Thursday, November 27, 2008
The week after the Iowa State game, the Tigers received the Big XII North championship trophy at their practice facility, Devine Pavilion. Actually, they received it in the mail, and then Athletic Director Mike Alden rode into practice, rearing his trusty white steed on its hind legs, and made the presentation. The Big XII conference office in Dallas had shipped it in an old Amazon.com box packed with kettle corn collected from the aisles at the Cotton Bowl.
The Big XII North division trophy was mailed because Mizzou won it a week before the season ended. But it’s apparently against league policy to let the trophy (estimated value one gajillion dollars) go traipsing around the country on a hunch. They wait until it’s official. So the only question was when the Tigers would receive their booty (the trophy kind, not the coed variety). If the trophy was presented before the final game, it could motivate the opposing team. The Jayhawks hate the Tigers already, and seeing shiny objects sets off their primitive, Geico caveman brains. If the trophy was presented after the final game and the Tigers lost it, everyone involved would feel sort of sheepish. And if the trophy was presented after Mizzou trounced Kansas, then the team might be tempted to say, “Hey, trophy presenter dude—How about epoxying a little auxiliary trophy to this one?”
So the Big XII pretty much had to mail it.
Without much resistance on my part, I got talked into attending the Northwestern-Illinois game on Bye Week Saturday. After driving 750 miles the Saturday before, the nine-mile trek to Evanston in David R’s Saab felt the definition of a piece of cake. Plus, his car smelled like the scrumptious Popeye’s fried chicken we drove with for about seven of those miles. I dedicated years of student loan payments to Northwestern graduate school, so they’re my Big Ten team, and the chance to watch the Illini losing twice in one year represented a plum opportunity. David R.’s Georgia Bulldogs had the week off, too, so we could both enjoy the Wildcats without the colon gurgles. The ’Cats obliged by TCB’ing, clamping down a tenacious D on Juice Williams and the University of Blue, Orange, and Dull. A pleasant day, thanks in no small part to Toastie Toes™ foot warming appliqués.
Northwestern finished the season at 9-3, and appeared headed for something like the Alamo Bowl. Not necessarily the Alamo Bowl per se, but a mid-level bowl run by upstanding individuals in matching blazers. Which led me to a few bye week observations.
(BYE WEEK #2) OBSERVATION #1: The BCS system should be blown up real good.
BCS stands for “Bowl Championship Series,” but “Butt Chafing System” may fit better. Its sole purpose for existence is to pit the #1 team in the country against the #2 team in the country in a national championship game, a task it completes competently every five years or so, and then only by accident. That’s because, without any sort of playoff, college teams' fortunes are largely determined by the votes of coaches and sportswriters, as well as waiters, hobos and skateboarders. The rankings kinda sorta reflect the various teams’ records, except that the conferences don’t play each other, so they kinda sorta don’t, either. On their best day, college football polls represent a collective, educated shrug.
Compounding matters, some of the conferences (the SEC and the Big XII) stage a league championship game, while other major conferences (the Big Ten and the Pac-10) have none. Voters, many engorged with decision-imparing refined sugar products, historically penalize teams from “no championship game” conferences and reward teams from “championship game” conferences—unless a team loses their championship game, in which case they’re penalized even more than a team that didn’t make the championship game at all.
Confused? Here’s an example that’s as clear as a fogged-up helmet visor. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma were all tied for the lead in the Big XII South Division. Texas had beaten Oklahoma by 10, Texas Tech edged Texas with one second remaining, and Oklahoma slipped past Texas Tech by 437 points (more on that later). If the teams remain deadlocked, none of the normal tie-breakers would apply. The only way to break the split would be the BCS rankings, meaning that the coaches of those teams had to lobby for votes like their bonuses depended on it. Which, of course, they did.
