What is it that makes a great college football stadium?
Is it simply atmosphere?
Is it a small, but loud, classic venue?
A large state-of-the art facility?
A rowdy on-campus environment?
In the BIG EAST, the answer is ‘all of the above.’
From the ancient Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati to the state-of-the art NFL venues in Tampa and Pittsburgh to beautiful on-campus sites, BIG EAST teams take the field in stadiums that are as diverse as the teams that play in them.
In fact, thanks to recent renovations and expansions, the average home attendance at BIG EAST stadiums in 2010 was 45,053 which is the highest average since 2003.
Nippert Stadium, at least in rudimentary form, has been Cincinnati’s primary home site since 1902, which makes it the fifth oldest stadium in college football. The venerable stadium has gone through its share of renovations and upgrades but maintains the cozy charm of a classic facility.
The charm of Nippert stems, in part, from its location in the heart of Cincinnati’s campus. Countless students and faculty members pass through the stadium on a daily basis and that familiarity and intimacy make for cozy surroundings for the Bearcats and an intimidating presence for their opponents.
Connecticut opened the first Football Bowl Subdivision stadium of the 21stcentury when the Huskies moved into Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., in 2003. Rentschler’s modern design – there’s not a bad seat among the 40,000 in the stadium – allows for an on-campus feel in a stadium that’s centrally located in the Nutmeg State.
Though it’s the newest of the BIG EAST’s football stadiums, Rentschler Field has its share of history attached to it. The facility is built on a former airfield of the same name that began operations in 1931. Today, fans head to their parking spaces by driving down the former runways, though the facility does not allow for visiting teams’ charter flights to follow suit.
Pittsburgh and USF share stadiums with their NFL counterparts in Pittsburgh and Tampa. The Panthers play in Heinz Field, which opened in 2001 as a joint venture with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Sports & Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Located on the banks of the Ohio River, Heinz Field provides the Panthers with a significant home field advantage, thanks in part to a cool wind that comes from the river, one of the largest seating capacities of a BIG EAST stadium (65,050) and a natural grass playing surface that endures the pounding of NCAA and NFL games on a weekly basis through the season.
The Bulls share Raymond James Stadium – a building that has hosted two Super Bowls – with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. USF, however, holds the distinction of having played the best-attended non-Super Bowl game in the stadium’s history when 67,018 saw the Bulls’ matchup against West Virginia in 2007.
Raymond James Stadium, aside from being the only BIG EAST facility with a 43-ton replica of a pirate ship in its bounds, was actually once legally declared a condominium as part of a property tax dispute. Nowadays, the site is home to an ever-growing number of Bulls fans sporting green and gold body paint, making night games against BIG EAST opponents must-see events in Tampa.
West Virginia, Rutgers and Louisville all boast on-campus stadiums that have received recent upgrades and expansions.
West Virginia’s Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, which opened in 1980, is the BIG EAST’s largest on-campus facility with a seating capacity of 60,000. Between 2007 and 2008, new seats, turf and video boards were added to the venue.
The Mountaineers’ fan base is among the most passionate in college football, and that is nowhere more evident than a Saturday in Morgantown, when it seems the entire state turns out for the gameday experience. John Denver christened the facility by singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” there in 1980 and it’s still thrilling to hear that song played in Morgantown today following a Mountaineer win.
Rutgers’ High Point Solutions Stadium opened in 1994 and has twice undergone expansions to bring its current capacity to 52,454. The facility was originally constructed as a horseshoe design, with an open end adjacent to the south end zone, but the stadium is now fully enclosed after the last round of renovations prior to the 2009 season.
The expansion of High Point Solutions Stadium has been in proportion with the level of excitement surrounding the Scarlet Knights. A signature image from BIG EAST history comes from the 2006 season, when a then-record crowd stormed the field following the Scarlet Knights’ win against then-No. 3 Louisville on an ESPN Thursday-night game. A new generation of Rutgers fans were hooked and the Scarlet Knights have since rewritten their attendance record several times over.
Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville opened in 1998 and finished an expansion project in 2010 that added 13,000 seats, bringing the current capacity to 55,000 – all in chairback seats. In fact, the school boasts that it is the only university owned and operated stadium in America with no bleachers.
The added seats make an already strong home field advantage even stronger. Louisville is 61-21 all-time in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, including a string of 20 straight home wins from 2004-07. Only two teams from outside the BIG EAST have won on Louisville’s home field since 2003. The stadium is built on the site of the old South Louisville Rail Yard, inspiring the familiar train whistle that sounds when the Cardinals score.
Syracuse holds the unique distinction of playing its home football and basketball games in the same venue – the Carrier Dome, which has served as the Orange’s home since 1980. The facility is the largest domed stadium on a college campus with a football capacity of 49,262.
The Dome earned its nickname of “The Loud House” from the start and the volume is the first thing one notices when visiting a football game there. The spectators are closer to the playing field than in any other BIG EAST venue, which, coupled with unusual sightlines, makes things difficult on visiting teams. Ironically, despite being named for an HVAC company, the Carrier Dome is not air-conditioned, which can also disrupt the visitors’ comfort level if they’re not prepared – particularly early in the season before the winter chill moves in.
So no matter where you watch a BIG EAST football game next year, you are sure to experience a home-field advantage and a great college football environment. It’ll just be different from one venue to the next.