College football game (yes, football) set for SunTrust Park

A college football game — yes, football — will be played at SunTrust Park next year.

The playing field at the new Braves stadium will be transformed from diamond to gridiron for a Kennesaw State game.

The Owls’ Nov. 17, 2018, game against Jacksonville (Ala.) State will be the first football game at SunTrust Park, Braves and KSU officials announced Friday.

With SunTrust Park and Kennesaw State located in Cobb County, the idea of partnering on an event was a natural, KSU athletic director Vaughn Williams said.

“Back when the Braves first made that announcement that they were coming to Cobb County to build a stadium, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we could play a football game in there?’” Williams said Friday.

Mike Plant, the Braves’ president of development, called the 2018 game “another unique opportunity for SunTrust Park.”

The football field will be set up with one end zone along baseball’s first-base line and the other end zone along the warning track in left field. A seating configuration of about 25,000 is anticipated, with the right-field seats excluded.

Plant said the stadium was designed with the possibility of an occasional football game in mind.

“I remember saying (during design meetings), ‘Look, we need to make sure we can get a football field in here. We’ve got to play football games in here,’” Plant said. “Other world-class baseball venues have done it successfully, and we should do it as well.

“We won’t have to make any modifications other than taking the pitcher’s mound out and home plate out.”

Although SunTrust Park’s agreement with Kennesaw State is for the 2018 game only, Plant said the Braves would like to have at least one college football game annually in the stadium, starting next year.

KSU’s home stadium, Fifth Third Bank Stadium, seats about 9,000, meaning the Owls will have the potential for a much larger crowd at SunTrust Park.

“Who would have thought two years ago that a year from now we would be playing in front of 25,000 fans in Cobb County?” Williams asked.

Williams first brought up the idea of a KSU football game at SunTrust Park to Plant early in the ballpark’s construction.

“Obviously, (Plant) had more important things to worry about then than a 2018 Kennesaw State football game,” Williams said.

But Plant was immediately receptive to the idea, eventually leading to discussions that culminated with Friday’s announcement.

“We knew we wanted to use this facility for more than baseball, including, certainly, concerts,” Plant said.

Decades ago, it was common for stadiums to serve both baseball and football teams. For example, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was home of both the Braves and the Falcons from 1966 until 1992. But these days, an occasional college football game in an MLB stadium is considered a novelty.

Three college-football bowl games will be played in MLB stadiums this year — the Cactus Bowl at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field, the Pinstripe Bowl at New York’s Yankee Stadium and the St. Petersburg Bowl at the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field.

Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon and Jacksonville State coach John Grass were at SunTrust Park for Friday’s announcement.

“I’m like a little kid walking up to this place,” Bohannon said. “And to think we’re going to have a football game out here, it’s awesome.”

Grass grew up a Braves fan and said he wouldn’t have believed it “if you had ever told me when I was a youngster that I’d get to coach in a football game at the Braves stadium.”

Bohannon noted that the Owls will open the 2018 season at the Braves’ former stadium, Turner Field. That game will be against Georgia State, which is converting The Ted into the Panthers’ football stadium.