Tigers, Ducks, and Wolverines – Oh My!

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This fall I set out with concrete goals for my senior year of college, including spending quality time with friends, traveling as much as possible, having new, memorable experiences, and above all maximizing fun. As another semester in Boulder comes to a close, the past few months have been a blast of exciting times. Having spent the better part of the last year living abroad, however, I decided to complete both a tour and a learning experience of one of the most American of all traditions – college football. The following is a review of my time spent attending games at three of the most revered and well-known locations for the sport, along with my final season as a student at the University of Colorado. Weekends spent in Baton Rouge, LA, Eugene, OR, and Ann Arbor, MI, were full of good food, great friends and family, and very different yet equally enjoyable football experiences.

As far as the locations themselves, I could not have picked three more contrasting places to visit. The tour was spent in places that were incredibly diverse from each other in terms of geography, demography, meteorology, politics, gastronomy, linguistics, and culture. I was astounded at just how different each spot was in each and every way, and felt like through the college football experience I received a fundamental education into local ways of life. People take pride in academic institutions that are dear to their hearts, and through athletics this support converts into unbelievable fanaticism and reverence. College sports differ from professional ones in many ways, but the façade of amateurism that still exists, especially around college football in the United States, coupled with the fact that the athletes have to walk around campus and attend classes (the University of North Carolina notwithstanding) give college sports more of a communal feel than at the professional level. Someone can be a fan because they like to be social, to dress up and have fun, and to engage in and express school spirit, all without even liking or knowing about the sports involved whatsoever.

Pro sports have similar appeals but are more displays of entertainment and are at least stated moneymaking ventures, as opposed to college sports’ stated (though not always honest) goals of enriching student experiences, promoting and displaying the successes of institutions, and continuing cherished traditions that have been passed down through generations. Throughout the rest of the world colleges and universities strictly exist for the purpose of education and the advancement of professional training and the cultivation of intellectual capacities. Sport teams and clubs exist, but are most often used as extra- and co-curricular social activities, rather than social spectacles and professional training programs the way they exist in the United States. Athletes wishing to go pro in other countries join youth sport academies or simply professional teams at younger ages. American college athletics are truly unique in their size, scope, influence, and gravity, occupying a very legitimate realm of our culture that is unmatched anywhere else.

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Baton Rouge, home of Louisiana State University, was my first foray into the South, and certainly lived up to many preconceptions, including sticky, muggy, hot weather, incredibly rich and tasty food, incredible hospitality, old-school formality (and lack thereof), traditional customs and practices, and differing twangs, each as incomprehensible as the last. The reverence to football that exists in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), a region ranging east to Texas, north to Kentucky, and west Florida, is truly unmatched anywhere else in the country. With some exceptions the space is filled with either mediocre pro teams (the Florida Panthers, New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic, and Atlanta Falcons come to mind) or no professional sports whatsoever (Mississippi and Alabama, the two most football-rich states in the conference, if not the country, have no major professional sports teams at all). With the advent of a new college football playoff this season, the hype within the SEC continues. The conference has dominated the college landscape for the last decade, and the initial playoff rankings contained five SEC teams within the top eight and eight in the top fifteen. Many sources refer to college football not as a pastime but rather a way of life in the South, and this was certainly the case.

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The entire corridor from New Orleans to Baton Rouge was filled with purple and gold and fleur-de-lis, and sights as outrageous as LSU-colored Confederate flags and mounted policemen sporting red Solo cups reflected the debauchery that took place on game day.

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Uniformed fraternity brothers and gorgeous Southern belles reflected the heavy Greek influence present at most Southern schools, and people of all colors, ages, shapes, and sizes ran around the streets without any fear of legal repercussions, given the complete lack (or lack of enforcement) of any public liquor laws. We were out tailgating outside the stadium about five hours before kickoff, mingling with hilarious characters the entire time. Baton Rouge is a wide, spread-out, tranquil city, with large, droopy trees lining manor houses reminiscent of decades past. Tiger Stadium, also known as Death Valley, is routinely ranked as one of the most difficult places to play in the country, and the 93,000-person stadium rose high into the muggy Louisiana night, creating an inescapable fortress that dazzles with shining purple and gold.

