Saturday, October 30, 2010

Eight College Gameday Experiences That Are On My "To Do Before I Die" List

This is, unintentionally, always a touchy subject.  

In my opinion, college football is one of the greatest traditions in this fine country of ours.  It is also, arguably, the sport with the most tradition and history to offer its dedicated fans.  People are somewhat possessive and defensive of their schools and traditions, and rightfully so ... I know I am of mine.  

Ever since I was a little girl and became borderline-obsessed with college football, I have dreamed of visiting college stadiums all over the country.  Of course, there are specific games I would love to attend (Army/Navy, Auburn/Alabama, Oklahoma/Texas, etc ...); but in general, I just want to physically get myself to certain college campuses on a Saturday in the fall to partake in their gameday experiences.  

This post is by no means meant to represent the "top" 8 or "best" 8 college football experiences in the country ... it's simply the first 8 on my personal list of places to attend games when I have both the time and money to do so (so talk to me in about 10 or 15 years).  And I realize that 8 may seem like an odd number, but I got tired and my "top 10" shrunk by 2.  And, yes, I also realize that I may have left your school off my list ... but please don't take personal offense to my omission.  

I also have to preface this post by saying that there are several college campuses not on this list that I think everyone should see in their lives.  They're not on my "places to see" list, because I've been fortunate enough to have already seen them. If you ever have the opportunity, I think every college football fan should attend games at The Ohio State University, The University of Michigan (despite how it pains me to say so), Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas.   

I may write a follow-up post in the future about some of my incredible experiences in all of these places, but for now - I'll just tell you to go if you ever get the chance. 

I did a lot of research for this post and learned a ton about these schools and their gameday traditions.  In a way, it made me a little sad that the mainstream sports media doesn't cover stuff like this in their coverage of a game.  Sure, they'll casually mention "Rocky Top" or show a fleeting glimpse of "Script Ohio" on the way to a commercial break; but in general, they do a disservice to college football fans by not educating them on the traditions and storied histories of most college football programs.  I consider myself a lifelong college football fan, and I was completely unaware of a lot of this information (cue the NBC "the more you know" graphic).  

 Without any further adieu, I hope you enjoy and just maybe learn something.  

(List is in no particular order)

University of Oregon
Eugene, OR
Official Stadium Capacity: 53,800 (Attendance usually ~ 59,000)
School Enrollment: 23,000
Mascot: Duck
Colors: Green & Yellow

1. Yes, that's really Donald Duck.

In 1947, the AD at the University of Oregon (Leo Harris) made a deal with Walt Disney himself allowing Oregon to use the likeness of Donald as their mascot.  The deal was made with a handshake, and until Disney's death in 1966 no formal contract existed between the two organizations.  Donald celebrated his 50th birthday in Eugene in 1984, and was made an official alumnus of the University. 

2. What's with those uniforms?

University of Oregon alumni Phil Knight and William "Bill" Bowerman founded Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964.  That little company that could became Nike in 1978 and has gone on to revolutionize the world of sports merchandise.  Because of its University of Oregon ties, Nike has maintained a close relationship with the Athletic Department in Eugene, and Nike produces all of UO's logo clothing and athletic uniforms.

3. It never rains at Autzen Stadium ...

It's tradition at the University of Oregon for the announcer to make this statement at some point during every home football game.  Apparently there are some eerie weather patterns correlating with the Ducks' success on the football field.  I'll leave this one to the die hard UO fans and The Weather Channel.

4. It's L-O-U-D.

After Oregon's home victory over the University of Michigan in 2003, a Michigan Daily Columnist wrote the following: "Autzen’s 59,000 strong make the Big House collectively sound like a pathetic whimper. It’s louder than any place I’ve ever been, and that includes The Swamp at Florida, The Shoe in Columbus, and Death Valley at Louisiana State. Autzen Stadium is where great teams go to die." Enough said. 

University of Tennessee 
Knoxville, TN
Official Stadium Capacity: 102,459
School Enrollment: 27,107
Mascot: Smokey the coonhound (Nickname: Volunteers)
Colors: Orange & White

1. Rocky Top, you'll always be home sweet home to me ... good ole Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee ...

