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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
If you mention football in South Carolina to most fans outside the Palmetto State, the chances are good that the response you receive will contain a reference to the Tigers or Gamecocks. There is plenty of football history outside of Clemson and Columbia, though, and a lot of that history rests in Orangeburg. The university counts two graduates among the members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame - the only school in South Carolina to claim even one -- in Rams legend Deacon Jones and former Giants linebacker Harry Carson. Fellow Hall of Famer Marion Motley started his college career at South Carolina State before transferring to Nevada. The university has won over ten MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) titles in its history.
The home of all of this success -- since 1955, anyway -- is Oliver C. Dawson Stadium. This 22,000-seat on-campus facility is the main attraction in the university's athletics complex. The stadium shows its age in places, but the school's football history is quite obvious, both intentionally and unintentionally so.
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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 dining options at a Bulldog game are similar to those you will find at many stadiums on the FCS level. The "entrees" include jumbo hot dogs ($2.50, $3 with chili) and sausage dogs ($3.50, $4 with chili), while nachos ($3 regular, $4 supreme), pretzels ($3) and chips ($2) add to the main dishes. Additional snack options include popcorn (regular $2, caramel $2.50), roasted peanuts ($3), candy ($2.50) and cotton candy ($2.50). These items are sold from fixed stands on either side of the stadium, with portable stands available for some games.
Coca-Cola is the stadium's bottler, with regular fountain drinks ($2), large fountain drinks ($4) and SCSU collectible mugs ($5.50) helping to quench fans' thirst. Bottled sodas and water ($3) are also available.
The stadium is essentially a full bowl, with two notable exceptions. There are empty areas on either end of the stadium between the end zones and the visiting stands. This makes for a somewhat unusual disconnect between the visiting side and the rest of the stadium. This also affects some of the noise in the stadium (more on this in a bit).
Every seat in the stadium is a bleacher seat, so consider bringing something that might make your three-hour aluminum home a bit more comfortable. The climb to some of the higher bleacher seats is a bit steep and can also be precarious, as there are no hand rails in most areas. With that said, most of the seats offer a good view of the PolyTurf-surfaced field, despite their comfort level.
There is only one scoreboard in the stadium, and it is located atop the end zone closest to South Carolina Highway 33. The board offers the typical game information (down and distance, time remaining, score), along with a video feature. The board shows the game action as it takes place -- which is helpful if your view is blocked, for whatever reason -- and replays of great plays and game highlights. This video is visible from almost anywhere inside the seating bowl, though another scoreboard of any sort would be truly helpful.
The biggest and most important piece of the atmosphere at an SC State game is the Marching 101. Despite SC State's long line of success on the field, the Marching 101's performances throughout the game are among the highlights for many fans in attendance. The band plays a great mixture of R&B and pop classics and today's hits. Be sure to time your visits to get concessions or use the restroom so you don't miss their halftime show. The only downfall with the band's performance is that the combination of the open areas in the stadium and the fact that the band is not properly outfitted with microphones means that some of the sound is not as clear as it should be as the band performs. This is a shame, and this will hopefully be corrected to allow everyone the experience to enjoy this incredible band.
Orangeburg is a small town of fewer than 15,000 residents, meaning that there is not really a vibrant city center like in other collegiate locales around South Carolina. There are, however, numerous chain restaurants within a few minutes of the stadium, including southern staple FATZ Cafe. Barbecue restaurants are, as one might expect in this region of the country, quite plentiful.
If you decide you wish to leave Orangeburg in search of a larger town, Columbia is 35 miles west of Orangeburg, and is easily accessed via South Carolina Interstate 26. Columbia offers the nightlife, variety of food and large-city trappings many would expect and prefer.
SC State fans are loyal and loud. A quick drive around Orangeburg shows SCSU stickers, car flags and other gear at every turn. Inside the stadium, fans clearly love their Bulldogs. Whenever a big play develops and a Bulldog runner takes off toward the end zone, the roaring crescendo from the home stands is audible throughout the stadium. The Bulldog faithful make noise without a silly prompt from the scoreboard telling them to do so, which is a nice touch. The fans are even friendly toward opposing fans. I saw shirts for SC State's opponent being sold outside the stadium on the day I attended, which is a unique "feature".
