College Football: Ranking the 31 Coolest College Towns

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2011

College Football: Ranking the 31 Coolest College Towns

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    There is just something inherently exciting about being in a true college town; whether it’s the proximity to a great campus, the constant reminders of an alternate lifestyle and culture, the ever present fervent spirit associated with a cherished college athletics program or a combination of all of these factors and a few more.

    The following slideshow ranks the 31 coolest college towns in these Unites States (the grades have nothing to do with how good the athletic programs are) and before we get started it’s absolutely imperative to point out that this is nothing but a subjective list.

    Yes, the word “coolest” offers no objectivity and what is one person’s “coolest” college town is another person’s biggest dump.

    And so, by the very nature of this undertaking, the following presentation is tainted with the author’s perspective; a viewpoint that obviously prefers the smaller town over the huge city (yeah, New Orleans, Boston and Chicago are cool…but they aren’t true college towns) and celebrates towns that are completely saturated with their blessed institutional relationships.

    In order to prove that the presenter’s bias has a limit, the great city of Lubbock, Texas, has been left off the list. Though its beauty shines immeasurably in the eye of this beholder, its soul-stirring magnificence is hard to sell to a wider audience.

31. Ruston, Louisiana

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    Ruston is located in northern Louisiana and serves as home to Louisiana Tech University.

    LA Tech and Ruston combine to make a classic college town experience which is enhanced by a relatively low city population of 20,000, in addition to 11,000 students.

    Ruston won’t wow you with a bunch of gimmicky tourist stuff, but it’s a solid, friendly small town and school that provides the spirit and culture every great college town should have.

    What’s cool? Visit the Huddle House on I-20 at 2 a.m., and you’ll see everything very clearly.

30. Champaign/Urbana, Illinois

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    The University of Illinois is located between the towns of Champaign and Urbana which offers the visitor a two-for-one opportunity to visit two college towns for the price of one.

    The area is located approximately equidistantly from Indianapolis (to the East), Chicago (to the North) and St. Louis (to the South west). All three destinations are approximately a two-hour drive from Champaign/Urbana.

    Champaign has a population of about 80,000 people while Urbana’s resident’s number about 40,000, but both cities lay claim to part of the Illinois campus.

    There is a lot to see in both locales which makes Champaign/Urbana “cool” and very unique.

29. Corvallis, Oregon

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    The self proclaimed “most beautiful college town in the country” Corvallis is home to Oregon State University.

    Well, it’s hard to argue the natural beauty of Corvallis which enjoys a stunning backdrop provided by the Cascade Mountains and with a population of only 54,000 it’s not a big city by any stretch of the imagination.

    One of Corvallis’ most inviting aspects is a downtown area that offers a generous array of eateries, bakeries and other establishments necessary for successful college life.

    You got to love a town of 54,000 containing a school with an enrollment of 24,000 that keeps its 45,000-seat football stadium chock full.

28. Stillwater, Oklahoma

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    When you think of Oklahoma, you think of endless plains and whipping winds. When you think of college towns in Oklahoma you probably think of Norman which houses the University of Oklahoma.

    But the town of Stillwater may prove that your first thoughts about Oklahoma, colleges and towns are all wrong.

    First, Stillwater is surprisingly picturesque (think shade trees and lush landscaping) and though overshadowed by its big neighbor OU, it is actually (and arguably) the better of the two in terms of a true “college town.”

    A big bunch of this heavy handed talk comes down to establishment’s such as Eskimo Joe’s, founded in 1975 by two OSU grads which give Stillwater as unique of a feel as does any place in the nation.

27. Boone, North Carolina

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    Named for Daniel Boone, Boone, North Carolina is the proud home of Appalachian State University, whose almost 17,000 students practically equal Boone’s entire population.

    What’s cool about Boone is its dramatically beautiful setting and its connection with bluegrass music, stories and folklore.

    Throw in a little dominant FCS football, the Mountaineers recently captured three consecutive FCS titles (2005, 2006 and 2007), and you’ve got a truly unique college football setting.

26. Clemson, South Carolina

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    Clemson is among the best small towns whose populations are most saturated by a student body; the town has almost 12,000 permanent residents, and the university’s enrollment is close to 20,000.

    How cool is Clemson?  Well, how cool it would be if you renamed the town next to your school after the school?

    It would be like changing South Bend, Indiana to Notre Dame, Indiana or revising Waco, Texas to Baylor, Texas.

    And that’s exactly what the town of Calhoun, South Carolina did in 1943 when it renamed itself Clemson which is indicative of the unique spirit of the great Clemson University.

25. Logan, Utah

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    Logan is home to Utah State (a WAC fixture since 2005) and is considered by some to be the most beautiful place in all of Utah.

