[The ratings: Every student section has its own (ahem) personality. We risked double-secret probation to ask a panel of 20 college football experts—coaches, ADs, players, refs and the media—to sort 'em up. We'll start with the best overall below. But as you'll see over the next few pages, it's not the only way to grade.]
Adrian Peterson shook his helmeted head and slapped his earholes. But the ringing wouldn't stop.
As the Oklahoma Sooners stood in the tunnel of Autzen Stadium ready to hit the field, the walls around them vibrated like a tuning fork. The air felt thick with what sounded like a World War I biplane parked under the goalpost 15 yards in front of them.
Awaiting the Sooners on that September Saturday in 2006 was a record Oregon crowd of 59,269. But the torturous drone's roots lay in Sections 4 through 8, the student sections, where nearly 5,500 collegians had come sprinting in two hours earlier in an all-out landgrab. Throughout the game they raise their hands above their heads in the shape of an O. And when the students really want to be heard, they hold their hands together, thumb to thumb, index finger to index finger, forming a letter O through which they send their maddening call.
"It was like some sort of crazy torture in the movies," Peterson says. "How do people do that so long without taking a breath? I think my ears are still ringing."
Call it youthful exuberance. Call it tradition. Call it a bunch of students happy to give the tedium of Western Civ a pass for a day. But even the most jaded opponent appreciates a truly great college football student section. It's the only place on earth where, for a few hours, Greeks, geeks, seniors, freshmen, wannabe millionaires and soon-to-be-dropouts can stand shoulder to shoulder and throat to throat with one common, noble belief: Dude, we are so going to kick your ass.
The result of such human harmony is an exercise in allegiance, organization and groupthink. Cheers are not learned, they are inherited. Orchestrations are not forced, they are fluid. The reactions to events on the field are so rehearsed they have become reflexive.
At Notre Dame, the green-clad student body is whipped into a frenzy by the 1812 Overture, showing its loyalty to each head coach with a tailor-made hand signal (although Charlie Weis inherited Ty Willingham's W, made by pointing the thumbs and index fingers upward). At Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium, parents scream "earmuffs" to their young kids when nearing students in the profanity-filled, beer-marinated north end zone. And down in The Swamp at Florida, the Gator Chomp gets all the pub, but it's a lunatic student section cheerleader called Mr. 2-Bits and the rendition of "We Are the Boys From Old Florida" between the third and fourth quarters that do the most damage. "We were driving at the end of the third in 1991," recalls Vols QB-turned-U.S. congressman Heath Shuler. "Then they stood up and did that song during the break, and one of my teammates said, 'We're screwed.' "
Students blend cheers thrown together the week before a game with yells that are a century old, from Auburn's swirling and swooping "Warrrrrrrrrr Eagle" (which follows the pregame flight of Nova the Eagle) to the superstereophonic cross-stadium chant "Texas … Fight!" in Austin. At LSU, students rattle visitors even during pregame warmups, arriving early to envelop Death Valley in the Wicked Witch of the West's sentries' chant "Oh-e-oh, ohhh-oh," followed eerily by a nearly subliminal "You suck." Arizona draws inspiration from 1926 QB John "Button" Salmon, who, after being critically injured in a car accident the day after the season opener, famously told his coach to exhort the Wildcats to "bear down" as he prepared to meet his maker.
Cheers range from the cleverly profane (Furman University's "F-U all the time!") to the not-so-cleverly juvenile: a Dartmouth band member waves a sock and asks, "Whose socks?" Of course, the students reply: "Yale's socks!" (Say it three times fast, and you'll get it.)
As with most college-student rituals, the roots of game-day acting out are old, deep and more than a little peculiar. Take Alabama's "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer" cheer. The Rammer Jammer was the title of an old student humor mag. The yellowhammer is the official state bird. They both, sorta, rhyme with Alabama, the fact of which somehow led to the cheer that is still dropped on every visiting team once the game is officially out of reach. "Hey, Rebels! Hey, Rebels! We just beat the hell outta you! Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, give 'em hell, Alabama!" Okay, it's not "We Are the Champions," but it's music to the Tide's ears. Says Alabama QB John Parker Wilson, "I sure do love to hear it, because it means we just won."
Norman, Oklahoma's corduroy-wearing, shotgun-wielding RUF/NEKs are best known for steering the Sooner Schooner across the Memorial Stadium turf at breakneck speeds for the past 43 years. But one of their oldest traditions takes place at the foot of the student section prior to the game, when they slide into the north end zone and leap into a bizarre, red-and-white, paddle-waving, ground-slapping chant known as Fadada. It is believed to have begun for the once-practical purpose of running snakes off the field. "That's a favorite of mine," says former Sooners head coach Barry Switzer, "because you can't get the student section fired up enough. And I hate snakes."
Everyone's criterion for determining a great student section is different. Players like them loud, coaches prefer smart. Students like them large, but alumni like them small, to free up seats for, well, more alumni. Vendors like them lubricated (West Virginia hands out passes for parking-lot reloads). Referees, believe it or not, like them close to the field. "If they are right down on the sideline, you can interact with them," says one veteran ACC official. "I always joke around with the students on The Hill at Clemson before the game to humanize myself. I tell them I'm going to need their help, and I'll swear them in like I'm deputizing them. Hey, if they like me, it makes it harder for them to throw stuff at me in the fourth quarter."
No matter who's judging, though, the best student sections share a common trait: They set the tone for a game, determining coin-toss decisions, altering scores, changing perspectives. "As administrators we forget what all of this is about," says Georgia State coach Bill Curry, who did tours of duty at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky. "College football is still about the students. On Saturday they remind us of that. Loudly. If they aren't on our side, who is?"
The importance of that alliance is the reason Willingham left his introductory press conferences at Notre Dame and Washington to walk straight into dorms. It's the reason LSU's Les Miles sprinted to Death Valley's north end zone after defeating Tim Tebow's Gators last October. And it's the reason, after the NCAA urged in 1993 that student sections not be situated behind the visitors' bench, school suits still manage to place the student part of the seating chart in self-serving locales. "The students at Tennessee used to sit right behind us," says former Arkansas coach and athletic director Frank Broyles. "Now we still have to walk through them to get on and off the field. Anything on their mind, they have the opportunity to share it with us."
It could be much worse. In Knoxville, the only real game plan is to sing "Rocky Top" as many times as possible. At Texas A&M, everything short of bathroom breaks is mapped out with the precision expected of a university that has a government-designated "senior military college." This is what you'd figure from the school that has trademarked the phrase "12th Man," citing a 1922 game against Centre College, when student E. King Gill came out of the stands and suited up for an injured player.
On Friday nights in College Station, every shout, song and motion is choreographed by five elected Yell Leaders, using hand signals known as "pass backs." More than 25,000 students come to Kyle Field for Midnight Yell Practice, an activity with roots dating back to 1913. The Leaders run rehearsals of old military-school yells ("Riffety, riffety, riff-raff! Chiffity, chiffity, chiff-chaff!"), tell war stories about venerable Aggie teams and at the end of the night cut the lights so everyone can make out. Those without sweethearts hold lighters aloft concert-style, which, according to Aggie tradition, will bring together the dateless. (According to a previous Leader, "it's to ID dorks.") By the time kickoff arrives, Kyle Field and its 12th Man crowd is in place and in tune, with one full sideline, three decks high, reserved for the students.
At West Point, such exactitude isn't reserved merely for rivals on Saturdays. It's in place all day every day. But game day at Army's Michie Stadium is a chance for the 4,000 cadets to strut their stuff to the 35,000 campus visitors, who often include an ex-POTUS or Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm. The full-dress cadet parade begins three hours before kickoff, with 2,000 students assembling on The Plain to begin a synchronized march up to the stadium. It's followed by a well-drilled presentation of companies on the field and the national anthem, then the well-scripted taking of the seats. "The students are in uniform, and there are cannons rolling onto the field," says former East Carolina coach Steve Logan, who is now offensive coordinator at BC. "Planes and helicopters fly around, and cadets skydive in to deliver the game ball. One of my assistants leaned over during the pregame and asked, 'Are we being invaded?' "
Even Tom Boroch, a 20-year-old junior at Penn State, admits that's impressive. "But do they have their own municipality?" he asks. Point taken. Boroch is the duly elected president of Paternoville, a university-sanctioned student organization governing the village of 100-plus tents outside Beaver Stadium that are erected at 12:01 a.m. the Tuesday before big Nittany Lions home games. The group also has a VP and is interviewing to hire its own PR flack. Boroch's tent is at the front of the line, where between games of trash-can football he visits with residents of Paternoville to discuss their concerns—noisy neighbors, parking—much like the wedding scene in The Godfather. During those long meetings Boroch and his peeps confirm places in line and cheer plans. It's pretty heady stuff. "I grew up commuting to games from Doylestown," Boroch says. "Now I'm meeting with the athletic department to get the scoop on White Out dates, and Coach Paterno is stopping by my tent with pizzas. It doesn't seem real."
He's not exaggerating. "The coordination is off the charts," says ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. "I know the Cameron Crazies get a lot of pub. But what's that, a thousand kids? At Penn State we're talking about 20 times that, all on the same page for every situation on the field. That's nuts."
It's even nutsier to mess with the plan.
Put off by the use of hell, Alabama administrators have repeatedly tried to ban "Rammer Jammer." In 2005, the students put it to a vote: 98% said: Hell, no. In 2003, Wisconsin officials (concerned about structural issues during stadium renovations) nixed the end-of-third-quarter tradition of playing House of Pain's "Jump Around" while students did just that. Problem was they didn't tell anyone except the stadium DJ, creating a near riot and chants of "F— the sound guy!" One week later the song returned, but only after engineers visited Camp Randall and gave the okay for 13,655 students to jump around.
In 1996, the Yale Precision Marching Band decided it would no longer play "The Stripper" at the end of the third quarter. That torpedoed the 25-year-old Saybrook Strip, during which students of Saybrook College (an undergrad dorm) chanted "Bif, bop, bam, bip! We are Saybrook, watch us strip!" then got naked in the frigid Connecticut air. "We refused to let the Strip die," recalls Dan Fingerman, Class of '00, who was later elected Saybrook president in recognition of his stand for the Strip. "Three of us took a stripped lap around the field during the Columbia game in 1996, carrying the Saybrook flag. The Yale police caught up with us at our seats and identified us as the only three people getting dressed." The band still refuses to play along, but the Saybrook Strip lives on, sometimes when a visiting school's band breaks into the tune. "When we play Harvard, there are almost as many alums stripping as students," says Fingerman, a lawyer in San Jose.
The first known student section gathered—fully clothed—on Nov. 6, 1869, in New Brunswick, N.J., to watch Princeton play Rutgers in the first college football game. Half the crowd of 100 was Rutgers students, who set themselves apart from the citizenry by wearing scarlet scarves wrapped around their heads like turbans. Crowd coordination was born. The November 1869 issue of The Targum, Rutgers' school paper, describes a game that was full of "headlong running, wild shouting and frantic kicking" led by two men named Big Mike and Large. The students sat along a wooden fence in silence, stunned by the brutality, until Big Mike and Large crashed into their perch. Suddenly they were roused into laughter and cheers, when a horrified Rutgers professor stood, waved his umbrella toward the two teams on the field and bellowed, "You will come to no Christian end!"
Now, nearly a century and a half later, it may have come to just that. Dr. Christian M. End—no, seriously—is a professor of psychology at Xavier and co-founder of the Sports Fan Research Group. Over the past decade he has enlisted the help of college students as he sifts through the gray matter and sticky bleachers of the student section—specifically, how it relates to social identity theory. "The idea is that one's group memberships have an impact on how they perceive themselves," he says. "A lot of that is based on how one group compares to another. In the sports world that is a very salient comparison. The scoreboard. Wins and losses. The size of the crowd. Some students, though they may not admit it, choose their school based on their favorite sports teams. And even those that don't, when they step onto the campus, assume the identity of that school. Freshmen search for the normative behavior, and they find that on Saturdays in the fall."
Sometimes that normative behavior is not so normal. Where the group goes, it goes, whether that's Wisconsin's "F— you! Eat s—!" chant or an ill-advised decision to rush the field with seconds remaining. "We call it deindividuation," End adds. "You lose that sense of accountability. You'll do things in a mob of 20,000 peers that you'd never do if they were showing your picture on the scoreboard with your name and phone number under it."
Or if your All-World stars writes an open letter in the school paper asking you to tone it down. That's what two LSU standouts, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and running back Jacob Hester, did last fall, citing the damage done to the image of the Tigers among the national TV audience and children. (It worked: The decibel level stayed the same during the Tigers' BCS title win but with fewer F-bombs.) "There have to be boundaries," Dorsey said when asked about the letter last December. "LSU students are the best. Part of being the best is knowing when to be loud, when to be quiet and where to channel your energy. When they are on, they just wreck the other team."
And that's the point, right? Student section high jinks are all about helping the good guys march down the field with a little extra wind at their backs. They set a tone for the madness to follow. That's why South Carolina undergrads make the two-mile walk from campus to Williams-Brice Stadium on fall Saturdays and why North Carolina's students emerge en masse from the woods into Kenan Memorial Stadium. It's why tiny Franklin College has burned down an outhouse before every homecoming game since 1908 and why South Florida expanded its student section to 12,501—exactly one seat more than WVU's previous Big East standard. And it's why Oregon students mob the stands in Eugene—thumb to thumb, index finger to index finger—and leave the bad guys' ears ringing forever.