Staff Picks: College Football Meccas-Tuscaloosa, AL

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By Paul Farnsworth

While many people mourn the passing of the summer on Labor Day, college football fans rejoice in their favorite time of year.

The NFL also kicks off its season soon after Labor Day, but the pros can’t hold a candle to the college game when it comes to tradition, rivalries, and passion.  College also has better cheerleaders, mascots, and marching bands.  Yes, NFL fans will tailgate before their games.  However, college fans start tailgating on Wednesday!

NFL games are played in big cities like New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.…each week’s game is irrelevant to large sections of the population. You may get a minute or so of highlights on the evening news and a couple player comments.  Does anyone even remember that the NFL’s biggest game -The Super Bowl – was played in the NY area just a couple years ago?

Contrast that with bigtime college games.  Some of the most storied programs in history come from medium to small-sized cities and towns like State College, Baton Rouge, and South Bend.  States like Tennessee or Ohio virtually shut down when the Volunteers or Buckeyes take the field.  You can drive down any street in Columbus and there will be Buckeye flags flying proudly in house after house.  When was the last time you saw a Jets flag flying in your neighborhood?

One greatest meccas in college football is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama - home to University of Alabama Crimson Tide. The school claims 17 national titles and an amazing five trophies in the past 10 years. Gameday in Tuscaloosa is a spectacle and even if you despise the University of Alabama (which in full disclosure I can’t stand them), you should travel there someday just to check it out.

 

It’s not easy to get there from the NYC area.  Unless you like really small airplanes, you are better off getting a direct flight to Birmingham, Alabama, or Atlanta, Georgia, and then renting a car and driving the rest of the way. 

The first thing you need to know is how people greet each other, say goodbye, or express happiness in general is by saying “Roll Tide.”  Nobody is really sure where the phrase originated, it suffices to say it’s kinda like aloha for a Tuscaloosan…you can use in just about any situation at any time. If you really want to be emphatic about something you can say “Roll Tide Roll.”  A response of “War Eagle” (the battle cry of hated rival Auburn University) in any situation is liable to start a fistfight.

Now that you can speak to the locals, when you get to Tuscaloosa you will immediately see that it is a very small place with around 100,000 residents. It is a quintessential college town with the university being the dominant economic and cultural engine in the city. Many northerners might have misconceptions about a small town in the deep south as being sleepy, but one drive down the main drag through town shows plenty of trendy restaurants and shops. 

The next thing you might notice is how immaculate the campus is. Perfectly landscaped lawns and majestic water oaks line each street.  Enormous mansions house the largest fraternity and sorority community in the nation. 

 

The epicenter of Tuscaloosa is Denny-Bryant Stadium. Named after a former school president George H. Denny and legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, it seats 101,821 people and is the seventh largest stadium in the United States.

“The Bear” was Alabama’s coach for 25 years and during that time he won six national championships (tied for the most in modern college football history) and 13 conference championships. When he retired, he held the record for most wins as a head coach in college football history. The Paul W. Bryant Museum, just a stone’s throw from the stadium, houses memorabilia, archives & exhibits features not only Bryant’s career but the legendary players throughout the program’s storied history.  The school has had two Heisman trophy winners, Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, 20 inductees into the College football Hall of Fame, and 131 First Team All-Americans.  

Football history oozes from campus. Leading up to the stadium is the Walk of Champions featuring monuments to the Tide's SEC and national championship teams and bronze statues for each of Alabama’s national championship coaches, including Bryant and current head coach Nick Saban. Saban has led the Tide into seven championship games, winning five titles in the past 10 years.

Gameday traditions are a huge part of the football scene in Tuscaloosa. Hundreds of thousands of people will be tailgating outside the stadium on a home game Saturday. Many will be drinking a secret concoction of rum, vodka, pineapple, and orange juice called Yellow Hammers. The drink was named after either the state bid or the infamous Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer cheer that Bama fans sing when victory is certain.   

Hey (insert team name here)!
Hey (insert team name here)!
Hey (insert team name here)!
We just beat the hell outta’ you!
Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer
Give ’em hell, Alabama!

Tide fans have taken their tailgating to new levels and many are dressed to impressed.  Decked out Alabama colors of crimson or white, female students typically wear shirts or dresses while guys pair khakis with a polo or button down shirt. The outfit is completed with crimson and white pom poms that it seems every Alabama fan brings to a game.

As entertaining as the game itself, the 400 members of the “Million Dollar Band” have been rocking crowds for 106 years.  “Yea Alabama,” the school’s fight song is played after every touchdown. Flag Girls, Dance Team Girls and the Majorettes lead songs such as “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Dixieland Delight,” and the crowd knows when punctuate the songs with “Roll Tide Roll” cheers

Mascots are big part of the college football environment, and Alabama’s has one of the most unusual.  “Big Al” is an elephant who dates back to the 1930s.  Like the team’s nickname “Crimson Tide,” the elephant was the creation of colorful sportswriting after the turn of the century. In the 1940s, the school actually had a live elephant named “Alamite” who would carry the homecoming queen on to the field prior to the game.

When it’s all said and done, and as usual, fans are looking to celebrate another victory, there are plenty of spots to top off the day with a great meal.  Right next to the stadium (if you can get in) is Rama Jama’s. Covered in memorabilia, it is a shrine to Crimson Tide gridiron greatness. The onion rings and milkshakes are simply awesome, and you probably buy a T-shirt on the way out.

Another Tuscaloosa institution is Dreamland Barbeque. Now a chain across the south, Dreamland started on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Founded the same year Bear Bryant started coaching, Dreamland has been hosting after game celebrations since 1958 by John “Big Daddy” Bishop.  It’s become famous for hickory-smoked pork spareribs, its southern-style barbecue sauce, and white bread for soppin!  Pro Tip: save room for the banana pudding. You will thank me later.  The experience is summed up in Big Daddy’s motto “there aint nothing like ‘em anywhere.”

 

 

 

Tuscaloosa is never going to be on most people’s “must visit” list.  There isn’t much see or do for most of the year.  However, for seven magical weekends every fall, there isn’t a better place for college football fans in the entire world.  The nice folks of Tuscaloosa wouldn’t have it any other way.

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