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Inside the new, supercharged Texas gameday experience

Thanks, CDC.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Texas Bethany Hocker-USA TODAY Sports

As I stepped out of the SUV, I pulled out my phone to complete the ride and check the time. It was 1:14 p.m. — still enough time to check out Longhorn City Limits and Bevo Blvd. before the Texas Longhorns and TCU Horned Frogs kicked off on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

We had arrived later than planned, but after a Friday night of pizza and beers at Austin Beer Garden and Brewery followed by pool and more drinks elsewhere, our day had naturally gotten off to a delayed start.

With just over two hours to kick off, my friends and I began our gameday by walking from the new Uber Zone lot towards the music coming from the LBJ lawn.

Much like the new Longhorn City Limits and Bevo Blvd., the Uber Zone was an initiative implemented by athletics director Chris Del Conte this season to enhance Texas football gamedays. Located at the corner of Red River and Dean Keaton, the drop off and pickup lot made getting down to campus fairly hassle free — something that hadn’t always been the case for us in years past.

Following the sidewalk around the north side of Sid Richardson Hall, we turned south towards the music echoing from the LBJ lawn. We had one final stretch to walk before arriving to the concert, a stretch that included a row of tailgates I had personally forgotten all about.

Before Saturday, I hadn’t put much thought or effort into checking out the “Grove-style” tailgating area that a previous Texas athletics administration had put forth a few years ago. I hadn’t known anyone who tailgated there in the area meant to recreate an atmosphere popular at Ole Miss football games. And given the location, those turnkey tailgates were in a spot on campus that I didn’t frequent on game days, situated further north than the big scene to the south by the soccer stadium and in the lots across MLK.

Saturday was different. Instead of just being there in the shadows of the stadium, these tailgates felt like they fit in as they led us right down to the grassy hill where a crowd of fans in burnt orange and purple were enjoying the pregame show.

As we made the final walk, fans to our left and right were tailgating under white pop-up tents, each tent with a sign out front signifying which group or company was occupying the tailgate. And as we got closer to the concert itself, we walked passed bars open to concertgoers looking to re-up on a beer during the show at happy-hour prices.

Walking onto the lawn, I looked towards the stage to see Aloe Blacc and his band performing. A group of people were standing in front of the stage while others chose to take in the concert as they sat on the grassy hill just left of the stage area.

As an undergrad at Texas years ago, I had enjoyed live music on the LBJ lawn at a country music festival known as Lone Star Jam. Since then, the festival relocated, but what remained was my feeling that the LBJ lawn was a great space for mid-size concerts. And within a few minutes of getting there that day, I looked around to see other people digging the similar concert vibe I had felt there years ago.

Aloe Blacc and his band were a lot of fun Saturday. They engaged with the crowd, played the popular songs, and kept the energy up for the hour or so we were there, even though the athletics department staff had to scramble to get the popular artist to campus after his flight was cancelled.

With the football stadium and other parts of the Forty Acres as the backdrop of the show, live music on campus hours before kickoff just felt natural. And it also felt funny to think it had taken Texas this long to organize something like this on gamedays.

Soon, the one o’clock hour turned into a quarter past two. And to hold true to our intentions, we left the Longhorn City Limits area to experience Bevo Blvd. for the first time.

After making the short walk down DeLoss Dodds Way outside of the north end zone, we turned left onto San Jacinto Blvd.

For as long as I can remember, San Jacinto Blvd. was just an unofficial rendezvous spot to meet up with friends prior to walking into the stadium. Aside from the Texas Exes center, it lacked any sort of tailgating or true gameday atmosphere.

That memory of that road before games is now just that — a memory. Walking up, we were greeted by a tall, standing entrance that signified the entrance to the party; beyond that was the atmosphere missing from that street for far too long.

Food trucks lined the west side, bars and interactive sponsor tents lined the east, and in the middle was the mass of people eating, drinking, walking, and waiting in anticipation of that day’s game.

A DJ provided the music and announcements, a 104.9 The Horn radio tent had some pregame talk going, and two huge screens hung above the crowd at opposite ends of the road, one north and one south. Other college football games that were already underway were being shown live overhead — no need to miss the critical college football happening across the country to enjoy the scene directly outside the stadium.

