When the University of Utah decided late last month to expedite the construction of the Ken Garff Performance Zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium by more than three months, it did so with the understanding that football games may still be played this winter or spring and if, so, adjustments would be necessary.
The Pac-12 postponed its fall football season Aug. 11, meaning the plan at that time was that Rice-Eccles would not see any use until at least the winter of 2021. Two weeks later, Sandy-based Layton Construction began demolishing the Spence Clark Football Center in the south end zone. The 38-year-old structure housed, among other things, the home and visiting locker rooms.
On Thursday, the Pac-12 reversed course and announced that it would play a seven-game regular-season beginning the first weekend in November. Utah will host three games and now needs to find a locker room, or at least some sort of structure for the teams to spend pregame, halftime and postgame.
“(Utah deputy athletic director for internal operations) Kyle Brennan and his incredible team on the internal side of the organization have had a plan in place to be able to manage football operations with our team and with our visitors,” Utes athletic director Mark Harlan said on a Zoom call with reporters on Friday. “Now that it’s real, they’ll start operationalizing everything. It will certainly be different.”
Harlan did not elaborate, nor did a Utah athletic department spokesman when asked later, but there is one option that would appear to make sense.
Outside the northwest entrance to Rice-Eccles, across South Campus Drive, sits Nielsen Fieldhouse. The home of Utes basketball from 1939-68, Nielsen was used as a fitness and recreation center up until 2015, but is now in use for academic purposes.
The building may not have traditional locker rooms, but nothing is going to be traditional about this season. At a minimum, Nielsen is thought to be large enough to house everyone that would have normally used the Spence Clark Football Center.
Logistically, at least one thing sticks out about using Nielsen Fieldhouse. Harlan, unprompted, said Friday that Utah “might have to ask for extended halftime because we might have to walk a little but further.” In the case of Nielsen, that would be a must because getting to the building would require leaving the stadium and crossing South Campus Drive to get there. College football halftimes are traditionally 20 minutes.
As far as getting both teams safely across South Campus Drive a handful of times, there is a pedestrian walkway on the north side of Rice-Eccles that will spit them out into a parking lot shared by Nielsen Fieldhouse, Pioneer Memorial Theater and the S.J. Quinney College of Law. It is a short walk from the lot to the fieldhouse.
“We’re going to create the best-possible environment for our students, officials and everybody else, but I have no worries at all that we’ll be able to accomplish that,” Harlan said.
Even before the decision to speed up demolition and construction, Harlan said multiple times in recent months that the Ken Garff Performance Zone was on, if not slightly ahead of schedule and will be ready in time for the 2021 home opener, slated for Sept. 2 vs. Weber State.
Once completed, Rice-Eccles will go from a capacity of 45,807 to 51,444, giving Utah the seventh-largest football stadium in the Pac-12. Harlan indicated in August that seats in the new structure were almost sold out.
Utah has sold out 64 consecutive home games dating back to the 2010 opener vs. the University of Pittsburgh. Before the Pac-12 decision to not allow fans this fall, Utah boasted a 94% season-ticket renewal rate, backstopped by a robust waiting list of about 3,000.