TAMPA — When USF officials discuss the on-campus football stadium they want to build near the Bulls’ practice fields, one word keeps coming up: transformational.
Transformational for the football team, which will have a true home for the first time in its 26-year history. For the athletic department, which will benefit from the rise of its most visible program. And for the entire university, which will be buzzing with students and visitors a half-dozen times each fall.
“I have no doubt in my mind,” coach Jeff Scott said, “there’s not another structure that you could build on this campus that will have the transformational effect that an on-campus stadium will.”
That transformation, if it happens, remains at least four years away. The Bulls haven’t finalized a budget (more than $200 million) or capacity (likely between 35,000-40,000), let alone started design or construction.
We can, however, catch glimpses of what its effects might look like.
Since UCF left the Citrus Bowl for the Bounce House in 2007, seven Division I-A schools have made the kind of move USF is pursuing: Akron, Minnesota, Florida Atlantic, Tulane, Baylor, Colorado State and South Alabama collectively spent more than $1 billion to replace off-site venues with new, on-campus stadiums.
Their goals echoed what administrators are outlining now between Fletcher and Fowler. A stronger football program. A clearer identity. Increased engagement. More alumni involvement. And an impact that transcends athletics.
The success differs by category and school. But talk to coaches, administrators, fans and former players of those programs, and you’ll hear a shared belief that a massive athletic investment can have the transformational effect USF envisions.
“It’s a statement,” South Alabama athletic director Joel Erdmann said, “and it’s shifting who we are.”
“Certainly, it will have an impact on our football program and what we’re building here, what Coach Scott is building here…” — board of trustees chair Will Weatherford
South Florida and South Alabama have a lot more in common than a shared direction.
Like USF, South Alabama is relatively young (founded in 1963, seven years after USF) and a former commuter school in a city (Mobile) rather than a college town. The Jaguars began playing football off campus in 2009 (a dozen years after the Bulls) and wanted a centrally-located stadium to keep up in a football-mad Southern state.
“We just really felt that our ceiling was going to be lower until we got it on campus,” Erdmann said.
The Jaguars finally raised that ceiling in 2020 by moving 9 miles west from Ladd-Peebles Stadium to Hancock Whitney Stadium, the 25,450-seat facility they built across the street from Greek row. The results have not yet followed, at South Alabama or elsewhere.
Since opening an on-campus stadium, the seven schools USF hopes to emulate have won 53.4 of their home games. That’s down slightly from the same number of seasons at their old venue (55.1 percent).
Their overall winning percentages were virtually identical, too (.421 at the old stadium, .420 at the new one). Playing off-campus at the old Floyd Casey Stadium didn’t stop Baylor’s rise under Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, just as the new McLane Stadium couldn’t buoy the 1-11 Bears after a sexual assault scandal.
Scott expects USF’s recruiting to rise with a vibrant on-campus stadium, and there’s evidence to support him. Five of the seven schools saw a jump in the 247Sports composite rankings just before or just after moving. Baylor signed its best class (25th) of the modern recruiting era in 2014, the year McLane Stadium opened. South Alabama’s 2022 class cracked the top 100 for the first time in six years.
The effects were short-lived; the average class ranking in the new building (82) is the same as the old one.
Though the impact of a new stadium isn’t obvious on signing day, it has unquestioned benefits, like the ability to host high school games — something all seven new venues have done.
“That’s another recruiting point that you’re getting,” said Florida State running backs coach David Johnson, an assistant during Tulane’s transition from the Superdome to Yulman Stadium. “They’re getting more and more chances to be on your campus.”
Considering how much effort coaches put into convincing prospects to visit, those chances are significant.
So, too, are the day-to-day practical improvements.
Colorado State built meeting rooms, offices, nutrition areas, a player/recruit lounge, hydrotherapy pools and a 9,100-square-foot weight room into its $220 million Canvas Stadium. The Rams gained new administrative spaces and the efficiency that comes with the kind of football operations center USF has been trying to add since the Charlie Strong era in 2017.
Colorado State’s upgrades were a major reason why Jay Norvell became the first head coach ever to leave one Mountain West school (Nevada) for another — a week and a half after his Wolfpack blew out the Rams 52-10.
“This stadium does not need to take a back seat to anybody in football,” Norvell said at his introductory news conference in December.
It’s a similar story at Minnesota. When the Golden Gophers hired P.J. Fleck in 2017, athletic director Mark Coyle called a coaching search “real easy when you can talk about a new football stadium on campus.” Fleck became the first Minnesota coach in more than a century to win at least nine games twice and is still there, despite potential interest from the likes of Florida State and USC.
