Commencement 2014: Getting Cox Stadium set up for showtime

At 9 a.m. sharp on May 12, a crane rolled off North State Drive and planted itself in front of the scoreboard at Cox Stadium. A worker on a platform rigged the crane’s hook to some of the framing for the shot-put cage, and watched it get pulled up from the track. With that, preparations for SF State’s 113th Commencement were officially under way.

 SF State's Chris Bennett uses drawings of Cox Stadium to plan Commencement construction.

SF State's Chris Bennett uses drawings of Cox Stadium to plan all the Commencement work.

The production schedule for the University’s most special celebration is planned out day by day, and sometimes hour by hour, right up through the arrival of graduates and guests. Adding a layer of complexity is the fact that this year there will be two ceremonies -- one for graduate students on Friday, May 23, and another for undergraduates on Saturday, May 24. “Everything’s set back a day,” according to Chris Bennett, SF State’s assistant director of facilities, who is supervising the Commencement work. “Little things like signage, we’ve got to change them for Saturday.” Read about Commencement speakers, schedules and more at

Among the challenges are having enough places to sit. Crews will be putting down roughly 18,000 chairs for attendees, and it’s not easy to secure that many matching chairs in the Bay Area, Bennett said. Setting up a stage on Cox’s track isn’t a walk in the park either. A floating floor has to be laid down first -- made up of 1,400 sheets of plywood.

How does Bennett know exactly how many chairs he’ll need on the field? It’s an orchestrated balancing act, he explained. He takes into account historical attendance, and watches in real time how many people are renting gowns. The weather, of course, is a factor as well. As students march into Cox, Bennett positions crew members above the stadium. “They’ll tell me there’s 300 people left to come,” he said as an example. “Hopefully I can gauge it from that. At that last minute, I have people to take down chairs” if there are too many. There also are some extra seats in staging areas if he suddenly has to add more.

SF State’s 113th Commencement stage is assembled and then carpeted.

The stage at Cox is assembled and then carpeted.

Heading into the final week, the stage has been assembled and carpeted. The audio towers are next to go up, along with a giant video screen. (This will be the first Commencement in HD, according to event staff.) Then there are portable toilets to be placed around the stadium -- 51 in all. A new concern, given the two events this year, is litter. Even though there will be receptacles for trash and recycling, “there’s going to be garbage on the field” Friday that will need to be removed for the next day’s Commencement. “We’ll be OK,” Bennett said.

The work isn’t over once graduates get their diplomas. It takes about a week to take down the Commencement set and get Cox back to normal. (The crane has to be brought back to replace the shot-put cage.) Summer also is when Facilities teams take on campus projects that might otherwise be disruptive, including roofing.

For the time being, the affable Bennett, who has overseen the setup for Commencement for the past several years as part of decades of experience in construction, is focused on bringing the campus community together: “Once the last person sits down, we’re good to go.”

-- Anthony Lazarus


More Commencement info:

·      Prepare for the ceremony by watching this Commencement FAQ video:

·      President Leslie E. Wong talks about Commencement:

·      Learn more about the purple caps and gowns that make SF State graduates stand out at

·      See how to stay stress-free during finals at

·      Find a gift with a Gator connection for your graduate at