The intrigue and allure of college football are deeply rooted in its traditions. The pride, passion, and pageantry that embodies the sport are no better exemplified than by joining thousands of people from different backgrounds in one age-old display of unity. Most of these have passed through generations, each with its own individual charm. Which, however, are the very best of all college football traditions?
Best college football traditions
Every college football program has its unique tradition. They come in many shapes, forms, and sizes. There are pregame, in-game, and after-game traditions. Some have been around since the 1800s, but that doesn’t mean that more recent college football traditions hold less importance.
I love college football, and I love its traditions. Trying to rank the best of them was like deciding which of your children you love the most or what takeout to have. Impossible.
Iowa – The Wave
Some college football traditions you can feel reverberating through your bones. Others are a visual extravaganza. Yet, some, like “The Wave,” hit you right in the heartstrings. It may not be one of college football’s oldest traditions, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best.
In 2017, Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital completed work on a top floor that offers a perfect view of Kinnick Stadium. Since then, Hawkeyes fans turn and face the hospital after the first quarter of their home games to wave to the ill children and their families. In a perfect example of the unifying impact of football, opposing fans also join in with the tradition.
Iowa boasts two traditions, the other more controversial and less heartwarming than “The Wave.” Following his arrival in 1979, coach Howard Fry ordered that the visiting locker room be painted pink. A psychology major at Baylor, Fry believed that the color dampened excitable and aggressive behavior. It remains that color to this day, despite drawing criticism.
Wisconsin – Jump Around
There were many moments in the opening weekend that made you think, “college football is back.” Sure, we had college football last fall. But, without fans in the stands, without the college football traditions, it wasn’t the same. Few things hammered that home as hard as watching Camp Randall erupt to the tune of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” on Saturday afternoon.
The tradition started in 1998 when the stadium PA blared the 1990’s hip-hop classic at the start of the third quarter of Wisconsin’s game against a Drew Brees’ led Purdue team. The crowd absolutely lost their mind — Wisconsin went 11-1 that year — and a tradition was born. At the start of every third quarter at Camp Randall, and when the Badgers play at the Rose Bowl, the whole crowd gets on their feet and jumps around.
Don’t believe me that it’s one of the best college football traditions? Last season, I spoke to former Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr, who told me:
“Jump Around is the best college football tradition ever. The stadium literally shakes. We get a burst of energy when Jump Around comes on. There’s nothing like playing at Camp Randall.”
Virginia Tech – Enter Sandman
One of the biggest college football games last weekend returned one of the best traditions in the sport. There is nothing quite like the sounds and sights of the Virginia Tech team entering Lane Stadium to the sound of Metallica’s hit Enter Sandman. Honestly, I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it.
Compared to some of the college football traditions on this list, it’s relatively recent. In 2000, the Hokies installed a new scoreboard, and they wanted to show it off with new entrance music. The Hokies chose Enter Sandman, and a tradition was born.
It’s so much more than just a song, however. The Hokies team walk from the facility, around the practice field, into a narrow, cramped tunnel, touching the Hokie Stone — before being held at the tunnel entrance. Only once the song begins does the team emerge. The atmosphere is intense and electric, and the energy created has been measured on seismographs.
Army/Navy – “The March On”
Is there a rivalry in sports more emotive than the Army vs. Navy game? The passion for college football is intensified by the pride associated with military service. It’s so much more than just a game, and yet the matchup is brimming with college football tradition.
Even its place on the calendar is an annual tradition. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the matchup is always the final game of the college football regular season. Without sharing a schedule with a sea of other teams, the footballing eyes of the nation are focused on this one game.
Yet, the pregame march of the service academies is the one outstanding tradition that elevates Army and Navy into the echelons of the best college football traditions. Before kickoff, the entire student body of both academies marches onto the field in an organized and spectacular display. They fill the field before debunking to the stands, where they remain standing throughout the game.
Florida State – Chief Osceola
It seems almost poetic that as the college football world still mourns coach Bobby Bowden’s passing, a tradition brought to life by the former FSU head coach still lives on as strongly as ever today. Although the ceremony was initially thought up in the 1960s, it didn’t come to pass until the 1978 clash with Oklahoma State.
At the start of every FSU home game, Chief Osceola rides Renegade the horse along the field of Doak Campbell Stadium before planting a flaming spear at the heart of midfield. Created in tribute to the Osceola Tribe of Florida, the tradition continues to this day — with the permission of the tribe.
Since its inception, there have been six different horses that portray Renegade. Meanwhile, 16 different riders have sat atop the trusty Appaloosa steed.
