Summer Road Trip: The Deep South

Deep South

The United States is a huge country. I knew this, but reaffirmed it along the second leg of the inaugural Summer Road Trip as I took the long way home from Cleveland, OH, to Fort Worth, TX. I covered over 2,400 miles and 12 states and still managed to cover about 20% of the country’s land. To anyone who may read this outside of the US and is considering visiting: I drove exhaustive 16-hour days over three days and still saw just a fraction of the country.

I knew this leg of the road trip was going to be absolutely grueling but also extremely rewarding– and it was. I had constant alarms set for 4:30am (EST, so I was wired to thinking it was 3:30am CST, where I live) and enough caffeine to keep awake an entire kindergarten. My upcoming route would cover Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; plus a few drive-through states.

Day 1: Chesapeake

It’s four hours east from Cleveland to State College, PA, along i-80. Since I left at 4:45, most of this drive was in the dark and that was okay, having grown up in Cleveland, much of the drive was familiar. A week’s worth of podcasts was going to get me through this three-day drive (or so I thought) and Colin Cowherd’s blazing hot and often inaccurate takes got me through.

I’ve been told a dozen times that Beaver Stadium is “in the middle of nowhere,” but I must have a differing definition of “nowhere” (in Texas, that word is stretched to its fullest potential sometimes). Penn State’s campus is the perfect balance between busy and quiet– much unlike many Big Ten campuses that fall in the middle of urban areas (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota). The hills make the surrounding even more quiet and the morning fog was lifting off them in the distance. I didn’t even try to photograph it, since I knew it wouldn’t turn out. That view I just enjoyed myself.

Normally, the Penn State All Sports museum is open to Happy Valley visitors and offers a view inside of Beaver Stadium, but COVID had this one totally closed “for Emergency.” I knew there was just no way I was getting into this one, so I did a quick lap just in case and decided that I needed to move on. I did have to go find the famous Nittany Lion statue, snapped a photo, and headed onto Navy.

Pennsylvania is hilly, situated right in the Appalachian Mountains, and driving through the southern half of it puts you through some cool mountain towns that you can’t believe people actually live in. It’s also made up of two-lane highways without passing lanes, so getting stuck behind a truck or two going 15 miles under the speed limit is imminent. The other thing to know when going to Maryland in particular is Baltimore-DC traffic can be an absolute nightmare. I lucked out, driving through on both a Saturday and during the pandemic.

Navy-Marine Corps Stadium is a bit off campus so, unlike Air Force, you don’t have to get a pass and go through gates and security and such to get there. It’s an easy drive off the highway and sits right in the middle of a neighborhood not unlike at Northwestern. The stadium itself is very pleasing– clean and simple, but with dozens of nice touches that really ties it to the military. I’d never been to a service academy stadium before, so I made sure to do thorough research on what is and isn’t allowed, what is and isn’t open with the pandemic, and what I am and am not allowed to do. It could just be optics, but I feel like security at a service academy is a bit stricter than at a public school.

Right when you pull in the public lot (generously left open and free to visitors), there’s a full size, decommissioned Blue Angel jet sitting out front welcoming you to the Naval Academy. The south end zone of the stadium facing Taylor Avenue has the entrance and plaques dedicated to each Naval Academy class that is specific to a different war, hence the name “Memorial.” Fortunately, the gates on the faculty lot side were wide open and nothing was there to stop me from entering, so I took full advantage.

The bowl isn’t large, even by Group of 5 standards, but there are individual seats as opposed to bleachers and “GO NAVY” colored into the upper decks. The end zone concourses are decorated with more plaques and history about the Naval Academy and its heroic graduating classes; there’s one for every war the US has been involved in dating back to the Revolutionary War. Topping it all off is a ram statue– the mascot for the Navy Midshipmen (although it falls under the “arbitrary” category of teams who’s mascots differ from their team name or otherwise. E.g. Auburn Tigers’ War Eagle).

Navy to Maryland is a short drive, thank God, just 35 minutes due west. DC traffic really surprised me in a good way, as it notoriously has some of the heaviest traffic in the entire country. A quick note on visiting Maryland Stadium: Apple Maps takes you to a random part of campus and I had to turn it around to get to the stadium. I’m glad it directed me wrong, though– Maryland’s campus is beautiful. The stadium itself is fine, nothing really striking or particular about it, but the football complex at the southwest end zone is pretty nice.

