I love college towns.
There's just something magical about exploring a college for the first time and attending a football game. The whole community gathers around the team and holds them up win or lose. Everyone's on the same side for a day. The pageantry, traditions, tailgating, emotions, and experience are unparalleled. This is why there are those who will always love college football more than the NFL.
Having been born/raised/graduated in/from Oregon, I find myself comparing my university's culture to that of every other team.
When a friend of mine moved to Bloomington, Indiana and invited me to the Indiana/Illinois football game, I found the possible contrasts between Indiana and Oregon fascinating. I jumped at the opportunity.
The two teams are about as opposite as two teams can be. Oregon is West Coast. Indiana is Midwest. Oregon is an up-and-coming program with a bright future. Indiana is a perpetual cellar dweller (in football), and the only question in their season is if they can eek out a win over Minnesota to avoid being the worst in the Big Ten.
The University of Oregon is a school trying to establish an identity. Indiana University is an old power full of tradition that dates back to 1820. Oregon is a liberal powerhouse. Indiana is laid-back, more conservative than outlandish. Those who only care about football might only draw this comparison: Oregon is good; Indiana is bad.
The following was my experience of being a Hoosier for a day
Bloomington is a beautiful town. I was surprised at that. When I thought of Indiana, I thought of the rest of the Midwest—flat with lots of corn fields. Bloomington is actually very hilly. There are lots of old deciduous trees, too, so with autumn in full swing, the town looked like it was on fire.
The campus of the Indiana University blew me away. It's really gorgeous. Apparently, there's a nearby quarry of limestone (in fact, Memorial Stadium is nicknamed "the quarry"), so most of the buildings are made of limestone with an architecture I can only describe as old-time collegiate.
In the middle of campus is a old-growth forest. Brick paths wind throughout the hilly woods. It's an odd thing to have in the middle of a campus, but I found it fascinating. In between the limestone buildings and the green spaces, various stained-glass gazebos and benches and monuments litter the campus as gifts from graduated classes. The campus is very beautiful—more so than most colleges I've been to.
Mother Bear Pizza is really good. It's Bloomington's equivalent to Track Town. Some entity ranked them the fourth best pizza in the country, and they proudly display it on their sign. I ordered "The Divine Swine" which is basically four types of pork, and a pitcher of Upland Wheat Ale, which is the Indiana equivalent to Oregon's Dead Guy Ale. Everything was delicious, but the bear mascot was disturbingly concupiscent.
Walking around downtown Bloomington, it occurred to me that there weren't a lot of Hoosiers fans around. Kilroy's bar seemed to be the undergraduate nexus, but other than that, Hoosier shirts were fairly scarce, at least in terms of what you'd expect on game day. I bought my own Hoosier shirt and we began to make our way to the stadium.
Speaking of my shirt, it's red with a giant Indiana University logo on it. Now, my whole life I thought the Indiana University mascot was the Greek letter psi. I always thought it was random, but cool. My friend informed me it was an I superimposed on a U. It was like the old woman/beautiful girl exercise to me. I had never seen the I or U. Some Hoosiers later told me they thought it was a pitchfork. No one I talked to had ever heard the psi thing, and thought I was nuts. Any thoughts? What is this symbol?
As we got closer to the stadium, tailgaters became more numerous. My friend gave me my student ticket and informed me it cost five dollars. I was worried about not having an ID, but everyone assured me that as long as I wasn't from Illinois, everything would be fine.
There wasn't a whole lot of trash talking going on. I would have thought that Indiana/Illinois would be the equivalent to Oregon/that team to the North, but it wasn't really the case. The only team that Indiana really has a strong rivalry with is Purdue, as they are both public Indiana universities. I did see a bunch of "Muck Fichigan" shirts, however. I guess Michigan is everyone's rival in the Big Ten.
When we got to the stadium, they scanned my ticket, but never looked at my expired Oregon ID. When we reached our section, they didn't even ask to see our tickets. We just walked in and found the closest seat we could get, which was about 20 rows back on the 40 yard line.
Memorial Stadium seats about 60,000. I would guess that at the beginning of the game, there were perhaps 50,000 in the stands. I was surprised, as I thought a ranked Illinois team might be one of their biggest home games of the year. The stadium is nice, but the acoustics are bad (I could barely hear the band). With the stadium not filled to capacity, and with an open-ended goal, if felt kind of like a high school game.
