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When there are as many commercials for back-to-school supplies as there are for Cialis and Viagra, it can mean only one thing. The college football season is so close at hand they're going to have to bring in the chains to measure.
College football is superior to the NFL in almost every way, but especially in its venues. The NFL doesn't have stadiums so much as it has massive TV studios. And sitting through another TV timeout in one stadium is pretty much the same as sitting through a TV timeout in any other.
College stadiums are different. For one thing, they're old. Not in a "This dump doesn't have a Starbucks and it dares to call itself a big-time stadium?!'' way but in a "Bronko Nagurski clotheslined a running back near that goal line and Bear Bryant leaned on this goalpost" way. They're historic and distinct and as vital a part of the campus experience as a freshman gagging on a beer bong. More importantly, the college football experience is as varied as the states in which they're located. NFL stadiums are just locations. College stadiums are destinations.
By no means have I been to every college football stadium -- my apologies for missing way too many stadiums in the south and east -- but here are 10 experiences worth at least a 12-hour road trip when you really ought to be studying for your midterms:
1. Tiger Stadium, LSU
College football is just different in the south. The RVs start pulling into campus the Wednesday before the game and then it's party until kickoff (and after kickoff as well). And if there's a tailgate party more delicious than LSU's, it must be outside the Pearly Gates. There may be more food other places but there isn't any better food than at Death Valley, where ESPN's GameDay and the Food Network practically intersect. And a night game gives you plenty of time to enjoy it all. The football is pretty good, too. In fact, these fans get so fired up about their Tigers football that the LSU geology department seismograph registered a tremor during a big play in 1988. When the gumbo is boiling, Mike the Tiger is roaring and the Golden Band of Tigerland is blaring those first familiar notes of "Hold That Tiger,'' you'll have goosebumps the size of Mardi Gras beads.
If you go: There probably is a great campus hangout but why bother? Mingle among the tailgaters. I found most were willing to share a story -- along with gumbo, barbecue and more food than I could eat. Just be neighborly by bringing something to share yourself.
2. Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame
The College Football Hall of Fame is in South Bend but you get a better feel for college football history by just strolling through and around the Notre Dame campus: Take photos by No. 1 Moses, Fair Catch Corby and Touchdown Jesus. Light a candle at the Grotto, pay your respects at Knute Rockne's grave and listen to the band play the most inspiring college music outside of a recording of "What I Like About You'' at volume 11 in a crowded dorm party.
If you go: Celebrate another Irish victory at the nearby Linebacker tavern.
3. Michigan Stadium, Michigan
If you're going to a big college football stadium, you might as well visit the largest. The Big House holds 107,500 fans but don't worry -- they're expanding it. But the amazing thing to me is that it doesn't seem that big when you're sitting there. It seems almost cozy. Until the band strikes up "Hail to the Victors,'' that is.
If you go: grab a beer at the Arena and pizza at Bell's.
4. Memorial Stadium, Nebraska
The inscription above the stadium's main entrance reads, "Through these gates pass the greatest fans in college football," and the words might not be hyperbole. If a big game in Lincoln isn't the main artery of college football, it at least looks like the world's largest blood clot because everyone -- and I mean EVERYONE -- wears red.
If you go: Dine at Misty's Steakhouse, which is kind of like the college football hall of fame, only with steaks and alcohol.
5. Husky Stadium, Washington
OK. My alma mater has fallen on hard times (but Willingham is going to turn it around!). But the sublime setting remains the same. The Cascade mountains to the east, the Olympic mountains to the west and boatloads of Husky fans bobbing around Portage Bay to the south. Come here in the early fall for the views, come here in the cold rain of November for the true Husky experience.
If you go: Get a couple cheeseburgers at Dick's on 45th or pizza at the Northlake Tavern.
6. Neyland Stadium, Tennessee
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I've never been to a game at Neyland Stadium. But I've been to the campus several times and seen this enormous stadium located hard on the banks of the Tennessee River. And I know the Knoxville area code is 865 (VOL). And I know the splendid band prepares through a grueling week of summer heat to be the best around. And I can only imagine what it must look like on game day. But if you insist on hearing an endorsement from someone who's been there, here's a story an alumnus told my colleague, Mary Buckheit, during a visit last March. "Honey,'' she said while taking a long drag on her cigarette, "I conceived two children in Neyland Stadium.'' Now, the impressive part of that story (which her friend assured was true) is not that a woman would actually conceive a child in a football stadium but that she would conceive TWO children there. They like their Vols here.
If you go: Grab some barbecue at Buddy's.
7. Autzen Stadium, Oregon
It isn't easy to top the experience at the campus that served as the site of Faber College in "Animal House.'' And when more than 54,000 fans are shoehorned into one of the most intimate (and intimidating) venues in college, it can be a little like sharing a dorm room with John Blutarsky.
If you go: Be sure to tour the Animal House sites and pay homage to Steve Prefontaine by carbo-loading at Track Town Pizza.
8. Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin
Madison is a great college town and Camp Randall is special. Other stadiums give you four quarters of football. Camp Randall gives you those plus a fifth quarter of music and dancing with one of college's best bands.
If you go: Don't miss State Street, home to enough bars and restaurants (including State Street Brats) to make Bucky Badger's chest swell even further with pride (or gas).
9. LaVelle Edwards Stadium, BYU
A beautiful setting against the Wasatch mountains.
If you go: True, Provo isn't exactly a party town. But it's close to Salt Lake and Park City.
10. Sun Devil Stadium, Arizona State
Come November, while the rest of the country breaks out the snowblowers, there may be no more pleasant spot to take in a college game than Sun Devil Stadium, nestled against Tempe Butte.
If you go: For a good, inexpensive meal, walk over to historic Monti's and eat your fill of Roman bread.
And yes, I know I left out a lot of great places: Texas, Ohio State, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn, Cal, Virginia Tech, Florida, Mississippi... but give me time to experience them all. Hell, I'm still recovering from the tailgate at LSU.
National Geographic Traveler magazine just put out a list of the 200 best travel books of all time, and from the looks of it, I've got plenty of reading left to do.
I love hanging around the travel section of a bookstore, just poking through the travel essays and guides and thinking about future trips. A mere three pages in a book can make me want to book a hotel and hit the road. The only problem is I can't walk out without buying another travel book, even if I already have a stack of unread books as high as Yao Ming at home.
But of the ones I've actually completed, here are my favorite travel books of all categories (oh, and add, Tour de France by Graeme Fife to my previous list of favorite sports travel books):
1. Anything by Bill Bryson, but in particular: Notes from A Small Island (traveling in Britain), Lost Continent (driving through America), Neither Here Nor There (traveling through Europe), In a Sunburned Country (traveling through Australia) and A Walk in the Woods (hiking the Appalachian Trail).
2. Anything by Tony Horowitz, but especially Baghdad without a Map (gripping war reportage from the Middle East), Confederates in the Attic (touring the old and new Confederacy) and One for the Road (travels through Australia).
3. Anything by Tahir Shah, but especially In Search of King Solomon's Mines (a wild adventure into Africa), Sorcerer's Apprentice (a wild adventure in India) and The Caliph's House (a wild adventure in Morocco).
4. Around Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks. Hawks' Playing the Moldovans at Tennis made my sports travel list -- here, he makes another audacious bet: that he can hitch-hike around Ireland with a refrigerator.
5. Out West by David Duncan. I've lent this book -- a driving trip of the Lewis and Clark trail -- to four people and they all loved it.
6. The Good Rain by Timothy Egan. A superb description of the people, climate, geography and business of the Pacific Northwest.
7. The old WPA Guides. There's some wonderful writing in these Depression-era tour guides --- plus, it's fun to read how much things have changed in the past 70 years.
8. Holidays in Hell by PJ O'Rourke. Very funny and pointed visits to the political hot spots of the 80s (many of which, no longer seem very important at all, in a good way).
9. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. This bestseller about the underside of Savannah is so good it sparked multiple walking tours just to see the buildings mentioned in the book.
10. The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck. Travels with Charley is more famous (and very, very good) but I prefer this offering by Steinbeck, especially if the edition includes "About Ed Ricketts.''
And I'll let you know how I feel about The Place in Between by Rory Stewart, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan and Cold Beer and Crocodiles by Roff Smith, just as soon as I can get them off my groaning Still To Be Read Shelf.
Jim, Always enjoy your writing, and appreciate the numerous mentions of Minnesota that aren't weather-related (yes, it can be cold here in January, we are aware of this, thank you). My wife and I are traveling to Australia and New Zealand at the end of this year (Sydney, Melbourne, Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland). I'd love to catch an Australian Rules Football game, or a cricket match. What would you recommend? And if you have any non-sports suggestions, I'd love to hear them. Thanks! -- Wade
I'm not exactly sure when you're going but you're probably out of luck for Aussie Rules Football, which is generally played from April to September. You may be able to catch an exhibition game somewhere though (my wife and I saw one in Cairns one February). You're in much better luck with cricket, which runs from October to March. This year Australia is also hosting The Ashes, which is VERY popular, between Nov. 23 and Jan. 5. Most of the matches are already sold out but I've always relied on scalpers for big events and usually done pretty well.
But even if you don't see a single athletic event, you're going to have a great time in Australia. Whatever you do, make sure you get to Ulhuru, aka, Ayers Rock. You'll have to fly there and it's in the middle of nowhere but it is truly is one of the world's great wonders. DON'T MISS IT!!!
Sydney is so beautiful it makes Seattle look like Cleveland. Take a ferry to Manly. Eat at Harry's Café de Wheels. Walk the Harbor Bridge. Drink a beer at the Lord Nelson in the Rocks district. Stroll hand-in-hand through Hyde Park amid the fairy-lights. Just wander around because you can't go wrong in that city. But as much as I like Sydney, I like Melbourne even better. Check out the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, eat lunch by sampling the stalls in Victoria Market, enjoy a romantic dinner on a converted streetcar. One piece of advice: Don't drink and drive. Australia randomly pulls over cars for DWI checks and we were pulled over twice within an hour -- and we hadn't even been drinking.
I'm going to New Zealand myself this winter, so maybe we'll meet up. It's my first trip but I'm told to concentrate on the South Island. Two things that sound very cool to me -- an overnight boat in Milford Sound and a 90-mile bike ride from Queenstown.
And as far as it being cold in January in Minnesota -- it's not just January. My wife and I were married in February in St. Paul on the coldest day in the state's history.
Got a sports travel question? Send it to me here.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com who has covered sports on five continents and written about them all across America. His work can also be found on Page 2, and his book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," can be ordered through jimcaple.com.