Whereas most American sports are anodyne corporate branding exercises, college football lets its freak flag fly. As the oldest continuously played sporting enterprise in the country, college football has over 150 years of accumulated history and weirdness. The game has assumed its own language as a result—Michigan and Ohio State play The Game; Auburn and Alabama vie for the Iron Bowl. In this sense, college football traditions are unique in that college football is among the last remaining spaces with naturally arising traditions, ones unencumbered by corporate influence or gerry-rigged social media campaigns. This is college football’s secret power—the ability to harness the collective energy of a fanbase to bring the past to the present and into the future. With the 2022 college football season beginning in earnest this week, these are the 11 best college football traditions.
The 11 Best College Football Traditions
Texas A&M - The 12th Man
While fanbases all over the country have co-opted the 12th Man moniker, no school takes it as seriously as Texas A&M. Dating back to 1922 when a practice squad player suited up to help his injury-ravaged team, The 12th Man has become the defining identity for one of college football’s most idiosyncratic schools; the football team even reserves a roster spot and #12 jersey for the most dedicated walk-on and there’s a 12th Man statue in front of A&M’s stadium.
Notre Dame - Play Like A Champion Today
Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion Today” sign is inarguably college football’s most famous piece of wood. In 1986, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz saw a “Play Like a Champion Today” sign in an old yearbook and decided to adopt the motto for that year’s team, asking local painter Laurie Wegner to paint him a new sign. Since then, Wegner’s sign has hung in the Notre Dame home locker room for nearly 40 years and, per tradition, every player touches it on his way to the field.
University of Wisconsin - Jump Around
This one is pretty self-explanatory: when the Camp Randall loudspeaker plays House of Pain’s 1992 banger “Jump Around” between the third and fourth quarter, Wisconsin fans jump around. After the tradition began in earnest in 1992 when members of the school’s swim team played the song on speakers they smuggled into the stadium, the school finally played the song for the first time on October 10, 1998. In September 2003, Jump Around was temporarily put on ice as school officials feared that the vibrations caused by all the jumping around would discomfit those in the newly built skyboxes, but the administration quickly walked back this policy after a student protest.
University of Miami - Smoke Entrance
Lots of schools have a signature entrance song; the University of Miami is the only school with a signature entrance collection of airborne particulates and gasses. Before every home game, the Hurricanes emerge from the tunnel, running through a plume of dense, white smoke. The tradition was first established in the 1950s by a marketing director at the school and it really took off in the 1980s when Miami became the most dominant and swaggering brand in college football. In the 70 years since Miami first ran through the smoke, smoke has become a staple of pregame entrances at nearly every level of football.
Penn State University - White Out
First introduced in 2004 as a way to revive fan interest in a flagging Penn State football program, Penn State’s annual White Out has quickly become one of the most recognizable college football traditions. For the biggest home game of the year, the entire stadium wears white, creating an environment unlike any other in the sport; ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit called Penn State “the best student section in the country” during the 2005 edition of the White Out and former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer estimated that the atmosphere at the White Out is worth 10 points. As such, it’s now the flagship event for the program, a local holiday for fans, players, coaches and recruits alike. It makes you wonder why they don’t do it every game.
University of Georgia - Battle Hymn
Amidst all the pandemonium and din of pregame hype videos and marching band routines, the University of Georgia works in a quieter, more reverent tradition. Before each game, the attention of the entire stadium turns to the Lone Trumpeter, a member of the school’s student band who plays the first 14 notes of The Battle Hymn of Bulldog Nation.
Clemson University - Howard’s Rock
Mounted on a pedestal at the top of The Hill that leads down to the field, Howard’s Rock has been a talisman for Clemson’s football team for nearly 60 years—before every game, the players rub it as they run onto the field, allegedly receiving some of its mystical powers. Originally from Death Valley in California, the rock was given to Clemson head coach Frank Howard by a close friend and the team began rubbing it for good luck ahead of the 1967 season.
Ohio State University - Script Ohio
Since it was first unveiled in 1936, the Ohio State Marching Band’s Script Ohio formation has been a showstopper. Modeled after the script lettering on the marquee of the Loew’s Ohio Theater in Columbus, the Script Ohio is the trademark of the school and, more specifically, the football program. Within the formation, a fourth or fifth year sousaphone player is selected to dot the “i,” which is perhaps the greatest honor in collegiate sousaphone-playing. On special occasions, OSU has even invited special guests such as Jack Nicklaus and Bob Hoppe to be honorary i-dotters.
Auburn University - War Eagle
Live eagle majestically soaring around the football stadium as the fans lose their minds? Yes, live eagle majestically soaring around the football stadium as the fans lose their minds! Since 1930, Auburn has housed a golden eagle on campus, the inspiration for their battle cry “War Eagle.” Beginning in 2001, Auburn let the eagle spread its wings, literally. During the pregame ceremony before every home game, the untethered eagle flies over Jordan-Hare Stadium, making it one of the coolest college football traditions.
Louisiana State University - Neck
While most college football traditions are embraced by the school, Neck is so unwholesome that LSU refuses to even acknowledge it as a tradition, outright banning the band from playing it. When the marching band plays their rendition of Dem Franchize Boyz’s “Talkin’ Out da Side of Ya Neck,” the LSU faithful sing their own remix of the chorus, yelling “suck that tiger dick bitch.” This, for whatever reason, is frowned upon by the school administration. After the chant gained popularity during LSU’s national championship season in 2007, the school put the kibosh on Neck soon thereafter. As a result of the school’s hardline anti “suck that tiger dick bitch” stance, the tradition has been driven underground, reserved only for the most special circumstances. In 2017, Odell Beckham Jr coaxed the band into playing “Neck,” offering to pay the fine for doing so. To the delight of Joe Burrow, the LSU band also broke out Neck during the waning moments of the 2020 National Championship game as LSU capped off one of the greatest seasons in college football history.
University of Iowa - Kinnick Wave
Despite being the newest tradition on this list, Iowa’s Kinnick Wave is also the best. After the first quarter of every home game, Iowa fans all look up and wave to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, which directly overlooks Kinnick Stadium. Ever since a post in an Iowa fan Facebook group inspired the idea, the Kinnick Wave has become an indelible part of Iowa football; for every home game, the school appoints a Kid Captain from the hospital who takes part in game day and who, starting in 2022, will choose the song that plays during the Kinnick Wave.