Campus Craze: 10 Best College Sports Towns
My best friend’s girlfriend has been drunk on an airplane before. When I asked Brittany, a freshman this past year at the University of Maryland, what could possibly have compelled her to follow through with such a goofy social taboo, she responded in typical college fashion: “I couldn’t miss the Duke tailgate,” she explained, “so I got as hammered as possible before the taxi picked me up to go to the airport.”
Naturally, I instantly associated the word “Duke” with basketball. But she wasn’t referring to the heated Maryland-Duke hoops rivalry. No; Brittany was actually referring to the Maryland-Duke football game. Maryland is semi-respectable on the gridiron. Duke is about as respectable as Baghdad or the Detroit Lions. But that didn’t matter. Because Brittany didn’t actually attend the game. No, she just got as hammered as possible before a taxi picked her up before the game at the peak of her drunken fog and drove her to the airport.
Welcome to Collegetown, USA, where the atmosphere is just as important as the game.
A great professional sports town is like an alcoholics anonymous class: Everyone is united by a common obsession, but they also have different emotional reasons for attending in the first place.
A great college sports town, on the other hand, is the hometown bar that made them alcoholics in the first place. All the inhabitants are still united by that common obsession, but they’re attending for the very same reason.
It’s this subtle difference that brings a college town closer than any pro town could ever get.
Think about it like this: At a New York Knicks game you will see pompous doctors, middling lawyers and rich investors. You will see little kids attending their first game. You will see happy families enjoying a rare night out past 10 o’clock. You will see the nosebleed guy in a Nate Robinson jersey who put half his weekly paycheck just to make his first trip to the Garden. Against a good team, you may even see Spike Lee.
They’re all cheering for the same team. But the conscious mother is still covering her little boy’s virgin ears when the Nate Robinson guy starts cursing at Mike D’Antoni. And they’re all dispersing in separate directions once the clock hits zero.
Now at a Duke basketball game, for instance, you will see thousands of the brightest, most up and coming students in America jumping and chanting in drunken unison as they jeer opposing players and curse out their mothers. They all have class again on Monday. They’re all fighting for that cream of the crop summer internship. They all tailgated in the same parking lot before the game, before every game for that matter, whether it be against North Carolina or Appalachian State. And they’re all going to the same slew of parties after the game. Heck, they’ll probably even see Kyrie Irving and Mason Plumlee at those parties.
These life period similarities unify the heart of a college sports town in a way that pro towns simply can’t match.
While I understand that less than half of a typical college crowd is made up of current students, they’re still the heart and soul of a crowd that follows their rabid lead. The boosters, townies and alums that make up the rest of a college crowd are drawn to the atmosphere because they remember what it felt like to be the center of this proverbial hurricane.
There’s just something about being able to act like a circus creature in front of people old enough to be your parents that’s hard to let go of.
In spite of these stark differences, there is one unifying factor between great college and professional sports towns: Fans must believe in the product they’re supporting. So when deciding on the top 10 college sports towns, the success of its premier programs had to account for about half of the equation.
But just like in the professional ranks, the mark of a truly great college town is a stubborn fan base that refuses to turn away even when a program’s fortunes go south. So it’s a combination of loyalty, creative traditions and the ability to create a nearly equally rowdy atmosphere against a bottom dwelling I-AA opponent as you would against your biggest rival.
Even during down periods, the atmosphere should still be enough to convince the casual fan to end up drunk on an airplane.
10. Oxford, Mississippi-Ole Miss Rebels
Face of the Program: Archie Manning
National Championships: Three
Iconic Symbol: The Grove
Alumni Five: Archie Manning, Eli Manning, Michael Oher, Armintie Price, Jennifer Gillom
There’s a reason people respect Cubs fans more than the Cubs. That’s the same reason Oxford is leading off this list.
Rebels fans go into every football Saturday knowing they will probably get shellacked by the latest in an assembly line of SEC rivals who could probably compete for an NFC wild card spot. Yet, they still go harder than almost any winning powerhouse in the country.
During home weekends, The Grove, a tailgating hub in the center of campus, holds legendary all-weekend parties once described by the NY Times as a “cocktail party, dinner party, tailgate picnic party, fraternity and sorority rush, family reunion, political hand grab, gala and networking party-hearty.”
It helps that the Grove is also an ever-sprouting utopia of beautiful, well-coifed Southern women. Hence the classic Ole Miss slogan, “We might not win every game but we never lose a party.”
On-Field Rating: 2
Off-Field Rating: 8
9. State College, PA-Penn State Nittany Lions
Face of the Program: Joe Paterno
National Championships: 40
Iconic Symbol: "White-Out" Crowds
Alumni Five: Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Kerry Collins, Lavar Arrington, Megan Hodge
The only reason Penn State doesn’t rank higher on this list is because virtually all of its most famous points of identity fall just behind the same amenity at another school.
