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Coliseum renovation: USC's renewed effort

USC is working hard, and smart, in getting out the word on how the Coliseum renovation plan is not only the right way to go, it's the way USC must go to stay competitive financially going forward in the world of big-time college football.

We maybe won't always agree here on every point of the USC Coliseum Renovation plan. That's no secret.

The final design of the new luxury suites building and the 77,500 ultimate capacity would not have been our choice. We've made that clear here.

But this is the decision. The budget is $270 million for the three-year rebuilding plan. And if this goes as USC plans and hopes, the commitments will fully finance that. The plan is locked-in, says Steve Lopes, USC Senior Associate AD and COO. It's not going to change.

"That is correct, right?" we asked Lopes Tuesday. "Yes," Lopes said. This is it. No changes.  

Which is why the smart, determined way a USC team is going about the process of putting this all together, of giving the wonderfully historic building that the Coliseum is a secure future for a second century, is pretty impressive.

LA needs this as does USC and anyone who cares about sports in America.

"The Coliseum is in the DNA of LA," says Chris Pennington, a Trojan family member whose cutting-edge Penwal Industries company in Rancho Cucamonga has been a major force in making the Coliseum Renovation Preview Center a reality right next to the Peristyle in the completely re-purposed and reborn old first-aid building.

Since its April 14 opening, this site has been where a USC team headed by Associate AD Scott Jacobson and Chris Terwoord, manager of the Legends company's operation specializing in projects like this, has become the hub of a three-year quest to get the job done.

The first step was to meet with top 200 lifetime Trojan athletic donors by appointment to show them the possibilities for a changed experience viewing USC football in what will be the 2,200 seats in the new Scholarship Tower that will replace 9,500 seats from Row 42 -- exactly ground level -- up to the top of the Coliseum between the 10-yard lines. It's pretty sweet.

No question this can work for people able to put up the $500,000 capital improvement investment over five years while maintaining their $30,000 to $50,000 annual scholarship commitment for the 24 Founders' Suites with seating for 24 or the 16 suites with seating for 16. There will be 24 loge boxes with seating for four each and another 1,062 padded theater-type club seats requiring a $25,000 capital donation for four years.

The first impression, thanks to Pennington's Penwal group -- their motto is "We build cool things" -- is pretty instructive. Penwal does this kind of thing regularly for its top customer, Disney, with projects like the Grand Californian Hotel. But there's also the Airbus 380 1/3 scale display they somehow fit in at London's Heathrow Airport or the lights at LAX or the 250 exhibits they've built for the Smithsonian. They also did the entrance to the USC beach volleyball venue and USC's Marks Tennis Center, the new LAFC soccer club headquarters and the Clippers facility.

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And now they're helping USC with an in-kind donation of insight and expertise that involved, for just one part of it, 17,000 hours to build a scale model of the new Coliseum that required seven men to carry into the center here. The 93-year life of the Coliseum is on display in historic photos, from the first USC game against Pomona, the Dodgers and Rams and Raiders in the NFL and MLB, a Papal Mass and a pair of Olympics to the political heavyweights who visited here -- FDR, JFK, Nelson Mandela and Ronald Reagan.

"This is a cool, cool place," Pennington says of the Coliseum, especially for a member of the Trojan family enlisted to help it move forward. His wife, Debra, and both daughters are, or soon will be, USC alums. Daughter Carley, a former USC soccer goalie and her sister, Paige, an LMU goalie, are both in the Marshall School MBA program while working for their dad, who started at the age of 12 with his dad as Penwal's second employee.

Getting this sort of help is the kind of smart work USC has done here. But getting the word out is what USC is doing now. Lopes says things are going well. USC has commitments for all four levels of the Scholarship Tower as it works its way through the Top 200 donors group.

"We have one chance to get this right," Lopes says of a Coliseum where "we haven't really done anything in the last 20 years," as a graphic is projected of USC's place at the bottom of the Pac-12 list of stadium improvement projects that show the hundreds of millions spent by the likes of UCLA, Arizona State, Washington and Cal.

There have been naming sponsors stepping up -- for the Lou Galen Family and the Bashor Family lounges. The lounges will have the possibility, as they do at a place like Green Bay's Lambeau Field, of hosting events all year long. Capacity for football is 1,600 in the Galen Lounge which will open three hours before games with more than 2,000 on non-game days.

But if you come to the Preview Center, you'll find out this isn't all about the Scholarship Tower as cool as the Ballena Technologies 3D experience that can give you the virtual reality of what it will be like viewing from your seat.

You can sit in an old Coliseum seat with the narrower width and move to a new wider seat with a deeper tread that most seats will get. You'll learn that the new aisles -- cutting down the number of seats between aisles from 36 to 18 and the number of people you might have to climb over to get out of your seat from 17 to eight.

But what about the net loss 7,300 seats in the area set to become the Scholarship Tower? What happens to those folks? They're next, say Lopes and Jacobson. The process is proceeding from the first 200 to a total of 550 or more on the original customer list. "Next summer," Lopes says of the goal to have this first phase sold out.

Then it's on to the list of 5,500 USC season ticket-holding members of the Trojan Athletic Fund who donate anywhere from $200 to $30,000 and average some four tickets apiece. They'll all get a chance to sit down and go over their opportunities for the 2019 season and beyond. And yes, there will be some re-seating.

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"Two-thirds of the seats will not require a donation," Lopes says of that next phase, taking into account the thoughts of the 7,700 respondents to the USC survey of more than a year ago. "We're going to give people choices . . . We have to get through this first and we have three years to make this happen."

But of that third, "we're asking our fans to pay for bringing the Coliseum up to date for the next 100 years," Lopes says. "There's no public money here. This will be financed by the Athletic Department and self-sufficient going forward."

The improvements will make a big difference for everyone, Lopes said. They may have to move a bit, but there will be improvements for everyone. You can keep up with everything going on here at www.coliseumrenovation.com.

"We're commited to communicate" with the ticket holders, Jacobson says. "They're going to get that call."

The plan is for the work to be done in two offseasons starting after the 2017 season with construction going through the 2018 season and ready for the 2019 season. But even when it's finished, there will be signs of the Coliseum inside the new building, with seats and aisles left in place almost as design elements. The tunnels will still be there, shortened from 125 feet to maybe 20 feet, emptying on to an open concourse overlooking the field.

Left in place for now will be the Sun Deck as well as the Field Suites, AKA "the Stables," as we like to call them that have proven to be a popular item. Could that change in the future? It could, Lopes says. So could the 77,500 capacity.

Whlle no one at USC seems to agree on the significance of the 80,000 capacity as a cutoff for big-time college football stadiums, looking more to the NFL model where 77,500 is a big number, they're not discounting room for overflow for big games. AT&T Stadium, for example, with a seating capacity of 80,000, has had as many as an additional 25,000 in standing room areas. USC has plenty of territory in the corners and under the Peristyle. We'd suggest they find a way to list the new Coliseum with at least an 80,000 capacity. 

The ugly, Peristyle-blocking Audi Suites will be gone, as will the smaller video boards on what will be a pristine Peristyle when this is all finished. That alone makes it worthwhile to get this done.

But like it or not, love it or hate it, this has to happen now for USC to get fully back in the game and for the Coliseum to survive as a unique USC-centric national historic treasure. While being on a list with Harvard and Yale -- and UCLA's Rose Bowl -- for national historic stadiums isn't something USC needs, or probably should even care about, a rebuilt Coliseum is.

And while we would have made different choices, the choice has been made. USC is getting on with it. As should all the rest of us although never giving up the chance to influence the process as it goes forward.

"That's why we gave ourselves three years to do it," Lopes says.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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