The 10 Best College Football Traditions

From rocks and rock anthems to buffaloes and boomers, college football has its fair share of peculiar pastimes.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Updated on October 4, 2023
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The 2023-24 college football season has officially begun. What better time to celebrate the most revered traditions honored in stadiums across America?

In choosing the top 10, we applied a few ground rules. First, the tradition must be longstanding. Something that started five years ago isn't necessarily a "tradition" yet; it's more of a habit at this point. No beta-stage traditions allowed.

Second, it must be current. If something used to be a tradition, that's great. It just didn't make the cut here.

Third, for the purposes of this list, no inter-school rivalries were considered, nor were traditions involving two or more teams. So the Army-Navy game, while certainly a storied rivalry within college football, doesn't count by this measure, nor does New England's "Little Three" competition.

Finally, choosing only 10 from a long list of possibilities is a difficult task. Ranking them individually is all but impossible (and certainly highly subjective). So these are presented in alphabetical order to simplify matters and calm the easily agitated.

If your school didn't make the list, better luck next year. And if it did, feel free to consider it ranked first if that makes you happy.

With those ground rules firmly established, let's get to it.

Auburn Tigers: Toomer's Corner

Auburn's TP tradition makes the cut on a technicality.

Since the 1960s, Auburn fans have taken to Toomer's Corner following a win to adorn oak trees with toilet paper. (Actually, revelers first used telegraph paper before switching to TP in 1972.) Toomer's Corner gets its name from former State Senator Sheldon Toomer, who later became known as "Two-Ply Toomer" (not really).

This celebratory spectacle was enough to tick off one rabid Alabama fan who infamously poisoned the trees in 2010 following an Iron Bowl defeat and received jail time for his offense. Five years later, replacement trees were damaged in a fire, and new ones were planted in 2017. Now, this fall, after a six-year hiatus, Toomer's Corner is once again ready to roll.

Although Toomer's Corner experienced this recent interregnum, it's famous enough to warrant inclusion. And it's back.

Footnote: Another Auburn tradition deserves mention – the War Eagle, which since 2001 has flown majestically over Jordan-Hare Stadium to kick off home games.

Clemson Tigers: Howard's Rock

This igneous tradition has an ignominious origin.

Perched atop a pedestal at Memorial Stadium's east end zone sits Howard's Rock. For almost 60 years, Clemson players have rubbed the rock before emerging en masse onto the field, ready to thrash their opponents.

The rock belonged to former coach Frank Howard, who received it as a gift from an alum (what do you get the guy who has everything?). It came from Death Valley in California, which accounts for Memorial Stadium's nickname. So enamored with the big stone was Howard that he used it as a doorstop for several years before it assumed its loftier purpose in life.

A fortuitous turn of events, to be sure, because "Howard's Doorstop" was never destined for collegiate immortality.

Colorado Buffaloes: Ralphie's Run

No, it's not the kid from "A Christmas Story" escaping bullies. It's the Bubalus bubalis, aka the buffalo.

Since 1967, Ralphie the Buffalo has led the team onto the gridiron, rampaging across Folsom Field while handlers attempt to prevent it from stomping a mudhole in opposing players.

Technically speaking, this buffalo is an American Bison, but let's not split hairs and annoy the Colorado faithful. Also, technically speaking, "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is a complete sentence, though good luck diagramming it.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Play Like a Champion Today

Any number of Notre Dame traditions could've made this list. Touchdown Jesus. The gold helmets with real gold. Rudy.

But we'll go with the iconic "Play Like a Champion Today" sign that players whack before making their way into the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium. The sign was the brainchild of legendary coach Lou Holtz, who had it installed in 1986.

Or was it? The University of Oklahoma would have you believe they decided to play like champions first, having erected a similar sign in the 1950s. That's OK — Oklahoma made the list for another tradition, so we'll let Notre Dame have this one.

Yet we won't let this tidbit slide: "Rudy" Ruettiger played in 1975, making this scene in the movie historically inaccurate.

Ohio State Buckeyes: Dotting the "I"

This football tradition doesn't even involve football players. No, the spotlight instead turns to the Ohio State Marching Band, which for almost 90 years has been "dotting the I" in Ohio.

