Ernest W. Spangler Stadium – Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs
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The Bulldog Mentality
Those who follow college football are certainly familiar with the tradition and passionate following the game has in the South, and the state of North Carolina is no exception. Four North Carolina-based institutions take up residence in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and combine storied histories with excited fan bases and beautiful campuses. East Carolina and Charlotte also offer FBS-level football, with a number of FCS programs also dotting the Tar Heel State landscape.
Follow a North Carolina map about 45 minutes west of Charlotte, however, and you will spot the town of Boiling Springs. Gardner-Webb University calls this town of just under 5,000 home, and the football program is attempting to craft a tradition of its own. Former Green Bay Packer and Super Bowl champion Gabe Wilkins spent his collegiate career as a Runnin’ Bulldog, and longtime NFL assistant Jim Washburn is also a graduate of the program and a native of nearby Shelby.
The university fielded its first football team in 1970. The school received full four-year accreditation the next year. The Runnin’ Bulldogs joined the FCS Big South Conference’s football slate in 2002, with conference entry in all sports taking place in 2008.
Gardner-Webb is a tough place to find, as you will note in the Access section of this review. It is even tougher not to like.
The university features two points of sale (labeled Bulldog Snacks) on the home concourse under the seating bowl. Most of the so-called classics are available, including hot dogs ($4), chicken sandwiches ($4.50), cheeseburgers ($4.50) and four-piece Calabash chicken plates from regional favorite Fatz Cafe ($4). Chips and a drink can be added to any of those entree items for an additional $2.50. Nachos ($3), popcorn ($3.50), candy bars and chips ($1.50 apiece) serve as the snack items.
Pepsi is the official bottler serving the campus, and they offer 20-ounce bottled sodas, water and tea for $2. Sweet tea and lemonade are also $2, with one free refill offered for each. There is also a considerably smaller point of sale on the visiting side selling the same items, and despite having to walk across the field, you will likely encounter shorter lines.
The somewhat unusual – and highly popular – option offered by the school sets up shop near the home side of the stadium. Local food truck Philco’s parks near the end zone, selling fair-style foods. Among the offerings are fried Oreos, french fry buckets, corn dogs (regular and footlong), candy apples, funnel cakes and nachos.
Gardner-Webb has a very scenic campus, and one of the benefits to the seating area on the home side is just how much you can see of that campus. Most of the athletic venues are in the vicinity of the football complex, so the soccer field and baseball stadium are nearby and easily viewed from your seat. Many trees and campus buildings are also visible on the horizon, giving you the true feeling that this football facility is a large part of the university’s grounds. There is also a pond with a fountain to the left of the home seating area, and seeing the ducks swimming around is somewhat relaxing.
The seating areas are all relatively close to the action, keeping the fans involved in the action throughout. One positive aspect to the Spangler Stadium configuration is that fans can utilize the grassy hill area behind the end zone to either sit in the grass or sit in a folding chair. Many fans utilize this option for pulling up a lawn chair or blanket, and kids can usually be found playing or throwing a football.
The stadium’s lone scoreboard is located between the home and visiting seating areas, near the visiting team’s field entrance. The scoreboard has a video portion that is used for advertisements, player introductions, trivia and other features, along with the usual game information. The board is visible from every seat in the house, but could stand to be a bit more prominent. The scoreboard also reminds fans that they are at Coach Norman Harris Field — so named in honor of the legendary former leader of the Runnin’ Bulldogs — and looking at the Charlie Harbison Scoreboard. Harbison, a native of nearby Shelby, played at Gardner-Webb and in the NFL, and has enjoyed a distinguished career as a college coach. Along with honoring some of the university’s football history, the scoreboard overlooks a beautiful synthetic turf surface that was put in place for the 2014 season.
The home seating is directly across from you when entering through the main gate, and the concourse wraps most of the way around the stadium. The home side has more concessions, more bathrooms and is the side to which the band plays before the game, during the half and after the game. The home side also features the two bulldog mascots, a male and a female. These two spend a lot of time among the cheerleaders, and occasionally saying hi to the kids in the stands.
It should be noted, as well, that there is a track around the field that separates the seating from the action on the field a little more than in most venues. It is not all that noticeable from your seat, but can detach you a bit from the game.
Boiling Springs is a relatively “compartmentalized” college town, making everything within a reasonable walking distance. There are the usual chain restaurants (McDonald’s, Hardee’s, KFC and Subway) at or across the street from the entrance to the campus, should you require a quick bite on the way into or out of town. If you want something a little more substantial, Italian Garden is just up Main Street and offers an interesting combination of Italian and Greek cuisine. You are also in the middle of barbecue country, and Bridges Barbecue Lodge is just a few minutes away in Shelby. If these options do not satisfy your palate, the town of Shelby is a few miles away, with Charlotte about 45 minutes to the east.
There are also a lot of tailgating areas throughout campus, so this is another option for before and after the game. The gatherings all seem to be of a friendly sort, so you may want to stop by, say hello and make some new friends.