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Mike the Tiger lives outside the stadium in a large natural habitat, but his spirit is seen through an eye at midfield. LSU beat up on lowly New Mexico State, but the town showed up in force on this Saturday.

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As far as Southern culture, I was treated to a long-awaited trip to my best friend Griffin Bohm’s maternal roots, and had an experience as close to family as one could hope for. Griff’s uncle Malcolm celebrated his 60th birthday with a great party, and nights in the Tulane area of New Orleans bookended a weekend in Baton Rouge.

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Creole and Cajun cooking was complex, hearty, and outstanding, a mix of peoples and immigrants ranging from France to Africa. Aunt Ann’s gumbo was one of the top five meals of my entire life, and was just the highlight of a trip featuring plenty of fried seafood and love. A plethora of cousins and friends made the weekend, and I cannot be grateful enough for all the hospitality that was shown my way. All in all, Baton Rouge was a dreary, rowdy, mishmash of a football culture that really exuded a sense of desperation in its subscription to LSU as the central pivot around which life revolved. Tiger football is Baton Rouge, right down to its grass-eating mad hatter of a coach Les Miles, and I am lucky to have been a part of the experience.

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A month later I made my third trip up to Eugene, Oregon to see the Ducks take on the Stanford Cardinal. The college of choice of my cousin/twin/bruzzin Joseph, good friend Connor Soicher, and many other friends old and new has been a favorite destination of mine for the last few years, in no small part to dynamic quality of salmon and Asian food available throughout the Northwest. A gorgeous, green town nestled along the I-5 corridor, Eugene is in many ways reminiscent of Boulder, albeit with a funkier twist: fairly liberal, outdoors and adventure-oriented, and full of college migrants from California.

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However, athletics at the University of Oregon are taken to a whole another level in comparison to CU, primarily in regards to football. Within the last few decades a once poor program was shaped into a national powerhouse thanks to an aggressive and innovating marketing and branding campaign driven by alumnus and ardent supporter Phil Knight, aka Uncle Phil, the founder of Nike, located nearby in Beaverton, OR. Millions of dollars have been poured into building the football facilities into some of the best in the country, and the entire campus is awash in Nike O’s. Football recruits come in large part for the hundreds of neon jersey combinations, and the Ducks never play in the same gear twice. The game day experience is one of my favorites, involving a walk through campus, across a massive bridge spanning the mighty Willamette River, through woods of tall, mossy trees, before breaking through a clearing to see the stadium. Given the recent history and importance of Oregon’s rivalry with Stanford, Ducks of all ages were out in full force. Autzen Stadium is one of (if not) the loudest stadiums in the country, a smaller bowl of 55,000 with wavy contours that shielded the stadium’s true size and amplifying the noise that echoed off the nearby water.

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The home of my personal favorite Animal House, the pre-fourth quarter tradition includes a student-section wide rendition of “Shout,” which unfairly gets a lot of points from my perspective. In terms of the student sections, however, Oregon certainly was the most organized and energized, certainly partly due to their top-four national standing. There was never a dull moment, and kids seemed much more engaged and invested in the game at hand. While I have no doubt that LSU and Michigan fans show similar levels of regard when their teams are more successful, Oregon certainly did not disappoint. The Ducks beat down Stanford and while the football culture was certainly more reserved, understated, and sensible than at LSU, there was no question as to the premier team in Eugene, the state of Oregon, and really the entire Northwest region.

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My last trip was to Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the most revered spots for college football in the country. The Wolverines have the most wins of any program in college football history, with over a century of conference and national championships, along with a few Heisman Trophies, to boot. The Big House is the largest stadium in the United States, with a capacity around 110,000, and its sprawling expanse mimicked the impact of the team on the surrounding region.