How stupid is the BCS system? The evening before the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama appeared on Monday Night Football and declared that college football needed a playoff system. This was a candidate for the highest office in the land, with a sizeable lead in the polls, and at time when he dared not court any controversy. And yet he decided less than 24 hours before Americans would cast their ballots that it was completely safe to come out against the BCS.
Was there a silver lining in this massive goat fuck? There was, as sure as bowl reps are old white guys. If the three teams in the South remained tied, little ol’ Mizzou would blow the BCS system to smithereens if they won the Big XII Championship. If that happens, the money-grubbing bowl weebles in matching blazers would be jumping out of their sky boxes at Arrowhead Stadium, and I would be there to laugh and celebrate and not catch them.
(BYE WEEK #2) OBSERVATION #2: Pimpin’—and coachin’—ain’t easy.
A few weeks after Ron Prince got pink-slipped at Kansas State, legendary control-freak Bill Snyder unretired at age 69 to pull a headset over his three remaining hairs. Snyder, who’s about as much fun as a dose of shingles, talked dourly about "family" at his levity-free press conference. “The important thing is to smooth the waters and draw the K-State family back into a true family,” he lectured. He mentioned that his own family suffers when he gets involved with football. Judging from his demeanor, my guess would be that they suffer when the miserable bastard’s home, too. Given his micro-managing megalomania, maybe when Bill says “family,” he means the Godfather type. In any event, we’ll all tune in next year to watch Bill Snyder lose in front of both the K-State Bill Snyder family and the immediate Bill Snyder Family at the (named-by-Bill-Snyder) Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Like the occasionally razor-thin baseball free-agent class, there weren’t many high-profile coaches available as the 2008 season wound down. Not that that stopped schools from tar and feathering the coaches currently in their employ. At Notre Dame, home of Touchdown Jesus and Extra Point Moses, fans prayed for their head coach to feel hell’s eternal flames licking at his pompous scrotum. Charlie Weis came to South Bend from the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots and pontificated (that’s what coaches do at Notre Dame) that his presence would provide the team with a pronounced “tactical advantage.” So blustery was he that after he’d won a handful of games the board of curators extended his contract to ten years. Now, he’s got seven years left and his team is competing with so little heart that their own fans pelted them with snowballs. The once-powerful Irish were faced with the prospect of buying out Weis’ remaining contract and trying to find a coach where no obvious candidate existed, as opportunisitic Chicago sportswriters began casting lots for the coach's sweat suit.
Amidst all the sideline tumult, I received a text from Cousin Jimmy: “Pinkel resigned????” All it took to calm him down was a hyphen. Pinkel re-signed. The University of Missouri Tigers tore up Gary Pinkel’s contract and wrote him a new one worth $2.3 million a year—virtually guaranteeing that Pinkel, who at 56 still rode a Harley and looked like he could, indeed, mess with Sasquatch—would finish his career at Mizzou. With twelve wins last season and nine so far in the 2008 campaign, the contract served as recognition of his turnaround of the Tiger program. For years, Missouri had been football enigma—a major conference school with no in-state rival and two large cities to recruit from that couldn’t get out of its own way. Under Pinkel, the program recalibrated its gimbals and fee-fi-fo-fumed into national relevancy.
Soon after the contract extension, a Pinkel naysayer blasted the decision on tigerboard.com. He got shouted down by a 24-1 posting margin. Tiger fans seemed to prefer keeping their current coach happy rather than risk foraging through the omniturf for a new one.
The whims of sport being what they are, chances are that Pinkel will coach an underachieving or losing team in the next seven years. But the Missouri board of curators recognized that, more than just winning at a higher percentage, Pinkel has elevated the program’s stature. There had been low-level rumblings about Pinkel filling a vacancy at the University of Washington, and Mizzou moved quickly to lock him up at the going rate for coveted head coaches. Any historian of Missouri Sports can attest that stability (Don Faurot, Dan Devine, Gary Pinkel) beats the pants off of turmoil (Woody Weidenhoffer, Bob Stull, and the drama poster-child, former head basketball Coach Quinn Snyder).
