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Todd Kirkland/Getty Images
Todd Kirkland/Getty Images
Most people are proud of where they went to college, to one extent or another. Even if you just wear your college sweatshirt because it’s comfy and watch your school’s football games on TV because it’s what your buddies want to do. However, there are some universities where school pride and spirit runs deep into the culture of students, alumni and even non-attendees who live in the surrounding area. These are the schools where people smother themselves in face paint on game day and are eager to participate in traditions that are as old as the colleges themselves.
To determine which American colleges have the most school spirit, we looked to the Princeton Review’s ranking of schools where students pack the stadium. We also took into consideration schools with big, passionate fan bases that are willing to travel to see their team as well as schools that have enthusiastic student participation in school government and other aspects of academic life.
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School spirit at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, isn’t just limited to football and basketball season. Sun Devils on campus wear gold every Friday in a show of school pride. Since 1930, every school year kicks off with a tradition called Whitewash the “A,” where up to 4,000 students climb the majestic mountain Tempe Butte (better known as A Mountain) to paint a base coat of white onto a giant “A” on the mountainside. The “A” is then painted a golden shade before the first football game.
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It takes a special kind of school to basically claim two mascots. Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, has an official mascot: Aubie the Tiger, who leads the football team in the weekly Tiger Walk from the Athletics Complex to the football stadium, one of the most famous traditions in college sports. AU also has an unofficial mascot, an eagle. Before every football game, an eagle soars over the stadium in a symbol of patriotism. This tradition has spawned the school’s battle cry, “War Eagle!” which is heard essentially every time Tigers fans gather.
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Bowdoin College may be a small liberal arts school in Brunswick, Maine, but 48% of students participate in intercollegiate sports and 33% participate in intramural sports, meaning that athletics and the school spirit that comes with participation is prevalent. If you’re not feeling like a sporty Polar Bear, Bowdoin encourages students to get involved through over 100 different extra- and co-curricular activities such as the Bowdoin Naturalists (who love to explore the great outdoors), comedy troupes and the student government.
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In addition to having one of the most beautiful college campuses in America, Bryn Mawr College has one of the most active student governments in the country. Every student at this Pennsylvania college is a member of the Self-Government Association. In this club, students at this women’s college draft a constitution and an honor code, which dictates student life, expectations and behavior on campus, creating a sense of school pride.
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Every Friday on campus, you’ll see Clemson University students and faculty wearing orange to support the Tigers. But for a real sense of the school spirit at this South Carolina school, go on the Friday before the first football game to witness the First Friday Parade. During this event, community members, students, school organizations and alumni flood the streets to cheer their team on to victory. The camaraderie here goes back decades and can also be seen via the alma mater salute, a kind of wave with thumbs folded underneath that all students and alumni know to do after the alma mater is sung.
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Florida State is home to some of the best athletic facilities in America, and sports are an integral part of life in Tallahassee. Right before football games start at Doak Campbell Stadium, someone dressed as the famous Seminole warrior Osceola charges down the field aboard Renegade, a horse, and stakes a flaming spear into the center of the field. One of the most famous spectacles in college sports, this event unfolds in front of thousands of garnet-and-gold-clad fans, who are also known for singing along to the marching band’s “war chant” while doing the controversial tomahawk chop (not to be confused with a tomahawk steak).
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There’s an old joke: How do you know someone went to Harvard? They tell you. And that’s because students and graduates of this Ivy League university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have a huge amount of school pride. For a school so well known for its academics, Harvard is surprisingly sporty — almost 80% of students are involved in athletics in some capacity. Harvard is rich in traditions, some known to outsiders and others more secretive, but to see the school spirit in action, look no further than the annual Harvard vs. Yale football game, which showcases a rivalry nearly as old as America itself.
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Kansas State University has some of the happiest students in America. Why? It’s always a bustle of activity for the Wildcats. Students at this Manhattan, Kansas, school are generally helpful and kind and know how to be polite. K-State also has a great relationship with the town around it. To experience that camaraderie, check out the Purple Power Play, which is held the Thursday and Friday nights before the first home football game. This citywide celebration has college students and Manhattan locals coming together to enjoy fireworks, dance shows and pep rallies.
