Review: UTEP Miners vs. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, 10/14/2017, 6:00p
Final Score: Golden Eagles 24 – Miners 0, Attendance: 21,970
Weather: Beautiful, 82; Ticket: $25 Stubhub ($30 at gate); Parking: $20
“Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Tree
The Golden Eagles play at M. M. Roberts Stadium, otherwise affectionately known as the Rock. Apparently, building the stadium was so tough that it was compared to being a resident of Alcatraz, hence the “Rock” moniker. It is certainly a good enough back story for the nickname. Unfortunately, this occurred in 1932, which is after the creation of Slippery Rock University in 1889. In the very subjective world of this Somanystadiums reviewer, it puts Southern Mississippi in the role of copycat, much like Appalachian State. It may be unfair, particularly with the amount of geography between the schools, but there can be only one Rock. Not that it should rub Golden Eagle fans the wrong way because I doubt there’s going to be a lot of barroom debate on it. Southern Mississippi has had a reputation as hard-nosed team and a very tough out. They actually claim two UPI national titles from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. They have 78 consensus All-Americans with NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre being the most notable.
The Rock is in the heart of campus which is always a strong plus. It is well designed and seats 36,000. It has a decent video scoreboard that provided the requisite stats on both the game and the occasional update on other games around the country. The bathrooms were decent and the right size for the stadium. The concessions were average which was a little disappointing because I thought it could have had some more regional flair. However, they were cooking the burgers on grills just outside the corridors of the stadium which is more ambiance than you will find at a lot of stadiums these days. The souvenir cup was a bit disappointing with a prominent “Coke” advertisement ring at the bottom of the cup.
We bought our seats through StubHub and saved about $5 bucks versus the price you’d pay at the gate. We had indications that you could get a ticket much cheaper via scalpers but we saw no one selling tickets. We weren’t looking very hard, but I doubt it is a vibrant market. This was homecoming weekend so one would think demand would be strong but with plenty of tickets available at the gate, it was not a seller’s market. For our money, we got seats on the 40 yard line halfway up the first tier. They were classic bench seating but with great sight lines. The Rock is the dying breed of stadium that still lets you bring in your own seat back and I was disappointed that we didn’t bring ours. There are luxury boxes on the one end of the stadium and it looked like a row of seats at the very top of those. It looked like a roof top and may represent a unique way to see the game.
I would say the stadium was about two thirds full for the game and the fans were fairly well into it. We had a hard time identifying the student section and as my son remarked, “If you can’t find the student section, then it isn’t a very good one.” I will not that they were also having a raffle for students but they had to be present to win in the fourth quarter. While not a ringing endorsement for a great college environment, the atmosphere was still pretty good and nothing like the dismal environment we saw at FIU where a similar raffle gimmick was employed. There no real signature cheer at Southern Mississippi. They do say “To the Top” after each offensive first down, followed by the screech of an eagle from the PA system. Not quite as good as UTSA’s roadrunner beep-beep, but a cut above most schools’ generic, “another (insert mascot name here) first down” cheer. There are a few promotional bits during timeouts, but there was nothing particularly noteworthy.
The Southern Mississippi campus is located in southern Mississippi, at least two hours away from anything even remotely interesting from a tourist perspective. That isn’t a criticism but more an observation that one is not likely to have much of a reason to visit Hattiesburg other than to see a game. We drove down from Jackson and found the drive to be an easy one. We did note that despite being relatively flat, Mississippi is a pretty state. The logistics of getting to the stadium were easy. Hattiesburg is not exactly huge and getting to the campus was well managed with not much game day traffic. The issue was with the parking and the tailgating.
Southern Mississippi is trying to create a similar environment to its larger in-state competitors, Miss. State and ‘Ol Miss., where there is tailgating within campus. At Southern Mississippi, anyone can set up a tailgate tent on campus starting around noon on Friday. It is a great option if you are local, not so much if you are coming from out of town. There also a number of lots around campus for parking, but nearly all are restricted to various levels of donations to the University. Again, this is great if you are an alum, not so much for the out of towner. The lots for the public are not anywhere near the tailgating. Another curious element to the tailgating is the use of golf carts. Not unlike a Florida retirement community, many of the fans that tailgate motor around campus to and fro on golf carts of varying quality and design. This is very unique and makes it easy to plop down and tailgate anywhere on campus. At somanystadiums.com we consider ourselves well prepared tailgaters, but we don’t haul a golf cart everywhere we go. So again, it is not a plus feature for visitors. It is compounded by the fact that there is no after-market for the parking passes. After a very stressful parking pass experience at UTSA the previous weekend, I was all ready to purchase something in advance. However, I could find no one selling parking passes anywhere online, from Stubhub to Craigslist, there was nothing listed. Zip, zero, zilch.
