The idea behind homecoming is pretty simple. Invite all the students and alumni connected to your college back to campus for a weekend of football, food, and festivities. But of course, college is a breeding ground for oddball behavior.
This means that the annual event meant to welcome back graduates and celebrate campus unity is also a fantastic opportunity to exercise some pretty weird traditions. Not that all homecoming traditions are necessarily weird. Some are invigorating, such as Virginia Tech’s Game Ball Run. Some are hauntingly beautiful, such as Arizona State University’s Lantern Walk. Others are competitive, such as the fiercely contested Bed Races at Ball State University…which in fairness, I suppose are also pretty weird too.
The one thing these traditions have in common is an intoxicating infusion of school spirit, from current students and visiting alumni alike. This has been the key ingredient for a century of homecoming celebrations.
A Quick History
For your personal edification, a few universities claim credit for starting the tradition of homecoming. Northern Illinois University played its first “alumni game” in 1903 and has done so every year since. Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, held its first homecoming event in the spring of 1909, with many of the school’s students opening their homes and preparing barbecue dinners for visiting alumni. Baylor University in Waco, Texas, also dates its first homecoming game and parade to 1909, though it did not adopt the event as an annual tradition until 1915.
In spite of the claim laid by each of these schools, if you ask Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit, they’ll tell you that the University of Missouri basically invented the modern tradition of homecoming. As part of arguably the first real rivalry in college football, Missouri Tigers would face off with the University of Kansas Jayhawks at a neutral location every year since 1891. When a change to NCAA regulations required the game be held on a college campus, Mizzou hosted its “Border War” rival for the first time in 1911. In the interests of truly seizing home field advantage, Missouri aggressively courted alumni attendance by hosting a parade, igniting a pep rally bonfire, and putting on an array of activities that ultimately drew ten thousand former students.
The one thing Missouri couldn’t do was guarantee a watchable football game, as the Tigers and Jayhawks ended in a 3–3 draw.
Fortunately, today, even a boring ball game can’t ruin the fun of homecoming. Indeed, the nine awesome homecoming traditions highlighted here are pretty good proof that you don’t even have to like football to be a part of an amazing homecoming celebration. Of course, if you like football, this is pretty much the greatest time of year.
1. University of Missouri‘s Blood Drive
In addition to boasting what most trivia-masters consider to have been the first modern homecoming celebration, the University of Missouri is home to one of the most socially conscious annual traditions. Dating back to 1985, the University of Missouri teams up with the American Red Cross every year to collect life-saving plasma donations from students, faculty, and alumni. Organized each year by the Mizzou Alumni Association and the Homecoming Steering Committee, the event is the largest student-run blood drive in the country. And if you can’t get to Columbia, Missouri to participate, the school actually hosts an array of satellite blood drives as well. Check out alternate locations here to see if you can help!
2. University of Florida’s Gator Growl
The University of Florida claims the biggest student-run pep rally in the world, an absolutely enormous production of lights, fireworks, comedy, and music called the Gator Growl. Held on the night before the homecoming game each year, Gator Growl is organized by the school’s student honor society, the Florida Blue Key.
It traces its origins to an annual event called Dad’s Day. Around the turn of the century, when Florida was still an all-male school, the father of each student was invited to visit the campus on one day out of the year. In 1916, the University’s invitation was no longer limited to just dads. All parents and alumni were invited to join in for a pep rally. Each year, the rally grew in spectacle, adding performances, celebrity guests, and pyrotechnics. Today, more than two hundred student employees and five hundred student volunteers dedicate more than a thousand hours of labor to coordinate the event. For years, the rally was held in the very same Ben Hill Griffin Stadium where the next morning’s football game would be played. This meant student volunteers would work until the early twilight hours to clean the field for the Gators of the gridiron.
Logic has since prevailed, and the rally is now held in nearby Flavet Field. In addition to drawing tens of thousands of spectators every year—even visitors from nearby schools who can’t resist the fun—the event usually includes a few celebrity performers. Notables from over the years have included George Burns, Robin Williams, the Steve Miller Band, and this year, Snoop Dogg. On the other hand, they’ve also had Sugar Ray, Carrot Top, and Larry the Cable Guy…
On the bright side, even if Larry the Cable Guy is the entertainment, there’s always football.