Spangler Stadium may not have the gigantic crowds that some of their North Carolina brethren can claim, but those who do turn out are an impressive lot. The home side of the stadium routinely fills, leaving fans to take up residence on the hill or on the visiting side. Watching a Runnin’ Bulldog game on television can look a bit deceptive, because the cameras show the more lightly-filled visiting side. The home side is quite involved throughout, though, and they love their Runnin’ Bulldogs.
One other aspect of the crowd in Boiling Springs offers a bit of a unique experience. Gardner-Webb tends to recruit a lot of local and regional players, which means a lot of friends and family come out to support the players. They wear shirts emblazoned with the players’ names and numbers, and there is a sort of high-school atmosphere at a Gardner-Webb game — in a good way, of course. This allows the community to feel more of a sense of the product on the field being “their” team.
Boiling Springs is in a somewhat challenging location, as far as any sort of transit options. The drive from Charlotte, though a bit confusing at times, is a relatively short one, and fans traveling from the Upstate region of South Carolina also have a reasonably short drive via South Carolina (and eventually North Carolina) Highways 18 and 150. Any fans wishing to fly in to see a game would likely need to fly to Charlotte, then drive. Asheville is another option for fans flying in, but the drive is a bit longer via Interstate 26 and US Highway 74. There is only one hotel in Boiling Springs itself (AmericInn), so plan to stay in nearby Shelby, North Carolina or Gaffney, South Carolina.
There is plenty of nearby, free on-campus parking, with a friendly campus police officer on-hand to guide you to a safe place to park your vehicle. Once inside the stadium, everything is neatly laid out, with signs leading you to virtually anywhere you need to go.
It is recommended to wait until a break in the action if you need something to eat or drink. The concessions are somewhat underneath the seating bowl, which will prevent you from seeing the action while you get your food and beverages. The alternative is to walk over to the visiting side, which will allow you to watch the game most of the time while you wait. Another concern with the home side concourse is that it is a bit narrow, causing occasional backups during busy periods.
The main restrooms are located on the home side, and there are ample – if somewhat spartan – facilities. The restrooms are at least clean, and appear built to handle even the busy halftime traffic. If your seats are on the visiting side, it may be better to walk over and use these restrooms, as facilities are not as prevalent on that side of the stadium.
Return on Investment 4
There are two ticketing levels at Gardner-Webb, with reserved seats priced at $20 and general admission at $14, $8 for non-GWU students, and Gardner-Webb students getting in for free with their ID. The reserved seats allow you to be a little closer to field level, but there is nothing at all wrong with the general admission seats. Most of the general admission seating features bleachers with chair backs, and seems reasonably comfortable, as bleachers go. There is also the added benefit of being able to sit on the hill.
The concessions are a solid value. If you buy a general admission seat and add a hot dog or hamburger, chips and a drink, your total will come out to just over $20, which is pretty good pricing for the product being played in front of you.
The university sells game programs for $5, which may seem to be somewhat high in price; however, there are benefits to the game program. The program contains notes about the day’s game and opponent, a schedule of other conference games and additional information about the team, including rosters, statistics and photos. The publication is also printed in a glossy magazine style, making for a good collectible item.
Fans inside the stadium who wish to listen to the game as it happens also have that option, as WGWG-FM (88.3) broadcasts all Gardner-Webb games. This station is also available live over the web for Gardner-Webb fans who may not be able to travel to see the team. The Big South Network also broadcasts games online, allowing fans outside the area to watch the festivities as they unfold.
The university hosts the Bulldog Store, which sets up in a stand along the main concourse. There is a large variety of Gardner-Webb logo spirit gear available at reasonable prices, and there is a steady stream of business throughout each game. Also, the store offers a special deal on an item at each game. One recent deal offered half-price t-shirts (in certain styles) purchased before the start of the fourth quarter.
I also owe a tip of the cap to the university’s game day staff. From the police officers in the parking area to the sports information staff, and those working the ticket windows and front gates, everyone is incredibly nice and seems to appreciate those who choose to spend their Saturday watching Runnin’ Bulldog football. Fans are welcomed as they walk through the gates. The university employees are quite proficient at their assigned roles, making for a relatively smooth game day experience.
Many college football fans would not identify Gardner-Webb with a must-see football destination. Most who would come to North Carolina to see a football game would attend one of those ACC venues we mentioned earlier, and some may drive right by Boiling Springs to do so. Sure, there are no pyrotechnics, no choreographed student section dances or other trappings you may find in a larger venue. This should not keep you away from a game at Spangler Stadium, however. If you like seeing good football with good friends – ones you already knew or ones you just met – this is one of those stops you need to make, no matter how far off the highway your travels may take you.
Food and Drink Recommendations
Italian Garden (map it!)
105 N Main St
Boiling Springs, NC 28017
Earl Scruggs Center
103 S Lafayette St
Shelby, NC 28150
Shelby City Park
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AmericInn Boiling Springs
428 E College Ave
Boiling Springs, NC 28017
Days Inn Shelby
1431 W Dixon Blvd
Shelby, NC 28152
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