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  • Eric Taylor

Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium - Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Photos by Eric Taylor, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.86

Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium 1605 Avenue Of The Champions Bowling Green, KY 42101

Year Opened: 1968 Capacity: 22,113

Topping The Hill

As you exit the interstate and/or parkway and make the drive toward campus, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that Western Kentucky University sits atop a hill in Bowling Green, Kentucky, as you can see the tip-top of campus buildings on the horizon for about three miles until you finally reach the beautiful campus. Western has always had a classic collegiate and university aesthetic and theme as you walk around campus, but with the renovations made over the past 10 years, that look is even more timeless than before. While most schools renovate with architecture that might as well have the year written on it or a design that is so non-descript that the absence of character is overbearing, WKU has a penchant for getting the college experience right.

President Gary Ransdell once jumped from a plane and did a drop-in for the 2014 game versus Army. At that game, WKU announced that they became the first university to have a chair reserved for a POW/MIA/KIA. The chair remains empty at both L.T. Smith Field and Diddle Arena for every game.

Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium holds 22,113 and opened in 1968. The most major renovations in its history were completed in 2008, the most recognizable of which was adding stands to the west sideline. The renovations put the Hilltoppers’ football home at its current capacity, which qualified the school for a move to FBS in 2009. The field moved from natural grass to Astroplay in 2002, and WKU installed FieldTurf in 2009.

Houchens Industries — a huge grocery chain headquartered in Bowling Green– made a $5 million donation/gift to get the renovation rolling. Because of the gift, the Houchens Industries name was added to the name of the renovated stadium. L.T. Smith spent 49 years coaching the Hilltoppers football team (1920-1968). The stadium was originally named for him in 1968 when it opened.

Food & Beverage 4

For some of you, all you need to read is the first item on the list and you will vote this stadium best in the NCAA. Beer is sold on-campus at WKU. The food prices are fair, considering you have a somewhat upgraded list of options compared to stadiums of similar stature. And with a product named the SUPER Nachos, you can’t lose. The options are also realistic to enjoy at your seat and practical for a football game. Sometimes you can offer too much and it becomes impractical. L.T. Smith Stadium gets it right.

The cost for a bottled soft drink is on the pricey side, but not astronomical ($3.50).

Atmosphere 4

The quality of the sound system inside the stadium is apparent, as the booming voice and blaring music can be heard on the stroll from your car to the entry gate. Once inside, you will be given a healthy dose of that audio that sounded so good from outside the stadium. It may hit some ears with a little more zest than others. The video/scoreboard is a relatively good size by today’s standards. It’s utilized well for game presentation between plays, but there are times when you just want to hear the bands play and not be bothered with a random uncomfortably screaming for the fans to get up and get loud on third down. My age is much closer to 40 than 20, so I understand that many of the sights and sounds that I find too stimulating to the senses may be exactly what a 20 year old student/player expects in a game day. My generation’s parents probably thought a scoreboard that showed replays and ads was over-the-top and unnecessary, so I get that and I get “it.”

At the end of the day, the college football game is still recognizable in sight and sound. Marching bands are still visible and audible. Cheerleaders and yell leaders remain visible and audible. The “it” remains visible and audible.

The west side of the stadium was added during the 2008 renovations. Club level and skyboxes line the west side, while the east side still holds the press box and the largest section of seating.

Big Red is one of the premier mascots in all of college athletics. It’s not hyperbole to say Big Red has put WKU in the national conscience. They’ve always had a history with NCAA basketball diehards, but he’s put the school on the national and international map — literally. A perennial nominee for the Capital One Mascot Challenge each year, Big Red gives the school a great identity, although his is still debated across the Ohio Valley. He supposedly embodies the spirit of all the fans in one large red “blot” and does a great job of it.

The Grass Berm (Sonic Zone) is great in the north end zone. The fan zone is great in the south end zone. These two features tie the east and west side stands together nicely, so there are fans around the entire stadium, although seating is pretty much limited to the east and west stands.

The train behind the north end zone reminds you that the outside world still exists and will be there waiting for you when you exit Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.

Neighborhood 4

There are many places in Bowling Green to eat, but Mariah’s in the historic downtown district delivers a great dining experience that is not white-tablecloth, but not sports bar dive. The dishes are delicious, and the salads even have black-eyed peas in them. Sounds crazy, but you have to try it. This restaurant has been serving Bowling Green residents since 1980 ,and should be doing so for generations to come.

WKU is a true college town. So many pieces of the city cater to the university. Bowling Green is not too big to swallow the campus whole, but not so small that campus is the only civilization around. There aren’t many cities better in the Western Kentucky/Middle Tennessee area when looking for a great area to take in a college football game where options for entertainment are available prior to or following the game.

Fans 5

WKU’s alumni base is strong, and the fans are very knowledgeable. There are schools within an hour’s drive that would kill for the alumni pride and support that WKU possesses. There’s nothing else to say other than this school’s fans, for the most part, cheer for their school over the big state school in Lexington. The previous sentence will make a ton of sense if you’ve ever visited or know anyone that has any connection to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Access 4

The walk to the stadium is beautiful. There’s a reason this team is called the Hilltoppers. If you park near Cherry Hall, you will have the pleasure of walking down a very steep hill toward L.T. Smith Stadium. The walk back will be one you can tell your grandchildren about. It’s a walk that every student and alumnus talks about with the passion and emotion of a soldier telling war stories or a grandparent telling kids about walking to school uphill both ways in the snow. It’s steep and it’s nasty. I don’t think there’s a t-shirt at the top that you get for saying you climbed it, but it’s not a bad idea to see if that business model would have legs. Even if you attended college 10 states away and this is your first trip to campus, you will always be a Hilltopper once you’ve hiked the hill.

The stadium’s flow is similar to that of a larger venue, without the long hikes to the bathroom or concessions. You may have a rather lengthy and steep walk to the top of the east side stands if you decide to sit that high in the sky, but otherwise, access to everything is rather simple inside or outside the stadium.

Return on Investment 5

Tickets are $35 for seats on the west side, $25 on the east side, $15 for youth tickets and student guests. Western Kentucky students get free entry with their student ID.

With the above prices, you can really take part in a fantastic experience, though tickets can be pricey if you sit on the newly-renovated west side stands (much smaller section than the sprawling stands on the east sideline and every seat is close to the action). Although the ROI may not be a tangible one — unless you gamble, is any return from sports tangible? — the product on the field and game presentation go so nicely with the entire atmosphere surrounding the campus.

Extras 1

The east side of the stadium carries atmosphere with it 365 days of the year. When facing the east stands, you can read the school’s nickname spelled out in large script letters across every section of the upper deck — H I L L T O P P E R S.

Final Thoughts

Go see a game in this stadium if you are in the area. The fans are fun, the seats are good and the view is great. The charm of campus rolls right downhill into the historic areas of downtown. Enjoy dinner at a restaurant like Mariah’s after the game. There’s no rush to get out of town, so sit down and relax. Work will be waiting for you when you get back on Monday. It’s Saturday. Let Bowling Green take care of you for the weekend.


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