20 Best College Football Traditions

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2015

20 Best College Football Traditions

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    We're constantly looking for ways to make college football better, more modern and efficient. Yet when push comes to shove, it's the game's longstanding traditions that keep us coming back.

    During this long nightmare that is the offseason, it's the customs and practices that get us through the doldrums. These traditions bring back memories of watching and attending games as a kid, when we first got interested in the sport and decided it was worthy of co-opting all of our Saturdays in the fall.

    Even as college football is now played on nearly every day of the week—we're not complaining, by the way—and technological advances make the experience of watching from home nearly as real as being at the game, we still get chills for every old-school chant, (real) animal mascot and fan-fueled practice that has survived the test of time.

    Click through for a trip down Memory Lane with the 20 best traditions in college football.

Animals Unleashed

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    Schools: Various

    It's one thing to have an animal for a team's mascot, as more than half the schools in FBS are named after some sort of critter.

    But some programs have made the most of these monikers, bringing live animals out to serve as mascots. And the best ones let them looseliterally.

    Colorado's Ralphie the Buffalo, Texas' longhorn steer Bevo and Georgia's bulldog Uga spend plenty of time out on the field during their teams' home games. Ralphie helps lead the Buffaloes onto the turf at Folsom Field, accompanied by five "handlers" who try to keep the massive beast from getting loose and trampling any unsuspecting opposing players.

    Auburn's nickname is the Tigers, but the school also has a "War Eagle" chant that is accompanied by the flight of a bald eagle around Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Army-Navy Game

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    Schools: Army and Navy

    Tradition since: 1890

    Nothing can get in the way of the Army-Navy gameeven the advent of a playoff in college football.

    The annual clash between the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy military academies is played in mid-December, after all other regular-season college football games are done. Held in 10 different cities, most frequently Philadelphia—which now alternates with Baltimore as the game's host—the game embodies everything that's revered about both college football and American culture.

    "Go ahead and try to attend this game without experiencing a surge of patriotism," wrote Braden Gall of Athlon Sports (h/t Fox Sports). "By game's end, no matter what the score, America wins."

    Since every player in the game will soon be serving the country in the military, the pride and camaraderie between the teams trumps the overall result. Both sides play to win, but that's not the ultimate goal.

Clanga Clanga

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    USA TODAY Sports

    School: Mississippi State

    Tradition since: Late 1930s

    Mississippi State fans have a fever, and the only cure is more cowbell. As if that's possible.

    The cowbell has become synonymous with Bulldogs games at Davis Wade Stadium, with nearly every fan wielding a custom bell (complete with welded-on handle) so they can clang the noisemaker throughout the game—but not when the ball is in play, per rules agreed upon by the school and the SEC in 2010 that lifted a ban on the noisemakers inside the facility.

    This past season the cowbells became more well-known than ever before thanks to MSU's starting the season 9-0 and rising to No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25. High-profile home games against Auburn and Texas A&M were the kind that required many viewers to keep a finger hovered over the mute button because of the cacophony between plays.

Crowd Dancing

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    Schools: Various

    In Madison, they "Jump Around." In Columbia, there's a "Sandstorm." And in Blacksburg, Virginia, the sound of "Enter Sandman" sends the crowd into a frenzy.

    Music has been an integral part of the college football experience ever since the first band played a note inside a stadium more than a century ago. And over time, nearly every school has found a song that's fit so well with their fanbase that it's become tradition to turn that tune into a dance routine in the bleachers.

    Wisconsin's fans at Camp Randall Stadium bounce up and down between the third and fourth quarters to "Jump Around" from House of Pain, a tradition that in 2012 was voted by fans as No. 1 in Sports Illustrated's College Football Traditions Bracket. South Carolina plays "Sandstorm" by Finnish musician DJ Darude prior to every kickoff. Virginia Tech's players are led onto the field at Lane Stadium by Metallica's "Enter Sandman."

    Each song elicits its own reaction from its particular crowd, something unique to that venue. However, they all have the same goal in mind: to rile up the home crowd and attempt to make the visiting team feel uneasy.

Dotting the "i"

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    School: Ohio State

    Tradition since: 1936

    Recognized as one of the best marching bands in college, Ohio State's 225-piece Pride of the Buckeyes is as much a part of the school's football tradition as the silver helmets, red jerseys and national championships.

