Marcus Spears was a bona fide dude at LSU. A 6-foot-4, 300-pound defensive monster who ate quarterbacks like they were omelets and departed Baton Rouge as a national champion, consensus All-American and NFL first round draft pick. The Big Swagu backed down from no man or opponent. He feared nothing.
Except for the visitor’s locker room at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“I don’t require much. I’m pretty tough. But what I do ask is that the room I’m in not be infested,” Spears told ESPN.com. He played in the Razorbacks’ second home stadium twice, a win in 2002 and a loss in ’04. More than a decade later he still gets a visible case of heebie-jeebies when he discusses his “Saw”-like experience. “I’m not talking about roaches or bugs, though they were probably there, behind the walls. I’m talking about nastiness. Like, germs and disease. Man, I wore my socks in the shower after those games just so my bare feet wouldn’t touch that tile.”
After Michigan’s Week 4 trip to Purdue, coach Jim Harbaugh made headlines when he complained that the Ross-Ade Stadium accommodations were not so accommodating, from a medical table “out of the 1920s” to a missing X-ray machine to a lack of air conditioning that sent some players to the team bus to cool off. He called for his fellow Big Ten coaches to join him in asking for improvements. Purdue quickly responded via a statement that it would never put player safety in jeopardy for the sake of gamesmanship. It pointed out that a Michigan staffer had done a walk-through of Ross-Ade in July and that its visiting team manual reads, in bold type “there is no air conditioning in the locker room.” A request can be made for temporary AC, but according to Purdue, Michigan filed no such request.
Over the past two weeks, dozens of coaches have been asked to address Harbaugh’s concerns. Some, including archrival Ohio State’s leader Urban Meyer, backed him up. Most, however, have shrugged it off, just as they have shrugged off old tables and no air conditioning for nearly 150 years of college football. That’s especially true for Captain Comeback’s coaching elders.
“These are football players, for heaven’s sake,” Vince Dooley said. Between his playing days at Auburn and duties as coach and athletic director at Georgia, Dooley braved enemy hospitality for nearly 55 seasons. “Are we trying to be tough or spoiled? All those years I traveled for games, if I’d walked into a visiting locker room and found a couch and some ferns, honestly, I think I would have been way more insulted than I ever was with the bad stuff.”
Greeting one’s guests with “bad stuff,” such as cold showers, cramped quarters and funky smells, is as much a college football tradition as marching bands, mascots and pom-poms. Including, on occasion, mold spores that look like pom-poms.
“If the visiting locker room is too nice, honestly, I’m a little disappointed,” Mike Leach said. “You ask any coach or player that question — what’s the worst visitor’s locker room you’ve been in — and they’ll give you 10 answers.”
While we’re in confession mode — this article was really Leach’s idea. The night after Harbaugh’s comments, the Washington State coach laughed his way through a volume of stories about fallacious facilities.
Leach told a tale of visiting Mississippi State during his time as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator. When the Wildcats went to load their gear into Davis Wade Stadium, they walked into what was essentially a bedroom-sized concrete box. Lining the bare walls of that box was a series of naked nails.
“I remember exactly how many there were, because I counted them. There were 38,” Leach recalled. With 70 players, it meant half the team’s pads were hung while the other half sat on the floor.
After the team dressed, the players started down the famous spiral ramps that lead to Scott Field. Leach has no idea what the home side’s spiral was like, but the visiting side was poured with concrete that had been polished to the point that it was like gray ice.
“[Then-Kentucky head coach] Hal (Mumme) gave the team their speech, and they were all fired up and blew out the door,” Leach said, “… and they had to tip toe down to the field while hanging onto the railing.”
Were Leach and Mumme angry?
“Hell no,” Leach said. “As soon as I saw [then-Mississippi State head coach] Jackie Sherrill I shook his hand and told him I was damn impressed.”
But the hand that Sherrill shook was all but guaranteed to be dirty, no matter whose hand he was shaking. This is because there were only a few old working sinks in the visiting locker room. These were used (or not) after utilizing one of two toilets — located in the center of the room for all to view — that had no seats, which were assumed to have been broken off by enraged previous visitors.
“The most impressive part, though: It was almost artistic,” Leach said, a little too excitedly. “Sitting on the floor right between the toilets with exactly one roll of toilet paper — it was exquisite.”
