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College Football - Traveling Team: Big 10 Stadiums

By Sean McDonald
Tuesday, September 2nd, 2003
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Let me begin by saying that I am blessed. Football-blessed, that is. I've grown-up around college football my entire life and have been lucky enough to meet people through the years who are as enthusiastic about the game as I am. Sometimes overenthusiastic at times, as you may see from the excerpt from a conversation a couple of years ago.

"Hey, let's go to the Illinois/Ohio State game."

"It's midnight."

"So?"

"You're right. Where will we sleep?"

"There is a grocery store parking lot."

"Perfect."

Through my friends and family, I have been able to visit all of the Big 10 schools, save one (Purdue --- and I will be there on October 4th.)

The following is a ranking of the Big 10 schools on the basis of the experience of a game, from tailgating to the stadium to after the game. Here is what I believe to be the best and worst of the Big 10 football experience.

Must-Sees

1) Michigan

Tailgating: Abundant. You know right away that this is a big-time football program with big-time football fans. One visit, I was parked on a fairway of the university golf course (as an avid golfer, I was a bit peeved, but as a football fan, I was impressed.)

Fans: Friendly, even to the enemy. Loyal, as well. Die-hard is as good as term as any.

Stadium: The Big House isn't that big ... from the outside. It seems that they have sunk the stadium into the center of the earth, since from the outside it only looks like a three story building. Enormous once you are inside, with an entire oval filled with people. You realize about three minutes into the game that it is a Michigan game since you will have heard "Hail to the Victors" about 19 times.

After the game: Great college-town atmosphere, with a plentiful nightlife to be enjoyed.

2) Wisconsin

Tailgating: Brats and beer. Stadium is located near many campus hot-spots, enough that if you don't get a ticket, you can still enjoy the atmosphere of game day.

Fans: Red. Lots of red. Friendly, as well, although that may have been because they were thumping my alma mater. Enthusiastic to a fault.

Stadium: Nice and large without the forced feel of an Ohio State.

After the game: College-town meets state-capital. Something for anyone from blues clubs to German pubs, to college bars, whatever mood you are in, Wisconsin has something for you.

3) Penn State

Tailgating: Expansive grassy areas (these are a definite plus, a parking lot is not conducive to pure tailgating) surrounding the stadium. Plenty of parking, and perhaps the largest collection of campers on football Saturdays.

Fans: A great mixture of lifers and students. Courteous and loud.

Stadium: Probably the best-looking stadium from the outside. Inside is nice, as well, with a large video screen, and a growling lion (see Michigan's "Hail to the Victors" for overuse violations.)

After the game: College-town meets boutique mall. Very clean, quaint, quirky campustown area, doesn't strike you as a college-town in places, but a great place to have a good time.

Should-Sees

4) Ohio State

Tailgating: A lot of concrete. Stadium is flanked on one side by local bars, creating a loud and um ... energetic fan base. Plenty of places to have a good time, but too many parking lots.

Fans: Overzealous. Saw "Muck Fichigan" shirts en masse, two weeks before the Michigan/Ohio State game. Less than friendly to opposition's fans. Very critical of own team.

Stadium: Been there during the renovation and after the renovation. Exterior is much nicer since renovation, however, once inside the stadium, you have the feeling that the expansion was a bit forced, in order to have the largest stadium (how long does that record last anymore, a week?) If you are on the outskirts walking to the game or just walking around, I highly-recommend walking by the baseball, track, and basketball facilities. Exteriors all match and the facilities are first-class. Made me jealous.

After the game: Plenty to do on and off campus.

5) Michigan State

Tailgating: Great time, with grassy areas. I will warn you now, I do not have the best memory of where we parked, but do recall taking a bus to the stadium. Then again, I also recall our vehicle breaking down and not getting to the stadium area until only a couple of hours before the game, so can't comment for all areas of tailgating.

Fans: Good fans, one of them still has $20 of mine from an unwise bet, but other than a big Michigan complex (you kill them in basketball, isn't that good enough?). A good group of fans to watch a game with.

Stadium: Underrated. Very good views of the action, very simple-looking (which is good in my opinion), with large lower-deck areas, making for a very good atmosphere.

After the game: Did I mention I lost a $20 bet ... seriously, though, another underrated area, with plenty of options for all personalities.

