Abilene Christian Wildcats vs. Sam Houston State Bearkats, 11/12/22, 1pm

Wildcats 48 – Bearkats 28; Attendance 7,592

Weather: Sunny 50; Ticket: $10; Parking: Free

Buckle Up Bearkats, by Tree

Buckle Up Bearkats, by Tree

The Location:

Sam Houston State is in Huntsville, Texas. It is a short hour drive up from Houston, which is where I would stay if I was coming to see the Bearkats play. I am not saying Huntsville isn’t a tourist destination but after you see the Prison Museum and the massive Sam Houston statue, there’s a sizeable drop-off in marquee sites. Seriously, for a one-day visit Huntsville is serviceable and Houston has plenty to do for a weekend. Neither of them, though, are destination cities.

The Site:

Sam Houston State is currently in the FCS but are making the jump to FBS for the 2023 season. I visited them in their final year of FCS in 2022. Clearly, they have some adjustments to make the jump to the FBS. The current tailgating at SHS is a bit strange. The lots immediately in front and directly surrounding the stadium are reserved for season ticket holders. Given the smaller popularity base, there’s not active 3rd party seller for those passes and there is no tailgating in those lots. However, a short walk from those lots, are the tailgate lots which are free. Not only that, but they don’t exactly enforce space usage.

For this game, I had a quasi-retirement party as I was retiring from my employer and getting ready to move back east. We had about 40 people coming so I was a bit apprehensive about having enough space. It was not an issue. Both my wife and I drove to the game, which for us was less than a forty-five-minute drive. We pulled into a nearly empty lot. After parking, I walked over to a group with a large barbecue rig and asked them the protocol given there were no attendants at the lot. Turns out they were part of the baseball team and they said we could take as many spots as we wanted. They said no one is going to care and the lot probably won’t fill up any way. We then took five spots, three empty spots with our cars on either side. It gave us plenty of room for our two tents, multiple tables, etc. The lot never did fill up and our guests could park in the same lot. I should note that it was exceptionally cold for Texas that day, windy and in the low forties. I recognize that is nice Big Ten weather, but our Texas natives were freezing.

Because of the weather, the tailgating crowd may have been a bit smaller than normal. There is a “Bearcat Alley” where vendors and student groups tailgate. We were not able to get access to those spots. It had more traffic than the tailgate lot but not substantially more. Folks may just go right there. For us, it was great. We had plenty of room for an expansive breakfast menu and full bar complete with Irish coffees and mimosas. The SHS support staff even swung by and dropped off a trash barrel for us. We had plenty of room for cornhole and plenty of chairs. Not that it mattered though as most of our guests stood around shivering. The tailgate spot was right on the route of the Bearkat marching band and they stopped by and gave us (well the whole lot) a bit of a show. Undoubtedly, as the program grows, their approach to tailgating will change. I do hope they recognize that accessibility and convenience for the fans should take priority over whatever revenue they think they might be able to make on the lots. My experience with small programs that try to act like big programs in this area fail and fail miserably. They end up with half full lots and even less tailgating. There simply isn’t enough demand to support either exclusivity or substantial revenues. They should take a page from schools like Miami of Ohio and keep the tailgating both affordable and accessible.

The Bearkats play at Elliot T. Bowers Stadium with has an official capacity of ~12,600. Clearly, they must have some expansion plans because the FBS attendance requirement is to average 15,000 per game. Even an expanded Bowers Stadium will still be small enough so that every seat is a good one. We bought our seats at a group rate of $10 a seat and that put us at the 20-yard line, 20 seats up. If we had been willing to pony up another $15, we would have been sitting in the orange chairback seats. As it was, we were in bleacher seats. The seats were fine, and we were able to easily see the one large video scoreboard in the endzone. We also had plenty of room to spread out. Another perk was that we were close enough to get a snapshot with their mascot, Sammy the Bearkat and one of our group caught a free t-shirt. Such are the perks of small venues. The concession stands were a mix of standard concessions and some boutique local stands as well. We recommend the latter over the former after one our guests regretted the mass packaged hamburger she bought, especially when she saw the locals cooking up fresh food just down the corridor. With folks around us purchasing beers and bottled soft drinks, I was afraid that I would not be able to get my souvenir cup, but the Bearkats came through with a decent one.

