Roll with it

Like many good college stories, this one starts on spring break. The men’s lacrosse players from Johnson & Wales University (Rhode Island) found themselves at a Texas sporting goods store and, being competitive in nature, debated the price of an adult tricycle. Coach Nick Coppola estimated a higher cost than his team did – and, so sure he was right, offered to buy it if he wasn’t. That’s how the team came to own a shiny blue oversized tricycle with a “JWU” decal and a caddy on the back for lacrosse sticks. After each win, the player of the game earns riding privileges from the field to the locker room – two blocks through campus – while the rest of the team walks. At least it’s exercise!

 

Sock check

Flipping the phrase “put a sock in it,” the women’s soccer team at Nazareth College in New York starts each game with an inspirational quote. Players take turns finding the material, and after it’s shared in the pregame huddle, each player receives a slip of paper with the saying and puts it in her sock. “The kids have totally embraced this process, and they look forward to taking their turn. It helps us bond and keeps us playing together,” says coach Gail Mann, who started the tradition 23 years ago. Among the memorable quotes was one from the most recent season after senior captain Ashley Paris suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the first game: Play each game like it’s your last because it may very well be. “That one was pretty emotional,” Mann says.

 

Let’s get personal

On the women’s lacrosse team at Regis University (Colorado), groups of players – pairs, for instance, or teammates playing the same position – come up with an individualized meme to start each game. Some choose special handshakes, others sword-fight with their sticks. You’ll see airborne chest bumps, twirls and choreographed bits on the sidelines. With 23 players on the roster, that’s … help us out, math majors … hundreds of potential one-on-one handshakes meant to build solidarity.

There's something in the water

Before the late football coach Erk Russell put Georgia Southern University in the history books, he decided to convince his players and the school community that a fetid drainage ditch near the practice fields deserved the name “Beautiful Eagle Creek.” When Russell resurrected the school’s football program after a 40-year hiatus, his point-of-positivity was to believe. If you can accept this unsightly, gnat-infested crick is “Beautiful Eagle Creek,” he would say, then you could accept that we will build a strong program. Did they ever: Under Russell, the Eagles recorded the first 15-0 record in the 20th century and won three national titles. Now, football players take a sample of Beautiful Eagle Creek to big games and sprinkle it on the opponent’s field (in theory, for protection), and the team “baptizes” seniors and new personnel at the source before each season starts. Pass the hand sanitizer.

 

Good eye!

A ritual doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but the team to serve a purpose. Even something as trivial as fussing over the zipper on a team jacket can add to a team’s culture in a positive way. Just ask the women’s softball team at the University of South Florida. For the sake of superstition, two players who have since graduated would walk up to any teammate with a protruding zipper pull tab and tuck it in. Coach Ken Eriksen even started lifting his jacket zipper to get their attention. No, opponents, he wasn’t signaling for a fastball.

 

Getting your team on track

Hold on tight, Gators. Softball players at The Sage Colleges in New York loosen up and get excited on the diamond by simulating a roller-coaster ride – perhaps to remind themselves to have fun during a game’s ups and downs. The team stands single-file on a bench, and senior Jennifer Onwe leads the routine with her arms in the air, moving them all around like she’s whipping around on a Six Flags ride. Her teammates follow suit, complete with “wooooo!” sound effects.

Like a big pizza pie

No one has more fun with random rituals than softball players. The sport could hold a side competition for the most creative team celebration or chant. And the University of Michigan, last year’s runner-up in the Women’s College World Series, would be a front-runner. Whenever a player gets a hit, she simulates making a pizza: Run to first and spread sauce on the crust. Swing for a double and sprinkle cheese on top. Knock a triple and toss on pepperoni. Hit a homer, and the whole team meets you at the plate while “sprinkling cheese” and taking a bite of the imaginary pizza the player just finished. Best part? No tipping!

 

More than lip service

Athletes and tattoos go together like concession stands and halftime, but NBA ballers have nothing on the Ithaca College cross country team in New York. As a bonding rite, some runners tattoo “ICXC” (the initials of their school and sport) inside their lower lips. Extra-ouch! It wears off after several years, but the meaning lasts forever. One team member would run her tongue along the letters at the starting line as part of her mental prep. “Our alumni network is huge, and I think the tattoo is a way to keep a connection with the team members who have graduated,” says Taryn Cordani, an inked-up Ithaca Bomber. “At nationals this year, my coach was getting flooded with texts and calls ... from alumni spread across the country, watching the live stream on their computers and cheering me and my teammates on.”

