Owls long for on-campus stadium

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, September 13, 2007

BOCA RATON Florida Atlantic officials boarded a bus Tuesday to visit another state school whose football program's success they hope the Owls can emulate.

They weren't headed to Gainesville or Tallahassee.


The bus stopped in Orlando, where the Owls toured Central Florida's new stadium.

Yes, even UCF is now comfortably ahead of the Owls when it comes to infrastructure and facilities - key elements of attracting players and fans to football programs.

"Anytime you start something from scratch you are going to be behind your competition," FAU Athletic Director Craig Angelos said. "We are behind, but I think we can catch up quickly."

UCF, which started its football program in 1979 and moved to Division I-A in 1996, will christen Bright House Network Stadium on Saturday in front of a packed house of 45,301 in a nationally televised game against Texas.

The stadium - which cost $55 million - or something like it, is something FAU officials would like to see on their own campus.

"Something like that would fit in very nicely here," Angelos said. "... It doesn't have excesses, but has the suites, club seats; the locker rooms are nice. It's not like a pro stadium, but with the price tag it looks like something people in Boca would be proud of."

And UCF isn't the only program FAU could take pointers from.

South Florida, which started its program just four years before FAU played its first game in 2001, is coming off a victory at No. 17 Auburn and just announced it has sold 41,000 tickets - virtually the entire lower bowl of Raymond James Stadium (home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) - for its game this month against West Virginia.

Even FIU, which started its football program a year after the Owls' first game, has began construction on an 18,000-seat stadium, scheduled to be open by next season.

Meanwhile, without an on-campus stadium, FAU is hosting perhaps the most-recognizable opponent in program history when Minnesota visits Saturday.

The game will be played at Dolphin Stadium, 35 miles from FAU's campus.

The Owls-Gophers game likely won't draw a large crowd - Angelos expects about 18,000. Because the stadium holds 75,625, it will appear even smaller.

In 2005 FAU played Oklahoma State at Dolphin Stadium, and several sections on the OSU side had only a few fans in them.

Even players notice the home-field disadvantage.

"I really don't like playing there," running back Charles Pierre said. "The stadium is so big the crowd always looks so small."

The lack of an on-campus facility has stymied growth of FAU's fan base and has hurt the Owls' recruiting.

"There's no doubt we need that stadium on campus to continue the rate of development we've been taking," FAU recruiting coordinator Kurt Van Valkenburgh said.

UCF coach George O'Leary already has seen the benefit of an on-campus stadium.

"(It) changed the whole dynamics of the campus," O'Leary said. "There was really no reason for the alums to come back to campus (before)."

Next week, FAU's Board of Trustees will hear proposals for an on-campus stadium that could seat about 30,000 and could give its go-ahead to the project, which could cost about $2 million.

FAU Board Chairman Norman Tripp said he's not feeling pressure to complete the project but wants to get it done for the benefit of the university.

"The university trustees have made a commitment to athletics and to trying to change the tenor of the campus from a commuter-type campus to a full-time campus, and this is another step in that," Tripp said.

If approved next week, the stadium could be completed by 2010. And that's not a moment too soon for FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger, who toured UCF's stadium Tuesday.

"On campus is where college football is meant to be played," Schnellenberger said.