Ask most “urbanites” and they will tell you that the State of North Carolina ends in the west with the bohemian-chic city of Asheville. In reality, North Carolina’s expanse reaches much further west than the fabled tourist town. In fact, you can drive west out of Asheville and remain in North Carolina for another two and a half hours if you wish, until reaching the Tennessee border. Along this route out of Asheville, after a drive of about an hour, you will see signage denoting the presence of Western Carolina University, in the small nondescript town of Cullowhee.
Cullowhee is not a town one would normally pass through, unless of course they are attempting to get “lost in nature” or are in actuality lost. No, most who venture to Cullowhee do so with purpose. Now home to over 10,000 undergraduate and post-graduate students, Cullowhee, North Carolina is Western Carolina University, and vice-versa. Please do not take Cullowhee’s remote location as an aside, for it is the remote location of this campus that provides its greatest feature: nature. Perhaps no other North Carolina institution of higher learning is located in a more breathtaking locale. As you descend through a pass just before arriving on campus you drop into a valley plain, surrounded on all sides by tree-lined mountains.
At the bottom of this valley, and running just parallel to Cullowhee Creek, you will immediately see two facilities which catch the eye of the sports fan. One is the glass-encased home of Catamount basketball, the Ramsey Athletic Center. Adjoining the “RAC” is the 13,742 seat E.J. Whitmire Stadium, the home of Bob Waters Field and the Catamount football team. Come 2014, WCU will have been playing football here in this idyllic setting for four decades. Unfortunately, “playing football” is a term that is open to some interpretation. For many seasons among those four decades Western Carolina has been doing just that, playing football, rather than competing to win games, as evidenced by the substantially sub-.500 winning percentage of the program.
It is quickly apparent that consistently winning has proved rather foreign for the Catamounts, but good years on the gridiron do occasionally visit, highlighted by the National Championship runner-up season of 1983, but for battle-hardened faithful, they are often few and far between. For much of the last three-plus decades since that title game appearance, a bad Catamount season could be better defined by doing one thing: beating rival Appalachian State in one of college football's most notorious rivalry games, the “Battle for the Old Mountain Jug”. Yet again, this is something that Western has had a hard time managing to accomplish over the last 30 years, having only lay claim to the jug’s residence in Cullowhee three times over that span.
Nonetheless, Western Carolina fans prove to be quite faithful, and remain optimistic. Optimism is one quality that defines the Catamount fan, and that feisty optimism is one quality often found in many who hail from this part of the world. It’s this “there is always next year” mentality that endears Catamount Football to many who know that North Carolina does not end in Asheville.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concession scene at Whitmire Stadium is par for the course when it comes to describing the food and beverage options found at the FCS level of college football. Nothing is to be found here that will surprise or shock your taste buds, but at the same time, you will find enough of the usual to not go hungry while watching Catamount football. Concessions here consist of multiple points-of-sale on both the East and West sides of the stadium. The full gamut of game foods can be found at these fixed locations, from hot dogs and hamburgers, to nachos and popcorn, to a full assortment of Pepsi products.
The great thing about purchasing food at this level of football is the price. You won't have to worry about breaking the bank to pay for a meal at Whitmire Stadium, and let's be honest, watching marginally competitive teams is much easier to stomach when yours isn't growling. Kiosk-type stands can also be found along the concourse on both the East and West side of the stadium, serving items such as Domino's pizza, whole or by-the-slice.
The one food offering that is somewhat "different" is the offering of Zaxby's chicken sandwiches. As most football fans in the south will know, if you're going to find a chicken sandwich at a football game, it is most always from the famous chicken-not-cows joint, Chick-fil-A. This is not the case in Cullowhee. I am personally a big fan of Zaxby's (also a Southern brand), so I appreciate seeing that Western Carolina athletics went in a different direction when it came to their in-stadium chicken sandwich partnership, and I will give the food and beverage scene a bit of a bump for that alone.
