Looking through the Eastern Illinois record books, you’ll find some familiar names. The school has had four seasons where their quarterback has thrown for over 3,000 yards. Most recently this was accomplished in 2002 by Tony Romo. The three other seasons belong to NFL Head Coach Sean Payton who accomplished the feat three times during his time at EIU (1984-1986). Those not acquainted with Eastern Illinois athletics may not realize how prolific the Super Bowl winning coach was as a quarterback during his college career, but Payton passed for 10,655 yards.
The list of recognizable names goes on as you look at the outer façade of O’Brien Field’s entrance. There’s a banner for Mike Shanahan, who was a quarterback for the Panthers, and also their Offensive Coordinator in 1978. You’ll also find a banner for John Jurkovic, who played 9 NFL seasons and is a current radio personality on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. All of this gives the first time visitor to O’Brien Field a sense of the history of the school’s football program.
The team itself has a great deal of success over the years. The school made the jump to what is now known as the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) in 1981, and by 1982 the Panthers made their first appearance in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. In their history, they have made 13 appearances in the FCS playoffs. The team is currently a member of the Ohio Valley Conference, and has won the conference championship five times since joining the conference in 1996.
Eastern Illinois won the Division II National Championship in 1978 and were the runners up in 1980. The 1978 team really was an incredible story as the team rebounded from a 1-10 record the previous season to claim the championship under first year head coach Darrell Mudra, who earned the title of "Dr. Victory" after the turnaround.
O’Brien Field is shared by the EIU track & field team, so there is a track that encircles the football field, making the action seem just a little bit further away than a football-only facility. The stadium was opened in 1970, and has a capacity of 10,000.
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Inside the stadium, you'll find very little to get excited about when it comes to the food and drinks offered. Hot dogs ($2.75 or $3.50 with nacho cheese), nachos ($3), popcorn ($2), and candy ($1.25) would have to get you through. Fortunately though, there are some more interesting items just outside the stadium. This greatly enhances the tailgating experience (for those who don't want to worry about grilling), and they are accessible during the game as well. Just be sure to bring your ticket with you in case you step outside for one of these options.
Smoky's House BBQ has pulled pork sandwiches and smoked Polish dogs ($5 each), and they are both terrific choices. There is a Papa John's pizza stand offering 10-inch pizzas for only $5 as well. If it is a hot day, then there is a stand offering shaved ice, or kettle corn if you aren't looking for something cool.
Pepsi products are on hand as fountain drinks ($2.50 or $4), and you can get a souvenir cup ($6) which also allows you $1 refills all season long, a great deal if you will be attending more than one Panthers game at O'Brien Field. Coffee ($2) and hot chocolate ($2.50) are also available on a cold afternoon or evening.
The seating is pretty basic at O'Brien Field with metal bleachers as the only option, although there is better than average legroom between the rows, which helps make the experience more comfortable. The seats are not covered at all, so if there is a chance of rain, then be sure to bring the appropriate attire. They are pretty relaxed about coming in and out of the stadium, so even if you just bring some options and leave them in your car, you should be able to go out and grab whatever you need during the game.
A new video scoreboard installed in 2009 helps to elevate the overall atmosphere as there is a pre-game highlight video to get fans excited before the team comes on to the field. The marching band is larger and better than what you may expect, and help to keep fans entertained before and during the game, as well as at halftime.
Tailgating is done right at Eastern Illinois. Park on the western side of the stadium for the best tailgating. During my visit there were a couple of inflatables for the kids to play on, a live band, and several good tailgating groups. The addition of some of the concessions outside the stadium add to the variety and opportunities as well.
Nearby, you'll find Marty's, named for Eastern Illinois alum and former MLB pitcher Marty Pattin. Marty's caters to a younger crowd, and tends to be a bit louder and the place where you might go to grab a drink or three before or after the game.