The one upsetting thing with SCSU fans is that it seems as though a decent number goes to the game simply to hear the band. I even heard a few in line (more on this in a bit) on the day I attended talking about how they were concerned about getting into the stadium in time to see the band's performance. A number of fans streamed for the exits after the band's performance on the day I visited, though, to be fair, many stayed until the end.
My visit proved -- repeatedly -- that South Carolina State is not equipped to process large crowds. The will-call desk (located in the same building with the SCSU bookstore, so take note of this item if you purchase tickets to be left at will-call) could not locate the tickets of some fans who had purchased admission before the day of the game I attended. The bookstore, which usually sells tickets, had a paper sign on the door saying that they had run out of tickets. The ticket booth between the bookstore and the stadium also ran out of tickets, resulting in a 30-plus minute delay while tickets were located elsewhere in the stadium. This resulted in a number of fans not getting into the stadium until well into the second quarter.
The concourse inside the stadium is extremely narrow on the sides with seating, causing bottlenecks where fans gather to talk or wait in lines. This makes the walkway extremely tough to navigate, particularly around halftime after the band's performance is complete. The restrooms have ample -- if older -- facilities, though even these get full around the half. The concession areas also get quite crowded on busy weekends, due to the lack of facilities. The concourse also has no view of the stadium or closed-circuit television, so you will miss the game action during any trips you make to get concessions or use the restroom.
Parking for South Carolina State games is also quite difficult. Fans entering the campus at some access points are charged $5 to park, while other areas of campus charge $10. There are different charges for parking in tailgating areas, as well as parking for special events. There are opportunities to park in the yards of homes and other areas off campus, though these areas also charge $10 for parking.
There is an extra gate check at Dawson Stadium, as well. If you are entering from the bookstore side, there is an attendant at a gate that tears your ticket, and after you walk approximately 75 yards, you will approach the main stadium entrance. A South Carolina state guard member will inspect your belongings and ask to see inside your jacket (if necessary) and under your hat. Another employee then tears your ticket a second time before you are granted access to the stadium. Keep the ticket stub handy, as you may be asked to show it again to access the main campus when returning to your vehicle.
Your return on investment really depends on when you attend a game at Dawson Stadium. If you attend a regular game, game tickets are $25, with young children (under 2 1/2 feet tall) admitted free. This means that an adult attending a regular game and paying for parking, a game ticket, a hot dog, a bottled soda and a program will pay just over $40. This is a bit of a high price for this level, but it is somewhat manageable. Keep in mind, as well, that any online ticket purchases have associated processing fees that are over two dollars per ticket.
Attending the Homecoming game, however, is quite the different story. Tickets for this game are $35 each (to see an FCS-level game), with no discount for children. A family of four attending this game will pay over $200 for four game tickets, parking, a hot dog and soda for each family member and two programs. This becomes an unjustifiable expense for everyone except the most die-hard fan.
The university has signs hanging throughout the concourse honoring the school's members of the College Football Hall of Fame. Harry Carson, former Pittsburgh Steeler Donnie Shell and legendary coach Willie Jeffries are commemorated on these colorful and clearly visible signs.
The trend of honoring the school's gridiron success also carries over to the facade of the press box inside the stadium. If you glance up at the press box on your way to your seat, you will note that the field is named after Coach Jeffries, and the numerous MEAC titles won by the school are listed across the facade. Should there be any question of this program's success, this question will be removed with just one look toward the press box.
The school also sets up tents at the stadium in which SC State gear can be purchased. There is a large selection of goods available in these tents, including shirts and other spirit gear. The university bookstore is also open, should you wish to purchase a hat, shirt or other logo item.
South Carolina State is a successful university on and off the field, with a significant history in athletics, education and social growth. Attending a game at Dawson Stadium is certainly something that should be experienced, if for no other reason than to see the Marching 101. Unfortunately, the crowd management issues and big-game pricing structure keep this experience from being all it truly could be.
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746 Citadel Rd
Orangeburg, SC 29115