FAU ready to make national splash

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, September 08, 2005

BOCA RATON Florida Atlantic's football program is primping for its nationally televised close-up tonight.

ESPN2's cameras are rolling, a major conference opponent is playing, Lee Greenwood is singing and, yes, that's Howard Schnellenberger's bobblehead doll nodding its approval in the background.

It's the Owls vs. Oklahoma State in prime-time exposure at Dolphins Stadium.

"This game allows us to see where we are in the higher echelon of football and gives our fans a chance to see someone of this caliber," Schnellenberger said. "If we can measure up and have a competitive game, it will go a long way in the introduction of our program to the nation."

The nation may see the game as Oklahoma State vs. FAU-Who?, but that's OK with Florida Atlantic officials. As Greenwood croons to the crowd at halftime, a 30-second commercial showcasing the university will air. And, despite the NFL season kicking off with the Raiders-Patriots on ABC at 9 p.m., FAU's 7 o'clock start means there's a two-hour window to grab the football audience.

FAU is hoping for a big audience in the stands, too, perhaps the biggest since the program's inaugural game in 2001, when 25,632 watched the Owls lose to Slippery Rock at Dolphins Stadium.

FAU expects a crowd of 25,000.

"We have quite a bit dedicated to this game," Athletic Director Craig Angelos said. "We think this is the best opportunity we have to sell the most tickets and get the biggest crowd. This is a big event for us."

Getting the Big 12's Cowboys to agree to play in South Florida wasn't easy.

Last year, Angelos contacted OSU Assistant Athletic Director Jason Lewis, who worked with Angelos at Indiana, about setting up a three-year series. The agreement was expected to be a "2-for-1" a common practice of an established program playing an opponent twice at home before ending the series on the road.

But the Owls were short one home game for 2005, so Angelos jokingly asked if the series could start at FAU. OSU, which figured a trip to South Florida could help with recruiting, agreed as long as the game was at Dolphins Stadium instead of the Owls' smaller home field at Lockhart Stadium.

FAU's first season in the Sun Belt Conference also paid off, since the league has a deal with ESPN2.

Mike Tirico, who will do play-by-play tonight, credits Schnellenberger for putting his Owls on ESPN2's schedule.

"I had my eyes on this team after they had a 5-0 start last season and even when they played Colgate in the (2003) I-AA playoffs," Tirico said. "I was intrigued by this game because Howard is here. I don't think we would be doing this game in this time slot if it wasn't for Howard. We knew something was going on here, so I wasn't shocked when I saw this game on our schedule."

Kirk Herbstreit, a member of ESPN's Saturday GameDay crew, is the analyst tonight and he's already familiar with the Owls.

"I didn't know them with the depth I do now, but we have mentioned them on GameDay," Herbstreit said after spending Wednesday at the Tom Oxley Athletic Center. "But coming down has excited me. With the location, the talent of players in the area and the facilities, you can't help but buy into it."

The Owls have appeared on ESPN, but that Division I-AA playoff game against Colgate was a regional telecast. FAU, in its second and final year of the transition process to I-A, is making a major stride by hosting a prominent I-A opponent this quickly.

South Florida started football in 1997 and hosted Pittsburgh in 2004, its fourth I-A season. Central Florida, which started its program in 1979, hosted Purdue in 1999, its third I-A season.

"To get a game like that at home is very difficult to do," said Steve Sloan, who was AD at UCF from 1995 to 2002 and is now at UT-Chattanooga. "Getting a game like that at home validates your program. I don't know much about anything, but I know scheduling and FAU did a tremendous job getting that game."

Greenwood's concert and the Schnellenberger bobbleheads, which will be sold in part to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina, are added enticement for fans.

"We felt we needed to add some things to the game to make it an event," said Dexter LaMont, FAU's Assistant AD for Marketing and Promotions.

The Owls are coming off a season-opening loss at Kansas, but they led the Jayhawks in the second half and built up confidence for a demanding schedule. Tonight they take on another giant, but at home.

"It feels good to play a high-profile team, especially if we can go out there and compete with them or win," senior receiver Thomas Parker said. "This is a powerhouse school a Big 12 team. You can't do any better than that."