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New Stadium Was Only the Start of Building FAU Football Program

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Copyright 2013 The Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Palm Beach Post (Florida)
October 16, 2013 Wednesday
FINAL EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 1C
758 words
Program remains under construction;
Stadium is nice, but fans and victories are missing.
Dave George
BOCA RATON

Stand alongside Pat Chun in the athletic director's sixth-floor suite at FAU Stadium, with a band of blue Atlantic Ocean painted across the horizon, and life is good.

I mean, what exactly is this guy managing here, a college sports program or a trendy South Florida resort?

Before long, though, Chun is hustling into the elevator for the trip back down to ground level. These are images from Saturday, a game day featuring the Owls and the Thundering Herd of Marshall University, and at times like these ground level is where the work of building an attractive and financially feasible FAU football program is still being done.

"In some ways, you could call this the biggest game in this stadium's history," Chun said as a children's chorus from Spanish River Christian School marched onto the field to sing the national anthem.

"We're a growing football program. We've got to get over the hump sooner or later. Here we are at home against a very good opponent. If you can do it here, you might be able to get over that hump."

By now you probably know that the Owls didn't cross any important thresholds Saturday night, losing instead on a Marshall field goal that cleared the bar as time expired. Or maybe you don't know. It's not part of the social fabric of Palm Beach County for everyone to plan weekends around FAU games, or to live and die with the results, as demonstrated by the Owls' season-ticket base of 3,500.

That's undoubtedly one of the reasons the kids from Spanish River Christian were invited to participate, because that meant their parents and grandparents would be there to take pictures, and there's always a chance that folks will have so much fun that they buy tickets for future games.

"We're borrowing from minor league baseball promotions to get more families in here," said Chun, whose game-day menu includes face-painting and balloon animals for grade-schoolers prior to kickoff and then limbo contests and the like for FAU students during timeouts.

The stadium alone isn't getting it done. Built at a cost of $70 million and opened in 2011, it was the dream of Howard Schnellenberger, who won a national championship at Miami in 1983 and made the delivery of an on-campus facility at FAU the last grand project of his coaching career. It's a brilliant showpiece, with a capacity of 30,000. Now if there were only enough people around here who cared to visit.

Attendance for the Marshall game was announced as 19,760, which included about 2,500 students attending for free. That's the second-biggest crowd in stadium history and still it was closer to half a house than it was to a sellout. The Owls are 2-5 under coach Carl Pelini, which doesn't help, just like last year's 3-8 finish didn't. Playing in Conference USA, with a list of opponents whose fans don't travel particularly well to away games, isn't much of a boost, either.

In the grand scheme of things, Marshall, with about 1,000 tickets bought Saturday, actually was a major plus as a visiting team.

"Our foundation was never really set correctly at FAU," said Chun, who is in his 15th month on the job after more than a decade on Ohio State's powerful athletic administration team. "We've got to get a bigger academic center. We've got to get a bigger weight room. This stadium is kind of the icing on the cake. Those other things, they're the cake."

We could debate the proper order of ingredients, but it's pretty tough to argue the value of an on-campus stadium when the University of Miami, winner of five national championships, does not have one. The Hurricanes are scheduled to play a game at FAU Stadium in 2015, as a matter of fact. That never would have happened at Fort Lauderdale's Lockhart Stadium, the Owls' former home.

More good news came last week with the official announcement of the Boca Raton Bowl, a new college postseason game to be played in December 2014 at FAU Stadium and contested by teams from the MAC, the American Athletic Conference and Conference USA.

"That bowl game is going to sell out," said Chun, who spent halftime shaking hands and greeting dozens of donors by their first names in the crowded President's Suite.

Meanwhile, three November home games are left on the Owls' schedule, with Tulane, New Mexico State and FIU due in. Even if one of those dates turns out to be the biggest game in FAU Stadium history, it can be no more than a beginning.

Once more the magic word around here is potential, not stadium, and it stings to have to lean on it so completely and so often.

dgeorge@pbpost.com

next game

FAU at Auburn, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26

October 17, 2013

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