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. The University of North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest and Duke all take up residence in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and combine storied histories with excited fanbases and beautiful campuses.
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 former Titans and current Eagles assistant Jim Washburn is also a graduate of the program.
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 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".
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 and hamburgers (both of which can be purchased with chips, which saves you a dollar over separately buying the two items), Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches, nachos, popcorn, candy and chips. The chicken sandwiches and hamburgers are the most expensive single items at $4 each, so the pricing structure is pretty easy on the wallet. Pepsi is the official bottler serving the campus, and they offer 20-ounce bottled sodas, water and tea for $2. 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 at the end of the home side of the concourse. There is a separate stand offering funnel cakes, sno-cones, French fries and fried Oreos. Fried Oreos are a first for me at a game, and they are apparently a big hit with the locals. The line for this stand seemed to be twice as long at halftime as the others on the day I attended. The funnel cakes and Oreos are $5, while the sno-cones are $3 each.
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. I noticed many fans electing this seating option during my visit.
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.
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. A coffee shop (Broad River Coffee Company) is near the corner of North Carolina Highway 150, and they offer the usual coffee shop fare, free wi-fi and occasional musical performances.
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. Papa's Pizza is on NC 150, and provides a lot of pizza, subs, salads and sides for a pretty reasonable price. Georgio's and Quik Snak are also within a short distance of campus. If these options do not satisfy your palate, the town of Shelby is a few miles away, with Charlotte, as mentioned, 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.
I honestly became a little worried on my trip to Spangler Stadium, as there were quite a few open seats minutes before the game. These worries were unfounded, though, as the seats quickly filled with people sporting scarlet and black. The fans were into the action throughout, and though the result on this day was not the one desired by the hometown fans, they still stayed to support the Runnin' Bulldogs. The home side of the stadium was essentially full, and as previously mentioned, fans also tend to spread out onto the hill during each game.
The Gardner-Webb fans are very respectful and do not spend their time taunting opposing players or fans, which is a nice touch. One fan drew a few laughs on my visit, however. She was sitting below us on the Gardner-Webb side of the field, frequently yelling "HIT HIM!" whenever a Samford player had the ball. Strangely, she also made the same request when some Gardner-Webb players had the ball, leading us to wonder if she was simply a fan of players hitting each other.
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, so plan to stay in nearby Shelby, North Carolina or Gaffney, South Carolina.
There is plenty of nearby 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 portable restrooms are the predominant option on that side of the stadium.
There are two ticketing levels at Gardner-Webb, with reserved seats priced at $20 and general admission at $12, $7 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 chairbacks, and seems reasonably comfortable, as bleachers go. There is also the added benefit of being able to sit on the hill, as previously mentioned.
The concessions are a tremendous value. If you buy a general admission seat and add a hot dog or hamburger, chips and a drink, it is possible to enjoy a game for under $20, which is good for the wallet and on pace with the majority of the schools in the Big South Conference.
The university sells game programs for $3, which may seem to be somewhat high in price; however, there are benefits to the game program. A QR code is located on the front of the program, with a special video message to fans when the code is scanned with a cell phone. Universities are constantly finding ways to be more interactive, and this is a nice added value. 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.
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 university launches t-shirts into the crowd at a couple of intervals. This is a welcome thing for college students, as money is not always a prevalent thing. If you are not fortunate enough to catch a t-shirt, have no fear, as the Bulldog Store also 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 seemed to be a steady stream of business on the day I attended.
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 was incredibly nice and seemed to appreciate those who chose to spend their Saturday watching Runnin' Bulldog football. I was welcomed as I entered the gates, as were those who entered around me. 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 (or conference mate Presbyterian, for that matter) with a must-see football destination. Most who would come to North Carolina to see a football game would attend one of the universities I mentioned in the beginning of this review, 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.
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105 S Main St
Boiling Springs, NC 28017
105 N Main St
Boiling Springs, NC 28017
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