Travel: Following the Tigers

Auburn, Ala.

College football is rife with traditions, and few fans embrace ritual as enthusiastically as Auburn University’s. A visit to the plains of Alabama is an invitation to observe and participate in a number of enduring rites, regardless of your allegiance.

Jordan-Hare Stadium has grown in direct proportion to the popularity of Southeastern Conference football. Dedicated in 1939 with a mere 7,500 seats, the stadium has expanded incrementally over a half-century to meet the growing demand of its supporters and now seats more than 87,000. This is a game-day experience where it pays to get to the stadium early. But before you find your seat, you’ll want to secure a spot somewhere between the top of Donahue Drive and Jordan-Hare Stadium for Tiger Walk. Auburn fans claim that this tradition, which began in the 1960s, has spawned dozens of copycats around the country. Two hours before kickoff, the orange-and-blue clad loyalists crowd a narrow path and greet Auburn players and coaches as they process into the stadium. It’s a kinetic scrum of high-fives, chest- bumps and back-slaps, and it’s about as intense a love-fest as you’ll find anywhere in college sports. The largest Tiger Walk in school history is believed to have taken place prior to the 1989 game against Alabama; more than 20,000 fans showed up to motivate the Tigers against their in-state nemesis.

Another of Auburn’s signature traditions comes 20 minutes before kickoff, so an unobstructed view of the field is essential. An eagle swoops from a flagpole down to the field in a majestic display that Sports Illustrated recently ranked as the second-best tradition in college football. Auburn University is also the home of the Southeastern Raptor Center, which rehabilitates eagles and other birds of prey and returns them to the wild.

If you’re a fan of the visiting team and Auburn should happen to triumph, your first instinct may be to hightail it out of town, but that would mean missing out on a unique celebratory event. After every Auburn victory, fans head to Toomer’s Corner, at the corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue, and do what any group of animated Americans would do – roll the trees with toilet paper. The ritual, which began in the 1960s, is almost certainly the largest publically sanctioned toilet-tissue toss in the country, and it serves as a reminder that Auburn is, and will always be, a college town.   

If you can see toilet paper strewn from the oaks overhead, you are only steps from another Auburn landmark. Toomer’s Drug Store, which opened its doors in 1896, is famous for its lemonade – local lore says legendary coach John Heisman stopped in regularly to slake his thirst. For some popular local dishes, try the corn nuggets at Niffer’s Place or the steamed sandwiches at Momma Goldberg’s Deli.  

The Lovelace Museum in the Auburn Athletic Complex gives visitors a glimpse at the greatest moments, players and coaches in Auburn’s athletic history. The museum features exhibits and interactive displays that showcase Tigers at the tops of their games in a variety of sports. It’s open regular business hours, as well as from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and admission is free.

Gainesville, Fla.

Few college football environments are as intimidating as the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Nicknamed “The Swamp” by former head coach Steve Spurrier, the stadium offers a festive and often ear-splitting atmosphere that is worth the drive to northwest Florida. The field is sunken below ground-level, and the stands rise vertiginously from the field, creating a wall effect that causes noise to reverberate thunderously throughout the stadium. Unless you are sitting in the lower section of an end zone, there’s not a bad seat in the house.

With a capacity of more than 88,000, The Swamp is the largest stadium in the state of Florida, and Gator fans never miss an opportunity to remind visitors where they are. They do so by performing the Gator Chomp, that ubiquitous gesture in which stiff arms are clapped together in the motion of an alligator’s jaws. The soundtrack for the Gator Chomp is the music from Jaws, provided by the University of Florida’s marching band, the Pride of the Sunshine.

The Swamp Restaurant

Just before the Gators enter the field from the tunnel, a video is broadcast on two giant high-definition screens. The video features ominous clips of alligators in the wild, and it whips the home fans into a frenzy – it’s not to be missed. There’s a reason Florida has won nearly 90 percent of its home games since 1990, and it’s not just because of the players and the coaches. The Swamp, thanks to all of its maniacal supporters, vibrates with intensity on game day.

To come face-to-face with the Gator greats, or at least their likenesses, head outside the stadium to the west side of The Swamp. Bronze statues pay homage to Florida’s three Heisman Trophy winners: Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow.
Gainesville’s Midtown district is located directly across the street from the stadium. The Swamp Restaurant is a local landmark with a famous front lawn that is a coveted place to eat, drink and people-watch in the hours leading up to kickoff. Balls is Gainesville’s most well-known dive bar – grimy, stuffy and always crowded. The most popular pizza joint in town is Satchel’s Pizza, a quirky and beloved eatery where patrons can eat their deep-dish inside a converted Volkswagen bus. The restaurant suffered a fire earlier this year, but it is expected to reopen within plenty of time for football season.

For a small city, Gainesville also has some excellent cultural offerings. The University of Florida has two on-campus museums: the Florida Museum of Natural History, the state’s official natural history museum; and the Harn Art Museum, one of the largest university art museums in the Southeast.

