Andrei Ojeda, Stadium Journey

USC ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN?

Trojans trending toward the top of college football again but not in every area going forward. Can USC succeed by going against history -- and the numbers?

Pretty exciting times for college football these days -- especially for the programs at the top.

In its annual survey of the country's "passion" for college football released Wednesday, the National Football Foundation reports that seven programs averaged more than 100,000 attendance for home games. Remember for how long the "100,000 Club" was Michigan and no one else.

Now the Wolverines are still at the head of the class, averaging 110,468 at home. But they have plenty of company from the likes of Ohio State (107,728), Texas A&M (101,917), Alabama (101,821), LSU (101,231), Tennessee (100,968) and Penn State (100,257). Amazing stuff. Kind of a Magnificent Seven for college football.

But the big numbers news doesn't end there. Texas averaged 97,881 with a less-than-mediocre team, Georgia drew 92,746, Nebraska 90,200 to round out the Top 10. And five more averaged more than 80,000 to give us an easy guide to college football's Top 15 self-identified programs by their fans with Florida at 87,846, Auburn (86,937), Oklahoma (86,857), Clemson (80,970) and Notre Dame (80,795).

Among the missing: Your slow-starting USC Trojans. USC averaged its lowest home attendance in more than a decade, down to 68,459 for a not very exciting schedule that was a good bit below 2015 when it averaged 75,358.

But there is one ray of sunshine. By season's end, a USC team on a roll managed to play before back-to-back more-than-capacity crowds of 95,128 in and at the Rose Bowl.

Why is that number important, especially the Rose Bowl game itself against Penn State? Because that game was by far the most-attended postseason game of the year. And it happened here in Southern California. By a team in a conference -- the Pac-12 -- where the average home attendance is a mere 50.073, exactly 27,473 below the SEC's average home crowd -- 77,507.

Now if that last number sounds familiar, maybe it should. Here's a quote from former USC AD Pat Haden on the website of the DLR Group, the architectural firm responsible for the design of the renovated Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: “This needed renovation to a stadium built in 1923 will ensure that the game-day experience gives all fans options to enjoy the stadium’s new amenities while recognizing the loyalty of our long-time fans. It also will provide our football team with a first-class facility and a home field advantage.”

Then comes this explainer: "The improvements to the stadium seating and aisles will reduce seating capacity from 93,607 to approximately 77,500." 

Say what?

First of all, that's not close to the real explanation as to why the capacity of the Coliseum will drop from 93,607 to 77,500. They're taking out the 9,500 best sideline seats and replacing them with 2,200 private box and club seats. Those 7,300 missing seats would allow USC to widen the aisles, replace the seats and expand the rows and still accommodate a respectable 84,800.

Do that and the Coliseum drops from the No. 9 stadium capacity in the country to No. 12 or so. Not bad. Sure, it's not as good as what UCLA and the Rose Bowl accomplished when they spent $170 million to re-do the Pasadena stadium without losing a single seat. But it would be a heck of a lot better than the precipitous drop that will take out 17 percent of the Coliseum's seats.

And do so when 13 teams -- all mentioned above -- drew more that a million fans, home and away, led by Alabama's 1,365,567 in 15 games. And while it's not very likely that any Pac-12 team, even USC in a great year, will ever join that group, USC doesn't have to work against itself by purposely downsizing.   

So while all those programs that USC fans have traditionally expected their Trojans to compete with and beat as they mostly  have -- Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Texas this year and next, Notre Dame (every year), Nebraska and Auburn to name some on the list, are expanding their reach, USC is contracting? Really?

Is that the route to the top of the college football heap -- to pass all the others on the way down? When USC football is on the way up on the field?

After averaging 95,128 the last two games here last season, USC really could average 90,000 in 2017 with a Heisman favorite at quarterback, Sam Darnold, and an attractive home schedule with Stanford, Texas, Utah and UCLA for starters. No more cratered opponents like Cal and Oregon last fall.

That sort of attendance could give the lie to the sentiment of the lead architect for the $270 million Coliseum project, USC alum Andrea Cohen Gehring, Class of '86, who echoed the downsizing rationale at a Marshall School Real Estate Alumni Group get-together last May when she said:  "You only need the 93,000 seats for two games -- UCLA and Notre Dame."

