Revamped Jack Trice Stadium symbolizes generational change at Iowa State


Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Jack Trice Stadium’s new south end zone nears completion with just over a week before the first game. Iowa State will kick off the season against Northern Iowa on September 5 at 7 p.m. 

Max Dible

This Saturday, Scott Eldridge will embark on a date with déjá vu that’s been four decades in the making.

In the fall of 1975, the then 23-year-old Eldridge bore proud witness as Jack Trice Stadium’s gates swung open for the first time, dawning a new era of ISU football in Ames.

The Cyclones defeated Air Force 17-12 that September afternoon. Now, almost 40 years later to the day, Eldridge will be in attendance for another milestone — the unveiling of the new south end zone club.

Only this Saturday, he’ll have better seats.

Eldridge — a former chief financial officer and chief operations officer at St. Luke’s hospital and now the proprietor of four Square Tire locations in the Sioux City area — will take up his place on the 21-yard line in the northwest corner of the revamped venue, hoping his beloved Cyclones can defeat Northern Iowa and break their two-year losing streak against FCS teams in season openers.

And it’s that brand of loyalty from a man who has been a season ticket holder for most of his life that may puzzle those who stand outside the ISU football culture, peering in from a distance.

Iowa State fell at home to Northern Iowa in 2013 and North Dakota State in 2014, two teams that could go undefeated and still not qualify for a bowl game because they aren’t even a part of college football’s bowl subdivision.

Iowa State, on the other hand, could pool its wins from both of those seasons — 3-9 and 2-10 efforts, respectively — and it still wouldn’t be enough to qualify the Cyclones for a bowl game appearance of their own.

And so the question begged is: What keeps fans like Eldridge, his wife and their four children coming back amid one of the worst runs in ISU football history? They could just as easily watch the Cyclones lose from the comfort of their home and save a fortune on gas in the process.

“A lot of it is now the excitement,” Eldridge said. “I’ve got to give a tremendous amount of credit to (ISU athletic director Jamie) Pollard. I know he can kind of rub the Hawkeyes the wrong way, but us Cyclones don’t really mind that too much.

“He’s a guy who’s doing things.”

Doing things is absolutely right. Actually, it’s an understatement.

Jack Trice’s $50 million south end zone club — and $10 million effort to beautify the area just outside of it — is the capstone project of a 10-year, $160 million face lift to athletic facilities across the ISU campus, all of which has been guided by Pollard’s hand.

Perhaps even more impressive than Pollard accomplishing the enclosing of the south end zone was how he did it.

By procuring the largest cash gift and the second largest donation of any type in Iowa State’s history — $25 million up front from Roy and Bobbi Reiman, which decreased drastically the amount of debt Iowa State needed to incur to complete construction — Pollard has raised the spectacle at minimal cost to the university.

Other gifts to the project total in the $12 to $13 million range and will be paid in portions annually. Iowa State’s multi-media rights company has also pledged $15 million in incremental revenue.

It is money that won’t all flood in at once and doesn’t quite cover the full $60 million cost, which has created the need for Iowa State to borrow. But considering the size of the project, the university’s investment is more than manageable financially, and is one that is already paying for itself.

Pollard said that by Aug. 20, Iowa State had surpassed ticket sales projections for the entire year, and single-game tickets had appeared on the market only a day prior.

“I look at that and say we’re coming off a three-win season and a two-win season. A big part of why we’re selling tickets is this stadium. So I would say it’s already paying for itself,” Pollard explained, adding he was surprised at how quickly the tickets were being snatched up.

“But I should have learned a long time ago not to be surprised by the loyalty of Cyclone fans.”

Pollard is quick and correct to give credit to the legions of donors and supporters who have helped to bring the south end zone enclosure to fruition, but he may also be too modest.

He serves as the lead recruiter for charitable donations to athletics, and the south end zone club was supported by outside pledges to the tune of 80 percent of its total cost.

Not one of the other projects completed during the last decade — which total roughly $100 million in collective costs — has raised more than 40 percent of its price tag by way of fan and alumni support.

And for years before the addition was ever announced, attendance at ISU football games rose even as the win totals plummeted. During the last four seasons, the Cyclones have averaged at least 52,147 fans per game, topping out at 55,361 per game in 2013.

Those four years account for the four highest attendance averages since Jack Trice opened four decades ago. And the cumulative win total in those four seasons? Only 17.

But that hasn’t deterred Eldridge or his roughly 50,000 counterparts.

“The excitement level this year is more intense than I’ve seen in the last few years,” Eldridge said. “I think Jamie Pollard is excellent at what he does. One of the reasons we keep going to football games is that Pollard is really good at keeping the hype up.”

But still, Iowa State hasn’t done much winning. And nothing adds hype to a football team like winning, except for maybe a reliable promise of it in the near future.

In that capacity, the new south end zone may also prove a fruitful endeavor and a powerful tool.

As of Aug. 31, the Cyclones only had five freshman recruits committed to join the team for the 2016 season, per ISU coach Paul Rhoads, now entering his seventh year at the helm, believes the revitalized stadium could go a long way toward changing that.

“The south end zone club is something we’ll certainly use when we get to December and January as far as recruiting,” Rhoads said. “You just walk in there and you don’t have to stage anything to sell it. It sells itself. We’re thrilled to be taking the field in that stadium.”

The stadium’s new look is also about a culture change, something Pollard has been building toward since he first grasped the reins at Iowa State in 2005.

“The culture has drastically changed and it transcends athletics, it’s happened institutionally. We are now the high school choice of the majority of the counties in the state of Iowa,” Pollard said. “Those are demographical changes. I’d argue athletics has contributed significantly to those. We had 22,000 season ticket holders 10 years ago. Now, getting to only 40,000 would seem disappointing.

“The culture around the athletics program has become a lot more robust and more enjoyable and more fun, and it hasn’t been because we’ve won.”

But make no mistake, after revamping not only Jack Trice Stadium but the entire ISU campus from an athletics standpoint, creating a culture of winning is now the focal point of Pollard’s agenda.

The five-year run of success the ISU basketball program sustained under Fred Hoiberg has given Iowa State a taste for victory on a grand stage that Pollard and the rest of the administration aren’t keen on surrendering, to say nothing of the fan base.

Ten years ago, ISU athletics were understaffed, underfunded and lacked competitive facilities. That is no longer the case.

“To me, the vision of the next decade is about winning and championships, because the last decade was about getting our house in order,” Pollard said.

“We have all the parts that we need to be successful. We have moved the needle, we’ve changed where we are … and it’s a generational change happening right before our eyes.”

It’s been 18 years since Iowa State has won a championship in any sport, and a turnaround from the football program’s current state to a national title contender is far fetched, to say the least.

But Pollard, the Reimans and many others have combined to vigorously renew the excitement around the football team and all of ISU sports for Cyclone lifers like Eldridge — a man who makes 15-hour round trips six or seven times a year with his family happily in tow.

Why? Because ISU football is woven into the fabric of their beings.

Whether or not the Cyclones ever do navigate their way to a national title, on any given Saturday you’ll be able to turn your gaze to the northwest corner of the new and improved Jack Trice and spot Eldridge perched on the 21-yard line — enjoying every second of the ride.

And he won’t be the only one.