With literally a few minutes to spare, we each grabbed another beer right before the bars stopped serving 30 minutes prior to kickoff. Then at 3 p.m. sharp, the bars closed, and fans were encouraged to make their way inside the stadium.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Texas Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Leaving the Blvd., my friends and I were impressed. Already that day, we had made our way down to campus with ease, seen Aloe Blacc live, walked through the party that was Bevo Blvd., and picked up a few beers along the way without attending a specific tailgate. So far, so good, and we had the entire game still ahead of us.

We didn’t even make it to the Stadium Stampede, where the team walks through the assembled crowd before heading to the locker rooms, but head coach Tom Herman referenced the impact it made on the players against USC.

“I would like to start just by thanking Chris Del Conte, Drew Martin for their vision and execution of a revamped game day atmosphere,” Herman said after beating the Trojans.

“I know our players noticed that Bevo Blvd., I mean I had guys in the locker room before the game even tell me how cool that was and so I would encourage anybody that has yet to go be a part of that walk when we enter the stadium to get there. It’s really something pretty cool.”

Inside the stadium, the party kept going. Beating a ranked opponent and a conference foe is always fun. Especially against a team that has dominated Texas in recent years. Even with all of that, though, Bruce Feldman and Andy Staples were right.

The atmosphere and energy inside the stadium throughout the game felt like it was on a new level, a fun level. A level one could actually say was representative of what a major college football game should feel like at a storied school like Texas.

Fans were on their feet cheering, yelling, and making noise much of the afternoon. Upbeat music, including rock and hip-hop songs, maintained the intensity when the game called for it, taking the place of the corporate advertisements of years past.

The student section was the main attraction in the stands, which a number of fans around us in the north end zone continued to point out. Not only was it full thanks to the new first-come, first-serve ticketing policy, the students actually came early, stayed late, and wore burnt orange. If the latter wasn’t difficult to achieve during past seasons, the former elements were consistently missing.

“Proud of our fans and our students especially,” Herman said on Monday. “What a great atmosphere that was, especially kind of an odd kickoff time at 3:30. But I tell you what, if there’s a better feeling in college football than walking over to a jam-packed student section at DKR that have stayed for the entire game and singing the Eyes of Texas after a victory, you’ll have to show it to me.”

“Because that’s pretty neat to see them stick around and just pack that student section and be loud and be impactful in the game. So thank them. Thank our fans again for another great atmosphere and we certainly felt and used the energy that they gave us.”

Upsetting a ranked TCU team helped create a noticeable buzz in the stadium, big plays from the Longhorns players on offense and defense helped, but the atmosphere before and after the game, including all the analyzing, planning, reworking, and managing from this current Texas athletics staff undoubtedly helped as well.

It was a fun-filled day. And in the opinion of my friends and I, a group of upper 20-year-olds, the new enhancements made to the entire gameday experience were noticeable and successful. The entire day was full of activities, and we didn’t even have time to stop other tailgates.

Sure, Longhorn City Limits and Bevo Blvd. won’t be for everyone. Some may be uninterested in that day’s performing act; others may prefer to avoid the crowd down on San Jacinto before the game. Heck, some may still hold fast that Scholz Garten is the only place to tailgate on game days, and that’s hard to argue against as well.

What these new additions have provided is an improved atmosphere around the stadium, more energy inside during the game thanks to the new student ticket policy and contiguous seating section, and more options overall for those looking for a place to go or something to do before kickoff. There’s no barrier to entry any more — fans don’t need to pay an entry fee to a tailgate or have friends who put one on to get some food or a few drinks before the game.

The partnership with C3 also seems natural as the handprints of the successful Austin-based music festival company were all over the new improvements. One can only imagine if and how C3 will be involved in the new Texas basketball stadium that Del Conte has referenced will “be a tremendous facility that our student-athletes, coaches and fans can be extremely proud of.”

For what it’s worth, the new Longhorns athletics director and his staff get it. In well less than a year, Chris Del Conte and the vision he and his team have set forth have already transformed Texas gamedays for the better. And if you follow Del Conte on Twitter, you know he isn’t done yet either — Del Conte and his staff are continuously accepting feedback and striving for a better experience. From the fan perspective, things only go up from here.

The Texas win over TCU was definitely a fun one, and the enhanced atmosphere surrounding the game on the field made it all the better.