College football has been an important part of Southern life ever since young men began to take to the gridiron on autumn afternoons. But the college football experience in the South is more than just the game itself. Each school brings its own brand of pageantry to the table before, during, and after the game.
In my new book, Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South, I touch on some of the traditions that make the Southern college football experience so great. Here’s a more detailed list of the ten best traditions in Southern college football. Enjoy!
10. Vanderbilt University – Vandyville
One of the newest traditions in Southern college football takes place in Nashville. For the past decade, Vanderbilt fans have gathered under tents and in tailgates along a stretch of Natchez Trace Parkway six hours before every home game. Vandyville has become the preferred place for fans to hang out prior to kickoff.
In Vandyville, a huge video screen broadcasts important games and coverage while kids play on a playground nearby. The football team marches along the Star Walk, greeting fans a couple of hours before game time. Vandyville has grown so popular that the university has opened up a second area for tailgating families.
9. The Citadel – The Ultimate Student Body Involvement
The Citadel is a military college in South Carolina with a sterling reputation for producing some of the nation’s finest cadets, and the school has a football tradition that dates back over a century. The students of The Citadel engage in a unique brand of pageantry that no other school can match.
Before games at most schools. you’ll see the band, cheerleaders, and flag corps march out onto the field — a few hundred students at most. At The Citadel, the entire student body marches on the field prior to kickoff. After touchdowns, the school fires their distinctive cannon, letting everyone in town know what’s going on.
8. University of Mississippi – Tailgating at The Grove
The Grove is a normally peaceful, idyllic piece of the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, but on home-game Saturdays, The Grove comes alive as the premiere tailgating location for Rebels fans. The beautiful shaded area has been the place to see and be seen on game days since 1983.
The team walks through The Grove on their way to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The women dress in all their finery. The atmosphere is nothing short of electric. No wonder Ole Miss ranks on the lists of top tailgating schools time and time again.
7. Grambling State University vs. Southern University – The Bayou Classic
Every November, two historically black universities converge in New Orleans for a rivalry game that has provided excitement for fans of both schools for 42 years now. Southern University and Grambling State have made the Bayou Classic a genuine Thanksgiving weekend tradition.
From the Thanksgiving Day parade to the Battle of the Bands to the game itself, the Bayou Classic entertains a quarter of a million visitors and fans in the Big Easy. And it’s always exciting.
6. Florida State University – Chief Osceola
My only college football experience that doesn’t involve my beloved Georgia Bulldogs took place in Tallahassee. I attended the season opener of Florida State’s 2002 season (against Oklahoma), and I enjoyed taking part in a game where I didn’t have a Dawg in the fight.
At Doak Campbell Stadium, I witnessed some incredible pageantry — and I’m not even talking about Burt Reynolds’ appearance on the sidelines. I had the privilege of seeing Chief Osceola on his majestic Appaloosa horse Renegade as he planted the flaming spear at midfield before the game.
I consulted my FSU expert Lisa De Pasquale, and she confirmed that Chief Osceola is the Seminoles’ most majestic tradition. The chief’s appearance dates back to 1978, when the new coach, that football genius Bobby Bowden (how’s that for a mention, Lisa?), took a former student’s suggestion and adopted the new mascot.
Chief Osceola creates a dramatic, exciting moment that no other school can match.
5. University of Tennessee – Volunteer Navy
Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium is a rare breed in that it’s one of the few college football stadiums that is accessible by water — in this case, the Tennessee River. In 1962, Volunteers broadcaster George Mooney found an innovative way to beat game-day traffic: he took his runabout down the river and docked at the stadium. The idea stuck with fans, and the Volunteer Navy was born.
Today, upwards of 200 boats crowd the river around the stadium on game days. The modern version of the Volunteer Navy includes tricked out vessels with water slides and hot tubs. It’s a truly obnoxious and exciting scene — pretty much like any other Southern tailgate, but in a totally different venue.
4. Auburn University – The Tiger Walk
So many schools do some sort of “walk” where the football team, and often the cheerleaders and the band, will walk from a designated spot on campus into the stadium as throngs of fans gather to cheer them on , but no school matches the pageantry of Auburn’s Tiger Walk.
I don’t know if Auburn was the first school to feature a team march to the stadium, but the Tiger Walk tradition dates back to the 1960s, when fans began greeting the team as they made their way to Jordan-Hare Stadium. In 1989, when Alabama played at Auburn for the first time, over 20,000 fans took part in an emotional Tiger Walk.
3. Clemson University – Howard’s Rock & Running Down the Hill
Clemson University’s stadium, known as Death Valley, is home to one of the most exhilarating team entrances in all of college football. As the crowd cheers wildly, the team runs down the hill into the stadium. It sounds simple, but the excitement in the air is electric. The players rub Howard’s Rock for luck on their way down the hill.
The rock first came to Clemson from the real Death Valley in California in 1966. Before the 1967 game against Wake Forest, Coach Frank Howard told the team that if they gave 110%, they could rub the rock after the game. The team won, and the tradition of rubbing the rock moved to the pregame festivities as a token of good luck and a symbol of the effort the players put into preparing for each game.
2. Texas A & M University – Yell Practice
There’s something 0ddly appealing when a crowd of college football fans begin to chant in unison. Even if it’s a team you don’t root for, it’ll give you chills. At Texas A&M, the students take this to another level with their late night “Yell Practice” tradition. The pep rally on steroids began in 1913, when students gathered the night before a home game to “learn heartily the old time pep.” In 1932, the students began gathering at midnight to practice.
The student body marches from the school’s quadrangle to Kyle Field, where the Yell Leaders…well, they lead the yelling. Crowds of 20,000 to 25,000 gather late at night to take part in the tradition. It’s loud, it’s crazy, and it’s uniquely Southern.
1. University of Georgia – Ringing the Chapel Bell
I could write reams about the traditions at my alma mater, the University of Georgia. There’s the Dawg Walk, the long line of the Uga mascots, and the Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation (gives me chills every time). But the tradition that means the most to many folks in and around Athens involves one of the oldest buildings on campus.
The university constructed the Chapel in 1832, and it quickly became a center of activity on the old part of the campus. In the 1890s, the field where the Bulldogs played sat steps from the Chapel, and students began ringing the Chapel bell until midnight after a UGA victory. Today, students, alumni, and fans ring the bell late into the night anytime the Dawgs win. The Chapel bell became the subject of my all-time favorite UGA television ad, which you can see above.