(BYE WEEK #2) OBSERVATION #3: The Oklahoma Sooners are the Antichrist.
When David R. dropped me off after the Northwestern game, our plan was to reconvene in a half-hour to watch the game of the weekend, Texas Tech at Oklahoma. But by the time my dog had slurped up the last delicious bits of offal from her bowl, the Sooners were well into putting on one of those show-offy smackdown performances that makes the BCS pollsters spray eggs. I would rather watch a Merchant and Ivory film marathon than surly OU head coach “Big Game Bob” Stoops preen on the sidelines like Napolean while his team disembowels an opponent (I'm being nice--he actually preens like Mussolini). No team runs up the score with such unmitigated glee like Oklahoma. If they scheduled a pee wee squad, I’m sure Stoops would find a way to justify practicing ball control and chop blocks on 8-year olds.
“Boomer Sooner” remains the most banal, overplayed, derivative fight song in the history of insipid sports theme music, the Boomer Schooner brings suffering and pestilence to law-abiding citizens everywhere, and human growth hormone gobbling Oklahoma players are paid under the table by crimson-faced, screaming boosters under the watchful eyes of NFL commissioner Roger Goodall. OK, I don’t have the evidence—yet—to back up some of those claims, but I am member in good standing of the mushroomingly popular facebook group “Bob Stoops hates puppies, Santa Claus, and sunshine.”
The Sooners remained scant percentage points behind Texas in the BCS poll, poised to leap frog them and face Missouri in the Big XII championship. They cannot be stopped. The are evil incarnate. My doomsday scenario was coming true.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Tigers vs. Iowa State Cyclones November 15, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 12th
Tiger AP ranking: 12th
The 2008 football season entered its 12th week in far less topsy-turvy fashion than the season before. Perennial powerhouses Texas, USC, Alabama and Florida beat their second-division brethren with the reassuring dependability of an atomic clock. Replacing the 2007 mayhem, the country’s economic meltdown provided the nation with its giant-fall-down-go-boom fix. The $700 million government bailout of financial institutions didn’t budge the credit market. The Big 3 Auto CEOs flew to Washington in private jets, groveling for a handout. Triple-digit Dow plummets became commonplace, leading to citizens reacting to “brokers with their head in their hands” photos with a collective, blasé shrug.
No longer did economists argue whether the nation was in recession. The D word got thrown around a lot, too. Across the U.S., people completely stopped buying cheap crap that breaks easily—a frightening prospect for retailers with the holiday season fast approaching.
An economic slowdown of gargantuan proportions calls for decisive action. My bold plan: to crap my drawers and stop spending money. The austerity program would begin with Missouri’s game against the Payless Shoe Store of the Big XII, Iowa State University.
There are lots of discretionary costs that can be cut from attending football games. Do you really need a cushy cushion and seat back? Cousin Jimmy would say yes, but the austerity program responds with “Bring a blanket, or sit your ass on the metal bleacher and take it.” Must you buy beer? Not if there’s an unattended cooler (code word "UC") in the tailgating lot.
The biggest single cost to attend an away game, of course, is travel. One downside of the Tigers’ recent popularity involved the late announcements of kickoff times. If a game took place in some god-forsaken outpost—let’s call it “Waco”—you didn’t know whether it would start at 11 a.m. or at 7 p.m. until after your travel plans were locked in. Often, the only viable option involved getting to town on Friday night and staying Saturday night. That was my plan—until the austerity program.
ISU and Mizzou were set to line up for yet another night game, this one kicking off at 5:30 p.m. I decided to drive from my lean-to in Chicago to Ames, watch the game, and drive back, all in the same day. According to Google maps, that’s 722 miles of my sexy America.
