The 25 Best Colleges for Sports Lovers
It’s no secret that colleges often breed lifelong sports fans. Whether they were players or spectators, alumni share common team traditions, memories of against-all-odds victories, and a connection they’ll cherish for years.
Of course, MONEY would never advocate choosing a school based solely on gridiron greatness or Olympic medal hauls. That’s why it partnered with Sports Illustrated to compile a list of great colleges for students who love sports—but who also want a high-quality, affordable education that positions them for career success.
To build this list, we began with colleges that made the cut in MONEY's annual Best Colleges ranking, which scores schools on affordability, academic excellence, and career outcomes. Then we added 15 sports-specific data points and split them into two buckets: athlete opportunities and fan experience. (Read a full breakdown of the methodology here.)
The results? A mix of familiar big-time schools and smaller colleges that are less known for their sports prowess, but no less competitive at their level. In other words, there’s a college for sports lovers of all types. — Kaitlin Mulhere, MONEY
Before the fourth quarter of football games, Camp Randall Stadium literally shakes as 80,000-plus fans jump around to, well, “Jump Around,” the rap anthem from House of Pain. Lively Madison is one of the country’s best good-time college cities, whether you stroll the farmer’s market circling the state capitol building in warmer months or walk iced-over Lake Mendota in the winter. Football (three Big Ten titles since 2011) and men’s basketball (Final Four trips in ‘14 and ‘15) are regular contenders boasting tremendous home-game atmospheres. With a top-100 federal student athlete grad rate, the school also does serious pursuits almost as well as fun. — Brian Hamilton
With total undergraduate enrollment under 10,000, Boston College and its sports scene are known for their intimacy and family feel. The Eagles can thank Doug Flutie and his 1984 Hail Mary for that, as they established a football tradition that’s marked by a close-knit alumni base that turns up to tailgate, even with the team missing bowl berths in three of the last six seasons. That makes the pregame scene a communal (and tipsy) one outside the aptly named Alumni Stadium on Saturdays. Throw in a much-loved hockey team that’s made the Frozen Four 10 times since 2000 (and won it all in four of those years), and there’s plenty for Eagles fans to cheer. — Joan Niesen
At first glance, Lafayette College of Easton, Pa., offers the usual array of athletic choices to its 2,450 students. There’s football, basketball, soccer, baseball and softball among its 22 varsity teams. One sport stands out: Lafayette is one of the few schools that offers fencing, fielding a men’s team and a women’s team. How rare is that? In a 35-year period starting in 1981, the number of men’s teams across the country fell from 79 to 34 and the number of women’s teams fell from 76 to 43. Elsewhere, Lafayette’s football team has met arch-rival Lehigh 152 times, the most of any Division I rivalry. Lafayette lost 45-21 in the most-recent meeting but leads the overall series 78-69-5. — Mike Harris
Want to know how big sports are on Colgate’s campus? Talk to five students—odds are one of them is a Raiders varsity student-athlete. Despite a total enrollment of under 3,000 students, Colgate boasts 25 Division I teams. And true to its strong liberal-arts roots, Colgate posts a federal grad rate of 89%, fifth-best among all D-I schools. The Raiders are a force in Patriot League football, winning eight league titles since joining in 1986. Just don’t bring up the ‘32 season; it’s still a bit of a sore subject after Colgate went undefeated and didn’t give up a single point yet was snubbed by the Rose Bowl. — Colin Becht
How do you find Clemson? Just exit from Interstate 85 in Anderson, S.C., and follow the tiger paws painted on the road. The home of college football’s reigning national champion is a leafy, hilly campus on the shores of Lake Hartwell. The centerpiece of the athletics complex is Memorial Stadium, better known as Death Valley. It's home to the most exciting entrance in college football. Clemson players rub Howard's Rock at the top of the hill behind the east end zone and then charge down the hill, ready to face their next opponent. After each game, fans take the field to "meet at the paw" painted on the 50-yard line. — Andy Staples
To attend Texas is to worship at the altar of Bevo, the famed and downright gargantuan Longhorn mascot now in his 15th iteration. Football games in Austin are one mass of burnt orange, cowboy boots and "hook ’em" hand signs, a ceremony performed to the tune of “Texas Fight.” The team has won four national titles, but beyond the hallowed confines of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, UT prides itself on its women’s athletics and Olympic-program sports, which consistently play to packed houses. Then there’s the weather to consider—at the Longhorns’ final football game in 2016, the high was 66 degrees—and barbecue, which needs no further explanation. — J.N.
