large, so we’ve taken that into account as we worked with our architecture partners,” Pine says.
“The heritage plaza entering the east side of Falcon Stadium will be a great opportunity for us to tell the Air Force story and also recognize significant contributors to the project.” A new banquet club will feature indoor seats and a full kitchen. The tunnel on the north end of the stadium will be expanded to improve field access for larger vehicles. The expansion will enable delivery of equipment and staging pieces for larger events. The Time Is Right The Falcon Stadium renovation will be the largest athletic investment in the history of the Air Force Academy. In the world of college sports, remaining modern and relevant while preserving the history and legacy of an institution retains current fans and attracts new ones. “Businesswise, it’s a breakthrough for the institution that has to happen and to be modern,” Calhoun says. “I think there is as much yearning and as much momentum as there has ever been in the history of the Air Force Academy, not only to make some philanthropic contributions but to help the institution.” Donors play a significant role in shaping the Academy and as a result have a hand in the future success of Air Force athletics. “Private donors are going to become imperative across the board in order to truly elevate the quality of the leadership experience of our cadets,” Calhoun says. Calhoun emphasizes the massive benefits a stadium renovation of this magnitude can bring to recruiting and revenue generation. “I think there are great examples within the last 15 years of how much a superb venue can not only help your football program due to improved recruiting [and] better revenues, but also how drastically it can help your institutional reputation,” he says. In the Mountain West Conference, the Falcons are not alone in multimillion dollar athletic investments. Colorado State University opened a new $220 million stadium in 2017, Boise State University is amid an overhaul of the east side of its stadium, and San Diego State University is building a $310 million stadium prior to the 2022 season. In July, Air Force rival West Point announced plans for a $95 million Michie Stadium renovation. As the most significant comprehensive campaign in the Academy’s history kicks off publicly with a goal of $270 million, the future of the Academy is being put into motion now — and the renovations to Falcon Stadium ensure the historic venue is suitable for years to come. “Falcon Stadium is an Air Force Academy showcase,” Calhoun says. “It’s what everyone sees as you’re going along I-25; it truly is the front porch to the Air Force Academy.” And sometimes, even the front porch needs a face-lift.