P.S.I was going to share footage of a Gator Growl, but then I found this amazing footage of University of Florida’s homecoming football game from 1950, which includes pep festivities. Apologies for the lack of audio, but hey, this video was made like 100 years ago so we’ll take what we can get. Enjoy!
3. Howard University’s YardFest
For more than ninety years, Howard has celebrated homecoming in much the same way as other colleges and universities, with football, cheer, and an open invitation to all of its alumni. But for the last several decades, the centerpiece of homecoming weekend is the event that takes place on the eve of football competition.
YardFest is held annually on the Friday night of homecoming weekend and has become a showcase for hip-hop legends and legends in the making: from a 1995 performance by a peaking Notorious B.I.G., to the night that Jay-Z and DMX shared the stage, to the 2003 headlining event by Juelz Santana in which a virtually unknown Kanye West took the stage. Howard University’s annual YardFest isn’t just another homecoming concert. Over the years, it has become a proving ground for emergent rappers and a homecoming for established emcees. Revered icons such as Ghostface Killah and commercial giants such as Drake have both landed at YardFest and made lasting statements.
Though an unruly crowd in 2013 led organizers to briefly suspend live music performances, the YardFest tradition returned in full force in 2016 with performances by Common, Wale, and Lil Uzi Vert.
Below, Drake drops in for a crowd-shocking cameo with 2 Chainz in 2012.
And if you’d like to learn a bit about the great man who founded Howard University, check out Oliver Otis Howard: Soldier of Freedom.
4. Virginia Tech’s Game Ball Run
It’s tradition in football to give the game ball to a player who makes a major statement on the field. But at Virginia Tech, it’s tradition to let everybody on campus touch the ball, at least for a second. Every year since 1977, the Virginia Tech Army ROTC Ranger Company commandeers the game ball and runs it around the campus for a full week before the big homecoming game against the Virginia Military Institute, giving students, faculty, and visitors a chance to rub some of their good mojo onto the pigskin.
Back in the ‘80s, when the game was held in Norfolk, Ranger Company would run the ball straight from Roanoke to Norfolk. Of course, it was a pretty long run, one that lasted well past sundown on the eve of the game. Just as it was Virginia Tech’s tradition to attempt the run, it was VMI’s tradition to attempt (usually unsuccessfully) to relieve Ranger Company of its precious cargo under the cover of night.
Today, tradition holds that the ball should be carried approximately one hundred miles around campus, with stops at the pep rally the night before the big game, and in a formal ceremony at the stadium itself, where Ranger Company finally delivers the ball just before kickoff.
5. Ball State‘s Bed Races
A lot of great things came from the ’80s: CD players, Hair Metal, and Anthony Michael Hall. It was a pretty amazing decade. But possibly the best thing to come from this decade was a humble idea incubated on Ball State’s Muncie, Indiana, campus. In 1980, a few campus fraternities (who else?) had the idea of welding wheels to bed frames and careening down campus thoroughfares in an act of symbolic defiance.
Symbolic of what, you ask? Basically that people rolling down the street in beds on wheels is hilarious. Alright fine. It’s not symbolism. There’s absolutely no deeper meaning to this event but it is a tradition, one that has been observed on every Friday of homecoming weekend since its inception. Today, it is a fully sanctioned event. Ball State even gives competitors access to a university welding shop.
Of course, official university involvement means that the bed race is no longer just a melee of fraternity brothers wantonly disregarding medical advice on how best to achieve a restful night of sleep. The event is now organized into divisions and heats, giving students, faculty and alumni a chance to best one another in a race down Riverside Avenue. The event is highlighted by costumes, trophies and, of course, the fantastical sight of human beings on beds rolling the distance of a football field.
To learn a bit about the Brothers Ball, who founded Ball State University, check out Ball State University: Bottling Success Since 1918.
6. University of Central Florida’s Spirit Splash
Most of the year, it’s against the rules to dip a toe in the Reflecting Pond on the University of Central Florida’s Orlando campus. And if university administrators in the ’90s had their druthers, it would be that way 365 days a year. But some traditions are simply born out of stubborn determination. UCF’s homecoming Spirit Splash is precisely one such tradition.