    Nestled in the Cache Valley which is encircled by mountains, Logan is easy on the eyes and has the art, music and organic food scene you would expect from such a beautiful place.

    More than 25,000 students call Utah State home, and overall it’s a very cool college town.

24. Annapolis, Maryland

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    Annapolis is home of the US Naval Academy and St. John’s College also serves as the capital of the state of Maryland.

    Annapolis was founded in 1649, has a population of just fewer than 40,000 residents and history and charm ooze from its colonial buildings and cobbled streets.

    Though Annapolis has some cool restaurants and bars, what gets it on this list is its association with the Naval Academy and its picturesque setting on the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a combination that is simply hard to beat.

23. Baton Rouge, Louisiana

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    Though you could include a wide variety of southern towns on this list, it would be utterly incomplete without including the home of Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.

    Baton Rouge is French for “Red Stick” (which had something to do with an explorer seeing a cypress stick with a dead animal on it) but its modern meaning may be more along the lines of, “Let’s get drunk in the capital.”

    Baton Rouge has the capital, the flagship university (complete with football played at the highest level), and its large population of almost 230,000 folks is enhanced by the 30,000 students at LSU.

    Located only a short drive away from New Orleans, Baton Rouge has all the southern charm and Cajun influences that one would need to have a very agreeable college town experience.

22. Oxford, Mississippi

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    Oxford is home of Ole Miss which is steeped in history, tradition and southern charm and its population of almost 20,000 includes a student body that is just as big.

    Oxford (founded in 1835) was actually named for the university in England in hopes that a similar institution of higher learning would someday be founded on the same site, and so Ole Miss was born in 1848.

    Oxford is cool for a million reasons which include the Grove, a multitude of unique bars and restaurants, its rich literary history (ever heard of William Faulkner) and an absolute obsession with college football.

    Yes, you’ve heard about other southern states who love their pigskin, but the speed limit on the Ole Miss campus is 18 miles per hour, in honor of QB Archie Manning who wore the No. 18 when he played for the Rebels, a fact that just screams dedication.

    The other cool thing about Oxford is how southern gentility serves as a not so gentle mask for a big, out of control party.

21. Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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    It may surprise people (especially Alabama fans), but Tuscaloosa isn’t on many comprehensive lists of “cool” college towns.

    But, what’s not cool about the hometown of the University of Alabama?  It's home to over 90,000 people, plus over 30,000 students.

    You’ve got southern hospitality, amazing food, a vibrant nightlife and history galore.

    Tuscaloosa is a destination town.

    As we are all aware, the city of Tuscaloosa was directly hit by the tornadoes that ravaged the South this past Spring, to make a donation to the relief effort in Alabama please follow the included link to the Red Cross Donation Page.

    You can also call 1-800-RED-CROSS or text "REDCROSS" to 90999 to make a $10 donation.


20. West Point, New York

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    Since we already have a university founded by Thomas Jefferson on the list, why not add a federal military site established by Jefferson in 1802?

    And that’s how the home of the US Military Academy (aka Army) got its official name though it had been a fort on a strategic geographic point since before the Revolutionary War.

    The list of why West Point is cool is lengthy, but it starts and ends with its association with the US Military Academy which is just as cool as anything on this list (and don’t forget that you’ll be hard pressed to find a more stunning view than along the Hudson on a football Saturday).

19. Iowa City, Iowa

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    Weighing in with the relatively small population of approximately 65,000, Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, may not immediately come to mind when you think of the word “cool.”

    But, this is no average college town, and yes, you’ve got the eateries, the night life and the cool eclectic shops as do most campus cities, but who else can lay claim to writers such as Tennessee Williams and Kurt Vonnegut as a professor (Slaughterhouse-Five) as alumni of their literary program?

    The other element that makes Iowa City appealing is the surprising setting that includes hilly, river country that is atheistically pleasing in its own unique way.

    The university represents almost half of the urban population and as in other states without a pro franchise to challenge college fandom the Iowa Hawkeyes reign supreme in the aptly named “Hawkeye State.”

18. State College, Pennsylvania

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    It’s hard to beat a college town with “college” in the actual name which puts State College, PA and College Station, TX both among the 31 coolest college towns in the land.

    State College is home to about 42,000 residents, a number that is barely eclipsed by the student body.

    The town was founded with and for the Farmer’s High School of Pennsylvania (1855) the institution that became Penn State University in 1953.

    “Happy Valley” has lots of reasons to be happy and though football may be at the forefront of this joy the music and arts scenes and a wide variety of cool eateries and bars also offer cheery reasons.

17. College Station, Texas

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    College Station is far enough away from Houston (about an hour-and-a-half drive time) to be considered a separate entity, and though it benefits from having a huge city nearby, it’s definitely a college town.