So, we just decided to wing it on Saturday. We arrived on campus around 3:30 for the 6:00pm kickoff. The first public lot was already full (I do think they are free). We had already decided that dumping our stuff off in the heart of campus and having one of us park the car at the end of the campus was something to avoid. It was particularly frustrating to drive past private lot after lot on campus with plenty of open spots but with no access since we didn’t have a pass. Like UTSA, I guess hope springs eternal at these smaller schools that one day the capacity will be utilized. Meanwhile, tailgating visitors get short changed in the process. We were about to resign ourselves to eating in our car when we came across a lot that was actually taking money for parking. It was $20 but all I could say was thank God for the Baptist Student Center. Right across from the lot was a bucolic grove of trees and grass with a five or six tents already tailgating. There was plenty of space to join in, and we happily set up our stuff after schlepping it about 30 yards. I could see the appeal of the golf carts. I was expecting the environment to pick up since it was still a good two hours before kickoff. There were two tents set up right in front of us with a number of chairs, and a generator running. I assumedd they had headed off to the Spirit Walk and would return ready to party. However, when they returned with their golf cart, they quickly packed up and were on their way with still over hour to kick off.
My son and I agreed that the environment could be great, if there were just more folks actually tailgating. Instead it was more like a campground at half capacity. It was nice and relaxing, but not quite the vibe one looks for at an FBS school. I talked to some of the other tailgaters, all of whom were very nice. While they filled me in on the traditions, it became apparent that they appreciated this slower paced, Southern approach. They also said the more vibrant tailgating was closer to the stadium. We did briefly check that out on our way to the stadium. It was good but it was also a mix of sponsored private and student led tailgates. It was certainly a good atmosphere, but not the easiest one for a visitor to participate in.
I had seen Southern Mississippi play UTSA the week before and they looked good in beating the Roadrunners. The running game of the Golden Eagles was particularly strong. With the Miners coming in winless at 0-6, this had all the feel of a homecoming beat down. Ultimately, that is what it was, but it took a lot longer to get there given some very sloppy play. Six turnovers and a myriad of penalties made this game very hard to watch at times. Additionally, the more the Miners hung around, the more I found I was rooting for the underdog UTEP. Their defense played inspired particularly in pass coverage. For the life of me, I could not understand why Southern Mississippi wasn’t running the ball more. While their stud running back, Ito Smith did rush for over a hundred-twenty, the Eagles also threw 27 times barely completing half of them. On the other side, UTEP should have abandoned the run after the first series. The Golden Eagle defense was stifling on the ground, holding the Miners to 17 yards. Southern Mississippi took a very shaky 14 – 0 lead into halftime thanks to a couple of bone-headed plays by UTEP. Apparently, there was a reason why they had not yet tasted victory. It took some time in the third quarter, but the Golden Eagles finally scored the third touchdown to pretty much seal up the win. The fans had much more confidence than me as many of them starting leaving at halftime. It was not an unreasonable assumption as UTEP never really threatened the entire game. If not for some careless play, the Golden Eagles could have sealed this game up in time to enjoy the halftime Homecoming festivities.
I struggle how to categorize this experience. My wife and son came to the game with me and we did have a nice time once we got over the anxiety of where to park. Once we got the tailgate set up and had a couple of adult beverages, it was very relaxing. It wasn’t the atmosphere I was expecting, but it was enjoyable. We had plenty of room in the stands and the fans were congenial. The football wasn’t the best, but the Eagles may just have had a bad day. They looked much better the weekend before.
I would not classify it as a must see stadium and I don’t think I would make a special trip either. However, if you team is playing them, I would support going to Southern Mississippi. I would plan on tailgating and setting up on Friday. You will likely be able to get a very nice spot and it won’t be as hectic as it would be trying to get into the Grove at ‘Ol Miss.