There Are a Host of Improvements In and Around Kenan Stadium for 2019

By Andrew Stilwell

Fans who enter Kenan Stadium for a football game this upcoming season might notice something new about the playing surface “between the pines.”

Or, according to UNC’s Director of Athletic Grounds and Turf Management Casey Carrick, they might not.

“I think aesthetically, everyone’s going to come into the stadium and there will be a lot of people who won’t notice we’ve changed it out at all,” Carrick said on UNC’s new “synthetic grass” football field, which will make its gameday debut on Saturday, September 7 as UNC hosts Miami. “On a gameday, it was always painted up and ready, and that’s what it will look like now.”

The synthetic grass football field in Kenan Stadium, a product manufactured by Astroturf, and featuring a 2.5-inch “blade of grass” and infill of sand and rubber, is an identical playing surface to two of the three practice fields installed as part of the new football practice complex.

For Carrick, the consistency of the installed turf was important, both from a practice and player safety standpoint.

“We wanted to put the same turf in (at Kenan Stadium) as the practice field, so it’s consistent,” he said. “If the team is on the practice field outdoors one day, and indoors the next, it will feel the exact same to the players. We didn’t want the guys to feel like there was a difference from one field to the other.

“We looked at many different options and made sure we were putting a safe synthetic product in,” Carrick continued. “I think with the rubber and sand combination percentage, along with a Brock power base, which helps with shock absorption and head impact and is underneath all three synthetic fields, we’ve made this field as safe as a field as we can put in.”

However, just because the grass stays a consistent length, doesn’t mean there isn’t maintenance involved with the new fields.

“With a grass field, we’re mowing, fertilizing, irrigating, things like that. We were painting the field every game week to get it ready for Saturday,” Carrick said. “With the synthetic grass, the lines are inlayed, it always looks painted up and ready to go. We do groom it. We check the infill levels. It’s a little less maintenance, but it’s definitely different maintenance than what we were doing with a grass field.”

Rick Steinbacher, UNC’s senior associate athletic director for capital projects and facilities, is hopeful that the synthetic playing field will also result in advantages for Carolina football, both on and off the field.

“You have a better speed advantage on synthetic grass as opposed to natural grass,” Steinbacher said. “We hope to be able to recruit incredibly well and have a team that benefits from that speed advantage on most days. Recruiting happens 365 days a year now, so having a field that looks game ready every single day is really, really cool. The field might look a little different on gamedays than fans are used to, but it will look different in a really positive way.”

A new playing surface isn’t all that’s benefitting the football program as it heads into the 2019 season. There have been facility improvements across the board, from the completion of the football practice complex, to upgrades in the weight room, the Gatorade fueling station, as well as inside the Carolina Football locker room.

“For the locker room, we took the best lockers in the country, gathered input from our players, and developed lockers that are completely unique to Carolina, exceeding what’s been produced in the past for other programs,” said Carolina head coach Mack Brown. “The effect on the players with all of these upgrades has been fantastic. It’s so cool to see them check out all of the new things, take pictures and videos, and walk away with smiles on their faces.

“The facilities at North Carolina have quickly become some of the best in the country,” Brown continued. “They are a reflection of the excellence our University stands for.”

Like his former player Steinbacher, Brown believes that the improved facilities are already creating a buzz with future Carolina student-athletes.

“It’s been a key talking point for us in recruiting. The prospects are seeing the transformation in real time, and they see the commitment to football,” Brown said. “Everything we’ve done is first class, and as they’re comparing Carolina with other schools, they know they can come here and have the best of the best to pursue their dreams athletically, academically and from a facilities standpoint.”

Working with Coach Brown has been a great experience for Steinbacher, who played for Brown at Carolina from 1990-1993.

“I’ve made the statement probably more than a hundred times in the last six months,” Steinbacher said. “I knew he was great to play for but he’s even better to work with. He’s been so many places as a head coach and a commentator and just gets what makes college football special.

“Coach Brown has been awesome. We’ve had a few gameday meetings with him, and he’s given us a really clear direction,” he continued. “‘Let’s be us. Let’s be Carolina. Let’s make Carolina the cool place to be, whether for a student, an alum, a fan, a recruit, but most importantly for the players. Let’s make Kenan Stadium the cool place to be.’ We’re really trying to hone in right now on just what exactly that means.”

Part of making Kenan Stadium the “cool place to be” extends to continuing to improve the gameday experience for fans as well.

“When I think of Kenan, I think of everything kind of within the footprint of Kenan,” said Michael Beale, assistant athletic director for marketing at Carolina. “As we talk about the footprint of Kenan, we also extend ‘gameday’ from the time you leave your door to the time you get home. And we are going to continue to improve the overall fan experience.”

“About three years ago, we came up with eight areas to really focus on during football gamedays through surveys and our own experiences,” Steinbacher said. “The biggest was seat comfort, so that’s why we’ve installed the blue chair backs throughout the stadium. It’s not new this year, but it’s a major thing we’ve looked at to improve fan comfort. Another focus is tailgating.

“In regard to tailgating, the nice thing about Kenan Stadium is that it’s a beautiful historic stadium, right in the middle of campus, and the most challenging thing about Kenan Stadium is that it’s a beautiful historic stadium, right in the middle of campus,” Steinbacher said with a laugh. “We’ve worked with Tailgate Guys to create tailgating experiences for the last few seasons, and have had a lot of success with them in the Kenan Amphitheater.”

However, the Kenan Amphitheater won’t be the only place you’ll be able to find the familiar tailgate tents of Tailgate Guys this coming football season. Through a partnership with the University’s grounds team, there will also be new Tailgate Guys tailgating options around the Bell Tower.

“We’ve removed all of the hedges from the Bell Tower area and leveled that area out with new sod,” Beale said. “It’s really going to enable us to enhance our pre-game tailgating that we do with Tailgate Guys. The amphitheater is pretty much sold out for the season with tailgating, and we needed a place to grow. The Bell Tower was a logical next step.”

The in-stadium environment is important to Coach Brown’s vision for gameday.

“Coach Brown is all about the fan experience, the fan engagement,” Beale said. “What he has done for us has been very supportive and he has said ‘Hey, if you need my assistance, and it’s going to help the gameday atmosphere and recruiting, we are all in.’ Just knowing we have him as a resource to go to, and that he’s supportive, and understands the method behind our madness, has been really exciting.”

The goal is to improve the overall experience at Kenan Stadium, extending from the players on field to the fans in the stands.

“We’re going to revamp everything we do in-venue just to accomplish the two goals which are sometimes challenging: to get the student-athletes really fired up on the field, and getting the fans engaged in the stands,” Beale said.

“The way to do that is by enhancing what has worked, and taking a long look at the things that have not been as successful, and if we alter them, how do we alter them? It’s stepping back, taking a look, and not being afraid to change things. The status quo? We’ve got to push beyond that. For us, it’s about fan engagement, it’s about keeping our fans ‘in the game,’ it’s getting our fans more engaged, and almost to a certain extent, turning the ‘keys to the car’ over to them. We really want them to drive the overall experience.”

“We want Kenan to be a truly special place to be on gameday,” Steinbacher said. “We want to make it really special and something that people don’t want to miss.”