    Dominated visually by Kyle Field, which seems to rise out of the rolling south Texas prairie, College Station is “Aggieland” and is completely saturated by the spirit of the students who attend Texas A&M University.

    College Station boasts a population of approximately 95,000, and A&M also serves a whopping 47,000 students, making a relatively big town a really big college town.

    Aggies are fiercely loyal to their beloved football team (all other sports are considered secondary), but they will still welcome you to The Chicken, The Tap and a wide variety of other uniquely Texas institutions.

16. Lawrence, Kansas

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    Lawrence, Kansas may be one of the most underappreciated college scenes on this list, and you might be surprised to know that this “little” town has approximately 90,000 residents, alongside 30,000 University of Kansas students.

    Yes, Lawrence is home to two universities (KU and the Haskell Indian Nations University, which fields a NAIA football team), but it also offers a cool riverfront scene, the main drag of Massachusetts Street and serves up a heaping helping of football and basketball opportunities for the discerning sports fans.

    Lawrence, Kansas has it all, including a fleet of bicycles that just might outnumber the cars.

15. Gainesville, Florida

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    Gainesville is one of the truest “sports destinations” on this list, which doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s a great college town (even minus the stunning Gator Nation).

    Gainesville is home to approximately 125,000 folks, in addition to a student body of almost 50,000, which means it is stacked with bars, eateries, coffee shops and unique shopping venues associated with a vibrant student body.

    Gainesville is yet another great music scene and boasts the start of acts such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

    But at the end of the day, it’s hard to beat the draw of the Gators on the gridiron on gameday at gorgeous Ben Griffin Hill Stadium.

14. Salt Lake City, Utah

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    Home to the University of Utah, Salt Lake City offers a similar level of scenic awe as does Boulder and now adds BCS level football to its list of attractions with the Utes joining the Pac-12 for the 2011 season.

    A bigger college town with a population of over 180,000, Salt Lake City is stunning not just naturally but architecturally as well (and when you put the two together it’s hard to beat).

    Five national parks are within easy reach of the “U of U” area, as are a wide array of attractions made available by combining a state capital with a flagship university.

    Overall, it’s a fabulous package not to be missed.

13. Eugene, Oregon

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    The home of the University of Oregon and one of the fonts of greatness for running enthusiasts, Eugene, Oregon proper has a population of approximately 150,000 residents.

    Though you can’t deny the “coolness” factor of Autzen Stadium, Steve Prefontaine and the stunning Oregon scenery, don’t forget that Eugene was depicted in film as one of the greatest college towns of all time.

    That’s right, the classic movie Animal House (1978) was filmed in Eugene and on the campus of the University of Oregon, truly amping up the town's “coolness” factor.

    “Thank you sir, may I have another…”

12. Madison, Wisconsin

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    Madison is not as big as Austin, Texas, but it offers the same kind of “small college town” feel in a highly urban area.

    Also, the capital of its respective state (and the home of its flagship university) Madison touts a population of around 230,000, in addition to over 40,000 Wisconsin students.

    The main drag is State Street (which connects the University and the Capitol), and like many of the other towns on this list, Madison has its own unique music scene.

    Above all, Madison is home of a flock of Badger faithful who make the big town their cultural headquarters.

11. Boulder, Colorado

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    Home to the University of Colorado, Boulder offers a great college atmosphere on one of the most stunning scenic landscapes in the nation.

    Boulder’s population is just under 100,000 people on top of some 30,000 Colorado students, and the area offers a breathtaking number of outdoor pursuits, a wild college scene and big-time college sports.

    Who could ask for anything more?

10. Austin, Texas

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    Though Austin is probably the largest city on the list (weighing in with a hefty population that nears 800,000 people), it makes the list by virtue of offering several amenities that are difficult to beat.

    First, you’ve got “Sixth Street,” which is a row of bars, eateries and music venues that serve as the backbone for what is an impressive party scene.

    Next, you have the always entertaining music landscape, the State capital, a wide array of outdoor activities (this is the Texas Hill Country) and then the University of Texas itself, which boasts an enrollment in the range of 50,000.

    All these factors combined (plus a heavy dose of premier college sports, especially football) make Austin an eclectic college town experience that transcends the fact that UT is dropped into a huge city.

    To sum it all up, there is a reason for the popular “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers.

9. Berkeley, California

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    In Berkeley, it’s the memory of the political activism of the 1960s interlaced with art, music, current policy concerns and a vibrant film community.

    It’s Telegraph Avenue, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, but it's relatively smallish with a population of approximately 115,000 residents.

    Home to the University of California at Berkeley (better known as “Cal”), this funky city also serves up a healthy portion of Pac-12 college athletics combining hippies, artsy fartsy and “The Big Game” (Stanford vs. Cal).

