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Best College Sports Towns

For good teams, good times and good cheer, there's no place like the home of the Badgers


By Chris Ballard

1. Madison, Wisconsin

  Anthony Davis
Every week during football season is Rush Week in Madison, which this year is home to Anthony Davis (above).
Andy Manis/AP

A former Wisconsin governor once described Madison as 89.4 square miles "surrounded by reality," and he was right. What lies within that space, and specifically the 933 acres of the University of Wisconsin campus, is indeed surreal, a little universe in which red and white seem the only allowable colors and the TV ticker on the afternoon of Sept. 11 read airport closed...state capitol word yet on badgers game. If the question is, What makes a great college sports town? and the answer is Madison, then the next question, of course, is, What is Madison?

Madison is eating thick, red bratwursts and watching games on the twin 10-foot TVs at State Street Brats. It's doing the slow-motion wave, jumping around to House of Pain and taunting the underclassmen in Section O at Camp Randall, the giant horseshoe of a football stadium that holds 76,634 fans and rarely a soul less. It's sitting in a sunburst chair outside the Memorial Union, gazing across the expanse of Lake Mendota, listening to live music, drinking your favorite beverage and seeing the beautiful girl in front of you proudly sporting a red-and-white Bucky Badger tattoo on her shoulder. It's trading elbows with an offensive lineman in pickup hoops games at the SERF, the enormous campus gym honeycombed with so many basketball courts you can get disoriented trying to leave, leading to the happy realization that you might as well play another game.

It's walking over to the venerable Kollege Klub on a Saturday night to see the football players arrive in a flourish -- as Heisman winner Ron Dayne often did -- and then disappear into a bar as unpretentious as any you'll find on this good green earth, a place where a 16-ounce cup of Miller High Life is always $1 and the carousing is so enthusiastic that Playboy once deemed it one of the top places to meet Mr. or Miss Tonight. It is a national-title-winning Ultimate Frisbee program that takes over three fields on the far west side of campus. It is Badgers hockey fans who research the name of the mother of an opposing team's winger so as to better inform their heckling. It is no one caring if you have dreadlocks or wear Birkenstocks or sport six piercings or own the entire Star Trek DVD catalogue, for tolerance is the order of the town, and be you a nerd or a jock or a stoner or a neo-punk, you can all come together on game day.

It's over half the crowd staying after football games to engage in the Fifth Quarter, a choreographed, mass sing-and-dance-along in which students flail about as the band plays everything from polkas to fight songs. It's drinking Spotted Cow and having a beer gut as a matter of pride, whether you're a man or a woman. It is the crimson-and-white tie-dyed masses of the Grateful Red at the Kohl Center summoning un-Dead-like displays of roof-raising fervor during basketball games. It's bundling yourself in duffel-bag clothes and playing ice hockey on the lake in the winter and rowing on it in the summer.

But most of all, Madison is a town where everyone you meet is your friend as long as you know those nine magic words: How ya think the Badgers will do this year?

2. Athens, Ga.
Roam, if you want, to the spiritual home of alternative rock and the canine abode of Uga VI, where "How 'bout them Dogs?" is a rhetorical question and the soft Southern sun bathes eclectic, athletic student bodies. DEAN'S LIST: The Dan Magill Tennis Complex has hosted 21 of the past 25 NCAA men's championships, with the Bulldogs winning four times and finishing in the top five on another 13 occasions. On the women's side the Gym Dogs have placed in the top three at the NCAAs in 15 of the last 17 years. THE SPOT: Three stories tall, Tasty World literally and figuratively stands above its peers on the nightclub scene. The downstairs TV stays tuned to The Simpsons or CNN. REQUIRED COURSES: The milk shakes at The Grill (open 24 hours) and the sweet potato casserole at Weaver D's Fine Foods, where proprietor Dexter Weaver's motto (Automatic for the People) became the title of an R.E.M. album. FANDEMONIUM: The hedge-lined field at always-packed Sanford Stadium, located in the heart of the campus, is as charming as any gridiron venue in the SEC. In 1983 Uga IV, the Bulldogs mascot, vomited on the cleats of then UCLA quarterback Rick Neuheisel. EXTRA CREDIT: Visit the 40 Watt Club, the cornerstone of alternative rock, where the B-52s and R.E.M. got their starts back in the gridiron glory days of Herschel Walker and Buck Belue. IF ATHENS WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Jack Black -- a hip, bohemian man of the people.

