TAMPA — The lights went down in the Sun Dome on Monday night, the starting lineups were announced for the USF men's basketball team, and even in an exhibition, Sarah Greenberg felt an excitement in the building she didn't remember two years ago before the arena's $35 million renovation.
"Completely different vibe," said Greenberg, who got to the game 90 minutes early to sit directly behind the baseline. "Everyone was really excited. I've been counting down the days to basketball season."
In one sense, the Sun Dome has been back since spring graduation in May. But for basketball, its grand re-opening is today, as the Bulls' men's and women's teams open their seasons against UCF and Stetson, respectively. After spending last season playing "home" games downtown during the renovation, the Bulls — and their fans — are thrilled to be back home.
"It's really nice to be back on campus and to not have to drive 30 minutes to watch our team play," said Greenberg, a St. Petersburg High graduate.
More than 1,300 students requested tickets for tonight, and coach Stan Heath is excited about a strong student section as part of the arena's identity. Another 5,000-plus tickets have been distributed, so while it won't likely be a sellout, attendance should be much higher than the 3,689 for USF's last Sun Dome opener in 2010, or the 4,627 for UCF's last visit.
"We certainly want to fill this building up, and we've got to start this season the right way, so it's important to protect home," Heath said. "It's unbelievably nice to have a home you feel a lot of pride in. They did a phenomenal job, (athletic director) Doug Woolard, our president (Judy Genshaft), the trustees, to give us this opportunity to play in a building like this."
The arena has a new center-hung scoreboard, seating all around its lower bowl, loge areas and a full concourse with concessions, something the building didn't have in its first 30 years.
"I think it's fantastic. Nicely remodeled. Clean and sparkling. A great arena," said Ed Tokarz, an alumnus from Tampa who at age 61 is a first-time season-ticket holder, sold on the Bulls' NCAA Tournament success and on ticket packages of less than $100 each.
Another highlight of the renovation is an open club area on one side of the lower level, which offers new dining options and lets fans socialize while watching the game. Morris Rendahl, "Mo" to friends, moved to Temple Terrace and has been coming to USF games since 1982, nearly as long as the Sun Dome has existed. He likes the changes he has seen.
"Love it. Love it all," Rendahl, 69, said at halftime of Monday's exhibition. "I like the cushioned seats. I like this room up here (in the club). We're all friends. We can come up here and congregate and you don't have to do it in the aisle. It's really nice."
Rendahl remembers the following USF basketball had during NCAA Tournament runs in 1990 and '92, and he sees fan support for the modern Bulls, on a larger platform like the Big East, taking off much the same way.
"When we used to be here, when Bobby (Paschal) was the coach, all those great players, there used to 6,000 to 8,000 fans here. It was so much fun you can't believe it," he said. "The students are going to make it fun this year. That whole section, if they get a little more action to them, it's really going to light this building up."