July 20, 2011

Campus stadiums key for FAU, UNT

For most of the decade Florida Atlantic has fielded a team, coach Howard Schnellenberger avoided taking recruits on officials visits to the Owls' stadium.

Actually, he usually avoided a complete tour of FAU athletic facilities at all costs, mainly because the Owls didn't have their own stadium. First, they shared a stadium with the Miami Dolphins, a cavernous facility for FAU's young program. Then they shared Fort Lauderdale's Lockhart Stadium -- about 25 miles from the campus in Boca Raton -- with local high school teams.

Schnellenberger was used to that kind of "subterfuge." The coach steered recruits from visiting during the season when he was the coach at Miami in the 1980s and the Hurricanes played at the Orange Bowl. And when he was at Louisville, back when the Cardinals played at a minor-league baseball stadium on the state fairgrounds, he wanted recruits to visit in December and January.

"We didn't do it. We discouraged it," Schnellenberger says. "When you don't have your stadium on campus, it's not productive to have kids come in on official visits when you're playing off-campus."

That's not the case at FAU anymore, which shows that the facilities race is ongoing even in tough economic times and not just at upper-echelon programs. The biggest facility facelifts in Florida and Texas in 2011 aren't at the flagship programs in those states. Instead, stadiums are opening at FAU and North Texas.

North Texas will move from Fouts Field, the Mean Green's home since 1951, to a 30,850-seat facility at an athletic village on campus, and FAU is moving out of Lockhart Stadium and into its 30,000-seat stadium. The two Sun Belt programs spent nearly $150 million combined to move into new facilities.

FAU's move to an on-campus home means the Sun Belt and the Big Ten are the only conferences with all of their football teams playing on campus. The Big Ten couldn't claim that until Minnesota moved out of the Metrodome and into the $288.5-million TCF Bank Stadium in 2009.

it's time to drive to the stadium
Nineteen FBS programs will play the bulk of their home games off-campus in 2011. Here's the list of teams and the distance their fans need to drive from campus to see a football game. Asterisks mean the school shares the field with an NFL team.
SchoolStadiumFrom campus
BaylorFloyd Casey Stadium3 miles
California#AT&T Park12 miles
Colorado StateHughes Stadium2 miles
ConnecticutRentschler Field20 miles
HawaiiAloha Stadium11 miles
MemphisLiberty Bowl3 miles
MiamiSun Life Stadium*21 miles
NC StateCarter Finley Stadium4 miles
PittsburghHeinz Field* 4 miles
San Diego StateQualcomm Stadium*6 miles
South CarolinaWilliams Brice Stadium2 miles
TempleLincoln Financial Field*8 miles
TulaneSuperdome*4 miles
UABLegion Field3 miles
UCLARose Bowl28 miles
UNLVBoyd Stadium1 mile
USCMemorial Coliseum1 mile
USFRaymond James Stadium*12 miles
Wake ForestBB&T Field4 miles
NOTE: #-Applies to 2011 only, shared with San Francisco Giants
"There's no reason to play on the college level if you're not playing on campus," Schnellenberger says. "I've found that to be true at Miami, Louisville and now here. The idea of the game of football is to be a product of the university. It's a symbol of oneness of university. Everybody just gets great pride in football once it gets on campus."

North Texas has been on campus for 60 years, but the move into a new facility was a decade overdue, first-year coach Dan McCarney says.

"This is a place that's going to be special for some time to come, but there had to be a statement made," he says. "There had to be a commitment to excellence."

Since he was let go as coach at Iowa State in 2006, McCarney has seen two sides of stadium existence. As an assistant at USF, the Bulls played off-campus, at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. The green and gold Bulls were in the awkward position of playing in a stadium with red seats designed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

From there, McCarney went to Florida, which was fresh off a stadium expansion that meant 88,000-plus seats.

"It is a front porch to the university," McCarney says. "It accentuates [fans'] loyalties to a university and hopefully gives them a reason to come back and want to energize the campus and support a good football program."

Despite the benefits, the price tag associated with new facilities can be hefty.

FAU scaled back its original project, which called for a 40,000-seat dome. After meeting with UCF officials, who opened a new campus stadium in 2007, FAU decided to follow the model of its in-state brethren to build a smaller stadium with room to expand later. The Owls also elected to build with steel rather than concrete.

As with the new stadiums at North Texas and UCF, FAU's facility is the centerpiece of a larger picture. Establishing an "Innovation Village" -- which will include the stadium, parking, retail and dormitories -- allowed FAU to pursue funding from the private and public sectors.

Along with funds from donors, FAU took out a $45 million loan to pay for the facility. The Owls also will continue to play "guarantee" games on the road against Big Six opponents to bolster income. This season, FAU opens with three road games -- Florida, Michigan State and Auburn -- that will be good for the athletic department coffers, if not the ego.

FAU athletic director Craig Angelos also hopes his new facility will be used for non-FAU events, including international soccer. He's also planning for an increase in gate receipts with more attractive home-and-home matchups. FAU played host to USF at Lockhart and Minnesota and Oklahoma State at the Dolphins' stadium, and Sun Belt archrival Florida International, with a smaller campus stadium in Miami, played host to Rutgers last season.

"We'll have no problem getting home-and-home games because we are in south Florida," Angelos says. "They all recruit down here and they all have top prospects down here, and they'll want to bring them home for recruiting."

Schnellenberger, 77, is hoping the new stadium could convince more recruits to stay at FAU rather than leave the state for other conferences.

Schnellenberger never has been afraid to think big, and he has lofty goals for the program he built from scratch. He says an on-campus stadium is the key to unlocking that potential.

new homes
Seven FBS programs have built new stadiums since 2000. Here is each one and how much it cost.
SchoolStadium (first season/capacity)Cost
SMUGerald J. Ford Stadium (2000/32,000) $42 million
ConnecticutRentschler Field (2003/40,000)$91.2 million
UCFBright House Networks Stadium (2007/45,000)$60 million
AkronInfoCision Stadium (2009/27,881)$61.6 million
MinnesotaTCF Bank Stadium (2009/50,805)$288.5 million
Florida AtlanticFAU Stadium (2011/30,000)$70 million
North TexasMean Green Stadium (2011/30,850)$78 million
NOTE: Not included are Pittsburgh and Temple, which moved to new facilities they share with NFL teams.
"It's going to allow us to compete with Notre Dame and Penn State when we get to be established enough," Schnellenberger says. "The stadium has been the missing piece. We've recruited as well as we can recruit from our high school stadium."

FAU brass is thinking big, too. Fans in the upper deck will be able to see the ocean, and the entire facility will be surrounded by palm trees, prompting Angelos to say FAU will play "between the palms," much like Georgia plays "between the hedges."

Angelos won't go as far as Schnellenberger, but he says the stadium is the next step in FAU evolving from a Boca Raton commuter school to a first-choice university.

"The stadium is kind of the lead dog to lead the way to newer heights," Angelos says. "It's a game-changer on so many levels."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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