Visiting the Louis Brown Athletic Center, affectionately known on Rutgers' campus as the RAC, on a cold winter night reminds one of what Russia looked like during the 1950s. A squat, trapezoidal concrete structure set in the middle of a large empty field, the facility doesn't exactly inspire hope and excitement as one approaches it during a snowy evening.
The Rutgers basketball program has resembled its ugly home lately, with naught a winning season since 2006, and conference records along the lines of 3-15 year after year. New head coach Mike Rice has revitalized the program, however, putting together a recruiting class with a number of four-star recruits, including national recruited St. Anthony's HS point guard Myles Mack. This night's game, a nationally televised Big East game against #2 Pittsburgh, would be an interesting test of the young Scarlet Knight's ability, as well as a test of how the fans have reacted to the program. No matter how good the basketball program gets, though, it's pretty clear this stadium just won't cut it.
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With a building that looks like a prison, it's hard to imagine the food being particularly tasty, and in that regard it entirely lived up to the expectation. No beer is served at the arena, and the fare at the booths was the normal stadium fare of SuperPretzels, soda, hot dogs, and churros.
The main problem with the food was that if you wanted to get it, the only time to get it seemed to be during the halves. I attempted to venture out of my seat during halftime, only to realize that by putting the only two food stands at one end of the stadium in the only atrium, that area tended to get very crowded very quickly. After 10 minutes of squirming through the crowds, I was finally able to get close enough to the stands to discover that the second half was two minutes from starting! Luckily, my friend Zach, who I had brought along for his knowledge of sports and love of New Jersey, attempted to eat a RAC sausage pregame. After taking three bites of the sausage, covered in vegetables, he put it down under his seat declaring "that might be the worst thing I've ever eaten."
The RAC is certainly no Fenway Park (or, for that case, not even a Meadowlands), but in terms of places to actually sit and watch a game, it's not too bad. The main problem with the seats I had""Section 202, Row E, Seats 13 and 14""was that the seats were oriented facing the backboard. Many new stadiums' seat orientations were designed with the viewer in mind, but the RAC prefers all their seats face directly across the court. I would recommend sitting in the lower second level. However, the added height makes it really easy to view the whole court, and it's not sitting so high as to remove one from the feel of the game. Just try and sit near the middle of the court, and you'll be fine.
I'm not actually sure I saw the Rutgers campus driving in off I-95. I know for sure there weren't any restaurants or bars on the roads as I approached the stadium, and I'm well aware of the fact that I parked in what was basically a giant paved field. New Jersey isn't exactly famous for its classy lifestyle, and the RAC seemed to be the kind of place you come to, and leave.
This was the part of the evening that surprised me the most, although all of the factors were there. The game was on ESPN2, Rutgers was in the game the whole way (Pitt won, 65-62), it was against a top-5 team on a Saturday night, and the students were pumped. A crazy student section can often rub off on the alumni, and adding in the presence of 1,000 or so Pitt fans into a stadium that holds 8,000 made for one rocking arena. Red painted the arena, and there were even a few Lithuanian flags for one of the RU players. However, this isn't normal for Rutgers basketball, at least not as of 2011. As the program continues to improve, attendance and fan interest should continue to rise, but a normal game at the RAC isn't usually a crazy scene.
I started my trip in Philadelphia, in snowy conditions, and still made it to Piscataway in a little under an hour and a half. The good thing about Rutgers is that it's accessible from both Philadelphia and New York by major highways, with very little driving needed that isn't on a 3-or-4 lane expressway. Parking at the stadium was simple, though we did get to the stadium fairly early (about 50 minutes before tipoff).
I had to put my car near the back of the parking lot but it was still only a 2-minute walk to the stadium door. Most of the closer parking was taken up by season ticket holders and those with special parking passes, but the $8 for parking wasn't too bad for being pretty close. Bathroom lines got crazy at halftime, as would be expected, but other than that the stadium was fairly easy to get to. Almost everybody can be in their seats within a minute or two of entering the stadium.
The stadium looks like a dump, the food isn't worth the price of the container it's in, and the sightlines are a few decades old, but at the end of the day it's still Big East basketball. Rutgers fans understand the talent it takes to compete in this league, and the ability to see teams like Pitt, UConn, Georgetown, Villanova""and all of the future NBA talents that play for them""on a yearly basis is pretty special. That being said, I paid $40 a ticket through Rutgers' ticket office to sit in the 5th row of the second level, which was a little steep.
However, if RU improves enough in the next year or two to have a winning record in the conference, that's not too bad of a price for the best college hoops in the country. With the clock winding down in the second half and the game within reach, that stadium was rocking, and you could see the Pitt fans weren't expecting the level of enthusiasm coming from the RAC's seats.
While there isn't a place to eat right near the stadium, Rutgers University does have one go-to eating establishment and bar. Stuff Yer Face is an aptly named stromboli restaurant with a very impressive beer list. The strombolis are hot and delicious, and their sandwiches and snacks aren't bad either.
A Big East program in an Atlantic 10 gym, the RAC falls short of serving Rutgers with the facility it needs to be competitive. A lack of history makes the building boring in-and-out, but at least the on-court production seems to be moving towards a level meriting a new stadium to get some excitement in the New Brunswick area. If you're a huge fan of a team playing at Rutgers, I'd advise to make a drive if doable, but there's no reason to fly in for longer than the game is played.
*Lead photo courtesy of Sean Rowland
One of the smaller arenas in the Big East, it's easy to get up close and personal with the RU program.
When built RU didn't have any crowds at all, so it's not really conducive to sold-out hosting, but it's a nice intimate setting for college basketball, and when you do get a big crowd, they are known to produce one of the greater home court advantages in Division 1 hoops.
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