Business booming in resurgent Big East
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich heard the rumblings four
years ago when he led the push to expand Cardinal Stadium.
Even though the program was in the midst of a record-breaking
season in which it eventually won the Big East title and the Orange
Bowl, Jurich knew some wondered if there really was a need to spend
millions upgrading a stadium that was less than a decade old at the
”I took a lot of criticism, like ‘what’s this idiot doing?”’
Construction continued even as the program and the economy
faltered. When Louisville and new coach Charlie Strong take the
field against Kentucky on Saturday in the Governor’s Cup, the
Cardinals will do it in front of a sellout crowd of over
The facelift includes 33 new luxury suites, over 1,700 club
seats, an upper deck with 13,000 chairback seats and a south
terrace that provides a view of the twin spires at nearby Churchill
”It’s a big-time looking stadium right now,” Jurich said.
”This puts us in an elite group.”
To keep up in the Big East these days, it’s part of the
Five years after the conference was left on life support after
Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College bolted for the Atlantic
Coast Conference, the Big East is thriving both on the field and at
Rutgers finished a $100 million renovation of its football
complex last year. Cincinnati, fresh off back-to-back conference
championships, is mulling changes to rowdy but tiny Nippert
Stadium. South Florida and Pittsburgh are roommates with NFL teams.
West Virginia has made a major push to modernize Milan Puskar
Stadium, and it also happens to be one of the toughest places in
the country to play.
”Since the reorganization, I think every school without
exception has made a commitment to improving all facilities,” said
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. ”It’s paramount for the continued
growth of our league.”
And interest is growing.
Average attendance in the Big East last year was higher than it
was before Boston College split following the 2004 season. The
current lineup averaged 44,804 fans a game in 2009, compared to
37,805 in 2004. Those numbers are skewed a bit by Temple, which
averaged just over 16,000 fans during it’s final year in the
Still, attendance at four of the five holdover schools –
Pittsburgh, Rutgers, West Virginia and Syracuse – was higher in
2009 than in 2004, while Connecticut’s average attendance dropped
by less than 1,000.
Why the uptick in a conference prematurely pronounced dead a few
times? Winning helps.
Schiano has revitalized Rutgers. West Virginia has won a pair of
BCS bowls. South Florida has beaten the likes of Florida State to
carve out a niche in the football-heavy Sunshine State.
Though Big East teams don’t play in the sprawling palaces that
can be found in places like the Southeastern Conference, that’s not
necessarily a bad thing.
Fewer seats mean fewer tickets, and buzz can build when a
program gets hot. Cincinnati’s startling run under former coach
Brian Kelly turned the Bearcats into more than a mere afterthought
in a city dominated by the NFL’s Bengals and baseball’s Reds.
Interest has grown so high the Bearcats will play Oklahoma in
Paul Brown Stadium on Sept. 25, which has nearly double the
capacity of 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium.
”They’ve all been very smart in terms of the size of their
stadiums,” said Big East associate commissioner of football Nick
Carparelli. ”I think their stadiums have been built to a size
where there’s a demand and a great atmosphere but also built to be
expanded as their programs grow.”
It worked at Rutgers, which expanded to 52,454 seats after
Schiano led the longtime conference doormat to respectability. The
Scarlet Knights averaged over 49,000 fans while going 9-4 last
year, nearly 20,000 more than in 2004 when they won just four
Schiano said the renovation not only helps recruiting, but gives
the program a heft. When he took the job a decade ago, the stadium
had ”that sleepy little college look.”
Not anymore. The stadium renovation included adding 1,000 club
level seats, a massive scoreboard and a 7,656-square-foot football
recruiting lounge and welcome center.
”Now it feels like a real place,” he said.
It’s exactly what Jurich is hoping for at Louisville. Though the
original expansion called for capacity to rise from 42,000 to
around 60,000, that number was modestly trimmed over budget
Jurich didn’t skimp, however, on amenities. He fell in love with
the idea of a terrace connecting the east and west sides of the
stadium after visiting Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, and was
adamant that chairback seats be used in the upper deck, a rarity in
Though attendance fell sharply in the last three years at the
program slipped, Jurich didn’t second-guess himself.
”I never looked back once,” he said. ”I didn’t build it for
this year or next year, I built it for the next 50 years.”
Despite three straight non-winning seasons under Steve
Kragthorpe, the fan base has been revitalized by Strong’s hiring.
The school plans to sell around 44,000 season tickets, and Jurich’s
optimism that Louisville’s best days are in front of it is shared
by the conference as a whole.
”We can compete with anybody in the country,” Carparelli said.
”I’m not into saying we’re better than this conference or that
conference, but the goal is for people to say the Big East belongs
and they can compete with the best. I think they see it on the
football field and in terms of our facilities.”