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

time.

”I took a lot of criticism, like ‘what’s this idiot doing?”’

Jurich said.

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

56,000.

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

Downs.

”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

game.

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

the gate.

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

conference.

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

games.

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

concerns.

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

college football.

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.”