PISCATAWAY, NJ (AP) — 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.”
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.
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.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.