COLLEGE KNOWLEDGE In 2008 heavy rains cracked the supporting cement, making a sinkhole in the south end zone.
GRAND AS THEY ARE, THE STADIUMS IN THE BIG TEN REFLECT the lack of pretense of those who fill them. They have a homey feel and can be described in terms a Realtor might use when helping you sell your house. "There is a curb appeal to Big Ten stadiums," says Matt Lepay, Wisconsin's radio play-by-play man for 19 seasons. "When you look at Soldier Field in Chicago [home of the NFL Bears] from the outside, it might look like a spaceship. When you look at a Big Ten stadium, you know you are looking at a football stadium." Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin's former coach and now its athletic director, says, "I look at the finishing touches—the flags, the signage, the shrubs on the outside—that tie everything together." Throughout the league, renovations and upgrades have been undertaken with an eye to preserving essential character. That also goes for the newest venue, Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, opened in 2009. Its brick facade and arched columns take you back to the Golden Gophers' golden days of the 1930s, '40s and '60s.
Not incidentally, the Gopher Hole is roofless, admitting all the elements of autumn. "The weather is a crapshoot in the Midwest come fall," says Gary Dolphin, Iowa's radio play-by-play man for 16 seasons. "From September through November it's sunny, muggy, windy, rainy, cold and blustery. That's college football in the Big Ten."
Yet for all that rugged nature, what truly transforms these piles of steel, wood, brick and concrete into shrines is their lore and mystique. These are the fields of Red Grange, Nile Kinnick, Tom Harmon, Otto Graham, Dick Butkus, Alan Ameche, George Webster, John Cappelletti, Archie Griffin, Pat Fitzgerald, Tommie Frazier and Drew Brees. In this conference, says Dolphin, "every stadium, young and old, has great stories to tell."
Some features, such as the glorious surroundings of Penn State's Happy Valley, rate All--Big Ten honors. Fitzgerald, who was an All-America linebacker for Northwestern in the 1990s and is now the Wildcats' coach, mentions three more. "The Big House at Michigan, for its pure size," he says. "The Horseshoe at Ohio State because it makes you feel like a Roman gladiator going into the Colosseum. And Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City because the fans are right on top of you." From his announcing booth Dolphin elaborates, "Any stadium built in the 1920s is special. Kinnick [which opened in '29] is one of the few in college football that [does] not have a six-to-eight-lane running track ringing the playing surface. Therefore fans are just 15 feet from the team benches, literally right on top of the Hawkeyes and their opponents. When 70,000 sets of vocal cords cascade down on a fall Big Ten Saturday, it is loud. The ol' bricks go straight up, 70 rows, so all that noise cascades right on top of your helmet." Alvarez provides the visitors' perspective: "You're talking to your players on the bench, and the fans are right there with you. They're involved in the conversation."
Ah, yes, the fans. Everywhere their passion is the catalyzing agent. Season after season the faithful (some now in their ninth decade of cheering for, say, the Hoosiers or the Spartans) display unflagging appreciation for pageantry (think Purdue's Golden Girl) and traditions. At Penn State it's the Whiteout, where all the fans wear white shirts. "I've never seen anything like the Script Ohio with the Buckeye band," says Dolphin. "Incredible how 110,000 people get into that pregame ritual. At Camp Randall in Madison it's the song Jump Around at the end of the third period." That mass movement, in which the fans, well, jump around while the Wisconsin band plays the tune made famous by the group House of Pain, is as important to Saturdays in the Badger State as bratwurst. Now entering its 15th season, the madness in Madison has become nationally famous. "I see a lot of people try to emulate Jump Around, and they don't pull it off," says Alvarez proudly.
The conference's newest member, Nebraska, has added an element of vivid color to game days, when Memorial Stadium is a sea of red. But the Cornhuskers and their fans also have imported another quality: politeness! Says Northwestern's Fitzgerald, "Our first experience in Lincoln was last November. After we won, those fans were applauding and high-fiving our players. I've never seen that before!" There you have it: There's nothing like a Big Ten stadium to make you feel at home.