Creating art is not the goal. Creating discomfort is — even if that discomfort is psychological. That’s why LSU used to make opponents unload their buses and walk to the entrance of Death Valley’s visitors’ space, passing by Mike the Tiger, holed up in a flimsy-looking cage and agitated so that he would roar irritatingly at his guests. That’s why Alabama gladly accepted a donation from wealthy alum James M. Fail to upgrade the visitor’s facilities at Bryant-Denny Stadium, forever to be known as the Fail Room. And that’s why Air Force has warning signs plastered all over the walls outside the doors of Falcon Stadium’s visitors’ quarters, kindly cautioning inhabitants of the potentially life-threatening effects of physical exertion in high-altitude locations. You know, like Colorado Springs.
“We’re just giving them a heads-up,” Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun said, standing in that tunnel one year ago. “I think the players from schools located at sea level really need to be warned about the dangers of hypoxia.”
Schools like, oh, I don’t know — Navy?
“That is a good example, yes.”
Over the past decade, Tennessee has spent millions of dollars renovating the northwest corner of Neyland Stadium, where posh rooms named for Peyton Manning and Hank Lauricella await the home team and even past letter-winners.
The other end of the stadium — the visitors’ end — looks exactly as it did when General Neyland himself prowled the sidelines. Beneath the beams and girders that support the upper deck is Stadium Hall, a 70-year-old academic building that houses more than 1,000 skeletons to teach America’s future CSI stars. Seeing as how the visitor’s locker room is surrounded by Stadium Hall, that can make opponents a little jittery, especially if the smell of not-quite-cleaned bones goes wafting through the lockers.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Tennessee legend Johnny Majors said last weekend before Georgia’s visit into the bowels of Stadium Hall. The former player and head coach admitted that he might have had a malfunctioning, extra pungent popcorn machine repeatedly parked inside the Stadium Hall tunnel. But dead bodies? “Oh, no. There was a bad refrigerator down there for a while, had some rotten hot dogs in it or something. But surely no one thought that smell was anything else, right?”
The most notorious case of psychological locker room warfare can be found in Iowa City. Since 1979, Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium has painted its visitor’s locker room pink. Like, all of it, from the walls to the lockers to the toilets. Then-head coach Hayden Fry learned of pink’s subliminal powers of docility while earning his master’s degree in, yes, psychology.
Today, those renovated visiting digs are considered among the nation’s finest. But they are still really, really pink. Back in the day, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler so despised the paint job and its supposed voodoo that he would have his equipment staff cover every surface with white butcher paper. These days, Schembechler’s former quarterback, Harbaugh, has the walls papered with Go Blue-friendly artwork.
Harbaugh notwithstanding, modern visitors to the pink room don’t react so much with uncontrollable emotions, be it ignited anger or hypnotic tranquility. After four decades, it’s become a welcomed rite of passage.
“I know I am supposed to be deeply offended about the pink locker room, but I love college football,” said Penn State head coach James Franklin, who won at Iowa two weeks ago, 21-19. “I was so excited to get in there and see it. It was kind of like, ‘I’ve made it!’ Then we blew a lead in the fourth quarter, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute …'”
Besides dividing the lobes of the mind, among the most popular forms of harassment is the division of the room and as a result, the team. Lockers, benches and walls are lined in a manner that ensures teams are kept from feeling any sense of togetherness.
“There’s video of us after a big win we had at Texas Tech one night and you can see what we were dealing with,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said of the Mountaineers’ startling 2014 comeback victory at Jones AT&T Stadium. “Guys are climbing over an air duct and there’s a wall of lockers right there by the door. It’s like a maze. You think, ‘OK, I can just climb up on top of something so everyone can see me,’ but the ceiling is like 6 feet tall. So you just yell and hope everyone can see you. Hell, I don’t care. If I need to see everyone that bad, we can always just junior-high it and meet in the end zone.”
“Junior-highing it” is a frequently considered solution for another frequent problem. Sometimes the issue isn’t what happens when a visiting team gets to its locker room; it’s getting there in the first place. When most of today’s classic college football venues were built a century ago, opponents would arrive in a school bus with a couple dozen players and a stack of shoulder pads. So those facilities were built without a visiting locker room at all.
As the size of the arriving parties increased, eventually reaching today’s standard of 100 people (players and staff) and an 18-wheeler full of gear, the visitors were given space wherever it could be found. At some stadiums, that became a cave dug wherever there might be an empty space beneath the grandstand. At others, it meant looking offsite.
