One thing that separates the Pac-12 from the rest of the college football world is the unique nature of it's stadiums, fan bases, and tailgating. In fact it's safe to say there may not be any conference with more differences in fan bases than what is out west. With that in mind we thought we'd give our very own rankings to the fan bases of the Pac-12.
We took into consideration stadium atmosphere, fan/student traditions, passion of the fan base, tailgating experience, and the bands/mascots of each school as we rank them 12 through 1, so let's kick things off, shall we?
12. Washington State
There's no doubt about it, Cougars fans are a hearty bunch. Pullman, WA isn't exactly the easiest of places to get to, or want to get to in the college football world. However, despite the small nature of the fan base as a whole, there are a very passionate group of fans.
Martin Stadium is the smallest of the stadiums in the Pac-12 and the student section is very into the games - win, lose, or draw (o.k., that doesn't happen anymore, but you get the point). They are known as the ZZU CRU.
What nearly had them off the bottom of the list is one of the most interesting traditions in recent college sports history, yes we're talking about the appearance of the Cougars flag on ESPN's College GameDay. It's a tradition that started in 2003 and is nearing the 120 straight GameDay mark. If that's not passion and smart marketing from the fans, I don't know what is?
Outside of that though, is there really anything that separates the Cougar fans from what you'd see at every other stadium in FBS football? I couldn't come up with anything.
Surprised to see them this low? I know they have this sparkling new stadium in Palo Alto, CA and they have "The Worlds Largest Rock and Roll Band" for their marching band and the hippiest of all college football mascots in The Tree, but they also have this lasting impression in my memory of multiple students bringing their laptops and books to the stands to study during the games. That's just unforgivable in this writers book (pun intended). Honestly, live just a little, it's three hours out of your day weekend!
Seriously, that happened and ESPN had the proof of it. That is so weak that it overcomes just about any of the awesome traditions that do exist. The only thing that kept them from the bottom was the fact that The Tree is one of the most unique and interesting mascots in all of college sports.
It's a mascot that changes from year to year and is chosen by a competition within the student body. Heck, it's a mascot that even likes to drink on the job... What's more "college" than that?
As for tailgating, it's your pretty normal fare of food, drinks, and traditional games, nothing out of the ordinary in Palo Alto.
Memorial Stadium has one of the better views in all of college football stadium lore. You get views of the San Francisco Bay from inside the stadium.
The students love their card choreography, something stolen from my Wisconsin Badgers back in the day, but they have taken it up a notch or two to this day. They are also a very passionate bunch, despite the rigors of academics at Berkley. Unlike their Big Game brethren at Stanford these folks tend to let loose a bit more.
The mascot Oskie is about as old school as they get, sticking around since the 1940's without a change to how he looks.
As for the tailgating, well, Memorial Stadium is kind of located in the middle of an urban area, so there is a lot of walking around that's done, but at the same time there is a lot of it done at bars or at the fraternities around the area that calls the stadium home. It makes for a very unique and yet fun time if you want to really socialize and not just stand around a grill the whole time.
Oh, and for just about all college football fans there's this thing called the "first down cheer" that has spread throughout the college football world, but it all got it's start at Memorial Stadium back in the day. So at least there are actual traditions surrounding the game and the gameday experience overall.
Then there's the whole suffering thing. Cal hasn't been to a Rose Bowl since 1959. Yes, you read that right. In fact my words can't do it justice and Golden Bears fan Jack Feeney was kind enough to give us his thoughts on the subject and what it means to be a Cal fan:
"What separates Cal fans from those of the rest of the Pac-12 is that we've had to endure more heartbreak than any other fan base in the conference. The closest parallel among sports fan bases would be the Chicago Cubs when considering our team's perennial shortcomings and our torturously long wait for a championship, in this case a conference championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Our championship drought dates back to January 1959, the longest in the Pac-12 and a span of time that has left multiple generations of Cal fans without having seen our team in the Rose Bowl. For most of the past 50 years, this was mostly due to us just not having very good teams. Recently, however, there have been moments that were truly heartbreaking because of how close we got to the ultimate goal, only to have our hopes dashed in the end.
There was 2004, when we were expected by everyone to go to the Rose Bowl before BCS voters suddenly and inexplicably voted Texas ahead of us in the final poll.
There was 2006 when we would have won the conference and gone to the Rose Bowl if not for a terrible pass interference call and late Nate Longshore interception against Arizona.
Then there was 2007 when we were poised to become the #1 team in the nation before Kevin Riley's ill fated run against Oregon State, which kickstarted an epic collapse down the stretch.
Despite all of this adversity and disappointment, Cal fans keep coming back. We keep filling up Memorial Stadium because we keep telling ourselves that this is the year that everything will come together. We might not have the millions of dedicated fans that schools like Michigan or Alabama do, but there is a good number of great Cal fans who will never give up hope that they will see the Golden Bears in the Rose Bowl someday.
It might seem delusional to some people, since there's 50 years of evidence telling us that our hopes will be crushed again, but I'll take delusion over hopelessness any day.
We don't have a storied, winning tradition like USC does. We don't have the shiny uniforms that Oregon does.