And maybe the Rose Bowl only needs those 95,000 seats when USC shows up. Do you think they'll get rid of them? And to be accurate here, in the last six seasons, USC has also needed all 93,607 seats for Stanford and Oregon as well as Notre Dame and UCLA. And for 14 of USC's home games in that time, there were more than 77,500 fans in the stands.

Gehring clearly loves USC football. "This will be my most special project in 26 years [working with USC]," she said. "Once you drink the [Fight On} Kool-aid, it just gets bigger and bigger -- how important the Coliseum was, is and will be to the alumni. It brings everyone together."

Unfortunately the Coliseum won't be getting "bigger" if the NFL-oriented thinking of the project's backers prevail with construction/destruction at the Coliseum scheduled to start in December. And it won't be able to "bring everyone together" when they remove 16,107 seats. There won't be seats for all of them in USC's game of "musical chairs" for its fans. 

For DLR principal Don Barnum, who has worked on Heritage Hall and the Marx Tennis Center for USC, "this is a career project for me, one of the most iconic sports stadiums in the world." And DLR has worked on college projects for the likes of LSU and Texas where they've come up with a far different answer from the one at USC. Neither of those, nor any of the others mentioned above, tore out any seats, especially not the best ones, nor lowered the stadium capacity.

"We think we've struck a balance," Barnum said, "for the fans, for the revenue opportunity for USC and for history . . . for the next 90 years."

That balance includes a gigantic tower that will have box-holders 65-feet closer to the field than media have been in the press box after it's plopped down right at Row 44, requiring the removal of all those prime seats and long-loyal season ticket-holders.

Barnum said the thinking for that is that if they located boxes on a second deck or at the rim of the stadium at the same level as the press box, USC fans wouldn't pay the big bucks if they had to watch the game from the same distance away as the media do. Although they do just that everywhere else in the nation.

"Could we have done it that way?" Barnum repeated a question we asked him about not doing so much damage to the Coliseum . "Yes." They just decided not to. There are other interests here, other "stakeholders," we're told.

Which is why we looked back at the original story in the LA Times describing the new-look Coliseum where AD Haden had this quote: "Our fans, our donors, our teams deserve a little better venue," Pat said simply. 

But there was someone who loved the new look of the Coliseum. From stakeholder Linda Dishman, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who had real praise for USC’s plans. “This is a much better design in terms of preserving the historical significance," she said, keeping the Coliseum on a four-stadium national list with Harvard, Yale and the Rose Bowl.

The problem is, while USC and the Coliseum stay on the list that warms the hearts of the history folks, the Trojans fall farther off the lists of top college football programs and their stadiums. At least they can still draw big at the Rose Bowl.

So here's our wish. As a former history teacher who cares as much about great historic sporting venues and about all that gives them a special place in our hearts as anyone could, I'll say this Coliseum plan does not do that.

And never will. This plan is pretty much the antithesis of all that Clay Helton & Co. are trying to do.

We ask much of our coaches and players. We should ask just as much of the people who call the shots for the Coliseum. If it's a matter of more funding despite having gotten commitments for 22 of the $10 million Founders Suites and nearly half of the club seats and boxes, then former AD Haden has another couple of months until his final retirement date of June 30, 2017 as the principal fundraiser for the Coliseum renovation.

Why not build on the momentum Pres. Max Nikias has built up over the last six years with the successful $6 billion fundaising campaign for USC, the largest at the time in the history of U.S. higher education, that's been extended for another three years and $3 billion? Or why not find a naming rights sponsor for the Coliseum field to help underwrite additional costs? And then make the call to get this right, even if it requires another year to make it happen.

Look, the Coliseum will soon be a century old. No need to rush into an ill-advised plan to rework the face of one of the most iconic sporting places in the history of the world.

If for no other reason than to honor those courageous folks who had the gumption and foresight to build a 100,000-seat stadium in a Southern California community of no more than half-a-million people back in 1923.

They got it right then.

We owe it to them to get it right now.

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


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