As for traditions, Sam Houston State has a few although not as prominent as one might expect for a program that has been around since 1912. Give the Bearkats their props as they have a cumulative win/loss record over 500 and have been around a lot longer than a number of other FBS small schools like Central Florida or Liberty. Of course, much of that has been in a smaller school environment so that may explain for the lack unifying traditions. They do have good band and a great signature cheer, “Eat ‘em up Kats!” with the accompanying claw sign. It is not bad. Sammy the Bearkat frequently roams the stands. The fans were into the game and while not raucous, they were not sitting on their hands either. The attire was standard sweatshirts and jeans with a lot of bright orange. It didn’t look like the student section was dressing any differently. The game was televised, sort of, on ESPN+.

The Game:

On paper, this game looked to be a good one. In fact, the line had the Bearkats at minus eight. Abilene Christian was 6-3 and the Bearkats were 5-2. I was hoping it would be good one given our group had several folks who were either European or South American and had never seen a college football game. Unfortunately, this game got out of hand quickly. Like if you went to the concession stand, you missed it, quickly. Sam Houston State fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and two plays later, ACU scored a touchdown. The Bearkats were forced to punt after three plays on their next possession and it was blocked. Two plays and a touchdown later, the Wildcats were now up 14-0. This was followed by another three and out by the Bearkats. The punt was not blocked but it went a measly 23 yards. At least it took ten plays, but ACU scored another touchdown. With about six minutes left in the first quarter, it was all Wildcats, up 21 – 0. I leaned over to my friends from Europe and said that it usually doesn’t go like this.

However, the plucky Kats did not give up. They responded in short order, scoring a touchdown in a drive in less than two minutes highlighted by a 60-yard bomb. There were then a couple of short possessions, and it was ACU’s turn to cough up the ball. Sam Houston intercepted ACU but did not capitalize on the sudden change. The defense was now fired up and forced the Wildcats to punt. The Bearkats exploded with a big 42-yard TD and now we had game with ACU only up 21 -14. The Sam Houston defense bent but did not break. They allowed a 35-yard field by the Wildcats.

It was 24 – 14 with only about three minutes to half time. I was thinking to myself that if Sam Houston can score before the half, they will be in great shape for the second half. At a minimum, if they can eat some clock and go in only down by 10, they should be able to reset in the locker room. It was not to be. The Bearkats immediately fumbled the kickoff, and the Wildcats punched it in again in only four plays. It then went from bad to worse as they threw a pick on the next series and, yes, they gave up another touchdown. ACU scored seventeen points in the final three minutes of the half. Three turnovers and a blocked punt had pretty much sealed the Bearkats’ fate on that day.

I will give them credit, the Bearkats didn’t give up the second half. They clawed their way back to cut the lead to ten late in the second half before having to gamble with a fourth down attempt deep in their territory with only three minutes left in the game. ACU scored again with a very short drive. I, and our crew, however, did not see most of that having bailed midway through the third quarter. We didn’t need to see the ESPN analytics at halftime that said the Bearkats had 3% chance of winning. We already knew those Kats were cooked.

Personal Notes:

Sam Houston State has had its share of success. They have won two national championships, the NAIA in 1964 and the FCS in 2020. I worked closely with their group sales guy, Montel, who went out of his way to make our visit a success. If you buy 50 tickets, you get a lot of perks, like pre-game on the field access, a group photo and a visit from Sammy. We only had bought 30 tickets, but we still got two out of three. Of course, my group was more focused on eating and drinking then getting to see the teams warm up. Apparently, beer and donuts are greater than Bearkats and the band. We still got on the field, but only briefly. We also got the group photo. It is this kind of customer service that Sam Houston State needs to maintain as they move forward. However, being a must-see spot takes even more than that. From increasing capacity to improving their level of play, the Bearkats have some work to do. It will likely be a rough ride for the first couple of years.

I would say that for now Sam Houston State is more like “wait and see.” If you have strong reason to go to Bower Stadium such as your alma mater playing them, or you have a son or daughter that would be participating in a game in some manner, then you could certainly consider it. Otherwise, for now, a visit to see the Bearkats should be driven by opportunity rather than an objective.

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