When searching for programs that define success at the mid-major level, Winthrop University certainly belongs in that discussion. Winthrop has seven regular-season and 10 Big South tournament championships in the program's history, with nine NCAA tournament appearances. This success is made all the more impressive by the fact that the program fielded its first team in the 1978-79 season. The Eagles have experienced some ups and downs in recent years, but the university is taking clear steps to quickly return itself to championship form.
Every great program has a great home, and Winthrop is no exception. Opened in 1982, the Winthrop Coliseum has played host to Winthrop winter sports, as well as wrestling events and other shows. The facility seats over 6,000 people, making it the second-largest regularly-used facility in the Big South Conference. Winthrop has an arena and game-day experience that are a good fit with the program's stature and previous success.
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".
Winthrop Coliseum has its share of "standard" concessions, and we will take a look at those in a moment. The thing that sets Winthrop apart from many schools its size, though, is the full-service casual dining restaurant located within the arena. The Eagle's Nest, located in section 105 of the coliseum, has a number of offerings to calm any fan's hunger pangs. There are three salad options (including the $4 chicken caesar), chili or soup ($3.50 each), chicken tender or hot dog baskets for kids, desserts, and french fry baskets. The entree choices are numerous and are all priced at $6.50 with the choice of fries, chips or fruit cup, including roast beef and cheddar or turkey BLT sandwiches, chicken caesar or chicken tender wraps, pulled pork barbecue sandwiches and chicken tender baskets.
The other concession stands are located at sections 109, 120, 126 and 130. The stand at 109 (Papa John's) was not open on the night I visited, but the three remaining stands provide a number of satisfying offerings. Chick-fil-A sandwiches ($4), nachos ($3.50) and hot dogs ($2.50 for regular, $3 for chili dogs) compose the primary "entree" items. Popcorn ($2 for a regular size, $5.50 for a movie theater-sized bucket), soft pretzels ($2.50) and chips ($1.50) are among the snack choices. Combos are also available, with popcorn (bucket of popcorn and 44-ounce souvenir soda for $8, or a bucket of popcorn, 20-ounce souvenir soda and king-size candy for $9), pretzel (super pretzel and 20-ounce soda for $5), hot dog (hot dog and 20-ounce souvenir soda for $6) and nachos (nachos and 20-ounce souvenir soda for $6.50) choices.
Should you not get one of the dessert parfaits or cookies at the Eagle's Nest, dessert options are plentiful at the regular stands. Dibs, Haagen-Dazs and cookie ice cream sandwiches are all available for $3, with ice cream bars ($2.50), push-ups ($1.50), sno cones ($2), king-size candy ($2) and frozen lemonade ($3) rounding out the sweet options. Coca-Cola serves as the campus' bottler, with bottled water ($2), Powerade ($2.50) and sodas ($2 medium, $3 large and $3.50 souvenir) to wash down your meal or snack of choice.
For a school at its level, Winthrop puts on a top-notch presentation. I walked past a motorcycle on my way into the arena and honestly thought nothing of it -- that is, until the starting lineups were announced. Before the Winthrop lineup is introduced, the lights go dark and the sound of the motorcycle revving is heard in the distance. The Winthrop mascot, Big Stuff, then emerges from the tunnel riding a motorcycle onto the floor, as two inflatable signs with the newly-adopted "Rock The Hill" slogan wave and the cheerleaders line the floor. After each player is introduced, the eagle mascot revs the engine on the motorcycle. The smell of the fumes from the bike may be a bit noticeable if you sit near the floor, but it must be conceded that an eagle riding a Harley is not a common sight at a college basketball game.
Speaking of Big Stuff, he spends most of the game wandering through the stands or sitting with the pep band or cheerleaders. The mascot is a favorite of the hometown Winthrop fans, and he also serves as the team's biggest fan. If you need any further proof of the mascot's popularity, he also appeared in a wedding. Yes, a mascot escorted the groom down the aisle. No further words can do this justice.
Winthrop features a small -- though spirited -- pep band. The band plays from an impressive set list, and fight song aside, the band hardly repeats a song from the first song to the final note. They help with the feel of the game, both by their musical performances and by being boisterous fans. The band is seated directly next to the student section, between the basket and the visiting team's bench.
Three scoreboards keep you up to date on the action throughout the game. There is a scoreboard atop the seating bowl in either end zone, with the requisite points and fouls for each player on the floor, as well as the game score and time remaining. There is a large center-hung scoreboard that shows video of the game, so in the unlikely event that you are unable to see the floor from your seat, you can watch the board. The only downfall with the video board is that the only mention of the score and time remaining are in small font on the video screen. An additional electronic component that displays this information below the video board would be a nice touch.
The neighborhood around Winthrop Coliseum is, to be fair, in transition. There are several choices nearby, but some care should be exercised in where you enjoy your post-game meal. Michael's Rock Hill Grille, White Horse and Sonny's Dutch Mill are among the local choices within a few minutes of the athletic complex, and all are local favorites. Sonny's Dutch Mill has a somewhat early closing time, so this may be a better option to grab a cheeseburger, chili dog or other favorite before heading to the arena.
