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Vasha Hunt/Associated Press
When it comes to drama, every sport has its fair share of it, but there’s nothing quite like the excitement of college football. Part of the allure of the biggest stage of amateur sports is the pageantry around it.
Some of the traditions have been around for decades or longer. Others may be new but are just as awesome.
Plenty of game-day festivities occur during tailgating (in non-coronavirus times) or as a team is walking into its stadium. Others, like rolling Toomer’s Corner at Auburn, are postgame celebrations. Those are not the ones we’re interested in.
And the running of Ralphie at Colorado would have made the list, but I recently named her the top mascot in college football. There didn’t need to be a repeat.
The in-game traditions on this list take place when fans are seated, whether just before kickoff, during the game or right afterward. They’ve become interwoven in the thread of the day, and, to some, they’re just as much fun as the games themselves.
There were several narrow misses to this list, including the fun-filled extracurricular activities surrounding Miami’s famed Turnover Chain. Mississippi State’s clanging cowbells and Arkansas’ calling of the hogs did as well.
Let’s take a look at the top in-game traditions in college football.
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This tradition just began in 2017, but it will almost certainly be around for a long time and is one of the cooler new things in college football.
After completion of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, which sits next to Kinnick Stadium, the entire black-and-gold clad group of fans began to turn to the hospital at the end of the first quarter and wave to the children watching the game from the windows.
According to SI.com’s Emily Caron:
“The top floor of the hospital … features a ‘Press Box’ where patients and families can come together on home game Saturday’s to watch the Hawkeyes play. From the windows of the press box, there’s a near-perfect view of Kinnick Stadium for patients to cheer on their beloved Hawkeyes. Children often tape signs and posters to the windows in their rooms in support of the team and now, fans support them back with the Iowa wave.”
Whether you call it the “Kinnick Wave” or the “Iowa Wave,” it’s a special tradition for the kids. The school accepted the Disney Spirit Award for the wave in 2017 (see video).
This is something that’s bigger than football.
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“Almost heaven, West Virginia.”
To hear tens of thousands of people singing the John Denver song “Country Roads” has become one of the neatest traditions, with players and fans at Milan Puskar Stadium belting it out following Mountaineers victories.
Though head coach Neal Brown hasn’t experienced many home-game wins over his year-plus, West Virginia is a proud program that is sure to rebound soon.
According to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the tradition began on Sept. 6, 1980, when the late Denver sung the song to dedicate new Mountaineer Field in Morgantown.
Remarkably, it was also the opening game for Don Nehlen, who became a legendary coach for West Virginia. When you think about how those two landmarks occurred on the same day, it seems written in the stars.
“WVU’s 41-27 victory over Cincinnati would be the first of 149 wins at WVU for Nehlen, who was on his way to becoming the most successful coach in school history and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame,” WVPB wrote.
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RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press
Clemson’s official website says the players rub Howard’s Rock before running down the hill to play the games to give themselves “mystical powers.”
Is that a bunch of hocus-pocus? Maybe.
But there’s no doubting head coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have been one of the most dominant programs in college football over the past few years, and they do not take this tradition lightly.
The flint rock sits on a pedestal. According to the team website, a friend of coach Frank Howard picked up the rock in Death Valley, California, before giving it to Howard.
The rock was placed on the hill Sept. 24, 1966, before a 40-35 win over Virginia, and it became a tradition to rub the rock before running down the hill in 1967. Howard served as Clemson’s head coach for 30 years, and the field was named after him not long after he retired.
This is one of the most exciting traditions to start a game in college football, and it stands out given how good the program has been of late, including two national championships over the past five years.
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Songs have become intertwined with some college football traditions.
While “Jump Around” may not be considered a classic, the House of Pain romp that became a hit in 1992 has become a hip-hop classic, and it is part of one of the most raucous traditions in college football.
Since 1998, Wisconsin Badgers fans have “jumped around” following the end of the third quarter at Camp Randall Stadium in order to get fired up for the fourth quarter at home football games.
To watch 80,000 fans jumping around is neat to see. The stadium literally shakes when it’s happening.
“It all started as just another song to energize fans with the ulterior motive of trying to make it difficult for Purdue to move the ball, said Kevin Kluender, UW assistant athletic director for marketing and promotions,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Meg Jones wrote about the tradition.
During that ’98 season, coach Barry Alvarez’s Badgers finished with a 11-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory, but in October, the pesky Purdue Boilermakers and then-quarterback Drew Brees were driving when the students began jumping around to try to deter them from scoring.
The rest is history. This is one of the newer traditions, but it has become synonymous with Wisconsin.
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Sam Craft/Associated Press
Way back in 1922, Texas A&M was playing the dominant Centre College Praying Colonels in the Dixie Classic in Dallas and got ravaged by injuries. Student E. King Gill came from the stands, put on another player’s uniform and joined the bench in case the Aggies needed him to help finish the game.
Gill was a former player who quit the team to focus on basketball, according to My Aggie Nation’s David Harris.
Gill’s selflessness sparked the team to shock Centre 22-14, and the legend of the “12th Man” was born and later became tradition 1939. Today, more than 38,000 students stand throughout the game at Kyle Field, which has become known as the Home of the 12th Man. There is a statue of Gill outside of the stadium in College Station.
The tradition has even grown over the years.
According to Harris:
“A&M football coach Jackie Sherrill added another element in 1983 with the 12th Man Kickoff Team. Tryouts were held and 10 students would join the kicker during kickoffs at home games, instead of special teams players. The tradition has evolved to having one walk-on student as the 12th Man on home-game kickoffs.”
Before each home game, the press box at the stadium literally sways with the fans during the “Aggie War Hymn.” Reporters who are standing may feel the need to hang on to something to avoid a bout of nausea that feels like seasickness.
