Florida Atlantic University's football team will kick off the 2011 season in Boca Raton for the first time in program history. The 30,000-seat, $60 million stadium, at the west end of the campus, is under construction at a rapid pace.
After playing at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale for the first and last 10 years of the program's history, the move to bring the stadium onto campus is important for the program's ability to recruit and compete at the division 1-A level. Though costly, constructions of the stadium and nearby Innovation Village have created an undeniable "buzz" around campus.
"The growth of this university, including the stadium and Innovation Village, will be good exposure for the program. The more recognition we can receive as an institution through athletics, the stronger our alumni will become. This will lead to bigger donations and a better school, as well," FAU junior Sebastian Monsalve said.
The Owls hope that building an on-campus stadium will give the program a new, competitive advantage to help recruit players against the likes of the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida, both of whom FAU has been chasing since the team's startup in 2000.
The firms of HKS (Harwood K. Smith) and Schenkel Shultz developed plans for an open-ended outdoor stadium. With a stated "between the palms" stadium theme, the corners of the east end zone will be open, with palm trees running from outside of the stadium to the inside.
"We built in a lot of South Florida features with tropical plantings, open end zones and palm groves planted in the stadium, so people will see palm trees right as they come in," FAU Vice President for Facilities Tom Donaudy said.
With the two-time bowl champion football program being only 10 years old, there has been little time for tradition to set a foundation However, FAU hopes an on-campus stadium will make the campus feel more traditional.
"The new campus stadium will bring a life to FAU. With the design of the stadium and the location of this school, the university should be able to build tradition quickly," Monsalve said.
However, if FAU cannot repay stadium loans in planned fashion, it will be a major blow to the school financially. The stadium is projected to make roughly $7 million next year with an expected increase each season following.
"I think the campus and community are both excited about the construction of the stadium. It's simple. I we win at home, people will want to come watch," FAU football player Jimmy Collie said.
Winning has not come easy lately for the Owls. After winning the Sun Belt Conference title and New Orleans Bowl in 2007 (including wins over Big 10 opponent Minnesota and Conference USA opponent Memphis), the Owls have consistently disappointed.
Although the 2008 season brought a Motor City Bowl birth and victory, FAU finished tied for third in conference play with a 7-6 record. The 2009 season brought an extremely underachieving and disappointing 5-7 record with a team virtually returning everyone from the prior season.
Last year's 4-8 record and sixth place finish in conference was FAU's worst season since 2005.
"We cannot afford to underachieve. We need to get back to playing and winning as a team, taking care of business one game at a time and never looking back," FAU football player Brentley Harstad said.
Head coach Howard Schnellenberger says he is very much aware of the changes that need to occur heading into the stadium's inaugural season.
"We are going to have to work very hard in this off-season to develop the things we didn't this [past] off-season. It's a situation that is going to require an all-out effort by every player, coach, equipment manager, strength coach and everyone else to improve," Schnellenberger said.
The push for an on-campus stadium had been on for years. However, newly appointed FAU President Mary Jane Saunders sealed the deal in October.
"I think it's absolutely important that we give our students the overall college experience, and part of that experience is intercollegiate athletics," Saunders said.
"It's going to be special. Years from now, I'll be able to tell my friends I was one of the first players to play in FAU's stadium," senior FAU football player Kevin Cyrille said.
"It's going to be exciting. The first game in that stadium that we have been waiting on forever and ever? There's definitely going to be some emotions high in there," FAU football player Xavier Stinson added.