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Oklahoma’s C.J. Coldon holds up the ball after intercepting a pass against Kansas Oct. 15, 2022, at Memorial Stadium in Norman. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)

CNHI Oklahoma

NORMAN — In his nearly 32 years as a Norman resident, Chamber of Commerce President Scott Martin said he’s never seen the city and the University of Oklahoma coming together for “the greater good.”

OU’s pending move to the Southeastern Conference is the reason, Martin recently told Norman Rotary Club.

“I’ve never once seen a time when the university and the community have been more aligned and working more closely together for a common purpose than I have right now,” Martin said recently at First Christian Church. “Everybody is generally coming together for the greater good and I think it’s awesome.”

Martin gave the group a sneak peak of three Southeastern Conference campuses OU fans will be visiting in the near future. He shared highlights of fact-finding visits to Fayetteville, Ark.; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and Lexington, Ky.

The target date for OU and Texas to join the 14-team conference is 2025, Martin said.

“It could be before then, but who knows,” he said. “We’re getting our ducks in a row.”

The OU Board of Regents has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements to sports facilities on campus in advance of the move.

“They came to us and said, ‘This is way more than just sports,’” Martin said. “It’s an overall experience a visitor or a guest to our community has when they come to Norman because of sports.”

It was OU Athletic Director Joe Castiglione who encouraged Martin and other members of the city’s SEC Readiness Committee to visit conference campuses to “take it all in and see what it’s like when you get off the airplane, when you drive in to town, when you go to dinner, when you drive around.”

Castiglione suggested communities similar to Norman in size and demographic makeup. The group visited three campuses between September and November.

First up for the group was Fayetteville, population 95,000.

“Beautiful community,” Martin said. “They have an incredible town square.”

The group walked Dixon Street on a Friday night, where the school’s spirit squad was getting fans in the mood for Saturday’s football game, Martin said.

“It was awesome,” he said. “They’re getting fired up that Friday night, which is something that we don’t really do anymore.”

Next, the group was Tuscaloosa, population 99,000. The group flew into Birmingham and drove an hour to campus.

“The Strip is what they call their Campus Corner,” Martin said. “Alabama Express is like their Balfour.”

Martin showed a slide of a condominium complex that cost $85 million to build, with units selling for $1 million apiece.

“In Tuscaloosa it’s a Thursday through Sunday experience, it’s not just a Friday or Saturday experience,” he said.

Martin marveled at the size of Alabama’s Greek system, and said the university did a great job with their alumni and tailgating.

“They have 600 tailgate tents on the quad, is what they call it at Alabama,” he said. “It’s so big that they actually have a map of their tailgate tents.”

Lexington, with a population of 322,000, is the second-largest city in the conference behind Nashville (658,602).

The group took in a Kentucky basketball game on Friday night and a Wildcats football game Saturday.

“We went to Rupp Arena, they had just gone through a few hundred million dollar renovation, it was amazing,” Martin said. “Friday night against a no-nothing opponent and the arena was packed full.”

“Kentucky is a basketball school,” he added. “They’re not a football school. We were able to see that at the basketball game.”

When comparing OU to the three schools Martin visited he said “there are some things that we can’t replicate.”

“If you’ve been to Fayetteville, it’s just a beautiful place. Rolling hills, trees,” he said. “Lexington, Kentucky, right? Bluegrass. It’s beautiful. Tuscaloosa’s beautiful, too.

“Our geography’s just a little different in Norman. The only mountain we had, Mount Williams, we got rid of. It’s not going to be the same in that regard, but it doesn’t mean we can’t compete or have just as good of an experience in our backyard as these other communities do.”

One advantage Norman has is its proximity to Oklahoma City, Martin said.

“If there’s something that you can’t get here, which I can’t imagine what that would be ... you just drive right up the road to either shop or have an experience.”

Overall, Martin called the fact-finding mission “a great experience.”

“I think we learned a lot from these three communities,” Martin said. “I think there are some great takeaways that we can improve on. We do need to up our game.”

Martin said he expects the move to the SEC to be a boon to the local economy and will result in increases to student and community populations.

“We’re already meeting in some ways to figure out how to improve as a community, and not so much within the four walls of the stadium or the arena or on the ball diamonds or anything like that,” he said. “It’s what can we do as a community to be more hospitable, inviting, attractive to visitors so that when they leave they can be like ‘that’s cool, I had a great experience coming to Norman.’”

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