- Eric Moreno
Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum - Sam Houston State Bearkats
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 2.86
Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum 1964 Bobby K. Marks Dr. Huntsville, TX 77340
Sam Houston State Bearkats Website Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum Website
Year Opened: 1976
East Texas Bearkats
Nestled among the lush greenery of the foothills of the Piney Woods area of East Texas is the city of Huntsville, Texas, home of Sam Houston State University. The university bears the name of one of the great heroes in Texas history. The school’s athletic programs, the Bearkats, have seen an extraordinary amount of success since they began.
The men’s basketball program began in 1917 and would go 43–11 during their first five seasons, including an unblemished 24–0 record during the first three. They have 14 regular season conference titles, five postseason conference tournament appearances, and made the NCAA Tournament twice since becoming Division I participants (in 2003 and 2010) as members of the Southland Conference. The team is currently a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and has seen runs recently to the NIT (in 2019) and to the CIT.
Sam Houston State moved into their current home in 1976. Originally known as University Coliseum, it was remodeled in time for the 1986-1987 season and rechristened the Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum after an honored member of the school’s Board of Regents. It is also home to both the Bearkats women’s basketball and volleyball teams. The classically designed coliseum has a devoted following among the Bearkats faithful. Read on to learn what makes it special.
Food & Beverage 3
The concessions at Johnson Coliseum are pretty much what you’d expect to find at a mid-major collegiate program. There are three main stands that you can find near the entrance areas, and they all serve the same items. The three stands allow fans to get their food and beverage pretty quickly, and not miss much of the on-court action.
The items the stands offer include hot dogs (regular for $4 and Bearkat, a.k.a. jumbo, for $4.50), nachos ($7), bottled and fountain drinks ($3.50 and $4), and Domino’s pizza, either cheese or pepperoni by the slice or as a whole medium pizza ($3.50 per slice or $14 for the whole deal). The stands also offer candy and popcorn.
The one caveat to be aware of is that Sam Houston State does not sell any beer or alcoholic beverages at their games at Johnson Coliseum – keep this in mind if that’s something you traditionally like to imbibe during games.
The architectural design of the Johnson Coliseum is a great throwback to old-school round arenas, which you don’t see much of anymore. The walls are decorated with the banners of all the Bearkats tournament appearances, championships, and conference titles.
Sam Houston State also completed their latest round of renovations to the coliseum in 2016, where they installed a 31-foot videoboard and upgraded the seats in the lower courtside level. Outside the coliseum near the main sign there is a marble statue of the team’s namesake bearcat, as well as a life-sized statue of the mascot, Sammy Bearkat.
Another point of interest to be on the lookout for is the team store – this is located near the box office entrance and sells the traditional team paraphernalia if you’re interested in stocking up on Sam Houston State gear for the game.
Johnson Coliseum is located right in the middle of the Sam Houston State University campus. It also shares a parking lot with Bowers Stadium, home to the Bearkats championship-winning football team. It’s a typical college town, with one notable exception.
For the sake of transparency, the city is the headquarters of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (it has been since Texas was founded as a Republic in 1836) and there are several prisons throughout the area. If you travel into Huntsville on Interstate 45, the prisons are unavoidable. However, as you move into the city and towards the university, there are no reminders of that part of the city at all.
In terms of attractions, Huntsville has a lot to offer visitors looking to do something before or after Bearkats games. For history buffs make sure to visit the Sam Houston Memorial Museum; this 15-acre complex is located on the site of the former homestead of Sam Houston, and is dedicated to telling the story of the first President of the Republic of Texas. Not too far from the museum you can also visit the Sam Houston Statue and Visitors Center. At 67-feet tall, it is the largest statue in the world of an American hero.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Huntsville State Park has all the amenities you could hope for. Again, the city is the gateway of the Piney Woods region of the state, and the park is a perfect example of this type of environment. Covered by a canopy of Texas pine trees it offers a year-round mild climate that is perfect for hiking, biking, and camping. There is also canoeing, fishing, and swimming allowed in certain areas of Lake Raven; check their website for hours and camping site availability.
When it comes to dining there are also a lot of great options, many of which are close to campus. One I would highly recommend is Farmhouse Café & Bakery – offering blue plate specials, specialty sandwiches (the double-decker BLT is a fave), and homemade baked good and desserts (I couldn’t stop eating the broccoli cheddar cornbread), the Farmhouse is a favorite among locals, visitors, and Bearkat students. Or, for something off the proverbial beaten path, Carbonero Rotisserie Charbroiled Chicken & Steak serves up a unique taste of El Salvadoran cuisine. Diners can get rotisserie-style chicken quarters, steaks, or tacos, all served Salvadoran style.
When it comes to lodging, you are more than likely only going to be able to find a place to stay at a lower-level hotel or a motel, as that’s all that’s available in the city outside of an Airbnb. The two spots closest to Johnson Coliseum are the Hampton Inn & Suites Huntsville and Super 8 by Wyndham Huntsville; both are less than a 10-minute drive to the coliseum. If you don’t want to stay in Huntsville proper, Houston is an hour’s drive away.
One thing you notice immediately about Johnson Coliseum is how big it feels on the inside. Being a circular coliseum, you feel how enormous it is once you find your way to your seat; it is also very noticeable when you take in the crowd size. On most game nights, the Bearkats average less than 1,000 fans in the stands. In all fairness, those who do show up are passionate about their team – it is just hard to ignore how empty much of stands are.
As mentioned, Huntsville is just about an hour-long drive from Houston and just a shade under four hours from San Antonio or Austin. From the Dallas/Fort Worth area, it is about two and a half hours. Once you get on site, parking is ample and free, which is always appreciated.
Huntsville doesn’t currently have anything in the way public transportation. So, unless you plan on utilizing a rideshare service, you’re pretty much locked in on driving to and from games at Johnson Coliseum.
Return on Investment 3
Single game tickets for Bearkats games at Johnson Coliseum range from $8-$15. This is a good bargain right now, but it’s not clear if this will hold up after the team’s move to Conference USA in time for the 2023 season. However, for now this is highly affordable – with concessions on the low end of the scale and free parking, you get a pretty good bargain at Sam Houston State games.
Sam Houston State brings a lot of pomp and circumstance to their basketball games at Johnson Coliseum. The Bearkat Marching Band sits in the stands beneath the giant videoboard, and leads the crowd in the school fight song, raising the bearcat hand sign, and razzing the opposing players.
Also on hand are the Bearkats’ cheerleaders, Orange Pride dance squad (who perform at half time), and the costumed mascot Sammy Bearkat. Fans can count on seeing Sammy patrolling the stands and sidelines, leading in cheers, tossing out t-shirts, and being around for random photo ops. All in all, these combine for a great college atmosphere that helps ramp up the crowd energy.
All in all I had a fun experience at Johnson Coliseum taking in Bearkats basketball. Fan attendance aside, the energy from those who are in the stands makes up for that. The coliseum itself is a good experience; it is a bit of a throwback to the way basketball arenas used to be made and I appreciated its aesthetics.
For college hoops fans, I think you’ll enjoy the experience. For sports fans, it’s an inexpensive way to catch a basketball game in a fun setting in a really nice college town. It’s not a bucket list stop, but if you find yourself in Huntsville, you should make a visit.
Follow Eric Moreno’s Stadium Journey on Twitter at @EricMoreno6477. Visit Eric Moreno’s writer’s portfolio site at ericmoreno.contently.com.