When fans arrive at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 16 for Louisville's first home game of the 2017 season, the venue will look unmistakably different than the place they walked out of last November.
Immediately following the end of UofL's 2016 home season, work began on a $63 million project that will fully enclose the stadium and make it a true bowl. The upgrade will add 10,000 seats to the facility, and will also introduce field level suites and additional club level suites.
The stadium expansion was originally set to be completed by the start of the 2019 season, but an overwhelming amount of fundraising support has allowed UofL to bump that projected finish date by an entire year. Before last football season had even wrapped up, UofL's "Coming Full Circle" campaign had raised about $47 million in donations and sold all 12 of the field level suites and premium boxes in the new end zone structure.
"The incredible amount of support we received right out of the gate for this project allowed us to bump the timeline up by a full year," said UofL senior associate athletic director Mark Jurich. "Everything is on time and under budget right now. The new goal has been to have this thing all done and ready by the start of the season in 2018. We're still on that timeline and we don't expect to have any issues moving forward."
As far as the present is concerned, fans who have cruised down Floyd Street at any point this summer have been able to see the changes firsthand.
Within the stadium, three of the five concrete towers that are being erected have already been topped out, and the other two will follow suit before the 2017 season begins. In the coming weeks, structural steel and pre-cast concrete will begin to connect all of the towers together to give the "new" Papa John's Cardinal Stadium its new skeleton.
In addition to the work being done to the stadium, UofL is also giving a facelift to the Howard Schnellenberger Complex. The building, which includes an indoor practice facility, weight room and the meeting rooms and offices for the Cardinal coaching staff, has existed behind the north end zone since the opening of PJCS. Once the project is complete, the team's weight room and conditioning center will double in size, creating a total of 20,000 square feet of work space for Louisville football to operate within.
A project this massive doesn't come without its fair share of headaches. For example, Petrino and his staff will be forced to relocate from their offices until the new Schnellenberger Complex is completed. Additionally, fans whose pregame and postgame activities typically take place around the north end of the stadium may be forced to deal with a bit more clutter this season than they have in years past.
"Like we shared with coach Petrino, as with anything else, there are going to be some growing pains here," Jurich said. "Luckily there aren't many fans who tailgate in that north end zone area. Fans in the platinum lots or the green lots or the bronze lots won't be affected at all. It's definitely going to be more of a nuisance to the players and coaches than the fans."
In the end, it's a temporary nuisance that everyone associated with the upgrade believes will be more than made up for by the finished project. That finished project will come at a time when the hype and excitement surrounding Louisville football figure to be near an all-time high.
"The appetite for football around Louisville, especially with the rise of the ACC, has never been greater," Jurich said. "We've had a waiting list for season tickets for three or four years now. You put those things together and it was clear that this was the right time to expand.
"With everything we do, we want to provide our student athletes with the best facilities possible so that they can compete for championships. We want all of our facilities to exceed our original expectations when they're finished, and I think this one is going to do just that. It's going to completely transform our stadium and elevate it to a whole different level."
A version of this column runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune