Posted by ESPN's Eric Posman
As a veteran of ESPN/ABC College Football and College Basketball broadcasts, I do my fair share of frequent-flying. But to jet-set to the Big 12, that's only half the battle. Find a rental car you like and break out the GPS, we're going to caravan through America's Heartland and check out the towns that house your favorite teams. There is no scientific basis for these rankings, and by no means have I seen every restaurant or hot spot in each town. But I have been to all of them, multiple times.
1. Lawrence, Kan. -- The quintessential college town. A true blend of sports and studies in a bucolic slice of Americana. Allen Fieldhouse, home of the reigning championships is one of the holiest sites in sports, with an A-plus crowd. Not to mention the rustic, refurbished Eldridge, home of my favorite hotel bar/restaurant and better mac-n-cheese than my mom's. Did I mention the Eldridge is haunted? I stayed in the supposedly haunted guest suite this past February. I can't confirm the supernatural, but I did experience "strange" occurrences. If you manage to survive the night, you can roll out of bed and hit the coffee place across the street or any other joint within a couple of blocks no matter how cold the weather is. Massachusetts Ave. is one-stop shopping for just about everything.
2. Austin, Texas -- I wouldn't blame anyone for picking this No. 1. The Longhorns are always nationally relevant in both football and hoops, and their people roll out the red carpet for you -- truly a 1st Class operation. Walk down 6th Street and catch the ambience, the scenery, and the live music. It's like a cleaner version of New Orleans. It's got big city conveniences with southern charm. Lots of art and culture and football -- what a great mix. The Tex-Mex is outstanding too. But in some ways, Austin's gotten a little bit too big and the traffic is awful.
3. Lincoln, Neb. -- Typical grounded Midwesterners, friendly and hard-working. Weekdays here start at 7 a.m. not at 9 a.m., so you can get a haircut before the sun rises (that takes about 8 seconds for me). Passionate, classy football fans, and very positive. You're more likely to get hassled at Memorial Stadium for insulting the opponent than cheering for them. Not a great tailgating scene, because the Big Red faithful are in their seats early to check out pre-game warm-ups. It's so high on my list, because it's a Lincoln/Omaha entry. Having worked seven College World Series, and lived down in Omaha's Old Market for three years, I can't get back there enough. Plus, I get a big smile out of my wife when I bring something back from Borsheim's.
4. Norman, Okla. -- Another frequent stop on both the football and basketball tours. The fans are a little spoiled by their continued success in both sports, but they are smart and colorful. Now a great place to stay too, at the Sooner Legends Inn. Autographed photos of all-sport Sooner icons adorn the hallways, and the rooms. On my last trip I stayed in the Brian Bosworth Suite, and found no skeletons in my closet. The Sooner Legends staff is top-notch, and man can Val put a dinner spread out for our meetings. JR's barbeque is also a crew favorite, with all sorts of smoked and fried stuff that will make you not want to eat again for days. Did I mention that Oklahoma City is now an NBA city? Maybe that means a big-time hotel for our 2009 Big 12 Basketball Championship trip.
5. Lubbock, Texas -- Yup. I said it. Lubbock's in the Top 5. Once Bob Knight decided to take up residence there, I felt sometimes like ESPN's Lubbock bureau chief. It's a town that's entirely a grid, so it's real easy to get around. Café J is right down the street from campus. If you're thirsty after your eclectic meal, you can go to the back room, a rat-skellery kind of watering hole. Also, Market Street, the scene of a once-famous salad bar incident, has the selection and quality of a Whole Foods. Also, unlike many other Big 12 locales, once you land in town, you're in town. No 1-2 hour drives.
6. Stillwater, Okla. -- Equidistant from OKC or Tulsa (neither trip is fun), it is a fun town. The re-modeled Atherton Hotel is right in the middle of campus, and the high-quality Hampton Inn is a healthy walk from the Cowboys' athletics venues. Unprecedented money has been poured into their athletic facilities, so the facilities there rock. Eskimo Joe's is the go-to place there. Make sure you get the chili-cheese fries. I like to grab a T-shirt or hoodie for the kids at the Eskimo Joe store as well. And Pistol Pete is the most underrated mascot in the conference.
7. College Station, Texas -- Another tough commute, but worth it once you get there. The CS/Bryan community seems to be growing quite a bit, and they were extremely accommodating, housing those evacuated from Ike earlier this fall. Unlike Austin, you have to go a little more off the beaten path for the best Mexican grub. The fans are great. It's an awesome football environment when the crowd makes the stadium sway. They've translated that to basketball, and Acie Law's crew really charged Reed Arena up. Now they need to maintain it.
8. Columbia, Mo. -- A terrific college town that is just far enough away from both St. Louis and Kansas City to be really inconvenient. When you get there, take your pick from a ton of artsy cafes, coffee houses and wine bars. Missouri football comes off a magical 2007 season. But the passion there is for hoops, going back to the Big 8 days. If Coach Anderson can restore the Tigers' basketball legacy (this might be a good year to finally beat KU), then Mizzou Arena will be a major home-court experience.
9. Boulder, Colo. -- As a campus and college town, yes. The athletic venues, for this conference -- not so much. I can never reall
y get the feel for Mountain time -- do you get network shows at Eastern or Pacific time? But the air just feels good in your lungs. You can go for a run and check out the hippies and get light-headed enough that you'll need to stop and check out one of the many brew-pubs in town. Plenty of good places to stay and lots of outdoor activities.
10. Manhattan, Kan. -- This is the single worst drive in the conference. Two hours from Kansas City airport with hardly any scenery along the Interstate. It makes Bill Snyder's legacy with the football team possibly the greatest single coaching achievement in our lifetime. Like most of the Big 12 North (and unlike the Big 12 South), basketball is bigger there than football. Bob Huggins changed the culture there in his one season, bringing in Bill Walker and Michael Beasley. Now Frank Martin will need to run with it. It is the very heart of the Midwest and there are a number of fine steakhouses. Early Edition may be the top breakfast chow in all of the Big 12. But it's the road to the Little Apple that makes the journey so unappealing, not necessarily the destination.
11. Ames, Iowa -- A lonely outpost about 45 minutes up the road from Des Moines. A tough sell for recruits especially with Big Ten rival Iowa just a couple of hours away. Outstanding college basketball fans don't ever quit on their team, often become part of the "Hilton Magic." When hoops are going well, it is definitely one of the top 3 home courts in the league. The football team is rebuilding, and that is a monumental project. Never miss a chance to eat at Wallabys, a high-end sports bar with an excellent menu.
12. Waco, Texas -- It's ranked last, but should really get an incomplete. Though so many of their athletic programs excel, there hasn't been cause for us to visit for football or men's basketball in years. That is about to change. Baylor comes off an NCAA bid in hoops, and Art Briles and Robert Griffin will have TV crews making Waco a regular football stop as well. It's a beautiful campus, but at this point, my best recommendation is the Dr Pepper museum.
There it is, watch out for speed traps, black ice, and deer running across the highway, and enjoy your Big 12 road trip.
Eric Posman is an ESPN/ABC Producer.