Coolest venue I've ever seen? I'm going off the board, Alex Trebek, up to Collegeville, Minn. -- Lake Wobegon is somewhere close by, I'm told -- to the house John Gagliardi built. Sitting on a converted cranberry bog (the Benedectine monks who run this place are nothing if not resourceful), Clemens Stadium, a.k.a. The Natural Bowl, is an eye-pleasing amphitheater that is home to St. John's University, where you will find the most magical football program in the country.
Now entering his 60th season as a college head coach, John -- he insists his players call him "John," not "Coach" -- is college football's winningest head man, with 453 victories. It's fitting that that the bulk of those wins should have taken place in this charming park. Clemens Stadium is sheltered by a cordon of swayed pines, and lies in the shadow of the pierced concrete Bell Banner lording over the abbey church -- a reminder of whom runs this place. (St. John's is run by the Benedictine monks who live in its abbey, and at whose pleasure Gagliardi serves.) On Johnnie football Saturdays the bleachers fill with sweatshirted alums, "Bennies" from nearby, all-female St. Benedicts, and Benedictines, some of them still rocking the old-school black robes, all of them, in my experience, equipped with strong opinions on whether or not Gagliardi made the right call on a crucial fourth and short.
As kickoff nears and 7,500-plus fans fill Clemens, the heavenly aroma of Johnny Bread fills the air. Baked by monks that morning, it is sold at the stadium entrance. Then come the Johnnies themselves, whose calisthenics belie their coach's profound mistrust of football's more hidebound traditions. The last time I saw a game there, the captains started the team off with something called "Mary Catherine Gallagher Superstar Lunges, wave-like fashion, left-to-right."
I was one of the 13,000-plus souls crowding the old bowl that day -- Nov. 8, 2003 -- watching Gagliardi scratch out his record-setting 409th victory, a cardiac-arresting, 29-26 triumph over an excellent Bethel team. Two games later the Johnnies came from behind to beat dynastic Mount Union in the D-III title game. Gagliardi's third national championship was one of the best football games I've ever seen, diminished only a tiny jot by the fact that it took place in the Stagg Bowl and not the Natural Bowl.
2. Notre Dame StadiumEven when the echoes are in deep REM sleep, as in '07, it's nothing less than a privilege to take in a game in the House that Rockne Built. From the welcoming home crowd to the impossibly glorious tradition to the ambient architecture -- the Basilica to the Grotto to the Word of Life Mural (a.k.a. Touchdown Jesus) -- this place is without peer. Just ask a Domer.
3. Lambeau Field, Green BayAt no stadium is the past more alive, the connection to yesterday's heroes more palpable, than the Frozen Tundra. No tradition better illustrates the stout bonds between a team and its constituents than the Lambeau Leap. I once covered a Packers game that took place, I believe, the day after Wisconsin's deer opener. Lambeau was a riot of green, gold and blaze orange. I said it then and will say it again: I love this place.
4. Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.I've been to Athens and Tuscaloosa; Rocky Top and Tiger Stadium, but honestly, the most malevolent SEC crowd I've ever heard gathered in Auburn's orange canyon. (It was October 6, 2006: the home team upset defending national champion Florida, 27-17). I'm partial to the Tigers unis, their battle cry (War Eagle!) and to the spine-tingling, pre-game flight of Nova, an actual golden eagle. And I never tire of the sight of a rolled Toomer's Corner.
5. Three Rivers Stadium, PittsburghA toast to that lost generation of charmless, multi-purpose bowls: your Vets, your Riverfronts, your Three Rivers stadiums. Homely and disposable as they were, ratty and ligament-rending though their artificial turf may have been, they were repositories of terrific memories. Here's one: two days before Christmas in 1972, Steelers rookie Franco Harris tiptoed down the sideline with a game-winning touchdown in the AFC title game. I was there, along with my father and brother, Chris, who'd kill me if I left Three Rivers off this list.