But there's no other fan base in the Pac-12 that has had to go through as much suffering as Cal fans have over the last half-century. And the fact that we keep coming back with the same optimism year after year is what separates us from everyone else."
The Utes may be new to the Pac-12, having just joined prior to last season, but this is a fanbase that is as passionate about their team as any in the conference and may be more passionate than most actually.
They've finally made it to the big time and it's been a celebration ever since. In my opinion they simply have the best student section in the conference. It's known as the MUSS and they provide a great game day atmosphere at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
It may be a bit different for the really west coast Pac-12 fan with the threat of snow and all, but this is a fun bunch of fans to be around.
What makes it this low then? Well, despite their passionate nature there's really not much that seperates them from the average group of college football fans. They do a third down jump to get the crowd going, they have a first down chant, and they have a fight song.
The only big thing that is different is the tradition of "The Crazy Lady,"
8. Oregon State
Beaver fans definitely love them some fun pranks, just ask the Ducks. They also really love their coordinated events. While Cal may have started the "first down" tradition, no other fan base does it as well as Oregon State fans.
Corvallis may not be the biggest of places, but the tailgating is on par with any other area. They have family friendly areas and parking around the stadium allows for the more traditional aspects of tailgating with RV's and crazy Beaver themed cars found throughout the lots.
Outside of all of that, what really helps this group avoid a bottom spot is the tradition of "blacking out" Reser Stadium around Halloween. If it's a night game it's a particularly eerie sight and feel that not too many other schools and definitely none in the Pac-12 can replicate.
Then you must take in the fact that it could well be raining just about any weekend in fall and you have a pretty dedicated fan base that makes the Resler Stadium experience an interesting trip.
Experiencing a game at Arizona at night is a sight to behold and moves the Wildcats up the list by itself. You're also likely to hear "Bear Down" quite often as it's the university's motto and comes from one of the saddest stories out there.
In 1926 a QB by the name of John "Button" Salmon suffered a severe spinal cord injury just before the start of the season and his last words to the coach of that team were "Tell them... tell them to bear down," and thus a new tradition with a ton of history began.
As for tailgating, the experience on "The Mall" is hard to beat. What's better than sun, fun, co-ed's, and of course lots of adult beverage consumption. More recently a group called the Zona Zoo has stepped up the atmosphere in tailgating and the game day experience itself.
Admittedly, Zona fans haven't had a lot to cheer for in recent seasons, but they are a very loyal bunch and make opponents coming in to Arizona Stadium feel quite unwelcome.
6. Arizona State
If you've been living under a rock as of late, ASU is the home of some of the best tailgating and the best views in all of college football.
My brother lives in Phoenix and has been down to a few Sun Devil games since his stationing in the Air Force there. He states the tailgating is similar to what occurs up in the north, just with more sun and more skin from the co-ed's.
What holds this group back from going even higher as far as the fan experience is the fact that inside the stadium there is a bigger lack of tradition than in some other areas of the Pac-12. They do ring a victory bell and of course the student section can be rabid, but the attention is often on the party and less on the football for Sun Devil fans.
They recently changed uniforms and with it there's an all black version that allows for a blackout by the fans and I must admit it is very cool to see on TV and in person according to my brother, who admittedly isn't as passionate a sports fan as I.
On the field results have been mixed to say the least and yet the fans do turn out in very good numbers, but they do struggle to sell out from time to time, something that also is difficult to overlook.
I'm not sure if there is a louder stadium than Autzen Stadium in Oregon. It's undoubtedly one of the biggest advantages of any team in the Pac-12. It's probably the best atmosphere in the conference, at least inside the stadium. Students lineup hours in advance to get good seats these days (which wasn't always the case) and they are some of the most rabid students out there right now.
Why isn't it higher on the list? Well, it's because according to those in the know, it's all about the tailgate... fans empty out at halftime to leave and booze it up some more and thus the start of the third quarter is ofen played in front of half full stands. Trust me, coming from Wisconsin we love our tailgates as much if not more than others, but leaving your team behind just to pound two beers at halftime is just stupid. Support your team and the rest of the gameday crew, like the band and such, the beer will still be there after the game!
Oregon fans tailgate, but it's not nearly the same there. Why? Because they love themselves good beer more than the others and it can be a bit more of a laid back tailgating atmosphere. Sure you'll have your crazy setups and such, but it's not the same atmosphere as you'll experience at say, Cal, Arizona, and ASU.
What also helps is they have one of the most recognizable mascots in the country, The Duck! He's one of the most fun mascots, as much fun as a mascot can actually be....
If there were more recognizable fan traditions outside of the tailgate this would be a group that would fly higher on the list, but inside the stadium the fans rarely do anything original or that you wouldn't see at other schools and that also holds them down a notch.
Folsom Field is an old-school stadium if I've ever seen one. The fans are awesome people and the tailgating is pretty top notch as well. Admittedly they were in the Big 12 last I was around Folsom Field, but I'm sure things haven't changed too much.
Then there's this whole live animal mascot thing in Ralphie the Buffalo. Seeing him run the field before the game is one of the coolest traditions in all of college sports and for that alone they deserve to be near the top of a conference that doesn't have many "distinguishing" features about it's gameday experiences outside of it's stadiums.
Currently the Buffs aren't exactly the top of the college football world, yet their fans come out despite the wins or losses for football games. The student section is always a voicturous bunch and while the numbers have wained as of late (who can blame them) they certainly make up for it with their noise.
Honestly, look at where this stadium is and tell me I'm wrong for putting them up here?
For the stadium and holding one of the best traditions and best entrances in all of college football the Buffs deserve a top four ranking.
Two words: Rose Bowl. For most college football fans and myself included, there simply is no better stadium to play college football in and the Bruins just happen to call it home.
The tailgating is legendary as well and for proof of that, I give you a close friend and die-hard Bruin fan's take:
"Even though UCLA is, traditionally, a basketball school, Bruins fans always look forward to football season. The Rose Bowl is a great venue no matter what time of the year it is. This means great tailgates before the home games. When we have fraternity tailgates at the Rose Bowl, most Brothers don't even make it to the games. People in SoCal are pretty friendly, so it's not unusual to strike up conversations with the opposing team's fans who often tell us what they've been doing the whole week leading up to the game."
Sounds like a place you'd want to catch a game and a tailgate you'd want to be at in my book. Now, admittedly, the student section lacks a little bit of the passion and tradition of other schools, but that is trumped in my book by seeing a game at this venue.
The word that keeps coming up when I asked fans about a UCLA game at the Rose Bowl is just one: FUN. Ya, that is enough to tell me they belong in the elite of the Pac-12 fanbases.
Tailgating is an artform to most people, but Huskies fans have a tradition that is way up there on the scale of tailgates. They take it to the water and have named it "Sailgating."
The tradition is as old as the stadium itself and one of the most interesting things is you can actually be escorted to the game by the Huskies crew teams, a cool way of getting to know more than just the football team on game day.
It doesn't hurt that the stadium itself is one of the more underrated in college football and can be quite loud, despite the student section only being allotted 7,000 tickets to the games.
Husky Stadium is literally in one of the most picture pefect locations in America and fans don't just "Sailgate" either, you'll find plenty doing the normal thing around the stadium as well. They also get points for regularly selling out the stadium no matter the good, bad, or ugly (on or off the field).
Many other fanbases in the Pac-12 find trouble hitting 70 percent capacity, so that's a huge advantage for the Purple and Gold clad crazies in Seattle.
It also helps that the Huskie alumni base pretty much lives within a 100-mile radius of the campus (nearly all of the 300,000 living alumni are in that radius), which helps to add to the rabid nature of the fans that attend games on a regular basis.
Some have even gone as far as to describe the fans as more like the Big Ten than the Pac-12 and lately their's been renovation in an attempt to add to the fan experience as well as help the athletic program, which can only benefit all.
The LA Coliseum is old and admittedly not the best of places to watch a game depending on where you are seated, but it's got a ton of history behind it.
Add in a star-studded fanbase that includes the likes of Will Ferrell and formerly Snoop Dogg (son is a UCLA prospect) as well as one of the most well known traditions in college football and you have what it takes to give us the top fanbase in the conference.
Traveler may be the most famous live animal associated with college football west of the Mississippi and rightfully so. The horse is pure white and has a hugely important job of running the stadium after each Trojans touchdown.
You can't talk about fanbases or tradition without talking about one of the most recognizable songs anywhere in the college football world in "Conquest." To fans outside of USC it's the most annoying thing to hear, but it's music to a Trojans fans ears. They also have "Fight On" as a very recognizable fight song.
They are unquestionably the biggest fanbase in the Pac-12 as well and have taken over UCLA in the past 30 years as players on a national stage.
Of course, there's also the awesome cheerleaders dressed up in old school uniforms that haven't changed much to this day.
The only downside is the tailgating takes a bit of planning and doesn't happen around the Coliseum, but on campus. It adds to the atmosphere on campus, but also means walking from campus to the Coliseum. But that's a minor detail when you have a campus as great as USC's is.
I'm sure there will be plenty of debate and things that I forgot about each fanbase, so let me have it... Or better yet, prove me wrong by inviting me out for a game and showing me exactly why I was wrong... Hey, I can dream right?
Enjoyed the column. I think it's relative to the sample size you're using. Oregon's a clear No. 1 in my book, based on the last half-decade. USC was unreal in 2005, but I think the bandwagon thins quickly in "down" years like '09 and '10.
I love an afternoon at the Rose Bowl, it's been my favorite Pac experience. But malaise of mediocrity and Trojan envy hurt the fan base. I wouldn't say top 3. Utah would rank higher for me: travel well, boisterous.
ASU and UA are pretty desperate for winners. Great student sections and the night time atmosphere at both locales, like you point out, is raucous. Tucson is particularly invested in the athletics down there. The rankings about right based on the program's lack of success and thus, lack of enthusiasm.
Stanford is my No. 12. It won't get better than the last few years there, and even then I'd attribute any home field advantage far more to spooky lighting at the stadium than the crowd. Maybe SU should emulate the old Maples Pavilion floor and make the turf shake when the crowd jumps, ha.