Beaver Stadium isn’t quite as big as the “Big House.” “Paternoville” isn’t quite as original as “Kryzewskiville.” And a Happy Valley tailgate isn’t quite as exorbitant as an Ohio State tailgate.
But Happy Valley still gets brownie points for popularizing many rising sports fixtures including the “We are…” chant, Zombie nation and the “White out” concept of having an entire crowd dress in the same home team color.
The campus is also a site to see in the late afternoon aftermath of a noon home game, when virtually the entire student body passes out until another raucous night of off the wall frat parties. Being a GDI at Penn State is as sacrilegious as suggesting that JoePa is past his prime.
On-Field Rating: 7
Off-Field Rating: 8
8. Chapel Hill, NC-North Carolina Tar Heels
Face of the Program: Dean Smith
National Championships: 37
Iconic Symbol: Baby Blue Jerseys
Alumni Five: Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Lawrence Taylor, Larry Brown, Marion Jones
Yes. In terms of passion and creativity, UNC fans pale in comparison to their hated Tobacco Road rivals.
But few programs have made more significant contributions to the sporting world. The Tar Heels have given us the greatest male athlete of all-time (Michael Jordan), the greatest female athlete of all-time (Mia Hamm) and the greatest collegiate dynasty in NCAA history (women’s soccer team has won 21 of 29 NCAA championships since women’s soccer began crowning a champion in 1982).
Heck, they’ve even introduced the petty concept of cheering for a team because you’re attracted to their colors. Hey, even I’ll admit it’s impossible to deny the graceful beauty of those baby blue basketball jerseys.
But what really separates Chapel Hill from Durham is statewide support that extends far beyond the student body. Duke students come from all over the country, make their mark as Cameron Crazies for four years and then leave again. Over 80 percent of UNC students come from in state. Once they graduate, they often stay for the rest of their lives, keeping the Tar Heel network at full throttle.
On-Field rating: 9
Off-Field Rating: 6
7. Eugene, Oregon-Oregon Ducks
Face of the Program: Phil Knight
National Championships: 18
Iconic Symbol: Wild and Wacky Football Uniforms
Alumni Five: Dan Fouts, Mary Decker, Ann Bancroft, Ahmad Rashad, Joey Harrington
You know you’re a great sports town when you’re unanimously hated by all of your surrounding rivals.
Ducks fans have topped out in these types of Pac-10 polls in recent years. In 2009, they were voted the “most obnoxious fans” in the Pac-10 in a Sports Illustrated poll. Back in February, Ducks fans did themselves one-step better when they were voted the “most boorish, unsophisticated, and classless boobs” in the conference by a whopping 22 percent over their closest competitors (Cal, Washington State) in a Bleacher Report poll.
Why are the Ducks so universally hated on the West Coast? Maybe it’s the ever-changing, bright-as-the-sun rainbows they disguise as football uniforms.
Maybe it’s the endless stream of funding the athletic program receives from its former track runner and wealthiest alum, Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
Maybe it’s because they storm the court after first round NIT victories and have a history of digging at opposing stars’ ethnic backgrounds.
Or maybe it’s just because blasé left coasters simply can’t differentiate between passion and obnoxiousness.
On-Field Rating: 8
Off-Field Rating: 8
6. Morgantown, West Virginia-West Virginia Mountaineers
Face of the Program: Kevin Pittsnogle (Come on, who symbolizes West Virginia better than him?)
National Championships: 16 (14 won by the Rifle team, fittingly enough)
Iconic Symbol: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads"
Alumni Five: Jerry West, Rod Thorn, Sam Huff, Darryl Talley, Steve Slaton
The infamous affections Morgantowners hold for their sisters is largely a myth. Their infamous affection for setting couches on fire after big victories is not.
And this uniquely Morgantown tradition is used for any victory from the Mountaineers 2009 Elite Eight win over Kentucky to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Between 1997 and 2003, over 1,100 intentionally ignited street fires were reported to authorities. And those were only the incidents that were actually reported.
But the couch burning capitol of America is also a permanent fixture on the Princeton Review’s annual list of the top party schools in America. You know what they say about Morgantown. Alcohol is first. Food and electricity are second.
It’s this absurd combination of pyro-alcoholism that enables Morgantown to overcome its lack of championship success compared to the other towns on this list.
On-Field Rating: 6
Off-Field Rating: 10
5. Knoxville, Tennessee-Tennessee Volunteers
Face of the Program: Pat Summitt
National Championships: 23
Iconic Symbol: Neyland Stadium
Alumni Five: Peyton Manning, Reggie White, Todd Helton, Chamique Holdsclaw, Bernard King
During Civil War times, Knoxville was an epicenter for good ‘ole Southern hostilities. This is why no one antagonizes a rival quite like a good ‘ole Vols fan.
This is epitomized by the humorous scene in the 2009 bio drama film "The Blind Side," when Michael Oher’s tutor, an Ole Miss alum, convinces the naïve future Rebel that they bury dead bodies beneath the Neyland Stadium turf.