When the band performs "Script Ohio," one lucky sousaphone player high steps his or her way into formation at the top of the I, becoming a human tittle. Less notable are the various clarinetists, trombonists, and percussionists crossing the two "T"s.

On occasion, the band invites special guests to assume dotting duties. Luminaries such as Bob Hope, Jack Nicklaus, and John Glenn all have put the I in Buckeye.

Oklahoma Sooners: Sooner Schooner

First, let's get the vocabulary correct. A "Sooner" refers to folks who arrived in Oklahoma before they were legally allowed to. Likewise, "Boomers" were early pioneers in the region. Together, they form "Boomer Sooner," the university's fight song.

And they constitute the names of the two white ponies that, since 1964, have pulled a covered wagon called a schooner. (No, this isn't a Dr. Seuss story.) After each touchdown, Boomer and Sooner tow the Sooner Schooner, racing across Gaylord Memorial Stadium toward midfield to celebrate the team's accomplishment.

Every now and again, Boomer and Sooner get a bit disoriented and zig instead of zagging, upending the schooner and sending its occupants, normally members of the spirit squad and cheerleading crew, tumbling ungracefully onto the field.

Southern California Trojans: Sword Stab

In a scene straight out of "Gladiator," an armor-clad warrior, who also happens to be a drum major, struts across Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and plunges his sword deep into the ground at midfield, signaling the Trojan Marching Band to begin playing "Tribute to Troy."

It also signals the grounds crew to come fix a hole in the turf.

The drum major then proceeds to conduct the piece using the 12-pound weapon as a baton, being ever careful not to hack off a limb, puncture a major artery, or impale his gluteus maximus.

Texas A&M Aggies: 12th Man

For more than 100 years, fans at Texas A&M games have been collectively referred to as the "12th man." Legend has it the term traces its origins to one E. King Gill, a reserve player who stood on the sidelines cheering on the 11-man squad to an upset victory over that perennial gridiron powerhouse Center College.

Translated into modern terms, it means 103,000 rowdy fans waving, swaying, chanting, and intoning "Hullabaloo Caneck Caneck," the Aggie War Hymn.

You can even find a statue of Gill himself, the original 12th man, outside Kyle Field. Yet some deem his tale somewhat apocryphal, believing there's something rather fishy about Gill.

Virginia Tech Hokies: Enter Sandman

It starts with a guitar riff, followed by a steady drumbeat. Some 65,000 fans jump and cheer in unison. Football players gather in the tunnel, waiting anxiously to emerge. Burnt orange and Chicago maroon smoke fills the air. And just like that, we're off to never-never land.

Since 2000, Virginia Tech games have begun with Metallica's rock anthem, "Enter Sandman." The raucous entrance has even registered on seismographs, reaching earthquake levels.

To outside observers, the scene may seem a bit hokey, but diehard Virginia Tech fans are just living the dream.

Wisconsin Badgers: Jump Around

Before the fourth quarter of each game, the stands of Camp Randall Stadium come alive with 80,000 human pogo sticks jumping up and down in concert with House of Pain's imperative tune, "Jump Around." Fans oblige like they're following square dance instructions.

This peculiar tradition began in 1998, and since then, Wisconsinites have jumped at the chance to become bouncy Badgers. Even House of Pain band member Everlast was impressed by this fervent display during his trip to Camp Randall last year, noting how much Wisconsin fans love putting the hop in hip-hop.

Honorable Mentions

Florida Gators: The Gator Chomp

Carnivorous Florida fans intimidate opposing players by miming the biting motion of an alligator. In light of the stadium's nickname, it really should be called the "Swamp Chomp."

Iowa Hawkeyes: The Wave

No, it's not that wave. This version involves Hawkeye fans waving to kids and families at Iowa's Stead Family Children's Hospital, which can be seen from Kinnick Stadium.

Mississippi State Bulldogs: Ringing Cowbells

Who doesn't need more cowbell? Mississippi fans certainly do, causing a curious cacophony at each home game.

Penn State Nittany Lions: White Out

Picture more than 100,000 rabid fans dressed as the liquid paper used to erase typewriter mistakes.

Purdue Boilermakers: Big Bass Drum

The so-called "World's Largest Drum," measuring over 7 feet in diameter, is a revered tradition visiting teams simply can't beat.