“I can remember having to hoof it to other buildings a lot,” Keyshawn Johnson remembered about his time at USC. At the time, Oregon State, Washington State and Washington housed their visitors outside their stadiums, in a physical education building basement, a P.E. classroom and a basketball arena, respectively. “I swore some guy sat in an office and drew up a map to make the worst possible path between the stadium and the locker room. ‘Hey, what gate does the drunkest fraternity use to get in? OK, cool, let’s make them jog through there!'”
More often than not, that path leads through some sort of tunnel. And more often than not, that tunnel is actually a funnel. What starts as a hallway wide enough for teammates to enter four-wide is gradually condensed, growing smaller and smaller until it’s so tight the kicker might consider traveling sideways. An offensive lineman might consider therapy. At Arizona, visitors descend into a hole that feels like a garbage chute, custom built for the fans above to deposit whatever they have in their hands. Notre Dame’s just-unveiled path for opponents to find the playing field looks like a real-life M.C. Escher painting. Only, instead of surrealist’s preferred color black, this tunnel has been painted mustard brown.
🏈 New to Notre Dame Stadium!
A visitors tunnel has been added near the north end zone.
— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) August 15, 2017
“When we went to Washington State our locker room was a five- to seven-minute hike away,” recalled Mike Belotti, who spent 22 seasons at Oregon, from offensive coordinator to head coach to AD. “It wasn’t in the stadium. It was in a building across from the stadium. Sort of. You went down a long, skinny tunnel and that emptied out behind an old gym and then into a hallway. Halftime was only 15 minutes, so by the time you got [to the locker room], it was time to turn around and go back.”
So what was the halftime speech?
Oregon’s Autzen Stadium is known as one of the crown jewels of college football. Now. Before Belotti and his old boss, Rich Brooks, started UO’s Nike-fueled revolution, the worst locker room on campus wasn’t the one used by rivals.
“Our home locker room was in the bowels of the stadium,” Belotti said, recalling a coaches’ “cubicle” that was so small that the staff had to take turns changing clothes and then take turns holding their position meetings in the concrete hallway. “I want to make sure I’m being clear with you here. When I say the bowels of the stadium, I mean that literally.”
In 1988, Brooks gathered the Ducks for a pregame speech that he hoped would be the final bit of motivation needed to get the perennial also-ran program in gear toward a better future. As Brooks felt his best Knute Rockne words flow from his lips, something else started flowing into the room at the team’s feet. It was raw sewage coming back up through the toilets. Three seasons later, Oregon christened a new locker room for the home team.
So what happened to the bowels?
“That became the visitor’s locker room,” Belotti replied, without an ounce of regret.
Flipping facilities to send a message works both ways. Texas received a ton of offseason attention when its lavish home locker room at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium was unveiled, with 43-inch flat screens over each locker. The Longhorns’ extreme makeover cost a reported $10 million, the 126 lockers running $8,700 each. However, when new head coach Tom Herman found himself unimpressed with the efforts of his team during preseason practice, he conjured up the most brutal of punishments.
He made his team use the visitor’s locker room.
“I came in one day, and there was trash on the floor of the players’ lounge,” the first-year coach recalled earlier this season. “I took video of it and said, ‘OK, you don’t deserve to be in the nice room. So, guess what? You get to stay in the visitor’s locker room.’ That’ll teach ’em.”
So will Jim Harbaugh’s recent rant for better conditions behind enemy chalk lines mean an end to “accidental” burnt fuses, “forgetting” to vacuum the indoor/outdoor carpet after the dog mascot uses it for a bathroom or installing two-way windows to provide better ventilation?
It appears to be just as likely as Harbaugh donning scarlet and gray and singing the “Buckeye Battle Cry.”
“Listen, no one is ever going to do anything to harm a kid,” Leach said in between personal tales of SMU “slicking up” the stairs that led to their outside-the-Ford Stadium facilities and having to climb atop lockers to address his team at Baylor’s now-demolished Floyd Casey Stadium. “But they might make them sweat a little more than they’d like. And I might make you sweat a little more when you come to see me.”
Dooley gets the final word, sounding an awful lot like his old friend Hayden Fry whenever he was asked about Kinnick Stadium’s pinkaliciousness.
“If I’ve got you thinking about air conditioning, narrow staircases and a stinky latrine, then guess what? You aren’t thinking about how you’re going to beat me. And that’s the whole point.”