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Louisiana State University sports are intrinsically tied to the culture of Baton Rouge. Head to the Parade Grounds on game days for some iconic Louisiana cuisine cooked by diehard Tigers fans dressed in nothing but purple and gold. In fact, there are numerous tailgating grounds and sports bars around the city, with vibes that range from luxurious to family-friendly, so there’s something for everyone (assuming you’re an LSU fan, that is).
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Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, boasts a major basketball culture and counts Dwyane Wade, Steve Novak and Jimmy Butler among its former players. Head to a men’s basketball game and see Rick Smith, better known as the “Jump Around Guy.” When the 1992 House of Pain hit “Jump Around” plays, this alum will join in with all the students and jump to high heavens.
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Though many universities technically have the word “the” at the front of their names, Ohio State students will quickly tell you they attend The Ohio State University. They’re just that proud. In fact, nearly the entire Buckeye State goes nuts for the Buckeyes — just shout “O-H” in a crowd and someone will respond back with a hearty “I-O!” For the ultimate showcase in OSU pride, head to the school’s Columbus campus the week of the Ohio State vs. Michigan game when the letter M is crossed out on signs and school buildings to show disdain for the Buckeyes’ bitter rival.
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Head to Beaver Stadium on game day and you’ll hear a sea of fans screaming “We are … Penn State!” at the top of their lungs. Football season in Happy Valley is notoriously celebratory and can be quite intimidating for visiting teams. Penn State is known for hosting “white outs,” when fans come dressed in all white, creating a striking scene. This Division I school has a host of traditions, including a drum major who does flips before the game and a Nittany Lion mascot who does one-armed push-ups for every point scored. In fact, there is so much school pride that the town the school is in is literally just called State College, Pennsylvania.
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Not many colleges can say the student section has its own name and reputation like San Diego State can. With its giant creative cutouts of faces like Chuck Norris and Richard Simmons held high above painted bare chests and boisterous costumes, The Show is the stuff of college sports legend. This rowdy force gives the Aztecs a true home-court advantage at Viejas Arena during basketball games.
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Syracuse University cheers are led by Otto's Army, the student-led cheering section. Wander into their seats, and whether it’s football, basketball or lacrosse season, be ready to hear a lot of “Go Orange!” chants. Indeed, this school is crazy about two things: its sole spirit color (orange) and the number 44. In its history, some of Syracuse’s most famous alumni such as Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little all wore the number, and the New York university honors this superstition by having all its phone numbers start in “44” and by residing in the 13244 zip code.
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The Texas A&M school spirit is of the dedicated kind — the “stay up until midnight to cheer” kind. Aggies hold Midnight Yell at College Station’s Kyle Field the night before every home game. According to the school, it is regularly attended by more than 25,000 people. This isn’t a new tradition, either — the first Midnight Yell was in 1931. Fans better have strong vocal cords because the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band will play and the “yell leaders” lead the crowd in, well, yells that date back to the early days of the school. Other traditions include the famous 12th Man and the maroon out.
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Roll Tide! As the story goes, the University of Alabama’s football team was known as the Thin Red Line or Crimson White until a fateful game in 1907. The Tuscaloosa-based University was playing Auburn in Birmingham, and iron-rich soil turned to a sea of red mud. Alabama’s white jerseys were stained red while the team was able to earn a 6-6 tie against favored Auburn. A sports editor said that the team played like “a Crimson Tide,” and the name stuck. Aside from owning one of the most identifiable school chants, Alabama is also the only major university with an elephant mascot.
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Storrs, Connecticut, is home to more than the legendary ice cream stand Dairy Bar. The University of Connecticut holds 15 national titles between its men’s and women’s basketball teams and has seen the likes of Sue Bird, Rebecca Lobo and Ray Allen take the court — leading to a major dedicated following since the 1990s. UConn fans “bleed blue” by filling student sections both in their home state and across the country for tournaments with painted faces and bodies to lead chants like “U-C-O-N-N, UConn, UConn, UConn!” — complete with some YMCA-style motions. In past years, students were known to camp outside the ticket office overnight just to make sure they’d be a part of history.
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“Gooooo Dayton Flyers!” is the theme song you’ll hear over and over and over again at any basketball game the University of Dayton plays, home or away, often led by the Flyer Pep Band. This Ohio Catholic school’s fans are known to travel far and wide to support their team — travel packages to follow the team to the Maui Invitational in Hawaii sold out in less than one day in 2019, and they sold out 14 of 17 home games for the 2019-20 season, setting a new school record. The passion fans have for UD and the packed games make it notoriously difficult for away teams to play at their home arena.
