Tom Waggoner has had a 38-year career for firms such as Ellerbe Becket, 360 Architecture and HOK. (Courtesy Tom Waggoner)

Two veteran sports designers laid off because of pandemic

The pandemic has again affected sports: Tom Waggoner and Tracy Stearns, two senior principals at HOK and among the most experienced sports architects in the Kansas City design community, have been laid off, company officials confirmed. 

The moves came about a month ago and were among about 15 total layoffs at HOK, according to Waggoner. Both architects were senior vice presidents. As part of their separation agreements, they will serve as consultants for the company to help maintain relationships with clients, company officials said.

Waggoner and Stearns were part of the old 360 Architecture acquired by HOK in 2015 after HOK returned to developing sports venues. The move came after the expiration of a noncompete clause that kept HOK from working in sports for five years after several designers left the old HOK Sport to form Populous in 2009. 

Their exits leave Bill Johnson, an HOK senior vice president and design principal working on a major renovation of Talking Stick Resort Arena, as the only principal who came over from 360 in the acquisition.

For Waggoner, the move comes after a 38-year career as a full-time architect across multiple firms, starting in sports with the old Ellerbe Becket, where he worked on renovations at Madison Square Garden and Notre Dame Stadium in the 1990s, among other projects. Stearns worked on the design of food-related spaces at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Hard Rock Stadium in the Miami area and Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, among other venues.

Most recently, Waggoner was involved with upgrades to sports facilities at the University of Missouri and Kansas State University, his alma mater. His expertise gravitated to the college space, where he formed longstanding relationships with athletic directors such as North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham. Waggoner’s ties to Missouri span 25 years working with three athletic directors.

The move did not surprise Waggoner. Three years ago, he stepped down from a senior management role at HOK’s office in Kansas City. In January, Waggoner, 62, discussed with company leaders about the prospect of transitioning to a consulting role. 

The pandemic pushed that move to fruition, he said. 

Chris DeVolder, who replaced Waggoner as HOK’s managing principal in 2017, and Nate Appleman, vice president and director of the firm’s sports practice, went to his house to break the news. In 2011, Waggoner helped bring Appleman to the old 360, now HOK, where he helped further expand the firm’s college work. Both are among Waggoner’s closest colleagues.

“This change, for me, is sort of like the circle of life, the ‘Lion King’ thing,” he said. “You have a career and realize at some point it’s going to sort of change out of your hands. This is really a good thing in a lot of ways. I had no beef whatsoever about what’s transpired for me.”

In the immediate future, Waggoner will help HOK complete the design of a new $50 million south end zone club at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, home of Kansas State football. The club, to be completed for the 2021 season, will also operate for men’s and women’s basketball at Bramlage Coliseum. 

It’s part of a master plan HOK completed in 2018 for all of the Big 12 school’s venues. 

“I made a pledge early on, when (Athletic Director) Gene Taylor called me and heard the news, to work out terms of the project to his liking,” Waggoner said. “My priority is going to be doing whatever he wants me to do to make their project a success.” 

Apart from helping HOK as a consultant, Waggoner plans to share his knowledge with others in the architecture, construction and engineering industries. His two daughters are in the business. Kyle Kennedy, the elder daughter, works for McCownGordon Construction doing local business development. She played soccer at Elon University, where her father helped design Rhodes Stadium, the school’s football facility and where the women’s team played a few matches. Margaret Linder, the younger, is an electrical designer with Henderson Engineers.

“I’m going to put some things together that keep me stimulated and interested,” Waggoner said. “Oddly enough, I’m working on three house renovations in my neighborhood. I can figure it all out at my pace and don’t have to rush into anything.” 

For context during these unprecedented times, Waggoner recalls starting to design Mizzou Arena shortly before 9/11 while he was with CDFM2, a smaller firm. The tragedy set the architects “back on their heels,” he said. They had to step back and think about incorporating new security elements into the facility.

“That was eye opening and in a lot of ways. There’s a comparison with the challenges and opportunities moving forward,” Waggoner said. “For me, it’s going to be exciting to see what happens to the HOK office and the people leading that firm. They still have a lot more years to go, and I wish them all the success.”