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Ex-football player makes $150K gift to WCU athletics facilities after tour reveals few upgrades in 40 years

john martin playing

John Martin prepares to block during WCU’s 33-20 victory over Marshall in 1986.

By Bill Studenc

When John S. Martin returns to Western Carolina University on Saturdays in the fall to watch a college football game, the former four-year starter on the Catamount offensive line notices that E.J. Whitmire Stadium looks much like it did during his playing days in the late 1980s.

That’s why Martin, a 1990 graduate of WCU with a bachelor's degree in business law who now serves as principal adviser with the CAPTRUST financial advisory firm in Raleigh, is making gifts and pledges totaling $150,000 to help improve athletics facilities at his alma mater.

“The facilities really haven’t changed at all since I was a student-athlete,” he said. “The locker rooms are a little nicer now, but that’s about it. We have a long way to go to catch up. The stadium is in big, big need of repair. The same concrete foundation that was poured back in the 1970s when the stadium was built is still there, and it’s past time for an upgrade.”

As a current member of the WCU Foundation Board of Directors and past member of the Board of Visitors, Martin has gone behind the scenes for repeated firsthand looks at the state of all of the university’s athletics infrastructure.

“Between the Board of Visitors and the Foundation Board, I got to tour and see all of the sports teams’ facilities – not just the football stadium, but seeing where track and field is housed at the old Camp Lab Gymnasium. Frankly, it’s pitiful. We have so many needs athletically. I know that there are other big needs throughout the university, but it really showed me what needs to be done for athletics,” said Martin, who chairs the Foundation Board’s finance and audit committee.

“I’ve come to realize the need and just how woeful our facilities are. We’ve got the ultimate canvas to paint on in Cullowhee with the Blue Ridge Mountains as our backdrop. We are going to need everybody pulling together, but we can do it. We’ll be able to do even bigger and better things,” he said.

Martin’s contributions are part of WCU’s $75 million comprehensive fundraising campaign titled “Fill the Western Sky.” The campaign has a significant focus on raising money to support enhancements to athletics facilities, with a goal of raising at least $30 million in philanthropic gifts to support those specific upgrades.

“John’s passion for Western Carolina to be great is as deep as it was during his playing days,” said Alex Gary, WCU director of athletics. “We are so thankful for his continued leadership and support of Catamount Athletics through this most recent commitment.”

Recruited by legendary coach Bob Waters, Martin came to WCU on a football scholarship and, after taking a medical redshirt his first year, became a four-year starter as left offensive tackle. “I was too skinny to play offensive line in college, but I think I was given the opportunity because I played really hard, I had good technique, and they figured I would bulk up,” he said. “I played for four years for Coach Waters. It was just one of the greatest blessings of my life.”

john martin

John Martin currently serves on the WCU Foundation Board of Directors.

Martin began making contributions to the Catamount Club and other WCU athletics areas shortly after graduating, increasing his philanthropy as he progressed in his career. But it was a meeting with then-Chancellor David Belcher that led to his first large gift. In 2017, he made gifts totaling $25,000 to establish the John S. Martin Football Endowed Scholarship to provide financial support for student-athletes on the Catamount football team.

“I’ve always felt a need to give back in consideration of the opportunities that Western gave to me, but what really jolted me and got me jumpstarted back to Western was David Belcher,” Martin said. “He understood that Western needed to begin raising money and needed to start adding money to our endowment.”

During Belcher’s tenure, the university embarked upon only its second comprehensive fundraising campaign. Titled “Lead the Way,” that effort focused on raising money for endowed scholarships to help a larger number of deserving students be able to meet the costs of a college education. The current campaign is WCU’s first with a significant focus on support for athletics.

“Athletics are important. They are the front porch of the house. It helps prime the pump to do other things that we want to do academically and in terms of research,” Martin said.

Among the priorities of the comprehensive fundraising campaign are expansions for strength and conditioning, sports medicine and academic space for student-athletes. Updates to E.J. Whitmire Stadium will include a new press box, premium space for fans, a rebuilt east concourse, football offices and meeting space, and a new football locker room. The Catamounts will look to vacate Camp Lab Gymnasium and open a new facility to support the golf, track and field, and women’s soccer programs. Other improvements are in the master plan as well and will benefit all 16 Catamount athletics teams.

“I truly can see around the corner, and I see what Western is getting ready to do and what we’re about to become. We’re about to become a championship-caliber university in terms of athletics. I feel like we’re already well on our way academically,” Martin said.

“Western is in a very, very key, prime position. If you’re somebody who wants to get on the bandwagon before it takes off, now is the time to get involved in Western Carolina. It is getting ready to blow up in a beautiful way,” he said.

Martin pointed to recent successes in Catamount athletics, including the women’s golf team, which collected four team championships during the 2022-2023 season and accepted an invitation to play in a postseason tournament, and the women’s soccer team, which won regular season and Southern Conference tournament championships in 2023.

“With Alex Gary, we’re making fantastic decisions from a personnel standpoint. (Football coach} Kerwin Bell is outstanding, and I’m so pleased with the job he’s doing. (Men’s basketball coach) Justin Gray is magnificent,” he said. “We’re making some really, really good personnel decisions, and with the Fill the Western Sky campaign, we’re going to be raising the money to have the facilities to match that excellence. When that happens, get on board or get out of the way.”

Martin encouraged fellow alumni and former student-athletes to participate in the Fill the Western Sky campaign.

“If you’ve been out of Western for one or two years, get into the habit of giving. Saving for your retirement is a habit. Exercise is a habit. Eating right is a habit. Feeding the cats is a habit. You have to feed the cats. If you can just get into that rhythm of giving back early on and then do so each year, then as you can, challenge yourself to do more,” he said.

“If I have my way, this is just the beginning for me,” he said. “I intend to do a lot more for Western as I grow and as I get older, because it doesn’t end. Western is going to need the aid. It’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take the entire alumni base.”

For more information about how to support the Catamount athletics program, contact Julie Miller, associate athletics director for development, at 828-227-3084 or visit

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