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On the first day of orientation at the University of Georgia in Athens, new students are taken to Sanford Stadium and taught chants and cheers like “Who’s that coming down the track? It’s a mean machine in red and black!” to instill a major sense of school pride. That carries the Dawgs through their four years of college and beyond, as UGA is known for having one of the best traveling fan bases around. The campus has a host of traditions, including the Chapel Bell, which hundreds of students and fans will ring after a football victory. For UGA fans, this sight is right up there with the most mesmerizing views on Earth.
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The Iowa wave is one of those heartwarming gameday traditions that should make alumni and current students proud to be Hawkeyes. At the start of each football game, since 2017, Hawkeyes fans and players turn to wave to patients of the UI Children’s Hospital and their families. The hospital purposely features a “press box” for patients to watch the home games on Saturdays. Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City has almost 70,000 seats, and student tickets in 2019 sold out.
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If school spirit was based on sheer numbers, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor would top the list. The iconic Michigan Stadium, aka The Big House, is college football’s biggest stadium, with a capacity of more than 100,000 — and the games often sell out. Michigan teams have more than 50 national championships in 12 sports dating back to the 1901 football national title. Recognizable symbols of the Wolverines include the winged helmet and maize and blue colors.
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One of the major staples of school spirit is a giant homecoming celebration, and the concept may have started at the University of Missouri in Columbia. According to the school, the “core elements” of the concept — pep rallies, a parade, a football game and more hullabaloo — were all part of an event held in 1911. There were also several “mass meetings of rooters.” (If a mass meeting of rooters isn’t the definition of school spirit, what is?) Today the college still has major faithful turnouts of black and gold to the football games.
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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the oldest public universities in the nation, so you know it’s a school with plenty of traditions. The school year starts with a sip of water from the Old Well (which is said to bring a 4.0 GPA), and academic careers here end as seniors climb the Bell Tower to sign their names on the bricks. Walk around on game day and you will see students and alumni who have painted themselves Carolina blue to cheer on the Tar Heels. After a big win (especially one over Duke), expect to see floods of students rushing Franklin Street.
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“Play Like A Champion Today” is so intertwined with the Fighting Irish faithful that you might even know an alum with the sign hanging in their house. For Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana, the sign (which still hangs in Notre Dame Stadium) was put up by former football coach Lou Holtz, and tradition dictates that players hit the sign as a commitment to playing like a champion. Notre Dame’s atmosphere on college football game day is notable. There is usually a pre-game walk to the stadium by the team that can include thousands of fans, and it’s a badge of honor for students to stay to the end of the game, win or lose. It is also customary for current students and alumni to lock arms and sway to “Notre Dame, Our Mother.”
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“O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Our chant rolls on and on!” Some of the most passionate college sports fans can be found on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. It’s hard for fans not to get hyped up at every football game as the Sooner Schooner (a covered wagon led by two ponies named Boomer and Sooner in a nod to Oklahoma’s prairie past) takes a lap around the north end zone when the team scores. The Sooner Schooner and school spirit is led by the RUF/NEKS and LIL' SIS program. They're responsible for shooting celebratory shotguns during games and keeping enthusiasm high.
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Running through the “T” in Tennessee has been a time-honored tradition at the University of Tennessee for more than 50 years. The crowd goes wild at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville when the football team enters through the giant “T” formed on the field by the band. The school’s iconic checkering has also moved beyond the end zone to fan costumes and basketball uniforms. Another fun fact? Tennessee is also home to the Vol Navy, a group that tailgates on the Tennessee River before games.
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It sure takes a special degree of dedication to walk around in red-and-white-striped overalls. But On, Wisconsin! Honorable mention for school spirit also needs to go to the fans’ leader Bucky, or Buckingham U. Badger, who was chosen by a student vote in 1949 and is incredibly recognizable as part of the university. And win or lose, there is always a fifth quarter in Wisconsin thanks to the marching band. Rain or shine, fans stick around to cheer as the band plays traditional campus favorites. But even poor-weather Wisconsin football games can’t compare to the harshest conditions athletes have played in.
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