With the stadium and its environs being located on a relatively flat valley, this proves quite conducive to the tailgating scene. The fact that most of the university's athletics facilities are in the general vicinity of E.J. Whitmire Stadium also means that a number of parking lots are present and scattered about in close proximity to a short walk to the gates, meaning that tailgating here at Western can go on right up until just before kickoff. This assists in creating a quite festive pre-game atmosphere, especially if Western is having a good season, or before the yearly homecoming game, or the every-other-year home date against Appalachian State.
Unfortunately for Western, it appears that the every-other-year showdown against Appalachian in Cullowhee will be no more, with Appalachian State having made the jump up to FBS and the Sun Belt conference, meaning it is doubtful that the Mountaineers football team will ever again have their physical presence felt on a Cullowhee game day. In other words, the "money game" in Cullowhee is no longer, and it remains to be seen if the football team's existing rivalries with a fellow Southern Conference team like Furman or Wofford will proceed to the point of meaning nearly as much as the Battle for the Old Mountain Jug, though I personally have my doubts.
Once inside the stadium the Catamount cheerleaders, mascot, and band do all they can to rile up the home fans and get the party started. I must admit that in those seconds before kick-off, the atmosphere can be quite viable. The band, affectionately known as the "Pride of the Mountains", is highly regarded, albeit somewhat controversial, due to their electric nature. No matter the score, the Catamount faithful will always stay through at least halftime, if for nothing else than to watch their awarded band complete an always entertaining halftime show. Unfortunately, if halftime finds the Catamounts trailing significantly on the scoreboard and the "Pride of the Mountains" has concluded their performance, then the atmosphere inside the stadium can die a quick death, and this is too often the case.
What does this all mean in the grand scheme? Combine a perennially bad team on the field, with a lack of big-name visiting opponents, and you are left with a lot to be desired. I think this is a great case of where winning would cure all. If Western could somehow manage to turn things around on the field, develop a deeper rivalry with a few of their SoCon brethren, and play off the festive pre-game tailgating atmosphere, you might see this category worthy of a quick bump.
As I alluded to in the opening, Cullowhee is, for all intents and purposes, a town in name only. Not much of note is located within walking distance of campus, save a gas station or two. To find much in the way of shopping or dining, one would need to travel back up the highway five to ten minutes to the neighboring town of Sylva, the county seat. In Sylva, you can find most of the usual small-town America establishments, from Wal-Mart and CVS, to Ryan's Buffet and Sonic Drive-In.
If you decide you'd rather go for something "local", then you can also find a number of little shops along Main Street and quite a few mom-and-pop restaurants to visit. I would be quick to recommend Lulu's on Main. Featuring a diverse menu (including a number of vegetarian options), hearty portions, and reasonable prices combined with the welcoming homespun hospitality, one cannot go wrong at Lulu's. While in Sylva, also be sure to check out the iconic Jackson County Courthouse, situated 107 steps up, atop a steep hill at the end of Main Street.
Considering the lack of wins I must offer applause to fans of Western Carolina. As I've mentioned they are not necessarily the loudest or most enthusiastic bunch but when the product on the field fails to deliver it must be extremely hard to remain passionately involved. One must also factor in the consideration that quite a few Western alumnae find themselves moving away from the region after graduation, making the trek back to Cullowhee for most game days even more challenging. Even still, the Catamounts manage to layer on their purple and show up in respectable number for most games.
Student turnout also can range from respectable to better than average, depending on the opponent. Because WCU draws its students primarily from this area of Western North Carolina, it is no doubt tempting to make the short trek home to the parents on the weekend, to enjoy some good home cooking and partake in Mom's excellent laundry technique. To the students' credit, they manage to find the desire to keep themselves on campus on game weekends. They might leave a bit early, but this is a problem throughout this level of college football and at both ends of the spectrum. Whether a team is losing big or winning big, it seems hard for many teams at the FCS level to retain the majority of fans through four quarters of action, unless it is simply a compelling and close-fought affair.