Its origin story tells of Miguel Torregrossa, the Student Government Association president who, during a homecoming pep rally in 1995, was accidentally nudged into the pool by one of his cabinet members. The accidental plunge was met with a very intentional explosion of energy as Torregrossa’s cabinet joined him in the pond. This prompted the thousands of other students in attendance to converge on the pond is a show of spirited frivolity.
The next year, students lobbied for the university to make the event official but were met with fierce resistance. Of course, neither their disapproval nor their security guards could stop students from taking the plunge. The university wasn’t pleased. But by 1997, administrators conceded that the event was largely out of their hands, not to mention, their pep rally was losing students every year to the incredibly popular Gator Growl just up the turnpike.
After requiring the SGA to fund a few safety improvements, the university agreed to make Spirit Splash the official homecoming pep rally for the student body at UCF. The event is now annually attended by fifteen thousand plungers, football players, coaches, alumni, and for some reason, thousands of rubber duckies.
7. Brigham Young University’s Lighting the Y
How many BYU students does it take to screw in a light bulb? A couple hundred apiece if we’re basing our answer on homecoming tradition. Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, lays claim to one of the state’s most readily identifiable landmarks—Y Mountain. Located just east of campus, it is so named for the distinctive white “Y” built into the hillside.
Constructed of rock and supported by a concrete retaining wall, the 380×130 foot insignia was built in 1908 and is actually larger, all on its own, than all the letters in the famous Hollywood Sign. The 1.2-mile path leading from campus to the “Y” has long been a popular trail for hikers, cyclists and students, especially those in pursuit of a romantic tryst.
Starting in 1924, it also became the focal point of an invigorating homecoming tradition in which, the night before the big game, students would ascend the mountain by the thousands to “light the Y.” Back then, students would soak mattresses in kerosene, drag them up the hill and emblazon the perimeter of the “Y,” illuminating the valley below for about twenty minutes. In addition to being a whole lot of work for twenty minutes of light, it sounds terribly dangerous. Still, it went on pretty much unabated until 1985, when the University installed electrical wiring around the famous letter.
Thereafter, students would ascend with thousands of light bulbs, determined to cast a Y-shaped glow over the campus. The first 150 to reach the landmark would enjoy the honor of screwing their bulbs in. As of 2016, the event is largely symbolic in nature. The installation of LED lights means that the Y can now be safely lit from the comfort of the ground. But what fun is that?
8. Texas State University’s Soap Box Derby Race
There are only two possible ways you’ve every participated in a Soap Box Derby Race: you were born during the Eisenhower Administration and remember where you were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; or you are, or were at one time, a student at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.
Soap Box Derby race cars are engineless wooden or plastic frames with wheels. They are propelled entirely by gravity, and the Texas State tradition of racing them on homecoming weekend hearkens back to our nation’s halcyon Main Street history. Soap Box Derby racing is Americana-laid-on-thick, like Norman Rockwell and Leave It To Beaver.
The charming tradition has been a part of Texas State’s homecoming celebration since 1967 and pits student organizations, Greek houses, and residential halls against one another in a not-particularly-fast race across campus.
9. Arizona State University’s Lantern Walk
Not to be outdone by Y Mountain, Arizona State has its own “A” Mountain, and a lighting tradition that goes back even a few years further. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first collective ascent, on homecoming eve 1917. Every year since then, students have gathered to carry lanterns to the peak, bathing the surrounding Tempe in a warm and eerie glow.
Festivities begin at the foot of the mountain—this year a DJ warmed up the crowd before students began their climb. Once at the top of the mountain, speakers will rally the crowd, the homecoming committee will crown the year’s Homecoming Royalty, students will be dazzled by a fireworks display, and the school’s mascot, Sparky, will officially light the “A.”
In addition to being a generally fun and somewhat enchanting event, the Lantern Walk is largely regarded as the symbolic passing of the torch from the graduating class to next year’s seniors.
These are some of our favorite homecoming traditions. Of course, every campus has its own unique way of marking this special time of year. Tell us how your school celebrates the occasion!