Why Penn State:
I am a big college football fan. There is no sporting event in the world with as much pageantry as college football. With tailgates, bands, and copious displays of school spirit, the atmosphere in the small college towns on game day in unlike anything else.
One of the consistently top-ranked college football atmospheres is at Penn State, a large public university located in the middle of Pennsylvania in the town of State College. Penn State is home to Beaver Stadium, one of the largest stadiums in the world, and regularly gets crowds of over 100,000 despite its location.
Being only 4 hours from New York, I figured Penn State would be a perfect weekend trip.
I noticed that Penn State was playing Michigan in mid-November which appears to be the biggest game of the year. Both teams were ranked highly in the polls, making it a marquee matchup. To enhance the atmosphere, the school´s athletic department declared it a White Out meaning everyone should wear white. My business school friend Carles, who was living in North Carolina, decided to join me.
Penn State is a difficult place to visit. It is not located near any other city in Pennsylvania and is about a 4-hour drive (slightly out of day trip range) from New York City, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. The town of State College has a population of 42,000 but Beaver Stadium has a capacity of 107,000. Therefore, basically every room in the region gets booked and the rooms that are available go for extraordinary prices (think $700/night). After a lot of searching, I found an Airbnb an hour east (aka in the direction of New York City) in the town of Lock Haven. Since the time of the game was unknown at the time of booking, I booked it for two nights to account for both a noon game and a night game.
A week before, the authorities that be announced the game would be played at noon.
On Friday November 12, I picked up Carles and my rental car at Newark, New Jersey airport and we headed to Lock Haven. The drive took 3.5 hours plus a short break for ice cream. After an uneventful evening, we went to bed to rally for the big day.
November 13, 2021: We Are Penn State
Gameday! Carles and I woke up at 6:00. By 6:30 we were out the door and in the car. It was an hour drive to State College through the Nittany Valley, which was in peak fall colors. We arrived at 7:30 and got waffles at a popular local mini chain.
Then we drove into the downtown to park and head to the tailgate. Parking was difficult due to the many restrictions and settled on a church lot for $15. The town was busy with students walking around in groups. Some were looking for a party, but others clearly were exhausted from a wild night out. Carles and I stopped into a shop to buy white t shirts to blend in.
Then we walked around the empty campus (it’s a Saturday and everyone is drinking). I wouldn´t call the campus beautiful but it isn´t ugly either.
Even though it was early, I had to stop by Penn State´s famous Berkey Creamery. Penn State began as an agricultural school and founded its dairy research department in 1865. In 1889, they decided to open an ice cream shop to support the research as well as to provide extra cash for the department. In 1892, the school officially began courses in ice cream manufacturing. Many famous ice cream manufacturers including Ben & Jerry got their start here.
The ice cream shop moved to a new location in 2006, but the product is the same. The milk comes from the university´s own cattle herd and the ice cream is made by students.
Many famous people have visited the ice cream shop. In fact, they have a rule that only the President of the United States is allowed to order two flavors at once.
I ordered the Peachy Paterno, named for the school´s longtime football coach who unfortunately after 60 years resigned in scandal.
Next, Carles and I walked over to explore the tailgate scene. Cars were parked in the farmland. The lots seemed to go on forever. There were very few students here. It was mostly fans who drove in- presumably from other parts of Pennsylvania. The weather was cold and windy so it wasn´t the liveliest scene, but people were definitely having fun.
After doing a LONG lap around the stadium and the tailgates lots, we reached the primo tailgate: a series of white tents stocked with booze, food, and impressive speaker set ups right next to the west side of Beaver Stadium. Most of these tailgates seemed to be rich families who had kids at the school. Various graduate schools including the MBA program also had booths here. I wish we had been here the whole time- this was by far the best scene.
At 11:00 we headed into the Beaver Stadium. 100,000 people all wearing white is a striking scene.
The 21,000-strong student section was across the stadium from us. The section was full, and the students were all on their feet chanting. Most of these students arrived 3 hours before the game and some even camped out overnight to get the best seats.
Unfortunately, the stands right above the student section were nearly empty- not a good look for Penn State and it made the crowd look much smaller than it was.
10 minutes before game time, the 300-person Penn State Marching Band marched onto the field.
Then the loudspeakers blasted the song Zombie Nation by Kernkraft 400 which sent the crowd into a frenzy as they chanted We Are Penn State as the Penn State Nittany Lions ran onto the field.
Then the game began.
The crowd was impressive and continued to cheer during the entire game. At the end they announced the attendance: 109,534.
It ended up being a close game. Michigan came back and won it with just 3 minutes left. Although it is always more fun to see the home team win, it was admittedly a very good game.
After the game, we tried to get into the bars downtown, including Champs Downtown which was recently ranked the best college bar in the US, but they were all packed with students who did not attend the game. It was only 4pm and too early to get dinner. So we wandered for a bit and then drove to the nearby town of Boalsburg.
Boalsburg is just three miles from State College but is worlds apart. The town is quiet and has immense historic charm. I can see parents who are visiting wanted to stay here instead. Carles and I sat down at the Victorian-era Duffy´s Tavern. We ate a very slow dinner before driving back to Lock Haven. The next day, we headed to Scranton.
A football game at Penn State is an experience. The school is in such a very remote area, but still manages to attract enormous crowds from all over the state. To see the tiny town turn into a huge party is a sight to behold. The student section is the best I have seen in the US.
That said, town offers little besides the school and is entirely student-focused so there is little else to do besides go to the game. The majority of the pregame scene is based on tailgating. Therefore, if you do not come with a tailgate setup, a parking pass and friends, you won´t really get to party. Finally, the logistics of getting to Penn State are very difficult for anyone trying to visit.
Therefore, I would recommend Penn State only to people who really like college football. If you are a casual fan, I would go somewhere more convenient.