Kickoff. Awesome. The student section was full of energy. They have a bunch of different chants. The main one they do is, "Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoosieeeeers! Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoosieeeeers!" repeat ad infinitum. When they have a third down, they put their arms out and spread their fingers in regular intervals like they're signing the number 10. When they get the third down, the band triggers a song that ends in everyone yelling a melody that sounds Native American in origin and ends with the entire stadium hollering in unison "HOO!" and pointing in the direction of the drive. That one was my favorite. It was a very cool effect.
When they score points, everyone sings the Indiana fight song, which reminded me of "Utah Man". On opponents' third downs, the announcer always says without fail, "It's third down! On your feet Hoosier fans!" in his signature way. When a first down is accomplished by the offense, he always said, "first down HOOOOOSIEEEEEEEERS!" in his booming voice. He almost seemed like a part of the team. He was Indiana's own Harry Caray.
After the third quarter in every game, the band plays the William Tell Overture and they run a giant flag of Indiana and a giant flag of the psi/pitchfork across the field while people run smaller flags that spell out "I-N-D-I-A-N-A U-N-I-V-E-R-S-I-T-Y" in circles. While all of this is going on they play old Western movie clips of horse chases and such. I thought it was a cool tradition.
Those traditions really stuck with me. Indiana football is bad. The stadium isn't filled to capacity. They don't care who sits in the student section—even when they almost give away tickets. The band can barely be heard.
They have their traditions, though, and they love them dearly. I found myself wishing Oregon had more chants and situational songs that ended in a cacophonous, unified boom. I call on Oregon's band and cheer squad to come up with ideas. I'll work on some ideas and maybe write an article down the road.
I won't go into a deep analysis of the game. That's not what this article is about. Illinois won 41-20. I will say that I don't know how Arizona State lost to Illinois. And Indiana? They're not terrible. They need to recruit better defensive players. And they need to fire their offensive coordinator. True, Indiana has no quarterback (at least until next year when Gunner Kiel comes to town), but they have a lot of offensive talent. The offensive coordinator's play calling was inept and abysmally ineffective.
Half way into the second quarter, people started leaving in droves. We kept moving closer and closer. By the end of the third quarter, we were in the second row on the 30-yard line. We could talk to the players. By that point, maybe 20,000 people remained. The true fans.
A moment that will always stick with me is when an inebriated super fan next to me yelled, "Let's go, Hoosiers!" A player turned around and looked directly at me and rolled his eyes. I yelled, "Why have you given up when this man next to me hasn't?! You have ten minutes left!" It was certain he heard me. It seemed very strange to me to be able to interact with players that easily. I can't imagine the same being possible at Autzen when it's the opponent's ball.
The game was wrapping up. I saw a couple shirts of interest. One said, "Win or Lose, We're Still Going to BOOZE." That summed up the mood for many. My favorite shirt simply stated, "Never Lost a Party." I was quite fond of that one.
Here is a team losing very predictably. But these Hoosiers faithful were enthusiastic to the end. They love game day for many of the same reasons I do. Sure, game day in Bloomington is drastically different than in Eugene. But it's still great.
After the game, there was still no trash talking. The only thing I saw was a bunch of Hoosier fans at a bus stop telling a group of Illinois people to get on the wrong bus. It was pretty tame. On the walk back home, a couple people learned I was an Oregon Duck.
Every one of them (OK, three out of three) said they loved watching the Oregon Ducks. One guy said he really liked watching West Coast football because the Ducks' offense is so fun to watch. This contrasted greatly to the mood in Ann Arbor. They're still sore about the drubbing the Ducks laid on them in 2007. Hoosiers fans were just ridiculously amiable and good-natured. No one ever voted a Hoosier as the most obnoxious sports fan in the Big Ten (ahem, Ducks).
I found myself sorry to have to go home. I really enjoyed my time in Bloomington. I wore my new shirt all the way home and gave my girlfriend a "B' Town" shirt of her own. She loves it, and why shouldn't she? It's a really cool logo—whatever it is.
My parting thought was that schools like Indiana and Oregon can learn from each other.
Sure, Oregon does some things way better than Indiana. The most obvious example is the product we place on the field. But I found myself attached to certain aspects of the Hoosier Nation. Oregon is a dynamic program. We can create new traditions on spot (anyone remember Roboduck?) and easily shape our image going forward, whereas the Hoosiers are much more firmly rooted in their ways.
That's not to say they can't change, but that it's easier for Oregon fans. My hope is for Oregon to find a sliver of Indiana's pride, tradition, and goodwill. I would have thought decades of losing might have cultivated that, but alas. And I hope Indiana gets some of Oregon's enthusiasm and success and national sexiness. Whatever happens for each program, however, one thing is for sure: the Hoosier nation is one man stronger.