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Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion allows more fans to ‘join the party’

Renovation project includes locker rooms, seating options and sports medicine facilities, all of which were unveiled Thursday morning

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University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan addresses invited guests at the Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion unveiling on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Located behind him in the south end zone is the Ken Garff Red Zone.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In exactly three weeks, when Utah kicks off the 2021 football season against Weber State, the Home of the Utes will feature a gleaming new addition that is expected to enhance the atmosphere of storied Rice-Eccles Stadium and benefit the entire university community. 

On a sun-drenched Thursday morning, the school staged a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $80 million expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium, which will increase the seating capacity of the facility from 45,807 to 51,444.

“This is a historic day,” athletic director Mark Harlan told the crowd of about 400, which included donors and supporters of the program. “They say things like, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But we understand that they’re already coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium. What this allows is 4,500 more people to join the party. That’s an amazing thing.”

The expansion includes the unveiling of the state-of-the-art Ken Garff Red Zone, located in the south endzone. 

The Ken Garff Red Zone features new home and visiting locker rooms, sports medicine facilities and hospitality areas, the University Club restaurant, Diglisic Lounge, Layton Field Club and various premium seating options, including suites, loge boxes, ledge, club and premium terrace seating as well as additional bleacher seating.

Utah’s new locker room is 5,300 square feet with 90 lockers. It features a one-of-a-kind locker design with hidden storage, wireless charging and locking box.

“It’s a game-changer for our program and the entire athletic department,” Harlan said.

Harlan took the football players on a guided tour of the new locker room Wednesday night. 

“It was quite a moment,” Harlan said. “To have the young men hug me and hug each other and just see that kind of investment we’ve made for them in this program.”

Incoming University of Utah President Taylor Randall said that the school received $41 million in donations as well as $10 million in ticket sales, to fund the $80 million project.

The Garff family’s $21.5 million donation served as the lead gift for the project. It marks the largest single donation in Utah Athletics history.

“This will help our football program to thrive and it will become, I think, even more elite than it is now,” Harlan said.

Harlan recalled sitting down with the Garff family more than two years ago and talking about the school’s vision of stadium expansion.

“Having them say, ‘We’re jumping in,’ that allowed this project to be accelerated in multiple ways,” Harlan said. “Then everyone else jumped in.”

Robert Garff, the chairman of a car dealership conglomerate founded by his father, was heavily involved in the project until his death in March, 2020. 

His wife, Kathi, spoke during Thursday’s ceremony about her late husband. 

“He also had a dream that the Ken Garff Red Zone could be a gathering place to encourage the faculty, the business community and families and students to be able to enjoy these facilities year-round,” she said.  

For Harlan, it was a “surreal moment,” he said, to face the small crowd that showed up Thursday for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, knowing the project is almost finished. 

Not even a pandemic could prevent expansion from being completed. The project went relatively smoothly, Harlan said, though flooding occurred on the first floor of the facility nine days ago. 

“We were able to get through that,” he said. 

Harlan also acknowledged the contributions of past teams and current coach Kyle Whittingham. Former coach Ron McBride and former star quarterback Scott Mitchell were among those in attendance Thursday. 

“If it wasn’t for the rise of our football program, and where we are today, none of this would have happened … I want to thank all our former players and coaches and certainly Kyle Whittingham, for allowing us to even have this opportunity,” he said. “As I looked out and saw all the faces and all the contributions they’ve made, I think of all the things that led us to today. You don’t do this without an incredibly successful program. This is a culmination of so many different people’s efforts.”

Harlan recognized the efforts of designers, contractors and planners that have been involved in the project, including Populous, VCBO Architecture and Layton Construction.

Now, with the south end zone filled in, Rice-Eccles Stadium will get even louder. 

“How in the world is an opposing team going to get the snap off with the sound now?” Harlan said. 

“I think this place is going to be completely electric,” President Randall said. “This is a place of community, a place where, when the Utes are up by 75, you’d still want to be there and you wouldn’t want to go home early,. And this is that place. This is a true differentiator for our football program.”

The school is expecting a sellout crowd when Utah hosts Weber State on Sept. 2. 

The fans are expected to be more fired up than ever considering last year that due to the pandemic, they weren’t allowed to attend games. 

“Allowing 4,500 more to join this incredible party that we already have at Rice-Eccles, we’ll bring them in to help us win and get it louder but also new revenue that we can route to the entire department as we continue to work on the dreams and aspirations of the student-athletes to chase championships and graduate,” Harlan said. “We’re really, really excited. It’s a great day.”

Harlan said the Ken Garff Red Zone will be a haven for potential recruits when they visit campus. 

“It’s going to be great for recruiting. The Layton Field Club, which is unique in college athletics, can fit 900-plus people and it leads right into the field,” he said. “That’s great for game day but that’s rentable space for everybody. Great benefit for our football program.”

In 2002, Rice-Eccles Stadium hosted the Opening Ceremonies for the Winter Olympic Games and the cauldron used for 2002 Olympics remains at Rice-Eccles. 

The stadium expansion could be an alluring feature when Salt Lake City bids to host the Olympics in the future.

“I can imagine if I’m in the decision-making of that room, and you look at how we’re over 50,000, it’s even more attractive than it was before,” Harlan said. “We’re excited to show that group as the process goes on.”

President Randall has some misgivings about the quality of the facilities.

“I’m a little depressed, to be honest, that the visiting locker rooms are as nice as they are,” he said. “I’m a believer in winners and I think the old locker rooms were great. That’s the only part I would have left in this building.”

Harlan can’t wait for all Ute fans, not just the ones purchasing seats in the Ken Garff Red Zone, to enjoy the atmosphere at expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium. 

“We have three weeks left and there’s a little work to do — a few nails to put in and a few spitshine things to do,” he said. “But we’ll be ready to go three weeks from tonight.”