Arriving at the campus of Western Carolina will most likely find you using Highway 107, the primary entry point to the valley where the university lies. Upon arrival, one will find parking quite easy to obtain. As is the case at almost all colleges and universities, prime parking closest to Whitmire Stadium is reserved for members of the university's athletic booster club, the Catamount Club, or those with season tickets. Single game parking can be found in multiple areas; however, most charge a game day parking rate of $5, a fair deal by all standards. If you are a fan of the visiting team, you will most likely be ushered to a large surface lot near the school's baseball stadium. This lot will place you a 5-7 minute walk from the stadium gates. Although spaces are usually available in this lot, you might be pressing your luck if you arrive within an hour or so of kickoff.
If you would rather not pay and don't mind a walk of 10-12 minutes, you can park along and around the intersections of the aforementioned Highway 107. I have personally parked off Highway 107 several times, and never had an issue with parking/law enforcement, but as is always the case with parking in these "non-parking" areas, use your best personal judgment at the time. Will-Call is located in a readily-marked area, and the entry gates are well-staffed and seem to move along quite well.
Once inside the stadium, the facilities are fairly adequate. The West side of the stadium is much newer, and much nicer, than the older "home side", or East side. The concourses on the West side are much wider, the restroom facilities much more modern, and the seats much more comfortable and spacious. Also, if you require handicap assistance, I would recommend the West side, as a large viewing aisle exists for those with handicap needs, complete with companion seating.
Depending on your perspective, one neat feature of Whitmire Stadium is the fact that if you would like to move from one side of the stadium to the other once inside the facility, you will need to literally cross the field, just outside the back of the end zone nearest the Ramsay Athletic Center. You will walk inches away from the end line and goal post, which can make for a great photo opportunity, should you so desire. The flip side is that this will require you to traverse approximately 30 rows of seating to reach the West side concourse, so be aware if your seat is on the West side and you enter the stadium via the East gates.
Western Carolina prices their tickets right around the average of their fellow SoCon members. Single-game general admission tickets can be had for $15, while reserved seats will set you back $25. Youth tickets go for $15 and $10, respectively. These prices are not all that terrible, but at the same time, you do expect to be entertained and hopefully leave with a happy winning feeling more often than not. Unfortunately, as has been addressed, the Catamounts can very rarely promise that you'll leave Whitmire giddy from a big victory.
A family of four can expect to shell out $75 to $100 for tickets, parking, & concessions, at a minimum, for an afternoon of football in Cullowhee. In my humble opinion, this is asking a lot, short of the occasional splurge to get out of the house on a nice autumn afternoon in the mountains. This is unless, of course, you are a diehard or a fan of the visiting team. If the product on the field were to improve, and the current going rates remain in place, then the ROI would most definitely receive another star.
The field house end zone features a quite decent 17-foot by 32-foot Daktronics video board installed prior to the 2010 season, complete with matching score and time board adhered to the façade of Jordan-Phillips Field House. No matter your seat, you'll have a great view of this board, which even at this level of football, can still be hard to find in some stadiums.
Kudos are also in order for the Catamount Gameday program, as the sports information department, along with all those involved in the production of the gameday specific feature, do a great job in producing a first-class and reasonably priced guide.
Another nice feature of Western football is the attitude of the staff. Hospitality oozes from folks in this part of the country, and a helpful attitude and kind smile can go a long ways towards making a stadium visit even better. WCU has a pride-filled staff, ready to assist in any way possible. This is one of those "extras" that is easily taken for granted, especially in the upper reaches of big-time college football.
The thing about a great stadium experience is this: if you're a fan of a team that wins frequently, then you'll quickly discover that winning can very easily hide a lot of flaws when it comes to the overall well-rounded experience of a stadium visit. If, on the other hand, you are a fan of a team who rarely wins then a stadium that is not quite up-to-snuff can easily become another source of lacking pride.
At Western Carolina, you will most likely encounter a home team that comes out on the losing end more than the winning, and you are likely to witness that loss in a facility that is comfortable and adequate, yet remains a bit rough around the edges. As a result, E.J. Whitmire Stadium will leave you with no real feelings one way or the other, a true middle-of-the-road stadium where, if nothing else, you will leave having been treated to a great view of a very scenic part of a very scenic state.
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