    To cement Berkeley’s place in “college town” lore, don’t forget that it was the site of “The Play” in 1982 when Cal beat Stanford on a last-second, lateral-laden kickoff return that involved the premature celebration of the Stanford band.

8. Athens, Ohio

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    You aren’t likely to find another comprehensive listing of “great college towns” with Athens, Ohio on it, but that might be a huge oversight.

    Athens, Ohio is the home to Ohio University, whose student body almost equals the entire population of the town (the 2010 population was approximately 24,000, and the current student body nears the 25,000 mark).

    Athens is a true college town, and though you might not find a cutting edge art scene or a bunch of hoity toity museums, you will find a main drag of college bars, eateries and bookstores flanking the gorgeous campus.

    Athens is a college town, and that’s all it is. And it’s amazing.

7. Ithaca, New York

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    Ithaca is the home of two institutions of higher learning, Cornell University and Ithaca College, whose combined enrollment of close to 26,000 students almost equals Ithaca’s population of 30,000 permanent residents.

    Ithaca may not be on the radar for major college athletics (Cornell participates the D-I FCS Ivy League and Ithaca is a D-III school that plays football in the Empire Eight Conference), but it has got every key element (and more) of a great college town.

    First, you’ve got the college town culture, you’ve got the cool little college dives, you’ve got four state parks and you’ve got two separate downtown areas that are equally alluring.

6. Princeton, New Jersey

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    Quaint, historic and stunning Princeton is one of the best college towns in our United States. The Princeton area has around 30,000 people on top of almost 8,000 students.

    Princeton’s thoroughfare is Nassau Street, where you will find the usual array of unique restaurants, bars, bookstores. Though Princeton is obviously best known for its academic prowess, don’t forget that it represents an athletic destination as well.

    Princeton participated with Rutgers in the first ever college football game (1869 in Rutgers) and was one of the early powerhouse teams in the greatest game.  Yes, the Tigers own a stunning 26 football national championships from 1869-1935.

    Don’t forget that smart people can play some football.

5. Ann Arbor, Michigan

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    Ann Arbor is the quintessential college town.

    An interesting factoid about the University is that it spent its first two decades in Detroit before moving to Ann Arbor in 1837, and if that isn’t enough to tickle your fancy, did you know that Ann Arbor tops the nation in both number of bookstores and book sold per capita? 

    Though Ann Arbor is easily accessible on foot and beautiful, what may be most impressive is how a town of 120,000 people (plus an enrollment of 41,000) keeps Michigan Stadium consistently filled above its 109,000 person capacity level.

4. Charlottesville, Virginia

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    If it’s atheistically pleasing architecture and access to historical sites you desire, Charlottesville, Virginia should be at the very top of your list.

    The campus was designed chiefly by Thomas Jefferson (whose Monticello home is nearby), and the town is also situated nearby the homes of James Madison and James Monroe and is only about two hours from Washington DC.

    But aside from all that, this is another fabulous college town. Charlottesville proper has fewer than 45,000 folks.

    It's ACC sports, it’s an old, historic town (dating back to 1762) and has all the charm and alluring culture of a true college settlement.

3. Chapel Hill, North Carolina

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    Chapel Hill’s answer to Austin’s Sixth Street and Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue is Franklin Street which offers similar cool venues such as eateries, bars, etc.

    What may be even “cooler” is that Chapel Hill is a small town (with a population in the neighborhood of 58,000).

    Sure, it's scenic southern with a delightful edge of eclectic, but this is a basketball-obsessed town that is overrun with college students, a fact that changes (and enhances) the culture completely.

2. Amherst, Massachusetts

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    Though this list is primarily made up of “one school towns” the small city of Amherst Massachusetts claims Five Colleges (a brand name that is actually an “incorporated consortium”) which are Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

    Of the five, UMass is obviously the most notable from an athletics standpoint (the football Minutemen currently play in the FCS’s Colonial Athletic Association but are schedule to move up to the FBS’s MAC in 2013), but Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith all compete in Division III athletics (Holyoke and Smith are all women’s schools).

    What’s cool about Amherst is you’ve got the four smaller schools plus UMass (approximate enrollment of 28,000) packed into a town with a permanent population of near 38,000.

1. Athens, Georgia

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    People who don’t care for college football (which is frankly, unthinkable) will find a rich art and music scene in the southern haven of Athens which also offers some truly unique eateries.

    Yes, REM and the B-52s got their start down in Athens, but to the pure at heart, these are just side benefits to a town of 115,000 that keeps Sanford Stadium hopping with over 92,000 screaming fans as the Bulldogs take care of business down “between the hedges” on Saturday’s in the fall.

    So, do you crave just one factoid about picturesque Athens?  Well, the university (which opened at the early date of 1785) shut down from 1863-66 due to the Civil War.


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