First played during the 1972 Tennessee-Alabama game, Rocky Top was made the official state song of Tennessee in 1982.  More than 100 renditions of the song have been documented, and this song is a staple in Neyland Stadium on home gamedays.  Sure, maybe it can get a bit annoying; but any true college football fan has to get chills in the midst of a close game when you hear 100,000+ singing along with this classic. 

2. Anchors Away

Neyland Stadium sits on the banks of the Tennessee River, and since 1962 Volunteer fans have been avoiding Knoxville traffic on gamedays by anchoring their boats outside the stadium walls.  Today, over 200 boats make up the Vol Navy, adding a unique element to the UT gameday experience only found at two other stadiums in the country (can you name them?)

3. The Pride of the Southland

As a professed band nerd myself, I get excited about marching bands.  The UT band, in fact, was almost enough to make me apply to and attend The University of Tennessee for college ... almost.  This 300-member strong marching band is known for its playing of "Rocky Top" and its gameday traditions like the opening of the T during pregame. 

University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI
Official Stadium Capacity: 80,321
School Enrollment: 42,099
Mascot: Badger
Colors: Cardinal & White

1.  What's with all the jumping ...?

In 1998, the House of Pain song "Jump Around" was debuted at Wisconsin's homecoming game against Purdue.  The song is played over the loudspeaker between the 3rd and 4th quarters to energize the fans and electrify the stadium atmosphere.  The Jump Around tradition has become an integral part of gameday at Camp Randall, as literally every fan in the stadium jumps around in their seat while the song is played.  Interestingly, Jump Around was suspended for a game in 2003 when construction was being done on Camp Randall, because University officials were worried about the structural integrity of the stadium during construction.  After a virtual mutiny by the student body, the University had structural engineers come evaluate the stadium so that Jump Around could continue, safely, at the next game. 

2. Wait ... the game's not over?

A tradition since the 1970's, the Wisconsin band's post-game performance is anything but ordinary.  Originally started as a way to entertain fans as they left the stadium, the Fifth Quarter has evolved into an all-out party after the game.  30,000-40,000 fans stay after the game to hear the band play staples like "On Wisconsin", "You've Said It All" and "Varsity"; and to see what insane antics band members can instigate that week.  

3. Graduating Law Students do what now?

Every fall, at the Homecoming game, law students who will graduate in the coming year have the opportunity to be recognized on-field during pregame.  They toss canes over the goal post during this ceremony, and legend goes that if they catch their cane they will win their first case.  This tradition originated at Harvard and has been performed in Madison since 1910. 

University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Official Stadium Capacity: 101,821
School Enrollment: 30,232
Mascot: Big Al/Elephant (Nickname: Crimson Tide)
Colors: Crimson & White 

1. Those awesome hats ...

Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was the head football coach at the University of Alabama for 25 years (1958 - 1982).  He led the Crimson Tide to six national titles and thirteen SEC championships.  He was known for his tenacious, no-nonsense attitude (great example in this video, and note that sideline reporters have never been much better than they are now), ability to win games and his trademark black and white houndstooth hat.  Today, you still see Alabama fans sporting similar hats in the stands as a tribute to one of college football's all-time greatest coaches.  Additionally, if fans find themselves with time to kill on gameday, they can visit the Paul W. Bryant Museum located on Alabama's campus and open to the public daily.  

2. That's a lot of money!

The University of Alabama Marching Band is an integral part of gameday at Alabama.  Approximately 400 members strong, it has had its nickname of the "Million Dollar Band" since 1922.  Legend goes that during a particularly difficult season (for the football team), the band had to solicit funds from local businesses in order to travel to Atlanta for the Georgia Tech game.  They ended up exceeding their own expectations, and raised enough money to travel in fancy sleeper trains to the game.  Alabama Alum W.C. "Champ" Pickens was asked by a sportswriter during the game (a 33-7 loss), "you don't have much of a team, what do you have at Alabama?", to which he responded "A million dollar band". 

