Arthur Johnson’s Groundbreaking Longhorn Spirit

The major voices responsible for building and renovating projects at UT discuss how they’re able to build so much so quickly

The Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center is modeled after the pool used in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Courtesy of University of Texas Athletics

The University of Texas unveiled the Frank Denius Family University of Texas Athletics Hall of Fame on August 31, 2019. The $17.1 million project, located in the Red McCombs Red Zone in the north end zone of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, celebrates some 400 individuals and teams who have racked up 55 team national championships and can claim 200 Olympians. Somehow even more impressive than what’s showcased inside the hall of fame is the fact that ground on the project was broken just eight months before the grand opening.

Arthur Johnson, the executive athletic director of facilities, events, and operations (AD), says that the speed and efficiency of the project is in large part due to the teamwork between several different departments at the university: athletics, project management and construction services (PMCS), capital planning and construction services (CPC), utilities and energy management (UEM), public safety, IT, and landscape services.

“We give the PMCS and CPC teams a lot of difficult and trying requests over the years and have to move fast to get things done,” Johnson says. “These partners have played a key role in helping us get those things accomplished a lot faster than many would expect is possible.”

The UFCU Disch-Falk Field has turf that allows for the field to be playable in most weather conditions, along with a remarkable lighting and sound system, and improved seating areas. Courtesy of University of Texas Athletics

The workload has indeed been a massive undertaking. The Texas athletic director, Chris Del Conte, has been on what the Austin American-Statesman calls “a whirlwind tear” of fundraising and project initializing since taking on the challenge to lead the organization back in 2017. “Our workload has grown 75 percent and I can tell you our staffing has not grown anywhere near that size,” says Director of Project Management and Construction Service Mike Carmagnola, laughing. “I have pushed people to the limit and beyond. They have responded magnificently. I think that has to do with the trust and support we have for each other.”

“Working with Arthur is always about team,” agrees Kim Cochran, principal of O’Connell Robertson. “Players, fans, architects, and engineers—every interaction with him regarding facilities is about finding the solution that will have the most positive impact on the daily student/athlete and UT game day experience.”

Carmagnola adds that few university departments exist in the country with the size and scope of complexity as the PMCS and CPC. “As hard as it can be, we hold each other accountable and always try and focus on our mission to serve our students, student athletes, fans, and the public.”

The director of facilities capital planning and project management for the athletic department, Joe Beerens, says that the amount of work is the best kind of problem to have, and it’s one the university has in spades. “Since coming here, the biggest challenge is just the sheer volume of projects we have going on right now. The individual project managers are incredibly helpful because if I was going to try to manage all of these from a portfolio perspective, there’s no way we’d get these projects delivered as accurately and as functional as they are.”

Jim Shackelford, director of CPC, agrees. “At capital planning and construction, we value our longstanding working relationship with Athletics that spans over a dozen projects. We are delighted to be a part of the great things being done to promote, improve, and expand the Texas Longhorn brand, and we are passionate about doing our very best work in support of our key customers in Athletics. It is always a pleasure to work with Arthur and the rest of the Athletics staff and leadership.”

Front row: Christopher Marks, Michael Uyeda, Jason Nellis, Nina Hammoudeh, Christina Costa, Dorothy Fojtik, Michael Rodriguez, Michael Byer

Back row: David Kruse, Karel Kozuh, Sean Conway, Arthur Johnson, Joe Beerens, David Allison, Jim Shackelford
Courtesy of University of Texas Athletics

Project Manager Dorothy Fojtik says that working to be a facilitator means having to be a neutral but active voice in keeping things moving. “You have to be Switzerland while still having to say things that may not be popular,” Fojtik says. “You have to help your clients see the entire picture in a process that can get very, very caught up in minutiae.” Fojtik says maintaining a strong relationship with Johnson and Beerens has helped build trust, especially in inspiring faith that she will deliver on time and with the input of the dozens of key stakeholders, donors, and interested parties.

Nina Hammoudeh, a fellow project manager, says that especially in collaborating with the athletic department, there is often much more at risk than brick and mortar. “Athletics deals with the internal and the external, everything from the fan to the student to the athlete experience. It’s the spirit of this university, so there is so much more at stake.” Serving that spirit has to take into account the opinion and visions of multiple donors while still being able to keep the “big picture” approach. “Where we’re sitting, we’re looking at the entire picture and like the conductor, making sure all the music is playing to the harmony of that vision. It might not look that way at times—I will say that from the beginning and end, everything in the middle looks messy,” Hammoudeh says.

Sometimes, the “messy middle” can mean coming down the wire. Hammoudeh got a call from Del Conte the day of a VIP event at the new hall of fame that required potted flowers to be on the premises—immediately. “Looking back, I just have to chuckle because it wasn’t part of any plan, but it was something that needed to get done, and we got it done.”

Visitors enter the Texas Tennis Center Spectators through a two-story foyer spotlighting the rich history of Texas Tennis via archive photos, signage, and illustrative graphics. Courtesy of University of Texas Athletics

Chris Marks, team lead at the PMCS, says that project managers are routinely required to go above and beyond because so much of their work is unprecedented. “Most of these requests aren’t things you can pull from a comparable means and methods; they’re entirely unique.”

The mid-construction Texas Swim Center outdoor pool project comes to mind. Located at the corner of Martin Luther King and Trinity Street in Austin, the project includes the transportation of a Myrtha pool coming from Genoa, Italy. “This is a type of pool that’s typically used in Olympic events,” Fojtik says. “This project has taken a year to get into construction because we had so many different types of stakeholders to engage.”

Johnson says that regardless of the novelty or seemingly impossible timing of the litany of projects occurring at UT, every team member understands that they’re required to be stewards of Longhorn spirit. “I see us [athletics] as a client of PMCS but I also see us as supporters and conductors for them to help balance what they need to get done and what our coaches and athletes need. It takes a great team, and I’m so impressed with the way we’re able to work together.”