    But what makes this band stand out from all others is one little dot.

    It's the one that finishes the band's assembly of "Ohio" in script lettering, with a sousaphone player representing the dot at the top of a lowercase "i". The honor of being able to "dot the i" is one that only goes to a fourth-year band member, though on occasion there have been "honorary" participants such as Bob Hope, former OSU coach Woody Hayes and golfing legend Jack Nicklaus.

    It's not just a matter of marching to the spot, though. There's a process, according to the school's website.

    "The sousaphone player has to strut—with his knees held high—about 12 yards to reach the 'i,'" according to the site. "He bows to the away side of the stadium first, then does a military about-face to the home side and takes a big bow to the cheering crowd."

ESPN College GameDay

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Schools: Various

    Tradition since: 1987

    There's no debate that ESPN is a big reason college football has risen to its level of popularity, as the network has strives to get as many games on television as possible.

    But the Worldwide Leader in Sports hasn't just been a pioneer in game coverage but also in making Saturdays a full day's experiencecomplete with breakfast with some familiar faces every Saturday morning.

    Lee Corso, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit have become the faces of College GameDay, what began as a studio show and turned into a traveling event that transforms college campuses across the country into live-televised tailgate parties.

    Fowler, who served as the show's host from 1990-2014, will be replaced next season by Rece Davis, while Corso has been a part of the show since 1987 and Herbstreit joined in 1996.

    Corso is probably the most famous member of the GameDay crew, if for no other reason than his tradition of predicting the winner of the game being played by donning headgear associated with his choice. The wearing of a Duck head, a Trojan helmet or an elephant trunk sends the crowd in attendance into exultation or distress.

Hand Signs

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    Schools: Various

    School colors, team apparel and face paint are common ways for diehard college football fans to show their allegiances.

    But nothing points out a true fan like flashing the hand sign associated with a favorite team.

    Pretty much every school has one nowadays, but a few have been around for decades. Many of those are from the state of Texas, and each fits perfectly with the culture of its school.

    Texas fans have held up the "Hook'Em Horns" sign since 1955, when a cheerleader making shadow puppets created the signal. Texas Tech supporters flash the "Guns Up" sign, which came about in the 1970s, while '70s SMU fans co-opted the peace sign as "Pony Ears."

    Other schools' fans use both hands together to create a symbol, such as the Oregon "O" or the Miami (Florida) "U," while at Florida it's common to move one's hands apart and together on top of each other to resemble a Gator "chomp."

Helmet Stickers

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    Schools: Various

    It could be because of a big play, a great contribution or prolonged dedication. Whatever the reason, the reward is often the same in college football: a helmet sticker.

    As recognizable as the helmets are of the game's top teams, so too are the miniature stickers that begin appearing on them as the season goes on. Each week, more and more of these decals are affixed to players' helmets, to the point that some have almost complete coverage.

    About two dozen FBS programs currently use these stickers, with the symbols identifying something of significance to the programs. Some of the most well-known are Ohio Buckeye leaves for Ohio State, tomahawks for Florida State, pitchforks for Arizona State and paw prints for Clemson.

Madcap Mascots

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    Schools: Various

    It's the job of a college's mascot to entertain the fans and keep them excited about the game, no matter what the score. These collection of animals (mostly) and objects (some) will dance, jump, lead cheers and do whatever it takes to stand out.

    Sometimes this means getting a little...weird. And no mascot is stranger in college football than the Stanford Tree.

    Around since 1975, the Tree has taken on many forms and worn a variety of foliage, often straying from its traditional sequoia genus to become a palm tree, an evergreen or some other type of tree. It also usually has some strange form of face, too.

    "While each is different, they all do seem to have crazed, acid-trippy features," wrote Leda Marritz of DeepRoot.com.

    Whatever version, though, the Stanford Tree is almost always flamboyant and weird and frequently controversial. Depending on the source, the tree has been named the best, worst and weirdest mascot around.

Midnight Yell Practice

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    School: Texas A&M

    Tradition since: 1913

    At most schools, it's known as a pep rally. But Texas A&M does things a little more extravagantly when it comes to getting fans pumped up for the pending football gamenot to mention at a rather unorthodox time.

    For more than a century the Aggies have gathered en masse at Midnight Yell Practice, though originally the occasion was a smaller event and not tied to football games. Since 1931, though, it's served as a pregame ritual and is held at Kyle Field at midnight on the day of home games, while for away games it's done on campus on the Thursday before the game as well as at a site near the visitor's stadium.

