Tigers vs. Kansas State Wildcats
November 8, 2008
November 8, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 13th
At 10 p.m. on Tuesday, November 4th, Wolf Blitzer took center stage on the CNN set and announced that Barack Obama had been elected the 44th President of the United States. Following a gracious concession speech by John McCain and a brief moment in the sound-proof booth provided to all new Presidents so that they can scream “WOOOO! I CAN NUKE FRANCE!” Obama greeted his supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park. The warm night drew a quarter of a million supporters, the air crackling with energy and hope. I briefly considered attending, but knew that Oprah might be in the audience and didn't want her runny mascara to ruin a perfectly good shirt.
The next morning, it was impossible to find a Chicago newspaper. Sure, you can get news from the internet, but when a major story breaks the online experience lacks the permanence of an old-fashioned press run. And while you can take your laptop into the toilet, the screen doesn’t fold well.
So in the wake of the election, most citizens of Chicago were news-deprived about nearly everything else. Mid-afternoon, I received my first non-presidential headline in the form of a text from Tim “Buddy” May:
“Ron Prince out at K-State.”
Criminy. Mizzou has faced rashes of teams immediately after those squads’ head coach had stepped down, and history has shown the Tigers don’t handle ambiguity well. Former Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder announced he was hanging up his headset on November 15, 2005, and Missouri obliged his retirement party by handing him his first victory in the hurriedly-renamed Bill Snyder Family Stadium—only his second win in conference play that year. In 2006, Iowa State coach Dan McCarney pulled the same stunt, going public with retirement plans the weekend before the Cyclones played Mizzou. He didn’t get a stadium named after him, but his team won its only Big XII game, knocking the Tigers out of contention for the North division title.
Of course, there’s a pronounced difference between a coach stepping down and a coach being shitcanned with several weeks left in the season. From all reports, Ron Prince’s firing was, as college football icon Martha Stewart might say, a good thing. K-State drove its busses into Columbia sporting a 4-5 record, a three-game losing streak, and a stumbling performance against Kansas the weekend before. The Tigers only seemed to struggle against emotionally-charged teams, as when a beloved coach rode off into the sunset. Still, the K-State players might feel that they cost their coach his job. No telling what mental state the Wildcats would show up in. My hope was drunk and sleepy.
The Tigers had their own Klennex moment to contend with. November 8th marked Senior Day, the last appearance of the most successful class in terms of total games won in the school’s history. Twenty-three upperclassmen would run from the Faurot Field tunnel to embrace their coaches and parents. A touching, bittersweet moment, but nonetheless one followed by a proverbial “must-win” football game. Still, you had to like the Tigers’ chances. Against inferior teams—and K-State certainly qualified—they had proven about as emotional as professional assassins.
This would be my last trip of the year to Boone County—a dollop of blue surrounded by red on the election map and a school where the elite liberal media were taught to walk, talk, and lob cynical asides at Republicans. It also happened to be my birthday weekend. Far better as an alumnus than an undergrad, when my birthday seemed to always land the day before mid-terms. AD flew in from Los Angeles and I picked her and her 500-lb. suitcase up at Lambert Field in St. Louis. We made it to Columbia in time for a fancy-pants dinner at a restaurant called Sycamore. The temperature had dropped like a General Motors pension fund over the last 48 hours, and the wind whipped up to 20 mph. We followed my friend Heavy D’s edict of ordering the cheapest wine on the menu. There’s sound logic behind this: All dining establishments know that many patrons are on a budget yet still want a bottle of vino. It’s just good business for them to enjoy that bottle and want to return. Therefore, the cheapest wine on any upscale menu, without fail, is a carefully-selected one worth far more than its price would indicate. Still, any need for the vintage to “breathe” was trumped by my need to warm my belly as fast as possible.
I was doubly pleased to note that Sycamore offered a beet salad. A lot of my friends think beets taste like dirt, which draws into question how they came to that conclusion. I believe that beets can’t be beat. They’re full of vitamins and, besides, how many deep magenta foods do you get the opportunity to gnaw on? Bonus points to beta vulgaris for producing a far scarier special effect encore than asparagus.
Dessert arrived with a candle in it—the whole meal was AD’s treat. As I enjoyed my coffee and made my wish (a BCS bowl bid over something hard to measure like world peace), I glanced up just in time to see a Marching Mizzou trumpeter double-timing it down the sidewalk. I grabbed AD—she had paid, hadn’t she?—and double-timed it after the tardy soloist. Sadly, we arrived at Harpo’s just in time to hear the closing strains of the Missouri Fight Song coming from inside. Apparently lots of other band members missed the wake-up call, too, as there were several of them milling about outside with us. AD took it all in stride, assuring me that she caught the gist of the performance. She’s either incredibly low-maintenance or doesn’t give a stale beet about Marching Mizzou. Quite likely, both.
The next morning’s gray skies rolled in even colder. Over furnace-stoking hotcakes at the Broadway diner, the counter topic of choice involved the layering of clothes and an end to the near-perfect weather the Tigers had enjoyed thus far in the 2008 season. Tonight’s game would be contested in temperatures dipping well into the 20’s. This represented a drop of over 60 degrees from the previous week, with the stiff wind rendering lip balm and snot rags de rigueur. We browsed the Tiger Spirit store in search of a stadium blanket. I opted for the Mizzou plaid, “the official plaid of the Missouri Tigers.” Let it be noted that the official plaid of the Missouri Tigers features an Oklahoma crimson stripe, a KU blue stripe, and plenty of holiday evergreen. Maybe there’s some obscure tartan code that plaids must adhere to, but count me among the traditionalists who contend that Mizzou plaid should be black and gold on a white background, and that, in addition, there shouldn’t be something called “Mizzou plaid.”