 

Chant it if you can

If you want to play field hockey for Albion College in Michigan, it helps to speak gobbledygook. The tongue twister they chant – called “Io Triumphe!” – dates to 1896, when a few members of the class of 1900 cobbled it together from Latin (“Io” is like “yea!”), the poet Horace (“Triumphe” comes from his canon), and nonsensical cheers one of the creators had collected. Until 1964, the student handbook stipulated that everyone learn this chant, which one Albion modern-languages instructor called “something a Latin cheerleader would’ve said.”

Io Triumphe! Io Triumphe!
Haben Swaben Rebecca le animor
Whoop te whoop te sheller de-vere
De-boom de-ral de-i de-pa –
Hooneka henaka whack a whack
A-hob dob balde bora bolde bara
Con slomade hob dob Rah!
Albion Rah!

 

Hive got an idea

Actually, the men’s lacrosse team at Salisbury University had an idea – down a shot of honey before each home game – and a couple of student-athlete alums imported the practice to Eastern University when they became assistants in the same sport. Why honey? It provides natural energy. And why did the team stick with it? Like many rituals, a winning streak kept it alive. The Eagles tasted the sweet nectar of victory after their first game on honey three years ago and notched quite a few wins throughout the season.

 

The brotherhood of the traveling pants

The red polyester warmup suit at Oberlin College may be flashy, but the tradition surrounding it rewards play that’s the opposite. A key player from each men’s soccer game is chosen by the previous winner of the suit. The ensemble is believed to be a team outfit from the 1980s, and the recipient must keep it on until the next morning. The honor often goes to a player whose contributions might not show up in the stats. “It’s given to the player that galvanized the team by running, tackling and, overall, (is) just working the hardest,” senior Dan Lev says. “The ‘hustle suit’ is the ultimate honor because it is a visual embodiment of the respect that your teammates have for you.” As they say, the clothes make the man.

 

Left foot forward

Pre-med students, where is the heart located? Yep, to the left of the breastbone. Athletes know that’s also where they find their will to compete, for themselves and the team. So the women’s cross country squad at Merrimack College in Massachusetts mindfully favors this side of the body. After warmup sprints and strides, players “bring it in” with their left foot and hand inside the circle for the coach’s pep talk and a prayer. Amen for bio class!

Crunch time

To your mom, Shake ’n Bake is a seasoned breadcrumb coating for pork and chicken. To everyone else, it’s the hilarious mantra from the Will Ferrell NASCAR movie “Talladega Nights.” Lakeland College women’s basketball coach Aaron Nester loves the film, so he’d yell the phrase before every game and eventually went so far as to bring a box of the stuff to the locker room. Pretty soon, the players noticed that their full-court press was working well, and what else did they call it? Shake and bake! Now they won’t go to a game without a box of the Kraft-brand breadcrumbs. Muskies, we smell what you’re cooking.


 

Scare tactics

At Chadron State College in Nebraska, a women’s basketball player from New Zealand introduced her team to the Haka dance, a native Maori war cry from her country – commonly performed by professional sports teams there before games. With a lot of stomping and forceful movements, it definitely looks intimidating.

Grass-fed mojo

Oh, yes, he did: Les Miles, longtime football coach at Louisiana State University, plucks a blade of grass from the field and eats it when a game gets tight. He says it makes him feel at one with the turf. Miles has been snacking au natural since his youth baseball days. “I can tell you, Tiger Stadium’s grass tastes the best,” he has said.

 

Individual attention

As the 17 women’s basketball teammates at Piedmont College practice foul shots during pregame warmups, arms start flapping like birds, hands wave the Nae Nae, fingers snap, palms slap the floor and each shot follows a series of claps. No, these aren’t simulated crowd distractions. Each player chose a mini-routine, like a dance move and a chant, to be performed by all teammates whenever she steps up to the foul line for a warmup shot. The loud and lively spectacle was born out of icebreakers at the start of the season and gets the team in a fun frame of mind before tipoff.

Hokie Stone

The touchy subject Football players at Virginia Tech touch this lucky stone as they exit the tunnel at Lane Stadium. The stone is flanked by signs that read, “For those who have passed, for those to come, reach for excellence.” The back story Hokie stone is a type of limestone common in the Appalachian Mountains that is quarried exclusively for the school, furnishing its name. About 100 years ago, the university’s president decided the school’s brick buildings resembled “poverty-stricken mills” and called for a campuswide makeover in limestone to reflect the school’s prestige. Now, all buildings constructed in the central campus must be made from Hokie stone.

 

Panther Prowl

The touchy subject As part of pregame festivities, the Florida Institute of Technology football team parades across campus to the field with the band and cheerleaders — and always makes sure to tap or kiss the nose of a certain panther statue. The back story The statue has aged to a green patina over the years, except for its black snout.

