Column: Represent Eastern, support Panther athletics

Blake Nash, Assistant Sports Editor

*This column originally was printed in the Monday Dec. 7 edition of The Daily Eastern News
As a senior, it’s hard to believe that my time with The Daily Eastern News is over. I’ve had a great time covering several of the university’s teams, especially during this year’s football season. But as I reflect on those memories, the more I realize that not everything reached my expectations, especially on November 7 when Eastern hosted No. 1 ranked Jacksonville State.

It was a battle of two unbeaten Ohio Valley Conference teams, but the attendance failed to indicate the game’s importance. The Panthers took the field in front of a crowd of over 4,000 in the 10,000-seat O’Brien Field. Even with the history the program has, 21 former and current NFL players and five conference championships since 1996, they’ve not been able to attract attention like a winning team should. Parking lot tailgaters seem to outnumber those that actually go into the stadium to watch the games. But how is it that FCS teams like North Dakota State and Montana are able to attract more fans to their games?

It’s simple, there aren’t many teams to compete with for viewership. Montana led the nation in attendance last year with 23,777 because there is only one other Division 1 college football team in the state, their rivals Montana State. Add that and the fact that the Grizzlies have played in seven national championships and won two of them, it’s obvious that their success has attracted a large following of fans. North Dakota State, which is honestly in the middle of nowhere, continues to have a national championship caliber team every year. That and the fact that the Bisons play inside a dome, a rare site for college football, garners interest for the program.

While Eastern has been solid on the gridiron and produced NFL talent, the fan base throughout the area remains mostly vested in FBS programs, which have their games televised every weekend. Not many FCS teams can say that. The only way to follow them week-to-week is to watch the games streaming online, which isn’t legal in some places, or listen on the radio. Eastern has been fortunate enough to have all games shown on the OVC Digital Network but attendance has not been big enough for an annually good team. O’Brien is not the largest stadium in the FCS but the fact that they can’t get at least 8,000 fans for a game, especially one against the No. 1 team in the country, is embarrassing.

But maybe the state of the facility does not garner enough interest. As I covered the team this year, a couple of players mentioned throughout the year that they liked playing at O’Brien, but would like it to be bigger. One suggested that they could add bleachers surrounding the entire stadium. O’Brien last went through renovations in 1999, which added an expanded weight room, coaches’ offices and new locker rooms. You only need to look at how the state’s financial crises is affecting the university to know that most likely won’t happen in the near future. There is only one way to promote Eastern football and it’s the same method that schools through the country use: history lessons.

Remind everybody about all the professional players that played on that field, especially Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. How many other FCS schools can say that a former player has started for an NFL team in the last 10 years? There’s also coaches that have become part of Eastern lore. Former head coach Bob Spoo won 144 games in 25 years, and was inducted into the OVC Hall of Fame, following his retirement in 2011. His successor Dino Babers, recently named head coach at Syracuse, won a pair of OVC titles in his two years with the Panthers, which were led by Walter Payton Award winner quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. We were proud that year and it resulted in ESPN feature the university on its weekly programs. That shows that our support means something.

Every fall Saturday when I walk past the entrance to O’Brien, I always look up at the pictures of the EIU greats that excelled in the pros. My family always reminds me how lucky I am of a few things every week: going to a great university, being part of a national recognized collegiate newspaper and being part of a small school that’s produced professional talent, including both athletics and academics. My sister, who attended the University of Illinois, even admits our programs compete harder than the Fighting Illini in some sports. Now as I go into my final week, I’m spreading that same message.

Be proud of your Panthers and all that they accomplish because most of the country does not notice them. Every home game lead them to victory with your passion and support. Show the nation, not just the OVC and the area, that what makes us different is ourselves. When the television sets show Eastern athletics and its community at its greatest, the nation will finally know. The size of your facilities and campus does not define your school, the people who represent it do. On a fall Saturday or a basketball game against Murray State, Belmont or Southeast Missouri, let it be known that this is what we call home. It’s in Charleston.

Blake Nash is a senior journalism major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].