For better or worse, college football is a pastime steeped in decidedly idiosyncratic traditions. How else can you explain that sometimes-intemperate train wreck of a mascot known as the Stanford Tree or the running of Ralphie, a live female bison, during University of Colorado home games?
With collegiate athletic programs taking greater strides toward sustainability, some of these time-honored rituals still manage to err on the wasteful side of things — sometimes recklessly so. Beyond excessive yet accepted standards like the toppling of goalposts and epically sloppy tailgate parties, here’s a look at four particularly spendthrift, unsustainable college football traditions practiced by both players and fans that involve things like massive balloon releases, setting things on fire and using up a whole lot of the precious commodity known as toilet paper.
Did we forget an otherwise beloved college football tradition that makes you cringe in the waste department? Please, tell us about it in the comments section. And given that college sports rituals are often not to be tampered with, especially when they’re endangered like some of the below examples are, we understand if you wish to maintain full anonymity.
Touchdown balloons: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Huskers
Call it what you will — a blessing in disguise, a boon for birds or the unfortunate end of an era — but it appears that the decades-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln tradition of releasing several thousand red balloons into the sky above Memorial Stadium to celebrate the Huskers’ first touchdown of every game has come to an end. The reason that officials have decided to officially deflate the ritual is rather straightforward (and no, it’s not part of Nebraska Athletics’ impressive sustainability efforts): There’s not enough helium to go around. With commercial helium deposits dwindling across the nation — experts predict that underground deposits of the gas will be tapped out within 30 to 80 years — officials have gone into full-on conservation mode. Currently, the program has enough helium (leftovers from last year’s football season) to fill about 2,500 balloons. Those balloons, about half the normal amount, were launched during the Huskers’ opening home game on Sept. 1. For now, it’s unclear when the beloved Big Red custom will return, if ever. Ethan Rowley, director of athletics marketing at UNL, tells the Lincoln Journal Star: “We want to be good stewards. We don't want to take helium away from hospitals and industries that need it more than we do right now.”
Still, the school is looking for other, less helium-dependent ways to keep the 70-year-old tradition alive throughout the season, including hoarding and switching things up so that only a dozen or so balloons are released by a “Touchdown Balloon Kid of the Game” at each of the six home games. Says Rowley: “That would allow us to keep a small measure of the tradition through the hiatus. Whenever the helium supply is restored, we can explore the opportunity to restart our tradition, which seems to be a fan favorite and one of our most visible.”
Tree toilet papering: Auburn University Tigers
Charmin hurling, Scott slinging and Quilted Northern tossing is a time-honored tradition at Auburn University in Alabama, where a pair of old-growth oak trees have long been the targets of ritualistic, loo-roll-related vandalism (before the trees, power lines were festooned with TP but those have been since moved underground). To be clear, the toilet papering — or “rolling” in local parlance — of the two majestic oaks in front of Toomer’s Drugs at the corner of Magnolia and College streets in downtown Auburn is a university-approved method of celebrating gridiron victories by the Tigers. A perfectly good waste of toilet paper, yes, but there are some sacred collegiate football traditions you just don’t mess with and this is one of them.
And on the topic of messing with things, Auburn students, fans, and faculty alike were devastated when, in 2010, the trees at Toomer’s Corner were poisoned with a powerful commercial herbicide known as Spike 80DF and a University of Alabama football fanatic named Harvey Updyke Jr. was arrested in connection with the case. Updyke was charged with criminal mischief and desecrating a venerable object; he has pleaded not guilty for reason of mental disease with a trial slated to begin Oct. 1. Although the 131-year-old trees are both effectively dead and will most likely be replaced, still-grieving Auburn fans have been given clearance to don their most fashionable scarves and get their roll on this coming season: “While long-term decisions about the trees have not been made, fans are still welcome to gather at the corner this fall and continue the tradition of rolling the trees with toilet paper,” Auburn University recently announced.
Cleat burning: Syracuse University Orange
There are numerous ways in which college football players can rid themselves of lingering bad mojo following a lackluster season (smudging a locker room, anyone?) and most of them don’t involve the ritualistic burning of athletic footwear. Unless you play for Syracuse. The torching of practice cleats — seen as a “symbolic act of cleansing” — was the superstitious norm for Syracuse’s orange-clad pig-skinners during the reign of coaches Dick McPherson (1981-1990) and Paul Pasqualoni (1991-2004). It was abandoned under Greg Robinson (2005-2008), but apparently returned when alumnus Doug Marrone was named head coach in 2009.
Perhaps the wasteful liturgy does have some special power: During the burnt shoe-free leadership of Robinson, the once-mighty Orange performed terribly — four consecutive losing seasons — and Robinson was eventually fired with one year left on his contract and two games left in the 2008 season.
Couch torching: West Virginia Mountaineers
As pointed out by Deadspin, students at the country’s top party school, West Virginia University, don’t just burn couches because the Mountaineers football team won. Give 'em any good reason — mostly but not exclusively celebratory, including the death of Osama Bin Laden — and they’ll procure a perfectly good sofa and set it ablaze either in a Dumpster or on a street corner in Morgantown (thank God the closest IKEA store is more than 70 miles away in Pittsburgh). Although egregiously wasteful — and not to mention dangerous — acts of drunken davenport destruction have been occurring at WVU for years now and university officials have only recently begun to seriously crack down on it. Up until 2011, convicted couch burners were slapped with a misdemeanor mischievous burning fine and forced to cough up $1,000 for partaking in the discouraged deed. Now, WVU fire-starters could potentially face felony charges of third- or fourth-degree arson and, if convicted, spend up to three years in the slammer. As a result, demands for university-sanctioned couch burning events have arisen to keep the tradition alive. “It would show the rebellious montani semper liberi (Mountaineers are always free) spirit that defines Appalachia, but within a more modern and safety-conscious framework,” writes Tomas Engle for the Daily Athenaeum. "A controlled and sanctioned couch burning as a deterrent away from chaos fits this dilemma between honoring the past — while protecting the present and future — perfectly.”
And although Morgantown holds the dubious distinction of being the collegiate couch-burning capital of the U.S., the trend has caught on at the University of Kentucky and several other schools including the perpetually rowdy University of Southern California Santa Barbara and Penn State, where furniture was set ablaze when Joe Paterno was fired.
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