    Texas A&M's roots run deep with military tradition, and the school's Corps of Cadets organize Midnight Yell Practice. It also includes the marching band and upwards of 20,000 fans who stay up late on Fridays to yell, sing and cheer inside Kyle Field.

Pink Locker Rooms

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    School: Iowa

    Tradition since: 1979

    Iowa has played football games in Kinnick Stadium since 1929. The venue has gone through numerous renovations to expand and upgrade the facility and meet the needs of the Hawkeyes and their fans.

    Yet it's one minor facelift more than 35 years ago that stands out among all others and continues to be a source of debate.

    In 1979, then-Iowa coach Hayden Fry, entering his first year at the school after spending six seasons at North Texas, ordered the walls of the visitors' locker room to be painted pink. The visitors' facilities were renovated in 2005, and the pink motif was expanded to include pink urinals, lockers, carpeting and brick. 

    The color scheme was described by Fry as "calming," but also one that resembled girls' bedrooms, according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). And it's drawn the ire of feminist groups, anti-gay activists and other protesters over the years, with an Iowa professor organizing a "Million Robot March" last August to protest the pink.

    If the color is meant to help the Hawkeyes win, though, it hasn't made much of a difference lately. Iowa has gone 10-11 at home the past three seasons and hasn't gone undefeated in Iowa City since 2004.

Planting the Spear

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    School: Florida State

    Tradition since: 1978

    Native American history is a huge part of Florida State, with the Seminoles nickname chosen in the 1940s and officially sanctioned by the Seminole Nation. The official mascot is Chief Osceola, who was named after the famous Seminole Indian leader.

    The idea of Osceola as a mascot first came about in the 1960s, but it wasn't until legendary coach Bobby Bowden signed off on having someone ride a horse on the field at Doak Campbell Stadium in 1978 that it became a reality.

    Since then, every FSU home game has been preceded by Chief Osceola riding his horse Renegade across the field and planting a spear into the turf.

Red River Shootout

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    Schools: Oklahoma and Texas

    Tradition since: 1900

    The Red River serves as a boundary between Oklahoma and Texas, and in the 1930s a war was waged over the construction of a toll bridge over this river.

    When it comes to football, though, it's not about geography or finances but just pure, unadulterated hatred of the other team.

    The Longhorns and Sooners have met 109 times since 1900, and since 1932 the game has had a fixed date and location. Played in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas during the annual Texas State Fair, the game's outcome has often been as important as the results of the entire season for both teams.

    The fact that both schools have been in the hunt for a national championship in many years has just added to the intrigue.

    It's one of those games that any college football fan will want to watch and would love to attend, not just those rooting for one team or another. Though if you happen to get a ticket, there is a dress code.

    "The Cotton Bowl is split down the middle at the 50-yard line with Crimson and Cream on one side and Burnt Orange on the other, daring fans to cross over," wrote Braden Gall of Athlon Sports.

Rolling Toomer's Corner

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    School: Auburn

    Tradition since: 1950s

    You can never have enough toilet paper in Auburn, Alabama. If you run out and are in a pinch, there's always some hanging from the trees around Toomer's Corner.

    For roughly 60 years, Auburn fans have celebrated victories and big football happenings by "rolling" the live oak trees at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and College Street.

    This tradition has become such a big part of the program's history that the nasty rivalry with Alabama prompted one Crimson Tide fan to take out his hatred toward Auburn on the trees themselves. Harvey Updyke admitted in 2012 to poisoning the trees during the 2010 season in retaliation for Auburn beating Alabama en route to the national title.

    Those trees had to be removed, but earlier this month new trees were planted.

    Rolling those trees will have to wait, though.

    "The university will ask fans not to roll the new trees until the 2016 season in order to give them time to acclimate to their new environment," wrote David Ching of ESPN.com.

Singalongs

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    Schools: Various

    If you don't know the fight song, the alma mater or another tune closely associated with a school, attending many college football games might be like standing in the middle of a massive choir without having a copy of the lyrics.

    Just as marching bands are a staple of college football, so too are collective renditions of songs that ring true with the alumni and fanbase. And often these songs symbolize the people who back these teams, such as when West Virginia fans since John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" at the end of every home football game.