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The Big Ten is full of power football programs, and Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin compete for allegiances nearby to Ann Arbor. However, there is no mistake that in the fairly drab, miserable surroundings of Detroit, Chicago, and the Upper Midwest in general, Michigan reins supreme. Their recent struggles notwithstanding, the team is and will always be the number one draw. The weekend served as an excuse for a buddies’ reunion with my best high school friends from Boulder, and we survived the steely grey wind and sleet to have a great time romping around what really is a classic college town.

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Zingerman’s Deli was a famous throwback to my roots, but we otherwise stuck to a college budget for the most part. The University of Michigan is stretched wide across three separate campuses, mostly comprised of large, grand, dull buildings with the exception of the medieval law school and ultramodern business school. There are few trees and general greenery that survive amongst the Midwestern chill, but rows of fraternity houses and brightly colored A-frames make for a very middle-class feel. Game day was easily the most ridiculous of any this fall, with entire sidewalks and intersections filled with hundreds of students in maize and blue paying no attention whatsoever to the cold, partying for hours before making the pilgrimage to South Campus and the Big House. The stadium itself was not what I expected compared to TV exposure, being much lower and wider in real life. The atmosphere was pretty lackluster due to it being the last game of one of the worst Michigan seasons in recent memory, a bowl-less campaign capped by a come-from-behind defeat at the hands of the Maryland Terrapins. However, I am confident that out of all three venues, Michigan would be the best location to visit for a big rivalry game (namely Ohio State), barely edging out an LSU-Alabama matchup, namely due to the communal feel of the town, the binding unity and shared misery brought on by the cold, and the need to break out of a stressful academic routine by an overstretched student body. The situation is definitely not as sunny as the paradise that is Boulder, but when all else fails in Ann Arbor, go Blue.

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Finally, the end of Thanksgiving Break brought my final football game at the University of Colorado as an undergraduate. While the game was an inspired loss, 38-34 at the hands of the Utah Utes, it provided a nostalgic experience to sum up my time here in school. Despite witnessing the worst four-year stretch in the history of Colorado football, with a 10-39 record, including 4-31 in conference play, I have had a great time watching my Buffs play some football. The traditions of Buffs game days, the old alumni that always show up for games, the charm and allure of Folsom Field, the great memories spent with great friends, and above all else the most beautiful place in the country to watch a football game combine to make CU football a special event. Games from my childhood mesh into my time in college to give me great memories of the Buffs, from our old days in the Big 12 to the current malaise that has fallen upon the Golden Buffaloes. Ralphie remains and always will be the best mascot in college sports, and no matter what happens on the football field we get to see the sun set opposite the Flatirons.

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After a great, insightful, memorable tour of some famous spots on the United States’ college football landscape this fall, I am struck by many similarities that rise above regional differences. It is important to note the teams’ differing levels of success this season – Oregon currently stands at #3 nationally, LSU #17, and Michigan is unranked – for winning teams always draw fans. However, these three schools stood apart from CU in their obvious dedication to football, even in the midst of subpar seasons. Accents, climates, campuses, and people were all different, but many themes clearly existed in contrast to CU, namely the elevation of athletics above other university life, including the star-power of athletes, shining, multi-million dollar facilities, and football as both an escape from normal life as well as a permanent fixture within a weekly and seasonal schedule.

I must state that as a lifelong Buff I love the direction we are headed under our new coach Mike McIntyre and this year’s team showed many signs of life. However, touring three of contemporary America’s preeminent football institutions made it very clear that regardless of our success on the field, Boulderites will always turn to other activities and pastimes before college football. While this reflects the place I live in and the culture that exists here, it is simply a reality that has been built through generations of adherence – the outdoors here are much like football is in Ann Arbor, Eugene, and especially Baton Rouge. This combination of gluttony, indulgence, recklessness, and materialistic idolatry is something that is truly, inherently American, and there is nothing else like it in the world. I have long cherished and will always appreciate the joy and camaraderie that college football brings, and feel privileged to have had such a great fall hopping all over the map.

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Go Buffaloes.

Max

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