Photo | Mike Kittrell
It’s a year later than anticipated, a year later than planned and expected, but Hancock Whitney Stadium, South Alabama’s new on-campus football stadium, will open its gates with every seat available for filling next season.
South Alabama Director of Athletics Dr. Joel Erdmann announced last week the Jaguars’ home stadium will allow 100 percent capacity for the upcoming 2021 season.
After a year in which only 25 percent capacity (6,000 fans) was allowed for home games due to COVID-19 protocols, fans will now be invited to fill each of the 25,000 seats available. And nothing would please Erdmann and university officials more than to see sellouts become the norm for Jaguar home games.
“It’s something that we’ve been burning for for over a year,” Erdmann said. “I think not only our team, our student-athletes, our coaches, our administrative staff, our campus, the campus community, but I think everybody is hungry for it. This is a step that was delayed for a year and we managed it, and I think, humbly speaking, we managed it well. But to have the ability to allow people to socialize, to be together in a festive and fun atmosphere at a great setting, I think that’s going to capture everybody’s excitement and enthusiasm.”
South Alabama opens the 2021 season at Hancock Whitney Stadium against Southern Miss in a 7 p.m. game. It not only will mark the first home game of the season for the Jags, but also the first game in which new head coach Kane Wommack and his staff will direct the South Alabama team.
That adds to the overall excitement of it being his first game as a head coach, Wommack said.
“I think knowing it’s the first game of our era here and time here as a program, to be able to do it for the first time ever with a full capacity stadium is something that I’m just thrilled and honored to really be able to participate in,” Wommack said. “And to know that dream that I’ve had to run out onto that stadium and know that we’re going to do it with a full crowd and the electricity in the air and the environment and let everybody know that our best days are ahead of us as a program and we’re going to create some awesome memories on that football field and in front of a full-capacity stadium is really exciting.”
While the stadium officially opened last season and fans celebrated the fact the team now has a home of its own, having moved its games from Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Erdmann said this season will feel much more like the true opening of the stadium based on having the possibility of a full house.
“The reason Hancock Whitney Stadium is here is to host a football game, but its deeper and potentially more meaningful purpose is to bring people to campus to see the campus, enjoy the campus and have fun for a full game day,” he said. “Depending upon the circumstances, it can potentially begin the day before and carry through the day after. This is what is so great about college football — it’s an event and it’s a socially driven day or collection of days where friends get together, alumni get together, students get together, to enjoy the game of football, but also to enjoy fellowship and fun.
“I can’t wait. I wish Labor Day Weekend was this weekend. We’re ready to go and we’ve been ready to go. The way that things are playing out, the ability to have really what you could consider a legitimate home opener in Hancock Whitney Stadium, the first one, against Southern Miss at home in a night game at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night, I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. The stars are aligning, I guess you could say, in a very positive way that we’re going to have a great day. I think people are ready to see it and ready to experience it.”
Wommack said that’s certainly the case for his players and staff.
“That’s the one thing that is most exciting,” he said. “We were limited in our capacity a year ago and so now we’re really able, on Sept. 4, to have a grand opening for Hancock Whitney Stadium. The energy of our team and the momentum that we’ve carried through the spring and the summertime has just lifted everyone with a boost to know that they are going to play in front of an electric crowd.
“It’s something that our players can be excited about and yet at the same time be intimidating for our opponents to play against. The tailgating, the atmosphere, this is the first time that South Alabama gets to celebrate football on their campus — pre-game, postgame, all of those things. With the tailgating, I think it’s one of those things that it’s exciting to be on the front end of building those traditions and that environment.”
Deciding to allow full capacity for the upcoming season was not a decision that was made quickly or without discussion and evaluation, Erdmann said. While it was expected — many other colleges have announced they will play before full stadiums next season — it was a decision the university felt comfortable making, Erdmann noted.
“It’s not something that’s taken lightly,” he said. “This is a continuation of a unique national health occurrence. We have maintained guidance from medical experts over the past 14 months and this is just another step as we navigate through COVID. This was driven by a group of medical professionals with input from the campus community and by monitoring local, regional and national trends. We can do this in a safe and prudent manner.”
While it was difficult to negotiate the COVID waters of last season, Erdmann said there were also lessons learned that can be applied going forward.
“There are very good things that we have learned over the past 14 months or so,” he said. “As basic and simple as really paying attention to our cleaning protocols at our venues, and potentially [having] a higher degree of cashless sales — purchases in and around the stadium are increasingly cashless. And then a potential benefit of the 25 percent capacity [during the 2020 season], which was kind of a soft opening, was to make sure that our traffic patterns, our parking, our gates of entry and our points of sales for concessions and catering were appropriately functioning for a smaller crowd. And they did; they performed really well.
“There were some things that we tweaked and we will be tweaking a little bit from a traffic aspect; we’ll be closing down a street or two in certain areas to enhance pedestrian flow and take away any vehicular traffic that’s mixing in with walking. We’ve learned that and we will implement that this coming year. Our concessions and our catering, I was very pleased with how they functioned and now, in a proportionate way, we have to replicate what we did last year by increasing staffing and increasing inventory. Instead of serving 6,000 fans, we’ll be serving 25,000 fans.”
Which, of course, makes Erdmann and South Alabama fans very, very happy.
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