 

Howard’s Rock

The touchy subject As part of pregame festivities, the Florida Institute of Technology football team parades across campus to the field with the band and cheerleaders — and always makes sure to tap or kiss the nose of a certain panther statue. The back story The statue has aged to a green patina over the years, except for its black snout.

 

‘Play Like a Champion Today’

The touchy subject On the way out of their locker room at the University of Notre Dame, football players tap this motto for inspiration. The back story Former coach Lou Holtz commissioned this sign in 1986 after seeing one just like it in an old football book. Whenever it’s reproduced as a keychain or coffee mug, all proceeds go to the painter — a South Bend, Indiana, woman with multiple sclerosis who created the board at the campus sign shop.

 

‘The Win Bar’

The touchy subject At Louisiana State University, a section of goal post is mounted above the tunnel exit in Tiger Stadium and painted with a simple message to the football team. There’s even a historical placard hanging above it that stresses “commitment to whatever it takes for victory!” The back story The goal post spent 30 years in the north end zone at Tiger Stadium.

 

‘I will give my all’

The touchy subject A sign reading “I will give my all for Tennessee today!” hangs over the doorway in the locker room at Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The back story Players say a gesture as simple as touching these words displayed inside the outline of Tennessee makes them feel like “we are one” and triggers a surge of energy as they take the field.

 

Testudo

The touchy subject The football players tap this 300-pound bronze statue of a terrapin outside the Gossett Football Team House at the University of Maryland, College Park. The back story The original statue of the school’s mascot was unveiled in 1933 by a live turtle who served as the model. The animal pulled a canvas off the installation — slowly — with an attached ribbon.

 

Clockwise from bottom left: University of Tennessee, Knoxville, photo; Patrick Semansky / AP Images; Dave Knachel / Virginia polytechnic institute and state university photo; Amanda Stratford Photography; Richard Shiro / AP Images; Joe Raymond / AP images; Louisiana state university photo

Need a ritual? Start here.

5 ways to build a lasting team culture

Put your hands up for these campus objects that have become a center of football tradition – and a symbolic pregame tap.

 

Remember who came before you

A program’s history enriches the student-athlete experience, so creating a tradition that doubles as a physical representation of the team’s roots makes sense. It reminds current squad members of their extended collegiate family and gives alums something to show their families when they visit. Signatures are one way to go – if you can find a suitable place in the locker room or arena for graffiti. At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, seniors on the swimming and diving teams climb to a catwalk by way of the diving platform and sign a beam at the top of their natatorium, becoming “ghosts in the rafters” represented by their autographs, nicknames, years and quips (“Gave it my all!”). Boo-ya: instant team ritual.

 

Dance!

Is there a better way to banish pregame jitters and butterflies, get the adrenaline going, and perhaps pump up fans – all at the same time? Keep your eyes and ears open for an energetic dance or song that’s meaningful to your team and bust it out in the locker room or during warmups. At Harvard University, the women’s ice hockey team begins each game by dancing to the Whitney Houston classic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in the stands with fans. So random, but so what? And at West Virginia University, the John Denver anthem “Take Me Home, Country Roads” bonds the football team and its fans after each home game. Is there a song about the place where your team belongs?

 

Make an Entrance

This is such a blank canvas, the creative options are overwhelming. Flashy entrances dominate college athletics, often involving a combination of battle cries, live-animal mascots and marching band theatrics. Such ceremonies don’t have to be big budget, though. It’s more about finding inspiration from your school’s culture. A great example comes from the College of Wooster in Ohio. The Fighting Scots offer scholarships for bagpipers – a few of the trained musicians even appeared in the movie “When Harry Met Sally.” A couple of bagpipers escort senior student-athletes into competition on senior days and always run down a hill toward the field with the football team. Campuses are full of talents of all sorts. What’s something unusual about your school that your team could showcase?

 

Copy Another School’s Tradition

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus acknowledged the world’s and man’s ever-changing nature by saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” So don’t think of borrowing someone else’s ripe-for-replication ritual as stealing. Wise old Heraclitus would consider such an act just making it your own. For a simple, stealable idea, look no further than Immaculata University in Pennsylvania, where the baseball team isn’t monkeying around by keeping a stuffed ape at all practices and games. The animal illustrates a key lesson: If athletes can control their “ape” – attitude, perspective and effort – the rest will take care of itself.

 

Target your rival

Still searching for a tradition to call your own? Look no further than your longtime rival for inspiration. One unusual tradition involves the football team captains from Florida State University, who have the responsibility of stealing a piece of sod from the opponent’s field whenever the team wins on the road as an underdog against rival University of Florida or in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. The grass chunk becomes a part of Sod Cemetery on campus, along with a plaque noting the year, opponent and score. The manicured, fenced area has dozens of victory plots from more than 60 years of big wins.

 



This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Champion magazine.
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