Commentary

Superstitions rampant in college football

Originally Published: October 29, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Before Iowa State quarterback Austen Arnaud plays against Kansas on Saturday, he'll get dressed in the Cyclones' locker room.

[+] EnlargeAusten Arnaud
AP Photo/Darren AbateAusten Arnaud has been getting ready the same way since middle school.

As always, Arnaud will start with his left pant leg, left shirt sleeve and left shoe.

Before Georgia kicker Blair Walsh takes the field against Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, he'll eat a miniature box of Raisin Bran in the locker room, just like he does before every one of the Bulldogs' games.

And minutes before Northwestern's road game at Indiana on Saturday, Wildcats linebacker Quentin Davis will look in the mirror and then slap a high-five with teammate Stephen Simmons.

Across the country, college football coaches and players practice unique superstitions and pregame rituals. Those oddities might mean even a little more Saturday, the day before Halloween.

"It was kind of a thing that started in middle school," Arnaud said. "I don't know what started it. I just keep doing it."

In a season in which there are seven undefeated teams heading into the final month of the regular season, players and coaches are trying nearly anything for good luck. They'll be knocking on wood between now and the Jan. 10 BCS National Championship Game, which will be played in Glendale, Ariz., not far from the Superstition Mountains.

"If you're going to win a national championship, you've got to have some luck," said former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who led the Seminoles to national titles in 1993 and 1999. "Every national champion was lucky."

College football has many longtime traditions involving alleged good luck. Notre Dame players touch a "Play Like a Champion Today" sign when leaving the locker room. Clemson's players touch Howard's Rock before running down a hill into Death Valley. Alabama fans don't sing "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer" until a Crimson Tide victory is absolutely certain.

Like traditions, players and coaches form pregame rituals more out of habit than superstition.

Before every Alabama game, coach Nick Saban receives a lucky penny from his daughter, Kristen. Saban wore the same straw hat at every one of Alabama's practices last season. The hat was pretty tattered by the time the Crimson Tide reached the BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl, where they defeated Texas, 37-21.

The night before every Alabama game, offensive coordinator Jim McElwain writes the names of his wife, three children and late father on the wrappers of five sticks of gum. He keeps the gum in his pocket during games.

Penn State's Joe Paterno, 83, started rolling up his pant legs several years ago, after his wife, Sue, suggested he do it to keep mud stains off them. Paterno has done it ever since.

Boise State's Chris Petersen wears the same hat on the sideline until the Broncos lose, which isn't very often, and then wears a new one. Wisconsin's Bret Bielema wears the same red Windbreaker at every Badgers game.

Before every Thursday practice, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson goes to the practice field early and smokes a cigar when no one else is around.

"It's a little bit like being in the batter's box before you've got to go up to the plate," said Saban, who was born on Halloween in 1951. "Two out in the bottom of the ninth, and you've got to get a hit to win the game. What do you do? You go through the routine you always go through."

Players seem to be superstitious about their appearance as much as anything else. Davie, a senior from St. Louis, gets dressed in the Wildcats' locker room and then checks himself in the mirror.

"I look into the mirror to see if I'm ready to go," Davie said. "I always go by the saying, 'If you look good, you play good.' I want to make sure I have everything right. My shoulder pads have to be just right. My jersey has to be tucked in just right."

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Dusty ComptonNick Saban's straw hat was in tatters by the end of the season.

Before Davie takes the field, he also finds Simmons, a senior running back from St. Louis.

"I go over and give him five and tell him to have a good game," Davie said. "If I forget, he comes over and finds me. It's kind of our St. Louis connection."

Arnaud, who led the Cyclones to a 28-21 upset of Texas last week, might actually be testing luck when he begins his pregame ritual. An old wives' tale claims you should always dress and undress with your right foot first for good luck. Arnaud, a senior from Ames, Iowa, does exactly the opposite.

"I've always put on left everything first," Arnaud said. "I'm left everything -- left sock, left pant leg, left jersey sleeve and left shoe. It's non-communist; keep it English."

Success often breeds superstitions, too. Before Georgia played at Oklahoma State in the 2009 opener, Walsh ate breakfast at his team's hotel and grabbed a small box of Raisin Bran before boarding the bus to Boone Pickens Stadium. Walsh kicked a career-long 53-yard field goal in the Bulldogs' 24-10 loss to the Cowboys, and he's been consuming 25 percent of his daily fiber only minutes before every game ever since.

"I had a good game at Oklahoma State," Walsh said. "I had a career-long field goal in the game. I figured there had to be something with it. It's really weird, but I do it."

Walsh's pregame ritual isn't nearly as strange as teammate Ben Jones' superstition. Before every game, Jones goes through the early parts of pregame warm-ups in his bare feet. The junior center from Centreville, Ala., even practices snaps with quarterback Aaron Murray without wearing shoes.

"I did it during my senior year of high school," Jones said. "I was sleeping on the bus and we got to the stadium, and I didn't have time to put my shoes on. So I went through warm-ups in my bare feet. We ended up winning the game and had a great season. I've done it ever since."

Murray wasn't sure what to think when he saw Jones' bare feet for the first time.

"He just laughed and called me an old country bumpkin," Jones said.

Jones also honors his late father, Steve Jones, by writing 10-5-99 on his taped wrists before every game. Steve Jones was killed in a helicopter crash on Oct. 5, 1999.

Arizona State quarterback Steven Threet honors his grandfather by wearing a T-shirt his grandfather once wore. Threet has worn the shirt under his pads during every game since his sophomore year of high school, even though it is now ripped and torn.

Superstitious fan bases are hoping to avoid bad luck. Michigan's fans might believe in the "Mike Hart Jinx" since the Wolverines haven't beaten rival Michigan State since the former Wolverines tailback referred to the Spartans as "little brother."

Opponents should never mock Florida fans with the Gator chomp, as former Florida State kicker Sebastian Janikowski did before kicking a go-ahead field goal in 1997. Trailing 29-25, the Gators needed only three plays to score a winning touchdown in their 32-29 upset of the No. 1 Seminoles.

And South Carolina fans won't sleep a wink until the Gamecocks clinch their first SEC East title. The "Chicken Curse" seems to be alive and well after South Carolina was upset 31-28 at Kentucky two weeks ago.

Cross your fingers. There's still six weeks of games to be played.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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