The athletic impact transcends football. Without FAU Stadium, the Owls would probably not be moving up from Conference USA to join the Bulls in the AAC.
At South Alabama, other sports plan recruiting activities around football weekends in ways they didn’t three years ago. Erdmann expects football’s expanding season-ticket base to carry over to basketball, baseball and softball.
“Hancock Whitney Stadium on campus has helped every sport we have,” Erdmann said. “Period. End of story.”
“It’s kind of like a 26-year-old still living with your mom and dad. It gets the job done, but it’s not yours, right? … It’s time for us to have our own home.” — coach Jeff Scott
When Kevin Bohnsack and his wife, Sue, went to Minnesota games at the Metrodome, the vibe was off for two reasons USF fans will recognize: the cavernous stadium made the environment stale for smaller crowds, and the Gophers always seemed like secondary tenants behind the Vikings and Twins.
“It just never felt like it was a truly home event,” said Bohnsack, a season ticket holder of 20-plus years.
That changed in 2009 when the Gophers moved to what’s now called Huntington Bank Stadium.
The open-air venue offers views of the Minneapolis skyline and an ambiance a dome could never match. The tailgating scene is more vibrant, and every banner, picture and maroon/gold chair makes it clear you’re not there for the Vikings or Twins.
“You know you’re at a University of Minnesota event,” Kevin said.
In a sport beloved for its pageantry and tradition, that identity matters, and it leads to more engagement.
Average attendance at the seven schools increased from 25,552 to 26,567 with the new stadium — even as crowds nationally have fallen in seven consecutive seasons.
South Alabama’s premium seats have a wait list, and its athletic director said student attendance is “the best it’s ever been.” The biggest bump in attendance at Colorado State was among students, who can walk across the street from residence halls instead of finding a ride for the 4-mile trek to Hughes Stadium.
Baylor averaged more than 40,000 fans only seven times in the program’s first 108 seasons. At McLane Stadium, the Bears have topped 41,000 every year but 2020.
The crowds aren’t just bigger. They’re better.
When former Owls defensive back Kris Bartels sees players wave their arms to the stands at FAU Stadium, fans respond. That wasn’t the case in his home games at Lockhart Stadium.
“You’d do the pump-up-the-crowd thing then,” Bartels said, “my mom and dad might yell a little bit louder.”
Minnesota’s livelier atmosphere has spoiled Kevin Bohnsack. Even though the Vikings now play in a billion-dollar palace (U.S. Bank Stadium) that hosted Super Bowl 52, it wouldn’t fit his Gophers.
“If you said they could go back to U.S. Bank Stadium now,” Bohnsack said, “I’d drop my tickets.”
“It’s not just about football. It’s about the entire connection of all of our alumni and all students.” — board of trustees chair Will Weatherford
When USF administrators discuss a new football stadium, they rarely talk about football. Perhaps that approach is catered to winning over skeptics, but the broader vision is justifiable.
Colorado State’s stadium houses its alumni center, academic advisors at the Collaborative for Student Achievement and classrooms open to any professor in any field.
“It really took an area that was kind of a dead zone on campus and made it a busy, active, engaged part of the institution,” athletic director Joe Parker said.
Akron’s InfoCision Stadium is engaged, too. Paul Hammond makes sure of it.
As the Zips’ associate athletics director for facilities and operations, Hammond keeps a notebook with every request to use the stadium. One day in January, he received four: two external (like businesses renting a room for a meeting) and two from campus (like a sorority/fraternity formal).
“I think it was a selling point to the university,” Hammond said. “How many more ways can you use it during the day, during the week, rather than a football game?”
The field can be used for intramural sports and held a Browns fan day and scrimmage in 2014. Club areas can be rented out by the career services department for job interviews.
Non-football events provide a revenue stream — almost $300,000 a year at Colorado State — that helps fund the stadium. But there are other added values, too.
In non-pandemic times, the Rams’ Canvas Stadium can host 300 events a year, from corporate parties to weddings to high school proms. Each one is a chance to connect with the community — an intangible but important goal for any university.
“There’s people that attend events that have never been to a game, but now they’ve experienced campus,” Parker said.
Ideally, those experiences leave a positive, lasting impression. Maybe visitors at McLane Stadium’s country music festival post pictures of Baylor on social media this weekend. Or college football stars who played in the Senior Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium tell their friends back home how much they enjoyed South Alabama.
Or high school students who come to Akron for a marching band competition like campus so much they decide to apply.
“It will allow our alums to come back and see what we’re doing here and get involved with us and invest in us and help us get to those next levels.” — president Rhea Law
Even though Grif Fig worked a mile behind Florida Atlantic’s campus, he never returned to his alma mater. Why would he?
