116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
AMES - There's no ambiguity to the biggest welcome sign in southern Ames.
The stretched 'Iowa State University” outside the south end zone of Jack Trice Stadium allows Cyclones fans to clench their lips and nod their heads. A wind tunnel no longer greets visitors like a welcome mat.
Bowling in ISU's south end zone was often-discussed yet seemingly unreachable. Athletics Director Jamie Pollard heard it when he walked in the door 10 years ago. Attendance labored in the lower-to-middle 40,000 range, and with 10,000 empty seats a game, it made no sense to expand. So in piecemeal ISU officials improved the stadium's main concourses in 2008 and 2009 with $31 million in luxury seating and fan amenities.
That was part of a vision articulated by Pollard early in his tenure.
'All those things I think have led to a connection that has gotten people on board with what we're trying to do,” Pollard said. 'I told them, ‘If you support us, I can't guarantee that we'll win, but I guarantee that we'll have a fighting chance.”
Like a staircase on Pollard's mission to take ISU athletics from good to great, every step marched the Cyclones closer toward bowling in the south end zone. But there were two critical components toward taking that final step. One was attendance. Only three years before Pollard's 2005 arrival did the Cyclones average more than 50,000 fans a game, and that was from 1980-82. The last four seasons alone averaged more than 52,000, including 55,000-plus in 2012 and 2013. Iowa State has enjoyed 27 consecutive crowds above 50,000 people, something almost unfathomable before Pollard's arrival.
The other was a lead gift. That came less than two years ago when the athletics department secured a $25 million donation from Roy and Bobbi Reiman, who have a plaza named for them outside the stadium. That enabled Pollard to turn the south end zone vision into a touchdown reality.
'That's the largest in the history of the athletics program and one of the largest cash gifts ever to the institution,” Pollard said. 'It was a monumental, game-changing, transformational gift.”
The $60 million, 40,000-square foot Sukup South End Zone club was completed in late August. It features two levels of premium seating and club space. The indoor capacity is 3,000 and includes 46 televisions, a massive first-floor video wall, premium concessions, a kitchen and two full-service bars.
The upper level overlooks both the playing field and the tailgating scene. A massive bin-shaped bar offer both brand appeal - the Sukups are the largest family-owned grain bin manufacturer - and fan amenities. The circular bar presented challenges for the architects but Pollard insisted, saying 'this is the concept we need to have up here.”
The project elevated Jack Trice Stadium's capacity to 61,500, third largest in the Big 12. Last weekend - for the first time - an Iowa State football game out-drew one at Kinnick Stadium. The Cyclones' 31-7 win against Northern Iowa was the 18th most-attended college football game last weekend.
ISU Coach Paul Rhoads didn't notice the south end zone during warm-ups, but eventually it caught his eye.
'When we came down right before kickoff, I got a chance to peer over the inflatable tunnel to look at it and see it because obviously it wasn't full when we left for pregame warm-ups,” Rhoads said. 'It's just a lot of fun to see this project come to fruition and see that kind of crowd and the fans, the administration, the players, it's a great night for Iowa State football.”
Kentucky was the only team with a losing 2014 record to exceed ISU's home attendance. While the Wildcats were 5-7 a year ago, Iowa State was 2-10 and lost every Big 12 game. In fact, ISU was 5-19 the last two seasons. While many fan bases scatter with losses, ISU fans hunker down in their support.
'They've been loyal like no other fans that I'd know,” said ISU wide receiver Allen Lazard, a second-generation Cyclone football player. 'Especially after last year, 2-10. It was a hard year for us, a hard year for them. To come out the first game of the year and have a record-setting crowd, that says something amazing about them.”
When he first arrived in Ames, Pollard tapped into the fan base's dormant pride. Some considered his moves abrasive, but for the Cyclones it worked. Pollard has connected with both the high-level donor crowd and average fans. Jack Trice Stadium staged popular movies like 'Frozen,” and the school's annual caravan shifted from golf events to fan fests.
'He's made it more fun to be at the games,” said Iowa City's Bob Carlson, who has held season tickets for 40 years. 'The old summer outings used to be mostly adults listening to the coaches, and now they're really more family events. They get the families involved, and I think it really helped grow the number of people there.
'Jamie said early on he was going to throw a lot of stuff at the wall, and most of what he's thrown at the wall has been excellent.”
Perhaps Pollard's best card was a hands-off approach to tailgating. Stadium lots open at 7 a.m., whether the game kicks off at 11 a.m. or 7 p.m.
'Tailgating is a big part of the fabric of Iowa State fans,” Pollard said. 'We embrace that. The university has embraced it. We don't have a military state around the stadium. We expect people to conduct themselves properly, like they are from the Midwest. Are they perfect? No. But for the most part they did a pretty good job of it and that allows us to be a little more free with our policies.”
Those connections, from allowing fans an all-day tailgating experience to an extra bathroom in the concourse has grown Iowa State from a chin-down afterthought in its conference and state to a rising star in both circles. While on-field success is fleeting, the energy is palpable.
'Ten years ago we were underfunded, understaffed and under-facilitied, if that's a word,” Pollard said. 'But we're no longer any of those. Our budget is perfectly fine. Our staffing is great, and we've got $160 million in new or improved facilities. So now we need to do something that captures people's imagination competitively, to help us get on the national stage so that people know the story outside of Iowa.”
The south end zone project is a major chapter in telling ISU's story. The rest of the book takes place on the playing field.
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