    Other schools have well-known songs they belt out together, such as Michigan's "The Victors," Tennessee's "Rocky Top" or Notre Dame's alma mater, "Notre Dame, Our Mother."

Tailgating

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    School: Various

    Football games aren't just about the action on the field or the activities that go on in the stadium to keep the crowd entertained for several hours.

    The true college football experience begins long before, when the tailgate parties commence all over the surrounding campus.

    To tailgate is to take in the sights and sounds of a game day long before the kickoff, eating, drinking and hanging out with thousands of people that you probably only see on Saturdays. But because most of those on hand have a common interest in the home team, that lack of pre-existing familiarity doesn't matter.

    Every school does tailgating their own way, but some stand out more than others.

    In August, Bleacher Report ranked the top 25 tailgating schools in college football, and the winner was Ole Miss thanks to its famed "Grove," a 10-acre, tree-lined area on campus that is transformed into a southern cotillion of football fans and those looking for a sophisticated and somewhat formal outdoor party.

The 12th Man

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    School: Texas A&M

    Tradition since: 1922

    While the NFL's Seattle Seahawks like to lay claim to this tradition as well, the origin of the description of football fans being known as "the 12th man" belongs to Texas A&M. The school trademarked the saying in 1989, and www.12thman.com is the portal to the Aggies' athletic department website.

    Though it's meant to signify all fans, who collectively provide the home team with an unofficial 12th member of the football team, at A&M it really applies to the students who stand throughout games at Kyle Field.

    "The 12th Man is always in the stands waiting to be called upon if they are needed," according to a post on the school's site.

    Former A&M coach Jackie Sherrill enhanced the tradition in the 1980s when he assembled a unit of walk-ons for kickoff duty and dubbed them the "12th Man Kickoff Team."

Tightwad Hill

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    School: California

    Tradition since: 1923

    California averaged just over 49,000 fans for its seven home games in 2014, though the official attendance is only based on tickets sold to Memorial Stadium. It doesn't factor in the hundreds of fans who watched Golden Bears games from a hill overlooking the facility without having to pay for admission.

    Tightwad Hill (the official name is Charter Hill) was formed via dirt excavated for the Memorial Stadium construction in the 1920s. It rises about 100 feet above the edge of the northeast corner of the stadium and provides a pretty good view of the game action.

    Tightwad Hill has become such a staple of Cal football that it has its own Facebook page as well as a support group (Save Tightwad Hill) that fought the school in its plans to block the hill's sightlines through a stadium renovation first proposed in 2006.

    A settlement was eventually reached to preserve the hill's place in Bears football history, and when construction was finished on the upgraded Memorial Stadium in 2012, fans could still watch from up there.

Touchdown Jesus

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    USA TODAY Sports

    School: Notre Dame

    Tradition since: 1964

    Notre Dame is a Catholic university where religion is a huge part of everything, including sports. So it's no surprise that, for the past 50 years, football and faith have gone hand-in-hand through a giant mural that looms over Notre Dame Stadium.

    Known officially as "The Word of Life," the mural was painted onto the south side of a tower attached to the Hesburgh Library. This was adjacent to the football stadium, and at 134 feet tall it's visible from the field, making it seem as if it's watching over the Fighting Irish on game days.

    Though the mural doesn't have anything to do with sports, the legend of "Touchdown Jesus" came about during the 1964 season as Notre Dame started 9-0the upraised arms of Jesus made it seem like he was signaling touchdown.

    An expansion of Notre Dame stadium in the late 1990s has made it so the mural is partially obscured from view, but the history and association still live on.

Unaltered Uniforms

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    School: Penn State

    Tradition since: 1890

    Penn State's school colors are blue and white. That's it. There are no alternate colors or different shades; it's just a simple blue-and-white motif.

    And for more than 120 years, that's exactly how the Nittany Lions' football uniforms have looked.

    Though a few subtle changes have occurred in the past decade, such as the removal of blue striping around the neckline of road whites (and white around the necks of home blue tops) and the addition of names to the backs of the jerseys, for the most part the Lions' uniforms are the same as they were throughout Joe Paterno's lengthy run as head coachand long before that.

    It's a comforting sight, any time Penn State plays, to see these traditional colors with no alteration, unlike at other schools. As innovative as the uniform designs that Oregon and other schools have come up with in recent years, some traditions should never change.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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