South Carolina Interstate 77 is within a few minutes of the parking lot, with a number of chains populating the area near the highway. Carolinas chain favorite Cook Out is one of these options, with great food, low prices and late hours. This is a preferred hangout for Winthrop students after the game.
Manchester Village is one exit south on 77, just off the interstate on South Carolina Highway 122 (Dave Lyle Boulevard). This area contains a small mall, a number of big-box stores and several dining establishments. Should none of the other choices satisfy your preferences, Amber Buffet & Hibachi is located on this exit. Dining options for every preference are available at Amber. If big city fare is more your style, Charlotte is approximately 20 miles north on Interstate 77.
I attended a weeknight game involving Winthrop and one of their Big South Conference opponents, Gardner-Webb. The crowd was a bit small on the night I attended, and was a bit slow to get started in supporting the homestanding Eagles. The introduction was a big hit, but things did not start to heat up until the second half, right about the same time as the Eagles' offense. This is not to say the crowd was disinterested, but they were a bit quiet at first.
The Winthrop student section is a bit smaller for weeknight games, much like the remainder of the crowd. Some of the fraternities help lead the cheers from the crowd, aided by the band. Winthrop also features its share of loyalists, much like any other school.
The crowds are somewhat bigger on the weekends, as with most of the schools in Winthrop's conference. The arena's seating capacity and student body are almost identical in size, so if every student decided to come out, they could create quite the atmosphere. There is never really a bad time to catch a Winthrop game, but if you want to see the arena at its loudest, check out a game on a Saturday.
Getting to Winthrop Coliseum from the interstate is relatively easy. The arena is just off US Highway 21 (Cherry Road), and stop lights aside, the drive is not so painful. A large electronic sign on Cherry Road alerts you to the necessary turn to reach the arena. A large parking area surrounds the arena on both sides. Parking is free and within a short walk of the arena.
Those flying to visit Winthrop Coliseum are likely best served to fly into Charlotte International Airport (CLT). The airport is 30-45 minutes from the campus (depending on traffic) via Interstate 77. Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) has buses that venture into South Carolina, but they do not travel close enough to Winthrop Coliseum to be a viable option.
Once inside the arena, the concourse is wide and allows for easy movement, with one exception. There is an area called The Landing, which appears to be for Eagle Club members. This may cause a brief detour as you walk around the arena. Also, the concourse is separate from the seating bowl, so you will actually exit the seating area to visit the concession stands or restrooms. The restrooms are clean and plentiful, with two restrooms for men and three for women. Interestingly, the male bathrooms offer baby changing stations, should you be attending the game with a child.
There is one additional perk -- assuming you can call it that -- to the concourse layout. Sure, there are some concerns with walking all the way around the arena, and the concourse does not have a view of the court, but there are flat-screen televisions on the concourse walls that show the game. In case your trip to get a snack or use the restroom takes longer than you anticipated, this is a nice touch.
There are ticketing tiers for every budget available at Winthrop, with the most expensive seat in the house a very reasonable $15. The team offers end zone reserved seating ($6), side court reserved seating ($8) and two lower levels of reserved side court seating ($12 and $15). There is a $1.50 convenience fee for online ticket purchases, so buying in person may be a preferred option in order to avoid that fee.
If you decide to buy a $6 seat (be advised - some of the $6 seats may cause occasional sight line concerns due to railings and fans moving about, but they are still a great value), a hot dog and soda, this will total $10.50. Free programs are available at each arena entrance, and combined with free parking, this lets a family of four see a game for just over $40. Even in a smaller town like Rock Hill, this deal is tough to beat.
We just mentioned the free program, and this is a nice touch. The program features rosters for both Winthrop and their opponents, player bios and coupons to local dining establishments. The free price tag is nice enough on its own, but the coupons add value.
Winthrop offers a school Hall of Fame and trophy cases along the concourse. The Hall of Fame is near sections 126 and 128. Though Winthrop does not have a tremendously extensive athletic history, they do pay homage to the school's athletic accomplishments and past stars.
Championship banners line the rafters in the arena. We mentioned Winthrop's championship history earlier in the article, and the banners from those championships hang above the court. The other winter sports' accomplishments are also honored through similar banners.
A Winthrop souvenir shop is set up on the concourse just inside the arena entrance. The store is a bit small, but the selection of Winthrop gear is quite impressive. Prices are about what one would expect from a souvenir shop, and the convenience is an added benefit.
There are a number of promotions and activities during game breaks. Many of these are fairly common, such as the pizza scream (which did not draw much of a scream on the night I attended). There are two somewhat unusual promotions, however. As the players exit the locker room to take the floor, they throw t-shirts into the crowd. This is nice because it provides a free t-shirt to some lucky fans, but it also helps connect the team to the fans. There is also a "Crunch Time" promotion at the final media timeout with four minutes remaining in the game. The cheerleaders take this break to throw Nestle Crunch bars into the stands. If your sweet tooth is calling you and you've run out of money, make some noise during this break to try to get a candy bar.
Rock Hill is more than a stop on the way from Charlotte to Columbia. This city is gaining momentum, just like the school that calls it home. The question that must now be asked by Winthrop fans is whether the school can recapture the magic they have experienced as a basketball program. Based on their facility and the school's commitment to the program, the chances look quite favorable.
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