This stadium was super frustrating. Every gate looked open and there’s several potential points of entry (even though they don’t really want the public in there), but each one was *just* not open enough to be inaccessible. Aside from Illinois and Indiana, the Big Ten likes to keep their stadiums under wraps, and I should have known, but Maryland kept me on the line until I finally gave up after an hour. That was a mistake– I knew I wasn’t getting in, but monkyed around nonetheless.

After wasting a bunch of time, I headed to Charlottesville, VA, and a stadium that was bound to be open. More hilly driving was ahead and so where some soaking rainstorms, which pulled me farther behind schedule. It was at this point that I also realized I misplaced a half hour and didn’t take into account the earlier sunset the farther east you go in time zones. More advice for those doing college football travel (or any travel that involves photographing things): check sunset times. Once I arrived at UVA, I realized I had 3 hours of sun left and a little over 4 hours of travel before I reached my final stadium. Hey, it was a learning experience.

Scott Stadium was almost equally as frustrating as its predecessor except that I accepted that this one wasn’t open after two laps. Virginia’s campus is beautiful– one of the most picturesque in the entire country during the right times of fall. With an extremely tight schedule, I was unable to do much touring of the campus but knew that it was best seen during peak Appalachian foliage anyway. Scott Stadium matches the campus in its beauty, with towering pillars covered with an arbor in the northwest end zone and just an overall clean and proper aesthetic. It would have been remarkable to have been there for UVA’s win over Virginia Tech this past season.

Now the race was on– I still had hope of making my final stop by dusk and be able to get some great photos before dark. Just one more stop in between.

I actually have to apologize to any fans of Liberty and the school itself. The campus is outstanding and their athletic facilities are of equal quality and I really enjoyed my eight minutes there. Yes, eight minutes. It hurt me to dip in and out so quickly, but I had one more big fish to fry before the day was over. At least the stadium was easily accessible.

As I watched the sun set over the hills still 20 minutes outside of Virginia Tech, I knew I should have taken my time at Liberty. From batting 0.400 (0.000 at Power 5 schools) to catching bouts of rain during my drive and ultimately miscalculating the time needed, Day 1 was the biggest learning experience of the Road Trip so far. I pulled up at Virginia Tech after dark, expecting to settle for a couple photos of the illuminated outside of Lane Stadium (the inside lights weren’t even on). I walked around the entire facility and then stumbled across a luck-changing gate.

The large loading dock gate was open (non-university vehicles are a great indicator that there may be a gate open) so I very quietly stepped inside. This area of Lane Stadium looked like a pro venue– a concrete concourse that was all storage. The large field gates were closed, but I continued looking around just in case. And boy, was this the case. There was a single door that led to the field, unlocked from the inside and (I made sure to check lest I get locked on the field) locked from the outside. There was a worker audibly in the next room, making this a stealth mission. I propped the door open with a bucket and bam: I was on the field at Lane Stadium.

Honestly, the crappy quality of the photo makes it all the more genuine. Move over, Iowa State, this one took the cake for coolest stadium experience of Road to CFB (cake that would be quickly taken). Just a minute later, I was out of there.

Something of note before moving forward, I really don’t recommend following my footsteps; I’m likely risking a ticket or worse finding my way into stadiums. I mentioned in the last reading that I don’t “break into” stadiums nor do I ignore trespassing signs or anything that could be deemed against the law. However, all it takes is one misstep to meet security or a the wrong maintenance worker to get remembered and maybe in trouble. Just enjoy the content and don’t say I told you to do any of this.

Day 2: Deep South

I would have never guessed that my bad luck on Day 1 was really just saving up for good luck on Day 2. Virginia Tech totally turned everything around into a streak of really, really good luck. It was an hour and half drive from my hotel to Knoxville and I arrived at Tennessee at 7:00am. It was also Sunday, meaning campus was absolutely deserted.

Neyland Stadium has an educational hall attached to it, one that just smells like its been there since 1921 and would make the perfect setting for a horror film. I’ll save any adventurers a lot of time: you can’t get into the stadium from the building. However, there were a couple non-university trucks parked near a gate that, believe it or not, had an unlocked lock. No. Way. The fifth largest stadium in the country, an SEC staple, there had to be a catch to this gate being unlocked.