South Carolina – Sandstorm
What happens when you combine a Finnish DJ and one of the SEC’s perennial underachievers? Naturally, you start a brand new college football tradition. Such was the case in September 2009, when fourth-ranked Ole Miss visited South Carolina.
Late in the fourth quarter, staring an upset defeat in the face, the Rebels were driving down the field. Just before a crucial third downplay, the stadium announcer cranked up Darude’s Sandstorm, and the Gamecocks crowd went wild. When the play resulted in a sack, the dance floor banger boomed out once more. Unable to hear, Ole Miss suffered a substitution penalty before an incompletion handed the Gamecocks an upset win.
If you don’t like dance music, this probably isn’t for you. Nevertheless, there’s something insanely intoxicating about watching thousands of fans whirling towels, jumping up and down, and generally causing absolute mayhem.
Clemson – Howard’s Rock
Clemson’s football tradition may be called “Howard’s Rock,” but it’s so much more than that. Sure, rubbing the rock, formally a doorstop in coach Frank Howard’s office is an integral part of it. However, it hardly screams pageantry like some of the other college football traditions around the nation.
Thankfully, the Tigers have spiced up the rock rubbing to a college football spectacular. Seven minutes before the game, the team embarks on a tour of the stadium in coaches. Disembarking at the site of the rock, they hold at the top to gather the rock’s mystical powers before pelting at full pace down “The Hill” and onto the Death Valley turf.
Harvard – The Little Red Flag
As you’d expect from one of the nation’s premier academic institutes, Harvard’s “The Little Red Flag” is a subtle and understated college football tradition in comparison. Despite this, the endearing nature of the story deserves its place on this list.
In a college football landscape that is constantly evolving, “The Little Red Flag” provides an anchor to the sport’s rich history. It is a tradition practically unchanged since its inception in 1884. While the flag that Frederick Plummer carried from then until his final game may have been replaced, the premise remains the same.
Whoever has been to the most Harvard vs. Yale games shall be the flag keeper until he can no longer attend. A tradition, like the flag, passed down from generation to generation.
West Virginia – Country Roads
If you don’t think there’s something iconic about 60,000 people singing in perfect harmony to John Denver’s classic Country Roads, I’m not sure there’s much hope.
Ignore the long-contested belief that Denver was originally writing about Maryland in the song, West Virginia has adopted the anthem since the 1970s. While singing it at any point during a game would earn it a place in my heart, the joining of fans and players for a rousing rendition at the end of home victories earns Country Roads a place in the best college football traditions.
Boston College – The Red Bandanna
Since 2014, The Red Bandanna game has been an annual tradition for the Boston College football team. It honors, remembers, and celebrates the heroism and sacrifice of former Boston College lacrosse player Welles Crowther who selflessly gave his own life to see the lives of many on September 11.
His remarkable story was told by Tom Rinaldi, becoming a feature on ESPN’s College GameDay. At the time, eyewitnesses knew just one thing about this mysterious man who repeatedly and relentlessly helped guide survivors to safety; he wore a red bandanna. When he was finally identified, the bandanna became a symbol of heroism. The Eagles incorporate the distinctive design into their uniforms as part of the tradition.
Ohio State – Script Ohio
When you think of the pageantry of college football, one thing immediately springs to mind — marching bands. Forget your NFL drum lines, cheerleaders, or people on stilts firing t-shirts into the crowd. Marching bands are the epitome of college football cool.
Without causing too much controversy, the Ohio State marching band is the best in the game. They’re world-renowned, and the unit lays claim to one of the best college football traditions there is. Dotting the I during Script Ohio formation is an honor reserved for the band’s most senior sousaphone players.
Texas A&M – The 12th Man
Texas A&M’s “12th Man” tradition has transcended college football and reached into every area of the program. It’s a tradition so famous and precious to the program that they’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the phrase’s association with Texas A&M.
The tradition began in 1922 with a man named E. King Gill. A minor member of the Aggies’ football squad, Gill was yanked from the press box during an ugly clash with Centre College. He suited up and stood for the entire game on the sidelines, remaining the only man standing by the bench at the end of the game.
The 12th man has come to represent unity, loyalty, and willingness to serve. Gill is remembered by all Texas A&M student body members — the 12th man — standing throughout both football and basketball games.
Honorable mentions traditions
USC – Traveler
Nebraska – Tunnel Walk
Tennessee – Running the T
Purdue – The World’s Largest Drum
Oklahoma – The Sooner Schooner
Stanford – The Stanford Band
Auburn – War Eagle
Colorado – Ralphie’s Run
Georgia Tech – Ramblin’ Wreck
Hawaii – The Haka