The Dos and Don’ts of the Penn State Away Game Experience
Put simply, Penn State football away games and traveling to rival college towns is the thing I look forward to the most every fall. College towns are some of America’s most special places, and the spirit and nostalgia that exists in the physical space inhabited by America’s universities is palpable even to those without connection to the institution. Despite the ever-growing resources being pumped into online education, the living-learning communities found in college towns will always be irreplaceable (or at least, I hope so). I enjoy Penn State away games so much, in fact, that I haven’t missed one since 2009 (please, no fall weddings). These trips combine so many things I love: supporting Penn State, experiencing distinct places and cultures that are unique in their own way but not totally unlike the special feeling Penn Staters encounter when walking across campus on a nice day or upon that first glimpse of Mount Nittany rising in the distance on a return trip after graduation, football, and hanging out with friends* and fellow Penn Staters.
*One time, the night before a trip to Wisconsin, my three friends who had agreed to go bailed at the last minute. I put out a message on Twitter asking if anyone wanted to go about eight hours before I was planning to leave. The enigmatic pseudo-celebrity Penn State Boombox Guy responded (who I did not know well at the time), and we made the 11 hour drive to Madison the day after Thanksgiving with his boombox and became friends. See, away games really are special.
Anyway, the point is away games are nothing like what we experience at Beaver Stadium. Aside from geographically friendly venues like Temple, Maryland, and Rutgers, Penn Staters will make up an extreme minority at most road games. The experience at each school is different, but with Penn State’s first “true” away game coming up this weekend in Columbus, it’s worth discussing some of the best practices I’ve learned for making the most of your away game experience.
DON’T always buy the Penn State student ticket option. For those who aren’t aware, Penn State gets an allotment of tickets from away schools to sell to students at face value. These tickets go on sale the Monday before every away game at 7 a.m. For this weekend’s Ohio State game, the $125 student ticket was a good deal compared to the secondary market, where the cheapest pair of non-student tickets are $150 each. For most away games, the secondary market avails much cheaper options (Illinois 2012 cost me a whopping $3 on StubHub as opposed to $65 from Penn State). Shop around before buying directly from Penn State.
DO get to the away city a day early if you can afford missing classes. The spirit that exists around State College as the RVs start rolling in Friday afternoon (and the good time downtown at night) is replicated to varying degrees at other schools. Waking up in the middle of the night to make kickoff on Saturday only to be tired the rest of the day is never very much fun.
DON’T be afraid to wear your blue and white the day before the game. I’ve had friends who are either scared or fancy themselves “too cool” to wear Penn State stuff out and about in away cities. Don’t be that friend. You are, I hope, traveling to support and represent Penn State. The few negative comments from drunkards you will inevitably receive don’t actually matter. Aside from cesspools like Rutgers and the University of Pittsburgh, the vast majority of away fanbases are respectful or at least indifferent. Which leads me to…
DON’T engage. If you’re like me and want to be of and among the partying student population the night before the game and you’re wearing Penn State colors, you’re going to get an occasional comment. Ignore them. Being able to easily identify a loud, drunk asshole on College Ave. from a block away is not a phenomenon unique to State College. Do your best to identify these people, walk by with confidence, and do not make eye contact. You will most certainly lose any sort of fight or shouting match that would ensue (it’s a battle of numbers), and any sort of prolonged verbal engagement will only result in the opposing drunkard yelling “SANDUSKY!!!!” or “Hit the showers!” and laughing hysterically about it for the rest of the night to their friends.
DO be social. Invariably, you will be approached by tons of opposing fans who want to respectfully talk about the upcoming game and welcome you to town (and in most cases, there will be more of these people than the drunk asshole I mentioned above). There are kindhearted Penn State-dad types in every city who want to share their beloved alma mater with you. You’re likely to score a few tailgate invites from these conversations, too.
DO figure out the “must visit” places before your trip. Unless you’re sick like me, you’ll likely only get one shot to visit a particular campus. Figure out what establishments are part of a place’s identity. My goal going into the trip is to always experience enough stuff to be able to speak about a college town with any graduate of that college I happen to meet in the future with some intelligence. Think of Penn State — where would you send someone if you wanted them to “experience” our town? The Skeller, the Phyrst, the Corner Room, Canyon Pizza, Waffle Shop…these don’t need to be your favorite places, but they are important cultural institutions that generations of Penn Staters share in common. The first thing I do every time I go to Bloomington is have a drink at Nick’s English Pub. In Ohio State, one must start at The Varsity Club and bar hop down High Street. These are the places that make college towns special. Yelp/Trip Advisor are always helpful to finding these places, as is searching for “[School Name] Bucket List” on Google. The benevolent fan I described above can also be a big help for suggestions.
DON’T be a loud jackass if Penn State wins. You are in someone else’s home. Don’t insult someone in their home. Cheer all you want in the stadium, clap the team off the field, and then be pleasant and enjoy yourself. This can be more difficult than it seems — away fans tend to be drunker/more confrontational after a loss than a win (unless you’re at Purdue…those guys don’t actually care if they win). Plus, you’re likely to be physically harmed if you roll down High Street blasting Zombie Nation from your car after a Penn State upset on Saturday.
DO make time to walk around campus. I usually do this early Sunday afternoon before heading out. It’s always fascinating to compare other campuses to University Park, which of course stands up against the beauty of any campus in the country. The Big Ten has no shortage of picturesque campuses (Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska are three of my favorites), and you can’t get the full experience without spending some time walking around. I always try to visit the student union building and the biggest “common” area (think Old Main lawn). The Quad at Ohio State is on my list every trip.
DO figure out transportation ahead of time. Like State College, most hotels within walking distance of everything are ridiculously expensive. I usually find a reasonably priced Airbnb downtown or find something a couple miles out of town. Most Big Ten towns are Uber-friendly at this point, but not all. Since drinking and driving is not an option and you probably won’t be familiar with public transportation, make sure to have a game plan going in.
DON’T forget to find your fellow Penn Staters around town. The Alumni Association has a mixer Friday night before every game and there’s always a Penn State pep rally at the stadium on game day. There tends to be a core group of Penn State fans who attend the Big Ten games out in the midwest. I’ve made more than a few friends over the years who live in Chicago, Indiana, and Wisconsin by connecting in away cities. If you’re active on social media, throw up a Tweet or two to let people know you’re in town for the game — it’s always cool to meet other Penn Staters who you’ve interacted with on social media IRL, or even recent alums you might not have expected to see. You never know when someone like Evil Bill O’Brien might make an appearance.
DO try to get close to cheer on the team. I like to get down near the tunnel before the game or cheer the team off the bus on its way into the stadium. We know how much #107KStrong (give or take 20,000) means to the players and coaches at home, but seeing strong support on the road is, I imagine, also a good morale boost.
We’ll leave it at that (I refuse to end any Dos and Don’ts list with “DO have fun!”). If you’re in Columbus this weekend, or at any away game in the future and looking to make company with other Penn Staters, you know where to find me. Go State!