Business booming in resurgent Big East

LOUISVILLE, KY. (AP) - Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich heard the rumblings four years ago when he led the push to expand Cardinal Stadium.

Even though the program was in the midst of a record-breaking season in which it eventually won the Big East title and the Orange Bowl, Jurich knew some wondered if there really was a need to spend millions upgrading a stadium that was less than a decade old at the time.

“I took a lot of criticism, like ‘what’s this idiot doing?’” Jurich said.

Construction continued even as the program and the economy faltered. When Louisville and new coach Charlie Strong take the field against Kentucky on Saturday in the Governor’s Cup, the Cardinals will do it in front of a sellout crowd of over 56,000.

The facelift includes 33 new luxury suites, over 1,700 club seats, an upper deck with 13,000 chairback seats and a south terrace that provides a view of the twin spires at nearby Churchill Downs.

“It’s a big-time looking stadium right now,” Jurich said. “This puts us in an elite group.”

To keep up in the Big East these days, it’s part of the game.

Five years after the conference was left on life support after Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East is thriving both on the field and at the gate.

Rutgers finished a $100 million renovation of its football complex last year. Cincinnati, fresh off back-to-back conference championships, is mulling changes to rowdy but tiny Nippert Stadium. South Florida and Pittsburgh are roommates with NFL teams. West Virginia has made a major push to modernize Milan Puskar Stadium, and it also happens to be one of the toughest places in the country to play.

“Since the reorganization, I think every school without exception has made a commitment to improving all facilities,” said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. “It’s paramount for the continued growth of our league.”

And interest is growing.

Average attendance in the Big East last year was higher than it was before Boston College split following the 2004 season. The current lineup averaged 44,804 fans a game in 2009, compared to 37,805 in 2004. Those numbers are skewed a bit by Temple, which averaged just over 16,000 fans during it’s final year in the conference.

Still, attendance at four of the five holdover schools _ Pittsburgh, Rutgers, West Virginia and Syracuse _ was higher in 2009 than in 2004, while Connecticut’s average attendance dropped by less than 1,000.

Why the uptick in a conference prematurely pronounced dead a few times? Winning helps.

Schiano has revitalized Rutgers. West Virginia has won a pair of BCS bowls. South Florida has beaten the likes of Florida State to carve out a niche in the football-heavy Sunshine State.

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