American College Football at Croke Park this Summer

The Croke Park Classic is a big ticket item on the stadium fixture list this summer. Both Central Florida (UCF) and Penn State University are big names in American college football and are guaranteed to bring huge fanfare and significant travelling support. So, what brings these teams to Ireland and what is the American college game all about.

These sides will be following in the footsteps of teams like Notre Dame and Navy who played in Croke Park in 1996 and returned to Dublin in 2012.  The trip to Dublin will be significant for UCF and Penn State as it will be their first time playing outside the United States.  For the Penn State Nittany Lions, who have been around for 127 years, this makes for quite an occasion.  The UCF Knights do not have as long a history having first fielded a team in 1979, but an international fixture generates significant interest among fans.

American football may be the most popular sport in the United States, but efforts are being made to boost its popularity around the world, as evidenced by the ever expanding National Football League (NFL) International series of games in London.  Unlike the NFL, American college football is an amateur sport played by student athletes from universities, colleges and military academies.  The top college football players enter the NFL draft after their college careers in the hope of signing with a professional team but, for most, the end of their college days represents the end of their playing career.  

International fixtures give these colleges a chance to grow the exposure of their football programme.  Almost all colleges and universities in the US field football teams and have dedicated football stadiums.   Four sides have stadiums with capacity for over 100,000 fans.  Michigan Stadium is appropriately nicknamed ‘The Big House’ and is the largest stadium in the US with capacity for 109,901.  Beaver Stadium in Pennsylvania, home of Penn State, boasts capacity for 106,572 and is the fourth largest stadium in the world with an average attendance of 96,730 at 2012 season games.

Such capacities give an indication of the support base for the sport.  UCF and Penn State have huge support from current and former students.   College team support in the US is similar to county team support in GAA terms.  For graduates or alumni it matters not where you come from or where you go, your college is your team.  Penn State for example has 600,000 living alumni and ‘Homecoming’ events are held during the football season annually attracting graduates from around the world.

The weekly ritual attached to the games includes events such as pep rallies and tailgate parties.  Pep rallies are fan gatherings, mostly students, generally held the evening before the game to rally support for the team.  Tailgates, named because they typically take place around the open tailgates of vehicles parked in the vicinity of the stadium, are pre-game events where fans gather with friends and family to eat, drink, play games and discuss match.  These are important parts of the event and some parking spots around stadia carry high price tags paid by team donors or trustees.  

Large numbers gather to welcome the team squad to the stadium and once inside the spectacle begins with team warm up, marching bands, teams of cheerleaders and mascots all coming together to deliver a pre-game spectacle that would rival any live show.

American college football teams are arranged into athletic conferences.  These collections of teams play competitively against each other and often include teams from a common geographic region.  UCF belongs to a conference known as ‘The American’ while Penn belongs to the ‘Big Ten’.  The regular college football season goes from August to the end of November and includes just twelve games played on almost consecutive weekends.  

Both UCF and Penn State conferences play in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Unlike other divisions (Div I FCS, Div II and III), the FBS has no playoff structure and only features division championships and bowl games.  Bowl games are played post season and culminate in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship or final game which attempts to crown a single national champion.

A unique aspect of the game is the size of the squad.  Teams can have over 100 players and generally around 70 for a travelling squad.  55 would be on a game line up with only 11 players on the field at any one time. Teams can substitute any number of their players between downs, or periods when play transpires.  The game itself is best described in the way the players are organised – offensive, defensive and the kicking game.  The role of the offensive unit, which includes the Quarterback, is to advance the football down the field with the ultimate goal of scoring a touchdown. The defense unit is there to prevent the offense from scoring by tackling the ball carrier or by forcing turnovers or interceptions.  Finally the special unit is responsible for the kicking play.  

The logistics of bringing the game to Croke Park are numerous and dropping the American football pitch markings onto the hallowed turf will be just part of this.  The playing field measures 91 metres (100 yards) long by 48 metres (53 yards) wide with yard markers used to help players, officials and the fans keep track of the ball.  The most important part of the field is the end zone, the additional 10 yards on each end of the field where the points are scored by the offense. 

For the build-up of the game in August, it will take three days to paint the pitch at Croke Park and 20 people to remove the paint after the match ready for a GAA championship game the following day.  Around 200 litres of paint will be used!  The American football post size is 5.6m x 3m and 12m high compared to GAA posts which measure 6.5m x 2.44m and 13m high. The posts are fluorescent yellow and exactly the same as the posts used in the NFL.

On 30th August UCF and Penn State will be playing for the Dan Rooney Trophy, named after the former US ambassador to Ireland and Chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  A key player in the GAA’s redevelopment plans for Croke Park in the early nineties, Dan Rooney has been both a passionate fan of Gaelic Games and big supporter of the Association during his many visits and residence in Ireland over the last fifty years. 

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