18,317 fans fill Smith Stadium to the brim

Michael Casagrande

Four colors filled the sky above Smith Stadium Saturday night. But that wasn’t the most amazing thing of the night.

The most amazing sight took nine hours to build. Beginning around 10 a.m. Saturday, fans flocked to the Hill to form the biggest September football crowd ever.

Paul Just, sports information director emeritus, has seen all but one game at the stadium in the more than 34 years its been open. And even he was surprised.

“It was borderline electric,” Just said. “The atmosphere was as good as I’ve ever seen it. I would say the crowd was as involved as I’ve ever seen.”

Some fans were turned away as an overflow crowd of 18,317 packed into the 17,500-seat facility. The crowd was the largest seen since 1987 when Western beat Murray State 21-17 before a crowd of 19,250.

Ticket office manager Jim Cope said the overflow crowd is common at stadiums around the country when games are sold out.

“The problem you run into is you have to pull tickets for players and cheerleaders,” Cope said. “And sometimes you have overages when they are not all used.”

Cope estimated that 100-150 fans were turned away from the ticket window Saturday afternoon after the game was officially sold out.

Just compared the crowd to the 20,428 that saw the Eastern Kentucky game in the first season football was played at Smith Stadium.

But it’s taken more than 34 years for the tailgating culture to come full-circle.

“For many years, people did not take advantage of the social aspect of the game,” Just said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it the way it was Saturday.”

The first tailgating fans arrived nine hours before kickoff, lining Big Red Way and filling the lawns around Downing University Center.

Gary Wagner, of Louisville, said the Eastern game’s atmosphere was the best he’s ever seen at Western.

“It was a big-time, college-game atmosphere,” Wagner said. “When we walked out here, it was unbelievable how big the crowd was.”

President Gary Ransdell said Western could have sold as many as 21,000 tickets to the game, and gives credit to the thousands of students that attended the game.

Ransdell said student attendance was important enough to turn paying customers away to accommodate every student hoping to get in.

“This game was by the fans and for the fans,” he said. “Our team just played flawlessly, but the fans get this victory.”

Louisville graduate student Aaron French freely displayed his Topper spirit with body paint. French was the ‘O’ in ‘Go Western,’ spelled by a group of student fans.

“I think it’s amazing,” French said. “I’ve never seen a crowd like this at Western.”

French also attended the 2000 Eastern game.

“It was pretty hyped up, but not like this,” French said.

Former Western women’s basketball coach Steve Small had a seat near midfield for the Eastern game. The Lady Topper coach from 1997-2001 was happy to see the rivalry renewed. He said he would like to see teams like Murray State come to Smith Stadium in the near future.

“I think it’s what college football is all about,” Small said. “Eastern-Western, you can’t say any more than that. It’s great to have that rivalry – the atmosphere is tremendous for college football.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].