It may come as somewhat of a jolt that it’s not easy to find a driving companion for 361 miles of flatness each way to see a game in 20 degree weather where your team is a four-touchdown favorite. Heavy D turned me down. The Dude guffawed and asked if I was really going to drive both ways in one day. I assured him that the austerity program calls for sacrifice, and that driving a long distance in a warm car, on an interstate highway, does not equate with Evil Knievel jumping the Snake River Canyon.
The night before the trip I met up with David R. to discuss the automaker bailout. On the way there I left a message with another friend, on the hope that he might be prone to an impulse road trip. A text came back immediately:
“When are you driving tomorrow? I’m a big believer in helping pass highway time. And there are things we need to discuss."The hook had been set. I relayed the particulars, including the chilling but necessary “wheels up at 10 a.m.” part. My friend immediately switched to radio silence. By the time I asked David R. if he was interested, I wasn't even serious about it. After several beers, we concluded that bringing back the El Camino could well reverse America’s economic fortunes.
I loaded my M3 with warm weather gear and Trader Joe snacks and backed out of my garage into the borderline freezing weather. The possibility of snow never materialized save for some sparse flurries. As I drove down the Kennedy Expressway out of Chicago, I noted that gasoline in the city cost $2.95 a gallon. I am turning into my father.
Beside me sat the kitty. Not my friend Kitty—she laughed at the road trip idea, too—but rather an envelope containing four $20 bills, one $10, one $5 and five ones. On road trips, the kitty allows all the participants (me, in this case) to enjoy a jolly ride without thinking about money. The kitty works like any ante system: Everyone puts in the same amount, and then all group expenses are paid out of the kitty. If there’s money left over, it’s split evenly. If the money runs out, everyone re-kitties.
Once free of Chicago's gravitational traffic pull, I opened up the E46's 333 hp, heading west on I-88. The tollbooths began piling up by the buttload. That’s why you need the smaller kitty bills. I always take tolls as a sign that you can speed, because all of the law enforcement is concentrated around making sure that no one runs the toll gates. This reasoning gets me plenty of tickets.
Road trips on the austerity program require the purchase of gas in places like Rock Falls, Illinois, where it’s 87¢ less than Chicago. With the money you’ve saved, look for a deli with a reclining dill pickle on its logo and you're in for some fine road dining. Arthur’s Garden Deli in Rock Falls sells a turkey and cheddar sandwich that sets you back less than three large. The austerity program not only builds character, it includes haute cuisine, so long as you can eat it while driving. Excuse me, brother trucker, may I borrow your Grey Poupon?
After visiting some of the finest bars the Big XII has to offer, am I concerned about missing out on the nightlife of Ames? Not really, because Ames nightlife is pretty much an oxymoron. There’s rumor of a reverse curfew in Ames to encourage the townspeople to stay out past 8 p.m. Like the Missouri Tigers, executing my austerity game plan with a minimum of drama requires singular, pinpoint focus.
The drive across Iowa takes me past towns with names like What Cheer. The picturesque barns and golden fields may look boring to some, but I find them beautiful. Monet spent months in fields such as these, painting the same stack of hay at differing times of the year and different times of day. Many of us spend our days in ergonomic chairs, in antiseptic offices, and think artists crazy. Monet knew otherwise.
To get to Jack Trice stadium, you hang a Ralph at Des Moines. I didn’t allow myself much pre-game time, lest I be drawn into sin and depravity by the siren song of the Ames honky-tonks. Parking across the street from the stadium costs $15 and is worth every penny, because this is where you want to be prior to an ISU game. Ames proper may be duller than laundry day, but the opposite holds for the flood plain surrounding the field. ISU tailgaters always arrive in force, unorganized and spirited, many in team color striped bib overalls. As I pulled on my Soreil boots and trudged across the grass lot, I passed students shotgunning Bud Lights with one hand and heaving cornhole beanbags with the other (they missed on both ends). Their team hadn’t won a conference game, and the faithful could not have given less of a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Walking through the grinning, sometimes painted faces, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for fans who root only for frontrunners. Cyclone fans rock like a hurricane.