But it’s not just ancient SEC rivals who bear the brunt of these hostilities. It’s anyone who dares to play Rocky Top nation for a fool.
Just ask former football coach Lane Kiffin, who needed a police escort out of town after fleeing for USC after just a 14-month tenure.
On-Field Rating: 8
Off-Field Rating: 9
4. Columbus, Ohio-Ohio State Buckeyes
Face of the Program: Woody Hayes
National Championships: 62
Iconic Symbol: Buckeye Leaves (Helmet Stickers)
Alumni Five: Archie Griffin, Eddie George, Cris Carter, Jack Nicklaus, Jerry Lucas
There’s nothing as pure in college sports as a classic Big Ten tailgate on a fall Saturday. No school goes harder than the perennial conference football champions, whose fans line the streets around the “Horseshoe” hours before the game pounding Bloody Mary’s and chomping on candy “Buckeyes” (a peanut butter and chocolate candy).
Sober or not, even in the face of a rep-rattling tattoo scandal, Buckeye nation never keeps its elitist attitude close to its sweater vest.
Much to the chagrin of maize and blue enthusiasts across the country, the word “Theee” has become an eponymous addition leading into “Ohio State University.”
You wonder if Buckeyes fans would be just as cocky if they realized that synchronized swimming, not football, was actually their most powerful program (25 national titles since 1977).
On-Field Rating: 9
Off-Field Rating: 9
3. Austin, Texas-Texas Longhorns
Face of the Program: Mack Brown
National Championships: 48
Iconic Symbol: Hook 'em Horns
Alumni Five: Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams, Vince Young, Roger Clemens, Kevin Durant
Selected in a 2002 Sports Illustrated analysis as “America’s Best Sports College,” no program in America boasts more perennial national title contenders than the Longhorns.
While football may be a religion in Texas, it’s baseball that has left the most enduring legacy at its most prominent university.
The Longhorns have made the most College World Series appearances (33), won the most conference championships (77…and no that’s not a typo) and the second most national championships (six, USC has 12) in NCAA baseball history.
But the pigskin is amazingly still the cultural king in a city rightfully known as the “Live Music Capitol of The World.”
Don’t believe me? After Longhorns victories, tens of thousands of revelers have been known to block off traffic on the legendary 6th Street, the cultural hub that features most of these live music performances.
On-Field Rating: 10
Off-Field Rating: 8 1/2
2. Gainesville, Florida-Florida Gators
Face of the Program: Steve Spurrier
National Championships: 26
Iconic Symbol: The Swamp, Gatorade
Alumni Five: Joakim Noah, Tim Tebow, Emmitt Smith, Cris Collinsworth, Heather Mitts
Excess is the name of the game on a football Saturday in Gainesville, where Gator Nation compounds a Southern-style pigskin atmosphere with an East Coast flare for the moment.
Case in point: On a typical Saturday at The Swamp Restaurant, located just two blocks from the actual “Swamp” (Ben Hill Griffin Stadium), over 200 cases of beer, 20 kegs, 15 cases of liquor and 1,500 burgers are consumed by the Florida faithful.
But on the Friday of homecoming weekend, these very same faithful have turned the 80-plus year old “Gator Growl” into the largest student run pep rally in the world as recognized by Good Morning America, Comedy Central and Entertainment Tonight.
Not to mention once the game actually starts, “The Swamp,” featuring its below surface level playing field and abnormally steep and enclosed stands (ideal for trapping noise and heat, hence the nickname), is still the most intimidating place to play (along with LSU’s Death Valley) in the SEC.
With the recent rise of the basketball program under Billy Donovan, only Charlie Sheen fans have had more “winning” to cheer about than Gators fans over the past decade. Their four combined national championships in the revenue sports are more than any other school since the turn of the millennium.
But how could we expect anything less from the birthplace of Gatorade?
On-Field Rating: 9
Off-Field Rating: 10
Madison, Wisconsin-Wisconsin Badgers
Face of the Program: Bucky Badger
National Championships: 28
Iconic Symbol: Camp Randall Student Section
Alumni Five: Chris Chelios, Mark Johnson, Ron Dayne, Troy Vincent, Michael Finley
My first encounter with a pair of Wisconsin students came three summers ago. I overheard them discussing how an injury to a key defenseman killed their chances of reaching the Frozen Four.
Welcome to the best college sports town in America, where hockey is just as important as football and basketball, where a 16-ounce cup of Miller High Life costs just $1, where football crowds stay after the games for the “fifth quarter,” a massive sing and dance-along featuring frat house favorites “Jump Around” and "Sweet Caroline” and where a national title winning ultimate Frisbee program commands over three fields worth of attention on the West side of campus.
Most importantly, it’s a place where it’s acceptable for hipsters, homeboys and nerds to come together on game day in common support for their beloved Badgers.
On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, a TV news ticker famously read, “airport closed,” “state capitol closed,” “no word yet on the Badgers game.” Take that, Ohio State.
On-Field Rating: 9 1/2
Off-Field Rating: 10
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