3. A tribute to the state bird of Alabama

The Rammer Jammer cheer has been around since the 1920's.  The cheer is somewhat controversial, and the University has banned its playing/chanting in the past, only to be overcome with complaints from fans.  It is now only played (traditionally, twice) at the end of a victorious game in Bear Bryant Stadium.  

University of Notre Dame
South Bend, IN
Official Stadium Capacity: 80,795
School Enrollment: 11,733
Mascot: Leprechaun (Nickname: Fighting Irish)
Colors: Blue & Gold

 1. Wait a second, that's real gold?!

Notre Dame's gold helmets are a trademark of their uniform.  Every Monday, following a Saturday game, the football team's student managers meet in the stadium to clean, buff, shine and re-paint the football team's gameday helmets for the next week.  Every helmet gets two coats of paint: a gold base coat, and then a top coat containing real gold particles from the golden dome of Notre Dame's Main Building (collected when the dome was re-gilded in 2007).  Fancy schmancy. 

2. Who knew a kilt could be so intimidating?

Formed in 1949, the Irish Guard leads the Band of the Fighting Irish onto the field each Saturday.  With uniforms modeled after traditional Irish kilts, and a 6'2" height requirement to be a Guard member, this group appears as an impressive and imposing front to the Marching Band.  Over 60 candidates try out each year to become members of the 10-person Guard, which serves as the "bodyguard" for the Marching Band and participates in public performances throughout the year.  

3. That whole Catholic thing ... 

As if you didn't know, Notre Dame is a private, Catholic university.  Reminders of their religious affiliation are present throughout their campus and traditions, giving the gameday experience at Notre Dame a unique feel.  
  • Although expansion of the stadium now partially obscures the mural, the famous image The Word of Life by Millard Sheets, depicts the resurrected Jesus with arms held overhead.  From the stadium, the large picture can be seen, earning it the nickname "Touchdown Jesus".  
  • The Notre Dame football team attends mass every home gameday at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on campus. 

Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA
Official Stadium Capacity: 92,400
School Enrollment: 25,215
Mascot: Tiger
Colors: Purple & Gold

1. Perfect for Halloween

In October 2007, called Tiger Stadium "the scariest place to play in America".  Over 120,000 tailgaters congregate in Death Valley on home gameday weekends to partake in Cajun classic dishes and plenty of good 'ole alcohol ... and harass visiting fans of course.  Chants of "Tiger Bait" and "Geaux Tigers" echo across campus, and you can't miss the March Down the Hill before each game.  

2. Does PETA know about this?

In 1934, LSU Athletic Director trainer, Chellis "Mike" Chambers and several other staff and students decided that LSU needed a live tiger.  They collected $0.25 from every LSU student, raising $750 to purchase a tiger from the Little Rock Zoo.  Today, LSU is one of a handful of colleges which still has a live animal mascot (care to name some others?).  Mike VI (a Bengali-Siberian hybrid Bengal tiger) became LSU's mascot in 2007 after the passing of 17-year old Mike V. As a side note, it's tradition, that the LSU College of Veterinary Medicine vents white smoke from its roof when a new mascot has been located (I'm not sure if that's funny or borderline sacrilegious).  Mike currently lives in a $3 million habitat on campus with state-of-the-art caretakers and facilities.  On gameday, Mike accompanies the team and cheerleaders on the March Down the Hill, and then is parked in his cage outside the opposing team's locker room.  Intimidating.  

3. Is this college basketball or football ... ?

In 1958, Coach Paul Dietzel decided that LSU would wear white jerseys for home games.  The uniform change became permanent after LSU went on to beat Clemson to win the National Championship.  The tradition continued until 1982 when the NCAA instituted a rule forbidding white jerseys at home.  For 12 years, the LSU faithful bemoaned the new rule, pleading with their Athletic Department to lobby with the NCAA.  When Gerry DiNardo became LSU's Head Coach in 1995, he met individually with each member of the NCAA Rules Committee to ask for an exception to the rule ... and was granted just that.  Since then, LSU has worn white jerseys for home games.  Because the NCAA stipulated that LSU would have to request permission from visiting non-conference opponents to wear their whites, Nick Saban altered the tradition slightly when he was at LSU (now continued by Les Miles).  LSU now wears their whites for their home opener and all SEC home games.  The LSU faithful can rest easy.  