This unique pageantry truly needs to be experienced firsthand.
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Wade Payne/Associated Press
For 55 years at Neyland Stadium, the Pride of the Southland Band has formed the famed “T” before Tennessee Volunteers home games. As the band begins to play “Rocky Top,” members march in opposite directions to open the T, and the Vols go from interlocking arms to running through it, with 102,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs.
It is one of the best pregame traditions in sports, and when the Vols are good, it’s one of the loudest.
One of the biggest honors at UT is the seniors’ last running on Senior Day.
“It is almost a gladiator type of moment. That’s how I used to think of it,” Phillip Fulmer told NCAA.com’s Courtney Martinez in 2015. “You prepare for this battle you’re going to have, being introduced and be acknowledged by the fans, led by cheerleaders and the band playing.”
Fulmer, who became Tennessee’s athletic director in 2017, played for the Vols and coach the program for 17 years.
The tradition began in 1965, when then-coach (and future athletic director) Doug Dickey approached the Pride of the Southland marching band with the idea. It has become one of the many traditions in Knoxville, from the Vol Navy to the Vol Walk and the singing of the alma mater.
Experiencing the Vols’ “Running through the T” is something that should be on every football fan’s bucket list.
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Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
Much like Clemson’s rubbing of Howard’s Rock, Ohio State’s tradition has been etched in lore chiefly because its football program is so exceptional.
Before each Buckeyes football game, the Ohio State Marching Band, aka the Best Damn Band in the Land, puts its showmanship on display by forming the word “Ohio.” As the fans in the stadium cheer, the final step is dotting the I.
Yes, we’ve gone from opening up a T to dotting an I. Sometimes, you have to know your grammar when it comes to tradition.
The 225-piece band normally has an upperclassman (fourth- or fifth-year) sousaphonist receive the honor of playing the solo to place the dot at the top of the I.
According to the university’s website:
“Originally, an E-flat cornet player, John Brungart, was the first ‘i’-dotter, but in the fall of 1937, [Eugene J.] Weigel turned to Glen Johnson, a sousaphone player, and had him take his place in the dot. A year later, when the drum major arrived at the top of the ‘i’ three or four measures too early, Johnson turned and bowed to the crowd to use up the rest of the music. The crowd roared, and the bow has been part of the show since then.”
When you think of all of the games and wins this program’s tradition has seen, with head coaches such as Woody Hayes to John Cooper to Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer and now Ryan Day, it makes it even more special.
This means a lot to many Buckeyes fans and is special to witness in person.
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Matt Rourke/Associated Press
It’s nearly impossible to pick just one tradition from the Army-Navy game, one that has so much pageantry and additional meaning than just football.
Though the rivalry is intense, the mutual respect and admiration are obvious before the game and as soon as the final whistle blows. All of these young people are ready to fight for and defend this country, and there is an air of honor throughout the game.
There’s the pregame “prisoner exchange,” during which the cadets and midshipmen who participated in a prestigious semester-long exchange return to their programs.
Nothing beats the postgame, though, when the two academies honor the fallen by singing both teams’ alma maters. The teams face the losing side’s fans first.
You won’t find a more hard-fought, tradition-rich rivalry than this one.
In recent years, both programs have experienced their share of success as well, with Army recording double-digit wins in 2017 and ’18 and Navy recording 11 wins with a Liberty Bowl victory over Kansas State last season.
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John Bazemore/Associated Press
One of the first things this columnist remembers about college football while growing up on the Tennessee-Alabama line was asking his father, “Why are they the Auburn Tigers but they also have a War Eagle for a mascot?”
The origin of the association with Auburn and eagles is “somewhat hazy,” according to AL.com’s Julie Bennett, but the veterinary school took in injured eagles beginning in the mid-1970s. Then, on August 31, 2000, before a home game against Wyoming, War Eagle VI, or “Tiger,” took her first flight.
The university’s website has a neat history about the War Eagles and the university. Even though it’s a relatively new tradition, the flight of the war eagle is an incredible, almost-patriotic pregame experience.
The bird of prey flies around the stadium several times before landing on the field as the crowd chants, “War Eagle.” This is Auburn’s official battle cry, the origins of which are uncertain.
Though the pandemic has led to an SEC mandate that no live animals are allowed on the field during the 2020 season, the tradition is sure to continue in the future. This is one of the many things temporarily lost at AU games, along with the Tiger Walk as players enter the stadium.
Auburn is big on the fanbase, alumni, players and coaches being part of the “family,” and football is a near-religious experience, like for many in the South.
If you haven’t been to a game at Jordan-Hare Stadium and witnessed the flight of the war eagle, you should. It is something you won’t ever forget.
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While “Boomer” and “Sooner,” the two ponies who pull the Schooner, made the mascot list as well, the tradition of running the replica Conestoga Wagon onto the football field before Oklahoma Sooners games is unique.
The wagon is like the Studebaker Conestoga used by settlers of the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1880s. After every score, the RUF/NEKS, Oklahoma University’s all-male spirit organization, drive onto the field in an arc that almost reaches the 50-yard line.
One of the RUF/NEKS drives it while the Queen sits next to him, and another member waves the university’s flag off the back of the wagon.
According to school’s official website, the Schooner made its first appearance in 1964, and it became the official mascot in 1980.
After a crash last year, the university purchased a new Schooner for safety reasons, according to the Norman Transcript‘s Tyler Palmateer, and it has made its debut this season.
“The new Schooner is 70 inches wide, 82 inches tall and weighs 1,020 pounds,” Palmateer wrote. “It has heavier running gear, a wider wheelbase, hydraulic brakes, a lowered driver seat and more space, according to OU.”
Schools get extra points on this list for the uniqueness of their traditions, and there may not be any like the top two. As always, make your opinions known in the comments.