6) Iowa

Tailgating: Drinking seems to be a sport in Iowa City. Quirky campus can make walking to stadium tedious (you would think Iowa would be flat, but not on the Iowa campus.)

Fans: Mixed. Have had a couple of trips without any problems; have made a couple of trips where fans have been less than courteous to opposing fans.

Stadium: Could use a renovation. Endzone areas are not exactly paradise. The main-stands are nice, but there is not a smooth transition to the endzone areas.

After the game: See Tailgating. A good time can be had, but beware of campus, not the most intuitive setup ever.

If You Happen to Be in the Area

7) Minnesota

Tailgating: The stadium is downtown, making for a difficult tailgate. No real sense of a college atmosphere.

Fans: Few, unless some are camouflaged as empty seats. The fans that attend are loud, but again no real college atmosphere.

Stadium: The Hump. One more reason why domes should be eliminated.

After the game: The highlight of the trip. Downtown Minneapolis is a great place to find anything you want from fine dining to nice bars. A bit expensive for someone looking for a "college" experience, but a lot to do.

8) Indiana

Tailgating: First off, how do you have a state university that can only be traveled to on a two-lane highway (Penn State is similar, but it is somewhat hidden so it can be understood.) Some areas are gravel ... concrete beats gravel all day. Many fans arrive an hour or so before a game, not a good sign.

Fans: Seem to be beaten down from years of misery.

Stadium: Perhaps the ugliest stadium ever. The main stands begin approximately 15 feet above field level. Open grassy knoll at one endzone looks nice, but doesn't bring any fans. Looks like lowest-bidder (by a lot) architecture.

After the game: Nothing to get excited about. Typical college-fare.

9) Northwestern

Tailgating: Okay, the college is in a Chicago suburb, but there is practically no atmosphere. Small lots and a lack of alumni support make tailgating seem to be the exception, not the norm.

Fans: See Indiana.

Stadium: First visit was before a major renovation, so 12-deep Port-a-Potty lines were a bit bothersome. Extra restrooms were added by my second visit, and while that was an upgrade, stadium still had a high-school feeling to it, not a Big 10 feel.

After the game: Go to downtown Chicago.

If you haven't figured it out now, I am an alumni of the University of Illinois, so here is my quick synopsis of the experience there. (If I were to be unbiased, I would probably rank it fifth or sixth, but I'm not, so it will always be first for me.)

Illinois

Tailgating: Combination of grass and concrete on West and South sides of stadium. Atmosphere is contingent on fans, if the Illini are playing well, it can be crazy, if it is the Lou Tepper era, unconscious is a better description. Students are seated on East side of stadium, which dampers their involvement with pre-game festivities.

Fans: Friendly and laid-back. Alumni are knowledgeable, which can lead to great discussions about the finer points of the game, but does not lend itself to a crazy type of atmosphere. Students vary depending on game, can have an influence, but need to be shown something before getting disruptive.

Stadium: Classic-looking stadium, with large main-stands on both sides, connected by a horseshoe at the south end. Getting to the balconies on either side can be a bit of a chore, but they provide good views.

After the game: Plenty of places to go from the typical fraternity bars to nicer, laid-back places in and around the campus.

Before I finish, I believe that Big 10 football is the best and always will be, but that is simply a bias that I have been blessed to have. That bias does not overwhelm the college football fan within me, so I will finish up with a few stadiums/games that I hope to see in my lifetime.

Games

1) Army/Navy -- Simply the best of college football, two teams playing hard each and every play, with a much greater importance than football underlying it, I think it is one of the most patriotic events of any year.

2) Texas/Texas A&M in College Station -- Have heard rumors that you haven't seen crazy until you see A&M fans.

3) Michigan/Ohio State -- Wouldn't be caught dead wearing the wrong colors in this series.

4) Georgia/Florida -- "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." Enough said.

Stadiums

1) Neyland Stadium -- Have to catch a game here, checkerboard endzones and the oddest orange make for a must-see combination.

2) The Rose Bowl -- If for no other reason than the fact that I have sworn that I will go when my Illini go ... I hope I'm still alive when they do.

3) Notre Dame Stadium -- I'm not exactly an Irish supporter, but Touchdown Jesus, along with a great history, make this one a must-see.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that this will get some more fans to get out to games. I still believe there is nothing better than a college football Saturday atmosphere --- the excitement, the camaraderie, and the game itself make it an experience to be lived no matter where you are cheering on your favorite team.

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