AD asked me what I would normally do to kill time before a game. Um…er…that would be drinking. But with a post-game drive back to St. Louis in front of us, responsibility reminded me of just how much fun you can have on a college football weekend without alcohol: somewhere between “none” and “hardly any.” I strategically incorporated stops to Booches and Shiloh’s under the guise of warming up. We also made a hot chocolate run that made me pine for the peppermint schnapps of my undergrad days. Walking through Greektown toward the stadium, I felt confident that between the blanket and the four layers of clothing I wore—the bottom one comprised of cutting edge wicking material—there would be no problems with the weather.
The senior introduction went as expected, which is to say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (in fairness, some tears may have been triggered from the cold). Undergrad football players lined the field leading out from the tunnel and the parents of the seniors waited at the end of the run. Lonnie O’Neal, father of the late Aaron O'Neal, came out first, to an ovation that he did not or could not acknowledge. The three Chases—Daniel, Coffman and Patton—were each given their bleacher-rattling due. The crowd showed Jeff Wolfert just how much it appreciated his boring automatic placekicking. Athletes and parents mingled and hugged—as private moment within a public one. The next day’s papers would show the emotion contorting Coach Pinkel’s face as he put his hand on O’Neal’s shoulders and, moments later, embraced and sent his Heisman-candidate quarterback to the field for the last time.
As one could expect after such a ceremony, the game began sluggishly. Less expected was that it would remain that way. Daniel took a hit as he released his second pass—a long sideline patter—and the underthrown result was picked off. The Tigers punted on their second possession. On the third, the offense began moving the ball, maybe because their eyes were finally clear. The Missouri defense forced six first-half punts, one of which they blocked. The majority of the others forced Jeremy Maclin to call for a fair catch.
If Maclin was stymied on punts, he took it out everywhere else. Finding a seam in the defense, the speedster turned a modest pass into a 42-yard foot race, and he doesn’t lose those. On the next series, with the team’s big toe, Chase Coffman, on the sidelines nursing his big toe, Maclin did his best Chase imitation, snaring a 16-yarder while falling backward in the corner of the north end zone.
Mizzou chugged into halftime with a 21-point lead. My date looked increasingly blue, and I knew that I’d have to balance my desire to watch the Tigers annihilate an opponent with hers not to lose any appendages. I wrapped her tight in the Mizzou plaid blankie and headed for the bathroom. The men’s room line snaked out the door and down the concourse, no doubt slowed by the layers needing to be shed to take a squirt. It looked like a Flomax commercial casting call, and once inside the urine fumes could fell a rat. The experience got me to thinking, how bad can adult diapers really be? Based on the convenience factor alone, Depends would seem a wise game day decision at any age.
The third quarter unfolded in proper Mizzou-rah fashion with the team driving down to the six yard line, stalling, and kicking a field goal. 24 points up, and the Mizzou plaid blanket was creeping up higher and higher on AD’s face. If the Tigers could just score just once more, we could leave. The Wildcats punted. Then, the Tigers punted. Then the Wildcats punted again. Then the Tigers punted again. The wind swept through the stadium like an Apache attack copter. I looked out of the corner of my eye to see AD staring straight ahead, her eyes barely visible over the blanket, shivering.
Once upon a time, on the studio backlot used for Gilligan’s Island, we produced a commercial for Budweiser that required us to shoot at night. The script called for the main actor to be thrown into the lagoon and then resurface with a funny expression. Warm California days can turn into bone-chilling nights, and after a few dunkings the director pulled me aside and told me that the talent may be becoming hypothermic. My response was that actors are pussies and we needed another take or five.
I knew then that I would never see the actor again. In tonight’s situation, if we didn’t leave with a 24-point lead and 3 minutes left in the third quarter, I might never see AD again, and the choice would be hers, not mine.
Walking across campus, our brisk pace masked my desperation to get to a car radio. By the time we buckled up and tuned in, Jeremy Maclin had taken a direct snap from center and rushed 56 yards for a touchdown to start the fourth quarter. Maclin would finish the night with three touchdowns and 278 all-purpose yards. The red-shirt sophomore may as well have run out with the seniors—projected as a first-round NFL draft pick, this was probably his last game in Columbia.
Warm as toaster waffles and barreling down interstate 70 ahead of the crowd, the biggest surprise left in the game was when Ron Prince, the lame-duck Kansas State head coach, called for an onside kick while trailing 41-17 with just over a minute left. Bold strategy, Coach Cleats. Don’t let the angry mob of alumni kick you in the ass on your way out.
Back in St. Louis, we found a late-night kitchen open in the Central West End. AD, her lovely form somewhere in the 98-degree range again, toasted the official advancement of my age at midnight. We crashed in the Union Station hotel, slept in, and scarfed down pancakes and bacon in bed the next morning.
Under any circumstances, getaway day is best done quickly. I dropped AD off and trudged to my gate.
There’s a scene in “Defending your Life” in which Albert Brooks’s character rationalizes his decision to spend his birthday by himself.
Brooks: You were born alone, you should celebrate it—celebrate aloneness. That’s what birthdays are for.I bought an airport turkey sandwich and sat down to wait for Southwest flight 2838. The skies remained overcast, and for the first time all weekend I felt old. Albert Brooks is right.
Friend: Gee, I never thought of that.
Brooks: It’s a pitiful theory.