Only a couple of blocks walk and you will find yourself on Lincoln Avenue, where there are several more places to choose from. I like to stop into the Panther Paw where they have decent food and seem to embody the EIU spirit.
Make sure you take the time to walk through the small, but pretty campus before the game. The highlight is the Old Main Building, a castle-like structure dedicated in 1899. In front you'll also find a flagpole, and memorials dedicated to veterans and Eastern Illinois students who fought and died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
It can be a challenge to fill a stadium with a capacity of 10,000, but even with the place half full like it was during my visit, the energy can be felt. The band sits on the same side as the press box and the larger of the two seating areas, making the visitor's side seem sparse and lonely. The effect if you sit on the home side is one of more community and camaraderie for the Panthers.
If you are attending an Eastern Illinois football game you will be driving. Charleston, Illinois is just east of I-57 and just north of I-70. Once you make your way to Lincoln Avenue (Illinois State Route 16), then O'Brien Field can be found just to the south, located near the other EIU athletic facilities.
Parking is free, and you should be able to find numerous spots on the western side or north side of the stadium. The western lot is designated for the Panther Booster Club, but parking should be plentiful.
Inside the stadium, restrooms are adequate, and you shouldn't expect many long lines, although there may be a short wait during halftime.
Tickets for EIU Panther football range from $13-$17 depending on the opponent, with discounts for season tickets. Concession prices are reasonable, especially if you consider some of the tasty offerings with the concession stands just outside the stadium. Parking is free and plentiful. There is a good atmosphere in Charleston on game day. Overall, the cost is well worth it for the experience.
I was very fortunate to see a fantastic game. The Panthers won 50-49 in overtime, and WR Erik Lora set a school record for receptions (21) and receiving yards (269). It was an absolute shootout and fantastically entertaining. Of course nothing is assured, but the point is that you just never know when you might see a historic moment or a nail-biter, so if you have the opportunity to see a live sporting event, then do it. The experience is so much better than what you will get from your couch, and you will be better for it.
Be sure to take a walk through Lantz Arena during your visit. The basketball arena was named for Charles Lantz, the first ever EIU football coach, and there is also a neat interactive Eastern Illinois Hall of Fame located in the main entrance of the building.
One final point for the free program that is given out at each game as you enter the stadium. It is packed with wonderful information about the current team and the history of Eastern Illinois football and is individualized for each game.
You will be pleasantly surprised by the overall experience that awaits you in Charleston, Illinois when you attend an Eastern Illinois football game. FCS-level football is growing in popularity, and the product on the field is high. If you are thinking about following your favorite team on a road game, or just want to visit some place new, then consider heading to O'Brien Field.
Ironically, my first NCAA FCS game happened to be the exact same one that the Stadium Journey correspondent attended for the main review on this site. (Well, strictly speaking, my first partial game. My wife was receiving an award from EIU, her alma mater, and we weren't able to arrive until half time.)
EIU is a pleasant, small-to-medium sized school in a small town in a fairly rural section of Illinois. Over the past few years, they have built a respectable FCS football program. This was my first time attending a football game at this level, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I came away impressed all around. (Strangest college OT I've ever seen, but that's a separate discussion.) The game was good. The fans stuck around late on a cold evening. (Apparently, an even larger group of fans hung around even later for the local high school rivalry.) And there wasn't a bad seat in the house.
Keep in mind that this isn't the FBS--crowds won't hit 6 figures (in fact, they might not hit five figures). The stadium itself works equally well as a large high school facility as it does for a small college. Tony Romo played here. You could see the next Tony Romo, but it's certainly less likely here than in the FBS.
Unless you're a die-hard football fan, EIU doesn't really warrant a special trip. But if you're in the area, it's a very pleasant place to spend an evening. And if you are a die-hard, well, there's absolutely no reason not to come. I hope I make it back there one day.
1412 4th St
Charleston, IL 61920
810 W Lincoln Ave
Charleston, IL 61920