There was a catch– a very serious threat of being locked in the facility should whoever unlocked the gate leave and lock it behind you. And there’s stories of ramps to climb before you can get in the bowl. Honestly, I’d have never even known if I got locked in there until it was too late. So, I decided to mitigate risk and did maybe the dumbest thing I’ve done during this trip; I pocketed the lock and took it with me. At the very least, it’d buy me time while the worker looked for it (don’t do this either, please).

Turns out, the I was in no danger of being locked in, since the workers were sound board operators perched high in the stands, testing the stadium’s speakers in preparation for a game day that was on schedule to happen. Their presence did throw another wrench in things, though, as it totally removed the option of photos in the stands. I was excited beyond reason to be in there as is, so I cut my losses and just enjoyed what I could.

Mark this down as one of the few times I’ve been truly awed by a stadium (LSU, Ohio State, Texas): it’s just a massive venue. Neyland is the site of so much history, I just took in what I could and then scrambled out (don’t worry, I put the lock back). Thinking that adventure made the entire day, I headed off to Clemson.

As a diehard Ohio State fan, Michigan is supposed to be the team I despise the most; and, for the most part, I do. But eight years running, Ohio State has beaten up on little-brother Michigan, so they’ve really turned into more of a hokey rival than an actual threat. The sight of Clemson orange, though, really gets my blood boiling. They’ve been the Buckeyes’ Achilles heel for years now, knocking us out of the National Championship twice. Most recently (and famously), in 2019 where I still insist the referees blew the game. So being on Clemson’s campus didn’t please me at first.

That is, until a door near the recruiting center was left propped barely open and I was able to access the stadium. In an instant, I was all about seeing Howard’s Rock and the largest stadium in the ACC; the home of Trevor Lawrence. Without fear of workers in the stands, I really helped myself to the grand tour of Clemson Memorial Stadium. The west end zone (Clemson is one of the weird facilities that doesn’t traditionally point north-south) has one of the most amazing structures in college football– their recruiting center.

Somewhere else around this campus is a mini golf course and a lazy river for use of student athletes only. Howard’s Rock is admittedly one of the best traditions in football, and being next to it (albeit enclosed in glass) was pretty cool. Droves of fans visited outside the gates while I was running around inside, trying to catch a glimpse of one of the truest college football dynasty’s home field. After getting into Lane Stadium, Neyland Stadium, and now Clemson, I was feeling pretty good about the second leg of the trip.

I was really satisfied with my first two facilities of the day and honestly didn’t expect to get anywhere near the inside of Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn. It’s a rough drive there from Clemson– four hours of traffic and hills, broken up by Atlanta (another city with infamous traffic). But eventually I pulled in at another one of my bucket list stadiums. Auburn is known for having a pretty sweet campus, a large SEC stadium, and a great college town; and it does have all this. Actually, the only disappointment here is Toomer’s Corner. Amazing tradition here, but without the old tree, I passed right by it without even knowing the first time.

Jordan-Hare and its surroundings, though, are far from unremarkable. The stadium is gorgeous, although it was completely closed to the public at the first two laps. I was on my way out when I noticed an unlocked lock at a loading gate; now it was just getting ridiculous. Just a minute later, I found myself in the middle of Chris Davis’ Kick Six and the hedges of Auburn. I had to get down to them, making this one of my favorite stadium experiences and photos from the road trip.

I was flirting with disaster all day long, as every state from the east coast to Louisiana was battling thunderstorms, and Louisiana and Texas were in the path of not one but two hurricanes set to make landfall in the coming days. Somehow, I managed to dodge all rain and storms this entire road trip with not a single drop of rain falling on me at my stops. In between stops, though, was a different story. It rained almost the entire way from Auburn to Troy, with torrential downpours breaking up the drizzling. But, like all the other stops, it was clear as day when I pulled in at Troy.

Troy has the Most Beautiful Campus in Alabama, per their billboards nearby. According to them, their campus is nicer than Auburn and Alabama (plus UAB and South Alabama) which I thought was a pretty big check to cash. But Troy showed up– their campus, their stadium, their grass is manicured to the millionth degree– it was really impressive. As far as Group of 5s go, throw Troy into the top five nicest stadiums I’ve ever been to (also in that class, Liberty, Houston, Texas State). It’s only about halfway up the capacity list in the Group of 5, but it seems larger due to the press box and open end zone concourse.

