For the better part of a decade, I’d told myself I’d get to Death Valley – home of Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers football – on a Saturday night to watch a game. It’s one of the most quintessential college football experiences one could have. Earlier this year, when I started planning my US roadtrip, I included a detour through Baton Rouge, Louisiana to make it happen.
Holding over 100,000 spectators at capacity, Tiger Stadium is not only one of the biggest stadiums in college football, but in world sport. Its fearsome reputation as a challenging place to play is noted by opponents who’ve had the misfortune of being scheduled to play in Baton Rouge on a Saturday night.
So revered are night games at “Cathedral of College Football” that the team’s own hype video proudly declares that “it’s Saturday night in Death Valley” – alluding to the fact that the Tigers don’t prowl until well after the sun has set.
You get the picture – it’s a bucket list item for anyone who watches college ball and takes it somewhat seriously… which is why I was left in utter disbelief just days before flying out to the States:
LSU, the home of Saturday night football, had been scheduled to play SEC rivals Arkansas at 11am local time.
I’ll be honest, I swore. I knew what a morning game meant. There would be no serious tailgating. There would be no time (or very little time) for predrinking. The atmosphere would be nothing like what it would be on a Saturday night.
My meticulously planned pit stop in Baton Rouge was looking like a mistake. I cursed myself for not deciding to cast the net further east to watch a ‘Bama game in Tuscaloosa. I also felt pretty shitty having talked up the LSU experience to my – admittedly naïve – friends who had forked out good money only to ask me if the quarterback plays on both offence and defence.
But, according to our Uber driver in Baton Rouge on the Friday before the match, the scheduling was not going to stop LSU’s downright crazy fans from partying the night before.
As it was a Friday night, we were pointed in the direction of Bogie’s Bar near the campus which is just outside of Baton Rouge’s city centre.
Bogie’s Bar is what many would call a “dive”. It was dirty, the toilets were literally falling apart, and the dance floor was sticky with God-knows-what. But the Uber driver was right, a morning football game was not going to stop students and fans from getting loose the night before.
“It’s horseshit,” one student told me, “It’s the first time in five or six years we’re playing at home in the morning.”
Great. Just what three blokes who had come across the world to watch a game at Death Valley wanted to hear…
“But tonight will be something else,” he added.
He wasn’t wrong. A prominent local country music group had been scheduled to do their thing after 10, while absolutely every drink in the place was free between 7pm and 9pm. That meant two things for us and every other college student in town: it was going to be a messy night, and it was going to get messy early.
There was nothing traditional about it, but we did end up tailgating before the game. It just happened to be the night before. We drank, talked crap with other football fans and snacked on freebies being given away by the bar.
To say we were dusty the next morning would be an understatement, but we got ourselves up, drank some weak motel coffee and began the pilgrimage to the stadium.
While many had prepared us for the worst, what we saw was still mightily impressive. The sights, smells and noises were all that I had imagined; heavy rap and country rock blared from portable sound systems, the smell of barbecue, jambalaya and all manner of Cajun and Creole spices lingered, and people were throwing footballs, downing beers (at 9am!) and chatting with anyone happy to engage.
It wasn’t a Saturday night in Death Valley, but it was still pretty darn good.
To many, namely the younger fans, the match itself is secondary to the party, but for three relatively uninitiated Australians, the experience at a sleepy and somewhat docile Tiger Stadium was still something to behold.
War chants, deafening third downs and hype videos make it hard to speak to the person next to you, and the reported crowd of 98,000 did its best to make it an intimidating place to play for opposing players. You must remember, too, that these players are aged between 18 and 23 and draw weekly attendances which rival those of the AFL and NRL grand finals.
After a defensive start to the game, the Tigers got going, eventually running away with a solid 33-10 win over their conference rivals.
So while a night match at LSU would have been the holy grail for a college football fan like myself, I was in no way disappointed with my Saturday morning in Death Valley.
As one bloke at Bogie’s Bar told me, there’s college football everywhere else, then there’s college football in the South.
Looking to tick Tiger Stadium off your bucket list?
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This post contributed by Matt Walsh. You can follow him on Twitter @MattWalshMedia.