3. Austin, Texas
If the university was located in, say, Abilene or Galveston, the city could still survive on pure originality and its status as the state capital. But Austin and UT go hand in hand. The vibe given off by students meshes with the liberal attitudes of many residents. A popular bumper sticker implores keep austin weird. DEAN'S LIST: Football is a religion in the state of Texas, but the university is good at everything, as befits a school that Sports Illustrated last year ranked as having the country's best Division I athletic program. THE SPOT: Sixth Street, one of the most famous streets in the world and home to more bars than one could physically get through in any given night. REQUIRED COURSE: The South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, which takes over the city each March, is the showcase for up-and-coming bands. Established acts also polish their chops at the festival. EXTRA CREDIT: Though known for its incredible live-music scene, Austin -- which has more movie screens per capita than any city in the U.S. and nearly 80 production companies -- is a Hollywood incubator too. Actors Matthew McConaughey, Renee Zellweger and Owen Wilson are UT grads, as are directors Joel Coen and Robert Rodriguez. Actress Sandra Bullock and writer-director Mike Judge live nearby. Richard Linklater's seminal Slacker and Judge's cult favorite Office Space were shot in town. IF AUSTIN WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Chris Rock -- a little loud, a little outrageous and popular with every clique.

4. Gainesville, Fla.
Billy Donovan has revived the men's basketball program, and the women's teams are both successful and thoroughly supported. But Florida is a football school first. To wit: In 1994, on the night the men's basketball team clinched its first Final Four appearance, students went to the football field looking for goalposts. Unfortunately for the crowd, the goalposts had been removed for the football off-season. THE SPOT: At The Swamp Restaurant, located two blocks from Florida Field, more than 200 cases of beer, 20 kegs, 15 cases of liquor and 1,500 burgers are consumed on a football game day. FANDEMONIUM: Gator Growl, the world's largest student-run pep rally, on the Friday of homecoming weekend, annually draws A-list acts, including the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno. EXTRA CREDIT: Gatorade was invented on campus in 1965 by a university research team. IF GAINESVILLE WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Brittany Murphy -- pretty and a little debauched, but smarter than you think.

5. Boulder, Colo.
For students who appreciate the outdoors, this is Shangri-la. Located in a dramatic mountain setting, Boulder is lauded for its 100 miles of nearby trails and easy access to hiking, biking, climbing, fishing, kayaking and skiing. DEAN'S LIST: The football team is a regular contender in the Big 12, and the cross-country teams are among the nation's best every year. Jorge Torres won the men's individual NCAA title last November. THE SPOT: University Hill, located just west of campus, is literally a hot spot. Last year the Boulder City Council passed an ordinance banning the use of upholstered furniture outdoors in response to more than 100 couch-burning incidents in the neighborhood over a recent six-year period. REQUIRED COURSE: The Pearl Street Mall Crawl, a bar-hopping odyssey that is a rite of passage into the over-21 scene. EXTRA CREDIT: In 1976 the American Institute of Architects recognized the campus, which includes more than 200 rural-Italian-style buildings, as "one of America's most significant works of architecture." IF BOULDER WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Brad Pitt -- rugged good looks, mellow, likes to have a good time; the essence of detached cool.

6. Bloomington, Ind.
A year ago The Princeton Review named Indiana the top party school in the country. When students aren't trying to live up to that lofty mantle, they spend plenty of time enjoying the beautiful campus and taking advantage of perhaps the nation's top recreational-sports program. DEAN'S LIST: Indiana is synonymous with basketball, and the men's team has won five NCAA titles. But the men's soccer players (five championships) and men's swimmers (six) are no slouches either, even if the football team (no winning seasons since 1994) is. THE SPOT: The gathering place for postgame festivities is Nick's English Hut on Kirkwood Avenue, where you can play Sink the Bismarck, a drinking game unique to IU in which people pour beer into a glass that is floating in a wine bucket. Whoever "sinks" the glass has to drink its contents. REQUIRED COURSE: Watch, if not participate in, the Little 500, the springtime intramural bicycle race which inspired the movie Breaking Away. EXTRA CREDIT: Rocker John Mellencamp is a Bloomington resident and frequently attends Hoosiers football and basketball games. The school's indoor practice facility and training center is the Mellencamp Pavilion. IF BLOOMINGTON WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Jason Biggs -- a little square at first glance but with a surprising capacity for dangerous behavior.