University of Nebraska
Lincoln, NE
Official Stadium Capacity: 81,067
School Enrollment: 24,100
Mascot: Herbie Husker & Lil' Red (Nickname: Cornhusker)
Colors: Scarlet & Cream

1. Just how hardcore are these Nebraska fans?

Each and every entrance at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln is inscribed with the phrase "Through these gates pass the Greatest Fans in College Football" ... and the Cornhuskers know it's true.  Nebraska holds the NCAA record for consecutive sell-out games with 304, as of the start of the 2010 season.  The stadium comes close to reaching max capacity again each spring when 60,000-80,000 fans flock to Lincoln to watch the last practice of the season.  And another 10,000+ attend Fan Day each fall to obtain pictures and autographs with their favorite players and coaches.  They take their football very seriously in Nebraska, but be forewarned that the "Sea of Red" will accompany their beloved Huskers to all corners of the USA.  

2. Gotta love technology ...

In the 1990's the Nebraska Athletic Department was searching for something to spice up the Huskers' pregame ritual.  What they came up with was revolutionary, and has become one of the most anticipated moments in Memorial Stadium on gameday.  Nebraska installed HuskerVision cameras along the football team's route from the locker room to the field, giving fans an up close and personal perspective of the team's growing intensity as they approach the field.  Accompanied by the Alan Parsons Project's classic "Sirius", the 80,000+ Cornhusker fans go crazy as the tension builds and the team takes the field.

3. Everyone loves a good bargain.

When two-platoon football made a resurgence in the 1960's, the Nebraska coaches followed suit.  Assistant Coach Mike Corgan was given the task of purchasing different color pullovers for the defensive unit to wear during practice (previously everyone had worn gray).  The story goes that Corgan got a stellar deal on black pullovers at the local sporting goods store (he was later informed by fellow coaches that no one wears black, so that's why it was cheaper), and a tradition was born.  Only the 1st string defensive unit was awarded the "Black Shirts" and players became fiercely competitive over the honor.  The media soon picked up on the story, and the nickname stuck.  Over the years, the nickname has become synonymous with the hard-hitting, aggressive Nebraska defense and truly exemplifies the Nebraska football philosophy. 

University of Washington
Seattle, WA
Official Stadium Capacity: 72,500
School Enrollment: 42,907
Mascot: Husky
Colors: Purple & Gold

1. And you thought your stadium was loud?

It may surprise you, but Husky Stadium has earned the title of the "loudest stadium in college football history".  In a 1992 night game against Nebraska, ESPN recorded the noise level in Husky stadium at 135 decibels, the highest level ever recorded at a college football game.  Because the stadium is constructed with metal overhangs and minimal endzone seating, an immense amount of field noise is generated.  In fact, it's common for vibrations from the stadium to cause the media's cameras to shake and translate to the live feed on TV.  Although the Husky football team may have struggled in recent years, do not underestimate the impact their stadium and fans can have on a big game.  

2. This cannot be confirmed ...

Apparently, THE Wave, got its start at the University of Washington (who knew?).  A UW cheerleader had the idea for a human wave that moved around the stadium, and at a game on Halloween in 1981, he filled the crowd in on his idea.  They made it work flawlessly, and a great sports tradition was born.

3. Putting the East Coast to shame.

Husky Stadium is one of the three stadiums in the country that sits on a body of water (Lake Washington).  I talked about the University of Tennessee's gameday tradition with the "Vol Navy", but UW fans make the UT naval effort look like child's play (no offense Tennessee fans).  More than 12,000 people will congregate on the lake on home gamedays, and the University of Washington crew team actually operates a shuttle service from people's personal boats to shore for the game.  My hat is off to you UW fans, with your outdoorsy, nature-ways and creative twist on college football tailgating. 

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