Princeton’s devotion to athletics may best be encapsulated by the quiet of its classrooms every afternoon. With nearly one in every four students participating in varsity athletics, Princeton doesn’t hold classes from 4:30 to 7 p.m. to avoid practice conflicts for the school’s 37 varsity teams. Something is working, as the school has won 203 national titles and boasts both a Heisman Trophy winner (Dick Kazmaier) and a Bill Bradley-led Final Four team. The school in 2014 ended a 41-year streak with at least one national champion, be it individual or team. If heartbroken by that, take solace in the No. 1 academic ranking. — Pete Thamel
Ohio State’s enduring draw will always be its juggernaut football program, which is 61-6 in Urban Meyer’s five seasons. An astounding 28,808 students hold season tickets, giving Ohio Stadium in Columbus one of the most electric environments in the country. Outside those fall Saturdays, the entire campus bustles with activity. More than 2,500 students play in 60 club sports and OSU has captured national championships in men’s basketball, swimming and more. The school offers 738,500 square feet of indoor recreation space, which means you don’t need to be running down on kick coverage in the Horseshoe to get swept up in the campus athletic vibe. — P.T.
With no men’s professional sports teams in Connecticut, UConn men’s hoops is a major draw for sports fans in the state. The Huskies have won two men’s national titles this decade, tied with Duke for the most during that span. But the school’s women’s program has been even more successful. Coach Geno Auriemma’s squad has won more than 100 consecutive games and will be a heavy favorite to win another national title this year. For students hoping to enjoy good basketball, there may not be a better choice than UConn. — Chris Johnson
The perfect weather and easy access to one of the nation’s largest cities is probably enough to entice most students to enroll at USC, but another of the school’s biggest points of attraction is its football team. The Trojans are a national powerhouse with a long track record of success. For gridiron enthusiasts eager to spend fall Saturdays watching games, it’s hard to beat a sunny afternoon at the Coliseum. — C.J.
Before Wrigley Field had ivy, Georgia had the hedges. Privet hedges have surrounded the football field at Sanford Stadium since 1929, and ever since, boys in the Peach State have grown up dreaming of playing between them. The school that produced Frank Sinkwich, Herschel Walker and Matthew Stafford sits in one of America’s great college towns. Dozens of restaurants and bars populate the downtown and Five Points areas—both a short walk from campus—and the Bulldogs love to throw a party whether they’re preparing for a football game or celebrating a win by the GymDogs, the women’s gymnastics program that won seven national titles between 1998 and 2009. — A.S.
Maryland’s men’s basketball program is renowned for its long history of success in the ACC. The program has continued to shine since joining the Big Ten in 2014, a move that ensures the Terrapins will host a handful of quality opponents at the Xfinity Center in College Park every year. Maryland hasn’t won a national championship since 2002, but the program routinely makes the NCAA tournament and ranks in the top 25 of the major polls. Few schools offer better environments for hoops zealots keen on watching a winning program in one of the nation’s top conferences. — C.J.
While moving from the Southwest Conference to the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA the Owls’ dominance in baseball never slowed. They claimed conference titles in all but one year from 1996–2015 and appeared in the College World Series seven times during that stretch, including one national championship in ‘03. Despite being one of the smallest schools in the FBS, Rice has also won eight conference championships in football, most recently a Conference USA title in ‘13. Not bad for one of the top academic schools in the country. — C.B.
Bright lights, big city and plenty of Hollywood flair make the Westwood campus a must-visit destination. The Bruins ooze tradition, talent and are good at basically everything: UCLA boasts 113 total NCAA team championships, more than any other school in the Pac-12. Take your picture next to the John Wooden statue outside legendary Pauley Pavilion, watch the resurgent Bruins basketball team and then head across town to watch any of the local pro sports teams (Lakers, Clippers, Rams, Kings, Dodgers or, soon enough, Chargers). — Lindsay Schnell
The school may be buried in rural Hanover, N.H., but Dartmouth has one of the most unique nicknames (The Big Green), a most unusual and unofficial mascot (Keggy the Keg) and a sterling academic reputation. The Big Green check in at No. 3 in the student athlete ranking, the highest of any Ivy League school evaluated for this project (they trail only Stanford and Trinity College). While Dartmouth’s football and basketball teams usually finish toward the bottom of the Ivy League, its baseball team is one of the finest in the Ivy League. Alumni include Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who finished second in last year’s NL Cy Young voting, and Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. — Gabriel Baumgaertner
Bowdoin is a small liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine. It doesn’t have many students. Only 1,806 were enrolled for the fall 2016 semester, according to the school’s website. But athletically, there’s plenty for those students to do. The NCAA Division III (no athletic scholarships) Polar Bears field 31 varsity teams, making its program one of the biggest in the nation across all divisions (only 16 schools offer as many as 30 teams). Among its variety of offerings: Nordic skiing for men and women, co-ed sailing, squash for men and women and, of course, ice hockey for men and women. — M.H.
