Despite injury risk, college students still relish tearing down goal posts

It's a hallowed, time-honored tradition in college football. When the local team unexpectedly wins a game or snaps a long losing streak, jubilant fans race onto the field to sacrifice the goal posts.

While fans see the tradition as a lighthearted way to celebrate a victory, athletic department officials and security guards see injuries, arrests and lawsuits when people start swarming the goal posts.


But goal posts continue to come down on a regular basis at colleges around the country, including last weekend when Virginia Tech fans celebrated their team's victory over Virginia.

Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association wants to tear them down. Or at least change them.


Early next year, NCAA representatives will discuss making college goal posts narrower and taller to conform to National Football League-size goal posts. Current college goal posts are about 6 feet wider than those in the NFL.

Despite the possibility of serious injury, fans don't seem to think twice about attacking the goal posts.

* Students at Northwestern in 1981 tore down the posts, tossed them over the top of the stadium and threw them into Lake Michigan.

* Georgia Tech students watching the game between their team and then-No. 1 Virginia at Charlottesville, Va., on television this season went to Grant Stadium in Atlanta and tore down the posts.

Getting a goal post down really is not that difficult for the average college student.

Murray Goodman, owner of Florida-based Tele-Goal, said the posts come down when about a dozen students start yanking on them. Although Goodman stands to make more money when the posts are brought down, he does not care for the tradition.

"When fans get out of control, I equate it with being worse than if the players started fighting on the field," he said.

While modern-day college and professional goal posts are made out of aluminum, they still weigh about 1,000 pounds. It takes at least three men to lift and put the uprights and crossbars into their cement base during installation. That weight coming down can injure those near the post.


Although no one knows for sure which school started the tradition or when, fans have been pulling down goal posts since they were wooden and situated on the goal line rather than 10 yards beyond.

In October 1989, Texas fans at the Cotton Bowl tore down the goal posts to celebrate a come-from-behind win over Oklahoma, which snapped a five-year victory drought against the Sooners.

Goal post destroyers tend to come from schools that are persistent losers, like Northwestern. The Wildcats reel off losing streaks at about the same rate that Notre Dame does winning streaks.

But twice this year, the goal posts at Dyche Stadium in Evanston, Ill., have come down: once when Northwestern beat Northern Illinois to snap a 14-game losing streak, and again when the Wildcats beat Wisconsin, giving them their first Big Ten victory in two seasons.

The wildest incident occurred in 1981, when Northwestern broke an NCAA record by losing its 29th straight game. The fans celebrated the occasion (the team eventually lost 34 games) by tearing down the posts and carrying them to the top row of the stadium.

About 400 students pulled down the posts. Two dozen of them broke off the uprights and carried the crossbar and base to the top of the stadium. While two students cleared people away below, the ones at the top threw the crossbar down.


They dragged the crossbar a half-mile to the home of the school's president, Robert Strotz, who was hosting an alumni cocktail party. The group started chanting, "We're the worst," and added a few expletives until Strotz came out.

Strotz replied: "We'll get them next year."

This further enraged the crowd. They carried the crossbar to the north beach of Lake Michigan and dumped it into the frigid waters.

Jim Sheffield, now director of facilities at Houston, but formerly at Northwestern, remembers the goal-post incident well. The next morning he donned a wet suit and waded into the 50-degree water to search for the missing posts. Nine years after the fact, he says he's still "compiling names and addresses" for possible revenge.

"It was cold, let me tell you, for a Texas boy," Sheffield said of his trek into Lake Michigan. "I didn't dive in because I couldn't see in the water anyway. So I tried to find them with my feet. I figured the students couldn't have drug them that far out in the water.

He found the goal posts and had the Northwestern machine shop get them back into shape for an upcoming high school playoff.


While many laugh at the tradition, it has a serious side.

In 1983, Harvard clinched a share of the Ivy League title by beating rival Yale. Fans pulled down the goal posts and a Harvard student was hit by one of the uprights.

She sued Yale and the city of New Haven, Conn. The suit was settled in her favor, but the judge sealed the amount of the damages she was awarded.

When Sheffield salvaged Northwestern's goal posts, he made sure they wouldn't come down at the school's next game.

"Top to bottom I greased them down," he said. "There was no way they would get them down again."