Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium construction ramps up after football season

29 December 2017

Throughout the fall, the Louisville football team played its 2017 season as cranes towered above the field, slowly continuing the $63 million construction project on Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

That construction is no longer in the background.

As the Cardinals’ season winds down, two more cranes have edged onto the north end zone. The number of workers on site has multiplied. The Messer Construction Company, led by senior project manager Jason Larkin, has begun a two-week process of moving papers, lights and furniture out of the Howard Schnellenberger Complex to gut the interior and rebuild it.

After the Cards left for their bowl game in Jacksonville on Monday, the contractors could start their busiest work. They will clear out the team’s complex, moving the weight room next door to the Trager Center and dispersing offices throughout the rest of the stadium, turn the water and power off and begin “gutting everything,” Larkin said.

The Louisville athletic department and the construction company have a contract to complete the project in the next eight months, before the start of next season. Larkin’s goal is to finish by the beginning of training camp in July.

The builders could not put a crane on the field or perform any substantial construction on the Schnellenberger Complex until the team left Monday.

“I’ve been waiting for them to move out,” Larkin said.

Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra said Dec. 21 that the school is currently in the “low-to-mid $50 million” range for funding committed to the project. Larkin said the construction company has incurred 38 percent of its cost thus far.

Thirteen months into the 21-month project, progress is “on track,” Tyra and Kevin Miller, the head of finances for the athletic department, said. The school is ahead of schedule on obtaining funding for the expansion, which made the department move the finish date ahead one year from the start of the 2019 season.

The remaining concern is an inevitable surprise in the stadium’s construction that could pop up as the contractors work on the project, which Larkin said his team has anticipated.

“The biggest challenges whenever you’re doing that is always going to be what’s above the ceiling, behind the wall, under the floor that the architects and engineers did not know about,” Larkin said. “This thing was built 20 years ago. … That’s the biggest roadblock, finding something that doesn’t fit.”

Those developments notwithstanding, the construction company now has its longest period of uninterrupted work coming up. Larkin said he considers the expansion to be three different projects: the addition to the stadium, the rebuilding of the Schnellenberger Complex and the addition to the Schnellenberger Complex.

Inside the complex, Larkin says the building isn’t adding anything new — “it’s the same stuff they have, just a little bit bigger and (much) nicer.” One therapy pool will become five, the strength room will double in size and the offices will be bigger.

They now have to add the concrete precast, on which the seats will rest. Larkin said he expects the two new scoreboards above the north end zone to be done in late April.

The expansion moves Louisville from a tie for ninth to sixth place in the 14-team ACC in stadium capacity, jumping NC State, Virginia and North Carolina. The Cards have kept up in the never-ending college football arms race, and it may have played a role in the program signing perhaps its best recruiting class ever last week.

“We’re already getting a return on our investment,” Tyra said. “I think it was evident yesterday, signing day. … That full package, without getting into names of specific recruits that signed yesterday, I’ve spent lunch with those parents and they talk about the full package. This is something that they not only compare, but that they feel exceeds some of the things they’ve seen against competitive schools, whether in the ACC or SEC.”

When football season returns in September, the program must provide a reason to fill those seats. Louisville’s home attendance average dropped 14.6 percent to 46,160 this season, the lowest it has been since Bobby Petrino returned as head coach. The Cards drew just 34,265 for a November win against Syracuse, and a torrential downpour diminished that crowd by the end of the game.

But Louisville has exceeded the stadium capacity at least once in each of the past four years, and the focus in the expansion is on premium seating — the suites situated at the field level and the club seating above those.

“Those are $10 tickets in the flight deck; I think we’re thinking about people who are interested and they want to attend the game and they’re willing to pay not $10 but $50 and sit in the end zone,” Tyra said. “We’ve got more availability of those seats now than we’ve had in the past.”

In assessing expansion options, Tyra said he thinks two wrongs don’t make a right.

“I think you do have to move forward and give fans the experience,” he said. “We had the space and the opportunity to close in the stadium. You don’t sit there and go, ‘Geez, we have empty seats up in the flight deck, let’s not build this cool experience for our fans.’”

Another adage the athletic director used was a chicken-and-egg scenario: “It’s one of those things where, do you get the players before you get the expansion, or do you do the expansion and then get the players? I guess right now, we’re fortunate to be having both.”