“You wouldn’t just drive through randomly for no reason,” Fig said.
Parker used to hear the same thing at Colorado State from alumni who would attend games at Hughes Stadium but never see the school itself. Canvas Stadium gives them six or seven excuses to visit every fall.
That’s six or seven chances for graduates to see how donations are funding new buildings and to consider making legacy gifts themselves. Within two years of McLane Stadium’s opening, Baylor’s athletic donations increased from $5.8 million to $16.2 million, according to USF’s on-campus stadium feasibility study. Athletic donations at Colorado State went from $1.45 million in 2011 to $16.4 million in 2018.
It’s also six or seven chances to strengthen graduates’ emotional ties to their school. Six or seven chances for parents to point out familiar buildings to their kids (and prospective students). Six or seven chances to reminisce while recognizing how much things have changed.
“I remember tailgating for the first time (at FAU Stadium). ‘Wow, it’s here,’” said Fig, an East Lake High alumnus. “Seeing dorms in the background, classrooms you went to, all that stuff made it pretty special.”
And something he never would have experienced if the Owls were still playing 17 miles away.
“It’s going to be a transformational project, not just for the athletic department but really for the University of South Florida.” — athletic director Michael Kelly
Erdmann doesn’t think South Alabama has seen the full impact of Hancock Whitney Stadium yet. That’s years away, after generations of students with easier access to bustling game days grow into more passionate fans and, eventually, season-ticket holders and boosters.
But Erdmann sees small effects every day — visitors parking to take pictures out front or tour guides showing it off to prospective students.
Colorado State is still waiting for Canvas Stadium to accomplish the president’s goal of adding 5,000 out-of-state students through the increased exposure. Parker said the stadium hasn’t been a “contributing factor” in enrollment yet; the program must first sustain success after four consecutive losing seasons. The number of out-of-state students grew from 10,027 the year the stadium opened to 11,373 last fall.
Florida Atlantic pursued a stadium as part of its campus-wide push to “become recognized as a university of first choice.” It received a record 22,000 applications in 2011, the year FAU Stadium opened, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. This fall, there were more than 32,000. Bartels, the former player and current radio analyst, doesn’t think the spike is a coincidence.
“It just makes the brand that much bigger,” Bartels said. “It’s not just seen as a small university. It’s Florida Atlantic University now.”
USF is still trying to boost its name, too, by becoming a top-25 public university and joining other acclaimed research schools in the Association of American Universities. The administration appears aligned in using an on-campus stadium as part of that push in a way it wasn’t when the Bulls studied the idea in 2017-18, and the $5 million donation announced Wednesday by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, adds to the effort’s legitimacy.
Which means USF could be four or five years away from enjoying the experience Erdmann did this fall when South Alabama held its first reunion. Alumni from dozens of states returned to campus, some for the first time in decades. There were socials, art exhibits, a cooking demonstration and, yes, an on-campus football game involving a Jaguars team off to its first 3-0 start as a I-A program.
When Erdmann talks about that weekend, he glosses over the 20-18 loss to Louisiana Lafayette. Instead, he focuses on the pride he saw in his fellow South Alabama alumni — how four quarters of football gave them a reason to re-engage. How one athletic building pulled people to campus to see the evolution of this one-time commuter school and help them envision its next stages as South Alabama grows around one of its crown jewels: Hancock Whitney Stadium.
“It is something that has been a while coming,” Erdmann said, “but it is making the impact we want it to make.”
One with the potential to become transformational.
Times staff writer Divya Kumar contributed to this report.
InfoCision Stadium, University of Akron
Cost: $61.6 million
Notable: Hosted homecoming celebration when Akron native LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014.
Huntington Bank Stadium, University of Minnesota
Cost: $288.5 million
Notable: Staged a U2 concert in 2011 and a Rolling Stones show in 2015.
FAU Stadium, Florida Atlantic University
Cost: $70 million
Notable: Boca Raton Bowl is played there every December.
McLane Stadium, Baylor University
Cost: $266 million
Notable: Features 18 boat slips for sailgating on the Brazos River.
Yulman Stadium, Tulane University
Cost: $73 million
Notable: Includes the Jill H. and Avram A. Glazer Family Club area thanks to a multimillion-dollar donation from the Bucs co-owner and his wife.
Canvas Stadium, Colorado State University
Cost: $220 million
Notable: Poudre School District holds all of its proms at the stadium.
Hancock Whitney Stadium, University of South Alabama
Cost: $78 million*
Notable: Hosts the Senior Bowl for NFL prospects and the Lending Tree Bowl.
*Jaguars say that number is low because much of the construction was done internally rather than by outside contractors
• • •