Three more hours on the road through spotty rain was all that separated me from Troy and my hotel. The plan was to visit Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in the morning and head out from there, but it being Sunday and Alabama having installed new LED lights about a year ago caused me to take a quick look that night. Luckily for me, the LED lights were on at the stadium; the unlucky part, Bryant-Denny was undergoing extensive renovation and the entire stadium was not only closed, but also surrounded with a ton of fencing.

Even though it was almost 10:00 on a Sunday night, the construction zone was buzzing with machines and workers. The renovation was likely approved before covid and the SEC season was pushed and revamped, so the schedule for finishing what they were up to was probably tight. Between that time and the time I returned the next morning (roughly 6:30 am), the workers might never have gone home. I’ll skip several details, but here’s a photo of Bryant-Denny at night:

That was it for Day 2. It was one of the most incredible days I’d had in relation to Road to CFB and I got to see a ton of stadiums I was very excited about. Just one more day laid ahead of me (and most of the excitement was behind me).

Day 3: Bayou

I returned to Bryant-Denny at 6:30 in the morning, trying to avoid the height of workers and maybe be able to get a little free reign inside. That just happened to be report time for either the new wave of workers or all workers, I really couldn’t tell with the amount of them already hard at work inside. My better judgement kicked in and I didn’t even try. I did, however, spend some time checking out Alabama’s walk of champions and their statues of coaches who had won a National Championship.

My ability to get around in the stadium (and really anywhere else) was badly inhibited; I misstepped off the curb at my Tuscaloosa hotel and turned my ankle over pretty badly and it swelled up to the size of a softball. Note: I’m not terribly clumsy, but my ankles have been stretched beyond repair due to several sprains and breaks over the years.

Then it was off to the last major school along the inaugural Summer Road Trip: Ole Miss. My luck had surely all ran out by this time, and I had zero expectation to get it. Upon arrival, the gates were locked and the Rebels were holding practice in the space right behind Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which I took in for long enough (standing around practices isn’t a great idea, and I didn’t even think about trying to get a photo, they’ll think you’re scouting). There was gate near Ole Miss Pavilion on the west side of the stadium that was just barely open and I knew the football gods were watching down on this trip.

Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is the second oldest stadium in the SEC and third oldest in all of college football, but it sure doesn’t look it. Venues like Neyland Stadium, Memorial Stadium (Illinois) and Ryan Field (Northwestern) you can tell are just old; but Vaught-Hemingway keeps a youthful and modern look. The land of Archie and Eli Manning also includes the famed Grove, which is just a shady study spot for students in between the weekends.

After Ole Miss, it was down to the home stretch with just two more Group of 5 stadiums remaining in the state of Louisiana– ULM and Louisiana Tech.

I always enter a new school and stadium with an open mind; I almost totally remove all bias and expectations and every time so far, I’ve come away happy. Even game days at Rice and Eastern Michigan, though they earn a poor stadium grade, have left me satisfied with the experience. ULM, however, was the first place I’ve ever been really dissatisfied with. I’ve never declined a way into a stadium until this one– it’s across from a really rundown area, complete with rusty fencing (temporary fencing, not even permanent structure). The first impression off the highway of Monroe, LA, is congestion mixed with cracked asphalt, rusty overpasses, and vacant storefronts.

The stadium itself is comprised of half-finished stands that stand a mile high but only span between the 20 yard lines (making it look like a square) and away stands that are bleachers, not even complete stands. The field is sunk maybe two feet in the ground and looks more like a trip hazard than a subset playing surface. Seriously, this place is bad. I spent less time at Malone Stadium than I did at Liberty and was in and out in five minutes. Living in Texas, I have ample high school facilities to look at that vastly outdo this so-called Division-1 stadium.

With that behind me, I headed 30 more minutes down i-20 to Ruston, LA, and Louisiana Tech. The benefit of Joe Aillet Stadium is that it wasn’t exactly going up against Michigan Stadium and would look wildly better by comparison almost no matter what. But even without that benefit, Ruston is actually a nice city with a solid campus and a clean stadium. The football complex (weight rooms and such) in the south end zone is a clean and modern facility that ties the rest of the place together. It ended the trip on a positive note.

Just like that, an annual tradition had been born and the inaugural Summer Road Trip was in the books– nearly 4,500 miles, 19 states, and 26 college football stadiums later. It was a massive undertaking full of early mornings, grueling hours, fast food, and caffeine; but it reaffirmed my mantra that the best way to see this country is on the road and through college towns.

Now, it’s time for the season.

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