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Official Review by Bob Waldrop, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
In the remoteness of east-central Alabama, almost equidistant between Birmingham and Atlanta, sits Jacksonville State University, home of the Gamecocks. In a state dominated by SEC football, JSU is one of nine schools in the state offering Division I basketball. Mention JSU and most likely one of two thoughts comes to mind: "Didn’t their football team beat Ole Miss in 2010?" (yes) or "Didn’t their football team have a female placekicker?" (also yes).
Prior to 1993, the Gamecocks basketball team were members of Division II’s Gulf South Conference, and enjoyed their fair share of success (6 conference titles, 8 NCAA appearances, 5 Elite 8 and 2 Final Fours), including the D2 national championship in 1985. Since 2003, JSU has been a member of the Ohio Valley Conference, and are seeking their first conference title and post-season appearance (NCAA or NIT) since leaving Division II. The Gamecocks have never had a player drafted by the NBA although one, Walker Russell, made 28 appearances with the Detroit Pistons in 2012.
JSU plays their home games in Pete Mathews Coliseum, a 5,500-seat gymnasium located on the corner of the campus. The arena’s namesake is a former state legislator who also was a member of the university’s Board of Trustees.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
It appears as though everything is cooked elsewhere and brought to the arena in warmers, as there was no visible kitchen equipment. Chick-fil-A sandwiches ($4) seem to be popular, and there is the standard popcorn, candy, soft pretzels ($3) and bottled sodas ($2.50). In the corner of the arena sits a station selling the Gamecock Pizza Combo for $8.25, which includes two slices and a 20-ounce drink. Overall, the available fare is similar to what you would find anywhere else and you may be better served visiting one of the many local neighborhood establishments prior to or after the game.
Some older venues - think of Allen Fieldhouse or Cameron Indoor Stadium - make up for the lack of modern amenities with history and charm. That isn't the case here, as Mathews appears to just be old. Non-descript in appearance, if you just happened by the arena, you may mistake it for a biology building or library. You enter the arena on the concourse level with the court below, and at first glance, you may think you have walked into a high school gymnasium. In 1987, 850 cushioned, chair-back seats were installed and run five-deep from baseline to baseline on both sides of the lower level. The remainder of the seating, both on the lower level behind the baskets as well as all of the upper-level seating, consists of retractable wooden bleachers painted in a muted battleship gray color. However, with a capacity of only 5,500, there isn't a bad view from anywhere.
Multiple scoreboards are visible from anywhere in the arena. The standard gondola-type board hangs directly over center court, but on either end are large boards which detail not only time and score, but also list all players currently in the game along with their point totals and fouls, keeping fans instantly up to date on all the action.
Here we have the most surprising revelations of the trip. The campus is bordered by residential neighborhoods with many of the houses single family structures complete with old fashioned front porches. The real surprise, however, are the dining options that are either on or just off campus.
Struts Wings ("You Know You Want Some" is their motto) is located in the shadow of the football stadium and specializes in wings. Next door is the cleverly-named "Cock Pit", which is a full-service convenience store. Effina's Tuscan Grille sits just across the street from the main entrance and is a full service sit-down restaurant offering fine Italian dining. Their billboard on this night advertised "Fresh Alaskan Halibut". Other options in and around campus include Yamato Japanese Steak House and a brand new Momma Goldberg's Deli, a franchise which originated in Auburn, but has quickly become an Alabama favorite, particularly on college campuses. Typical fast food fare is available within a mile of campus as well.
On the way out of Jacksonville, about a mile east of campus is Cooter's Rib Shack, whose motto is "Good Ribs and Tasty Butts". The billboard outside advertised Hillbilly Egg Rolls, and I'm kicking myself for not stopping in. Rest assured, I will make it a point to visit either prior to or after the game on my next trip.
As bland as they are in appearance, the bleachers do offer the fans a chance to make a significant amount of noise by stomping on them, especially during an opponent's trip to the foul line. The low, flat roof reverberates the sound directly back down onto the court, creating a communication obstacle to the opposing team. On many nights, the arena struggles to reach half of capacity, but even with those low attendance figures, it can still be noisy. There is decent support from the community, but the student presence seems somewhat lacking. Despite the low numbers, the energy level is good.
Like most OVC schools, JSU plays their marquee games on the road, with the primary conference draw the past few years being Murray State. There are three OVC members within 3˝ hours (Belmont, Tennessee Tech & Tennessee State), but a check of past schedules shows other than Alabama State and Alabama A&M (SWAC), the last time an in-state Division I school came to Mathews Coliseum was UAB in 2009. My guess is they would welcome a home date with Alabama or Auburn, but it's unlikely the SEC big boys would agree to make the trip. This leaves the Gamecocks struggling to find big name non-conference opponents willing to come to their venue.
You don't just happen by Jacksonville State. It might not be exactly in the middle of nowhere, but it is certainly within the circumference of nowhere. Once you find it, however, navigating the campus isn't difficult. Located just to the northwest of downtown Jacksonville, it's mostly flat and not what you would term sprawling, easily navigated from corner to corner in about 15 minutes. Among the most prominent landmarks is 24,000-seat Burgess-Snow Field, home of the Gamecock football team.
Parking is free and there are ample spaces at and around the arena. Roads leading in and out are well-marked and easily accessible, so traffic, especially for a basketball game, is no problem. There are sufficient restrooms to accommodate both men and women, but one quirky feature, at least in the men's room, is the use of the old-fashioned soap dispensers which use powdered soap. I haven't seen that in years.
Tickets are $12 for a seat-back chair and $8 for general admission, while parking is free. If you're hungry, you can probably get sufficiently filled for under $10 per person, meaning you can see a Division I basketball game for around $20.
I'm giving an extra star for the number and variety of dining options in and around campus. An extra star is also given for the surprisingly modern scoreboards, and you have to love a venue that uses powdered soap, so another star there.
The trophy display could use some help, however. Granted, the Gamecocks haven't won anything significant in almost two decades, but the trophy case does not do the contents justice, and all of the trophies contained in it look old enough to vote. It wouldn't hurt to take them out and polish them up once per year.
It may sound as though I'm down on Mathews Coliseum as a venue, but that's really not the case. To me, though, unless you're a JSU alum, there are two main reasons to see a game there: 1) You are on a quest to visit as many arenas and/or see as many teams play before life whistles you for your fifth foul, or 2) JSU is playing a team with national interest, say a Cinderella from a recent NCAA tournament (think Murray State) or a team that has a future NBA player that you'd like to see up close. Otherwise, if you do decide to attend a game there, you likely won't be disappointed, but it will also probably not make your top ten list.
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