Last weekend was supposed to be “ho-hum” for Division I-A college football, lacking marquee match-ups, intriguing storylines, and games of relevance to the National Championship picture. Too bad no one told Louisville, Iowa and Iowa State.
Oh, the beauty of college football! Just when it seems you can take a Saturday to catch up on sleep or finish a problem set, goal posts come down in Louisville and Ames; Penn State scores 22 points in eight minutes but loses in overtime; and Joe Paterno has it out with the referee. Is there really such a thing as “ho-hum” in college football? On any given weekend, anything can happen — just ask Bobby Bowden.
And that’s why we love it and fixate on it — young men battling for individual, school and regional glory. It’s a welcome diversion from reality. Baseball will forever be our national pastime — no matter how hard players and owners try to change that. But come late August, college football is our national passion, capturing our emotions, full of pride and pageantry.
To truly understand it, though, I have two words for you: road trip. Watching games in the friendly confines of your living room, chips in one hand, beer in the other, is one thing, but it cannot compare to being in a stadium full of “nuts.” While commentators tell part of the story, to actually get the rest of it one must see, taste and feel the culture that is college football. And with that in mind, I combined a little Willie Nelson (“On the Road Again”) with John Madden (“Madden Cruiser”), identified three venues promising intriguing differences, and “hit the road” for three successive September Saturdays. Road tripping: college football as it should be.
Connecticut — Husky Fever: UConn’s cozy Memorial Stadium overflowed for the season opener with Georgia Tech and, though basketball is king, Husky fans love their football. There was not an empty seat in the house, and when UConn finally scored after being shut out late in the fourth, you thought they had won the Super Bowl. Let’s just say “garbage time” is not part of their vocabulary.
Maryland — Fear the Turtle: The catchy slogan rules College Park. With Florida State in town, the environment was electric: thousands of fans deliriously rattling their keys on “key” plays and cat-calling the Florida State bench — even with their team down 30. And then there was “Special K,” perhaps the only gainfully employed professional baton-twirling, tee-shirt-hurling, caped male cheerleader in collegiate sports. Though the Tomahawk Chop ruled this night, 50,000 came to their feet when he led the cheers.
Tennessee — Volunteer Nation: There may be no place in the country with a greater football tradition than Knoxville, Tenn. The typical game day schedule: up at sunrise to anoint the day with the sound of Rocky Top and the raising of the UT banner; coordinating and then hosting a 1 p.m. tailgate with barbeque, beer, football on television, and music to go around; joining thousands of rabid fans, clad in orange and white and waving pom-poms, on the VolWalk at 5:30 p.m., to welcome the players and band to the stadium; and, finally, settling into the student section at about 6:30 p.m. to cruelly razz the players from the opposing team as they warm up. In Tennessee, it is all about the rituals.
The heavens opened on game day with the Florida Gators, but rain did not deter the Volunteer faithful from their weekly pilgrimage, by land or sea (more than 150 boats, comprising the “Vol Navy,” dock on the nearby Tennessee River for home games). One would count on Vol fans to be keenly aware of the scoreboard and the quality of play from their beloved, and they were. A five-minute stretch at the end of the first half, in which hanging onto the ball was too much for the UT players, ultimately proving their undoing, brought the “boo-birds” calling. Booing the home team? In Tennessee, perfection is expected.
Well, as far as I am concerned, a fan who (1) carefully studies the recruiting process; (2) paints his car orange and white; (3) names his child Smokey (in reverence to the UT mascot); (4) pays the university $10K to get on the list for season tickets and then $38 per ticket; (5) arrives in his RV or yacht on Tuesday for Saturday night’s game; (6) tailgates for six hours on game day; and then (7) sits through the driving rain, ought to be able to let both Coach Fulmer know what he thinks of the play-calling and the players know how they are ruining any hope of a national title. Tennessee football is religion.
As I boarded the plane to return to the Law School’s hallowed halls, my world began to refocus. Wins and losses were already beginning to fade, giving way to the pomp and circumstance of festivities laced in religious fervor, that inimitable sea of orange — 108,000 strong — belting out Rocky Top, the cute coed who tried to hit on me (I think she was drunk), and the incomparable deluge that finally lifted in the fourth quarter.
And reluctantly, my tired emotional system sensed an awakening of another reality: Monday morning class.
Under-slept and bleary-eyed from the weekend, I stumbled into the lecture hall, unread for the day’s discussion but curiously unfazed. I had reconciled a bigger picture — on certain fall weekends, in the heart of certain cities, athletes come to play and loyal fans come to cheer in a moment of diversion. And on successive September Saturdays, I was able to lose myself in those moments of diversion — enjoyable, intense, adrenaline-soaked diversion.
This Saturday, our beloved Yale Bulldogs, off to a great start this season, take on Holy Cross at the Bowl. My recommendation: don’t wait to read about it in the papers — take a little “road trip” and experience the game firsthand. Allow yourself a moment of diversion to imbibe the culture that is college football. Who knows, you just might fall in love with it.