College Station, Texas

College Station is one of the great college road trip destinations whether or not your favorite team is playing at Kyle Field. In terms of pageantry, school loyalty and a sense of connection to the past, few universities can compete with Texas A&M. 2012 marks the first season that the Aggies are competing in the SEC, and LSU fans should be thrilled that their Tigers will be making the trip to College Station.

You’ll want to stay up late the night before the game, but not for the nightlife. Instead head to Kyle Field for Midnight Yell Practice, which is held at midnight the night before every Texas A&M home game. First of all, the Aggies don’t have cheerleaders; they have yell leaders. Yell leaders are a group of five upperclassmen – three seniors and two juniors – elected each year by the student body. The tradition dates back to the early 1900s when Texas A&M was an all-male military school. During practice, the yell leaders expertly lead thousands of students in songs and chants to get them fired up for the next day’s game. Visiting teams are objects of some teasing, but even if you’re not an Aggie supporter, the whole spectacle is impressive as an enduring display of school spirit. And don’t worry about a hostile reception – the official greeting of the university is “Howdy.”

Midnight Yell Practice at Texas A&M

One hour before kickoff, the Corps of Cadets marches into Kyle Field. The Corps of Cadets is a student military organization known as “the keepers of the spirit” for its devotion to upholding the traditions of the university. One of those traditions is the 12th Man, which refers to the students who stand ready to do whatever is necessary to help their team win. The students stand the entire game and take their cues from yell leaders, who are clad in their traditional white uniforms. Whenever the Aggies score, a 1902 Howitzer cannon fires, signaling Aggies to kiss their date in a tradition known as “mugging down.” If the action in the stands is too distracting, you can watch a replay of the last touchdown on the 12th Man TV, a 110-foot high video board that debuted in 2006.  
Northgate is the major entertainment district in College Station, located just north of the Texas A&M campus. Dixie Chicken, or simply The Chicken, is the oldest and most well-known bar in Northgate; it also claims to serve the most beer per square-foot of any bar in America. Layne’s Chicken Fingers is a fried-chicken mecca that has developed a fanatical following, not unlike Raising Cane’s in another SEC town. The owners at Layne’s proudly declare themselves to be Aggie-owned, Aggie-operated and Aggie-supported. The most convenient spot for visitors to tailgate is Spence Park, located directly east of Kyle Field. It’s an open tailgate area that draws thousands of fans on game day, and it’s an easy walk to the stadium.

Fayetteville, Ark.

Donald W. Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium in Fayetteville, Ark. offers both a boisterous atmosphere and slice of Southern history. The stadium opened in 1938 – it was actually funded by the Works Progress Administration – but it hasn’t fallen behind the times. A $110 million renovation in 2001 expanded the capacity to 72,000 and added a gargantuan 30-by-107-foot display board that the university claimed was, at the time, the largest video board in the world.

There is plenty to see before kickoff, as well. Three of the stadium’s concourses feature exhibits that offer a crash course in the history of Razorback football. The east concourse is called “Championship Alley” and pays homage to conference championships, the 1964 National Championship and all of the lettermen through the history of the program. “All-American Alley” is located in the south end zone concourse and is dedicated to the past Arkansas All-Americans. The west concourse is known as “Bowl Alley” with tributes to the Razorback teams that have competed in bowl games.

Donald W. Renyolds Razorback Stadium

Whether it’s Alabama’s “Roll Tide,” Auburn’s “War Eagle” or Ole Miss’ “Hotty Toddy,” nearly every SEC school has its own distinguishing call. The most singular sound of the bunch, however, belongs to Razorbacks fans whose Calling the Hogs cheer is loud, distinctive and ceaseless. A visiting fan is liable to hear the words “Woo, pig, sooey!” bellowed so many times that Razorbacks Stadium can begin to sound like a porcine echo chamber. Calling the Hogs is one of the oldest traditions in college football, originating in the 1920s when fans started making hog calls to exhort their beloved Razorbacks.

While there will be plenty of people wearing apparel festooned with “Razorbacks,” there will not be any actual Razorbacks (for those you’ll have to travel to the Australian Outback) in the stadium. The closest the university gets to the real thing is Tusk, an enormous live Russian boar, who attends all home games.

Before and after the game, fans of all proclivities head to Dickson Street, the main entertainment district, located just off the University of Arkansas campus. Dickson Street features an array of restaurants, bars, clubs and boutiques. Some of the favored destinations are Hog Haus, the only microbrewery in northwest Arkansas, and Brewski’s, which features more than 200 kinds of beer. For portions of fried seafood large enough to sate the appetites of Razorback recruits, stop by the Catfish Hole. To sample the local tailgate scene, visit The Gardens, located south of Razorback Stadium near Bud Walton Arena. The Gardens is Fayetteville’s answer to The Grove, Ole Miss’ leafy and legendary Valhalla of tailgating. If your interests extend beyond the customary grill-and-guzzle activities, the Walton Arts Center, northwest Arkansas’ largest performing arts center, is located on Dickson Street.