7. Eugene, Ore.
Like Boulder, Eugene is an outdoor enthusiast's mecca. The Willamette River runs through town, which means great rafting and fishing, and miles of nearby trails are ideal for running or mountain biking. Eugene also has a burgeoning art scene and, like any good city in the Northwest, a host of bars and coffee shops that cater to the student population. DEAN'S LIST: Several programs have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, including football (No. 2 national finish in 2001), men's basketball (Elite Eight in 2002), softball (regional finalist in 2003), track and field and cross-country. THE SPOT: Hayward Field has hosted nine NCAA track and field championships, six U.S. nationals and three Olympic trials, and it gave birth to the legend of Steve Prefontaine. Oregon may be the only university where track and field is as big as football or basketball. FANDEMONIUM: Crowds in the venerable bandbox that is McArthur Court (9,087 capacity), built in 1926, can become so raucous that the rim has been known to shake during basketball games. EXTRA CREDIT: Eugene is the birthplace of Nike, whose founder, Phil Knight, was a runner for the Ducks from 1957 to '59. IF EUGENE WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Bob Marley -- practices an alternative lifestyle; very organic, very cool.

8. Knoxville, Tenn.
The color orange can be found anywhere and everywhere, especially on football Saturdays, when fans pack 104,079-seat Neyland Stadium and sing along to the strains of Rocky Top. How important are Tennessee's sports heroes? Take a stroll down Peyton Manning Pass or Chamique Holdsclaw Drive. DEAN'S LIST: Though the Volunteers excel at several sports, Knoxville is the epicenter of women's basketball. The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame is located just east of campus, convenient for Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, who has more victories (821) and national titles (six) than anyone in her sport. THE SPOT: Cumberland Avenue, a.k.a. the Strip, a student playground of restaurants, bars and clubs that separates the campus from the outside world. REQUIRED COURSE: Do something in the new 148,000-square-foot Tennessee Recreational Center for Students, a state-of-the-art facility that boasts all things athletic, including a golf simulator. FANDEMONIUM: The Volunteer Navy, 200 or so boats of all shapes and sizes, is a giant floating sailgate party on the Tennessee River just south of Neyland. IF KNOXVILLE WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Tim McGraw -- a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll.

9. College Station, Texas
Just about everything in College Station revolves around Texas A&M, making Aggies sports -- particularly football -- the signature of this student-laden city. But it's not just watching: Approximately 30% of the student body participates in any of 35 intramural sports. DEAN'S LIST: The women's volleyball team has played in the NCAA tournament 10 straight seasons; the women's soccer team has an eight-year postseason streak; and though it has not enjoyed as much recent success, the baseball program consistently is among the national leaders in attendance. THE SPOT: The Dixie Chicken, on Northgate, claims to sell more beer per square foot than any other bar in the state. No wonder Playboy named the Chicken the No. 1 college bar in America last October. FANDEMONIUM: Fans whip themselves into a frenzy at midnight Yell Practice the night before home football games (SIOC, Sept. 9). On Saturday the student body -- known as the 12th Man -- stands the entire game. IF COLLEGE STATION WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Barry Pepper -- clean-cut, military look; focused and driven.

10. Syracuse, N.Y.
In the dead of winter in central New York there isn't much more to do than cheer for the home team, which students and nonstudents do with flair despite the bone-jarring cold. Unlike most, Syracuse is the rare city that is identified by outsiders first as a university. DEAN'S LIST: The Orangemen have one of the nation's top lacrosse programs, with 21 straight Final Four appearances and eight national championships. Of course, the men's basketball team won the NCAA title last April. THE SPOT: Students always turn out in droves on Marshall Street, especially to celebrate big victories. FANDEMONIUM: Syracuse is home to a one-of-a-kind facility, the Carrier Dome, the largest indoor, on-campus stadium in the country. EXTRA CREDIT: If you want to be a sports broadcaster, SU is the place to be. Alums include the likes of Marv Albert, Bob Costas, Sean McDonough, Dick Stockton and Mike Tirico. IF SYRACUSE WERE A CELEBRITY IT WOULD BE...Adam Sandler -- a loveable but slightly annoying partyer.

SI On Campus: September 16, 2003 issue 
Sports Illustrated On Campus, a new magazine covering college sports and collegiate lifestyles, is available as an insert in 72 major college newspapers across the country every Thursday throughout the school year. Click any of the links below to see selected content from the latest issue:

Cover story: The Best College Sports Towns
Scorecard: An All-Nighter with College Sports TV
Road Trip: Lincoln, Nebraska
The Final: It's Getting Ugly
Previous week's issue: Sept. 9, 2003

Send your college sports questions to Milo at Your query might be answered in a future issue of Sports Illustrated on Campus.

For more top college towns, the worst college town and college towns on the rise, see the Sept. 16, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated On Campus.

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