Yale took college basketball by storm last year by winning its first Ivy League tournament in 54 years, upsetting Baylor for its first-ever NCAA tournament win and nearly knocking off Duke in the next round. Its ice hockey program has emerged as a recent force under head coach Keith Allain and won the national championship in 2013. And don’t forget about its long-standing football and regatta rivalry with Harvard. — G.B.
One of the nation’s finest liberal arts schools, Middlebury is one of the top DIII athletic programs in the nation—typically ranking at the top of the New England Small College Athletic Conference in soccer, tennis, hockey as well as lacrosse, field hockey and skiing. Ironically, the Panthers had a school-wide ban on NCAA participation until 1994. The school owns the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, which is one of two college-owned ski areas in the nation and hosts ski races throughout the winter. Middlebury also has one of the best student participation rates in college athletics, with 27% of the student body playing a varsity sport. — G.B.
Florida is that rare school where football and basketball rule, evidenced by a period between 2006 and ‘08 when the Gators’ football and men’s basketball teams won two national titles apiece. The crowds at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (Nickname: The Swamp) and Exactech Arena are among the nation’s rowdiest. Students can celebrate wins or drown the sorrows of losses at The Swamp (the bar, not the stadium), The Grog House or the Salty Dog. And while some schools keep their mascots in a cage, multiple versions of Florida’s mascot swim freely in Lake Alice on the southwestern edge of campus. Just don’t feed the Gators. — A.S.
You probably know about Tar Heels basketball, but the true powerhouse program at North Carolina in Chapel Hill is women’s soccer. With 21 national championships to its name, UNC’s women’s soccer program has won more titles than any other women’s program in the country in any sport. Of course the men’s basketball program isn’t too shabby either, boasting an NCAA-best 18 Final Four appearances and notable alumni like that talented small forward from Wilmington, N.C., Michael Jordan. There are few bigger events on the sporting calendar than UNC–Duke, a historic hardwood rivalry in which the Tar Heels hold the edge in the all-time record. — C.B.
There are few prettier settings than the campus at Virginia in Charlottesville, and it has the high-end athletic experience to match. The school has won six NCAA titles and 21 ACC championships in the last five years and finished in the top 20 in the Director’s Cup each of the last 10 years. Even the student section is something to cheer for, as the vaunted “Hoo Crew” won the 2014 Naismith Student Section of the Year. They take intramurals and club sports seriously enough in Charlottesville that there’s a $12.4 million squash facility. And who could resist entering an intramural Cornhole tournament? Overall, it’s quite the scene. — P.T.
Duke athletics can be summed up with a building: Cameron Indoor Stadium. The 9,314-seat, 77-year-old stone venue is hallowed ground in college basketball, and its size has given birth to perhaps the greatest ritual in college sports. In order to gain admission to big games, students erect tents outside of the stadium in what’s known as K-Ville (short for Krzyzewskiville), camping by a strict set of rules for weeks at a time. It’s worth it; Duke has won five national championships, two since 2010. But the Blue Devils are more than just hoops. Despite the traditional football tailgate—which involved elaborate costumes and low attendance to the actual game— being outlawed in 2010, under coach David Cutcliffe the team has earned a bowl berth in four of the past five seasons. — J.N.
The epicenter of Michigan athletic culture is 107,601-seat Michigan Stadium, with the mad genius of Jim Harbaugh lifting a bellwether Big Ten football program back to prominence. But Michigan has six national championships since 2000 in non-revenue sports and its men’s basketball team played for a title in 2013, all while the sports program as a whole posts a student-athlete graduation rate of 80%, 20th among all D-I schools. Ann Arbor’s downtown and its 157 municipal parks make it a place worth visiting for fans, and it’s a mere 45-minute drive to Detroit and the three pro teams (NFL’s Lions, MLB’s Tigers, NHL’s Red Wings) who have downtown homes there. — B.H.
Notre Dame prides itself on being different. Saturdays hit all the big notes of tradition, faith and community: The staunchly independent football team plays in a stadium with four statues of former coaches outside its gates, a reflection of 11 national championships won, and a massive mural of Jesus visible to the north. Meanwhile, athletes graduate from a top-20 university at a rate of 98% (per the NCAA’s graduation success metric) and largely enjoy broad success. Since 2000, Notre Dame women’s basketball has reached six Final Fours and won one national championship, while soccer, lacrosse, hockey and fencing teams account for six other national titles and seven national semifinal appearances. — B.H.
If you value the student-athlete, then you’ll love being on The Farm. You’re just as likely to come across the next tech genius as an Olympian (hi, Katie Ledecky!) as you stroll across the gorgeous Palo Alto campus, where the sun is often shining but not overpowering. Football coach David Shaw, who just completed his sixth season, once said that the lack of fanfare surrounding his team, which he’s led to three Rose Bowls, is understandable because at Stanford everyone is doing something extraordinary. Need a pro football fix? Levi’s Stadium, where the 49ers play, is just a 20-minute drive down the highway. — L.S.