Dusk fell on a game day temperature that felt cold but not bitterly so, thanks to the modest wind. Important, because the stadium’s wedge design and sparse surroundings turn the slightest breeze into a whipsaw gale force. I tracked down Mizzou Alum Association President-elect Jackie Clark’s tailgate. Jackie's the Holly Golightly of tailgating, always showing up at the right party with a tiger boa and a joke. This gathering featured a 22-long converted hearse limo with gold pinstripes down the side and a life-sized tiger affixed to the roof. The beer, cheese and crackers were all gratis, fitting the austerity program budget like the Thinsulate gloves I was wearing.
The Iowa State Cyclones have been housed in the same conference as Missouri since 1908, but it’s a friendly rivalry. ISU posted losing records in 2006 and 2007, and at 2-8 coming into this game, they had locked up a third. But during that time they’d largely defanged the Tigers. In 2005, Mizzou quarterback Brad Smith got knocked woozy by the Cyclones, and a freshman named Chase Daniel had to come in off the bench to lead the team on two touchdown drives, salvaging a 27-24 OT win—the second year in a row the Tigers beat the Cyclones in overtime. In 2006, Mizzou provided ISU with its only conference win as a potentially game-winning touchdown was called back on a controversial holding call that the Big XII later admitted was a boo-boo. No matter the state of the Cyclone program, they seemed to play the Missouri Tigers even up. Head coach Gene Chizik (“the Chizzer”) was donning an official ISU stocking cap for his second year, and the fan base seemed genuinely excited about their young team. Between the cold weather and ISU’s weird voodoo that they do on ol’ Mizzou, it was difficult to find a Tiger fan expecting a blowout.
Stadiums named after people can generally be divided into two categories: those honoring benefactors and those where a legendary coach has been chiseled into the façade. Jack Trice was neither—he was the first black athlete to play for Iowa State. On October 6, 1923, the night before he started his first game, he wrote a letter. “Everyone is expecting me to do great things.” it read, “I will.” The next night he suited up against the University of Minnesota. Early in the game, he broke his collarbone. He continued to play, but was trampled by three Minnesota players. He still insisted that he could play but was removed from the contest. Trice died three days later from internal hemorrhaging. His legacy was sadly forgotten until ISU students discovered a dusty plaque commemorating him in the 1970s. A groundswell to rename the stadium gradually gained momentum, and in 1997 Cyclone Stadium was renamed Jack Trice Stadium—the only NCAA Division 1-A stadium honoring an African-American.
Jack Trice would have been proud of the effort his team exerted this cold November night. They hit hard, blocked well, pursued the play until the whistle blew, and several other coaching clichés that actually win football games.
But the Cyclones were also inexperienced and prone to mistakes. The Tigers took the field with the knowledge that Texas had methodically crushed Kansas earlier in the day, meaning that if Mizzou prevailed they’d clinch the Big XII North Title outright. The team played like they were in a hurry to claim it. Maclin returned the opening kickoff 37 yards to the 41. Daniel completed his first 16 passes. Early in the second quarter, Mizzou led, 14-0. The ISU student side, which never came close to filling up, began to empty. The smart money said that several shotgunning, cornholing tailgaters never made it inside.
This represented my first time viewing the new ISU uniforms in person. The team’s old uniforms fell just a mite short of the understated Penn State look. The pre-2008 red helmets featured a red cyclone with the head of a cardinal (the ISU mascot has been a cardinal for years, perhaps because dressing up an undergrad as a weather system is cost-prohibitive). The team used to bow to the temptation of wearing all red—or, officially, cardinal. Red jerseys, red pants, red helmets. If you think that might look clownish, bingo. But now the unis featured the retro-Iowa State combo of red jerseys and gold pants. Classic. So classic, in fact, that if you didn’t notice that the Cyclones jumped offside constantly, you might mistake them for the USC Trojans. Replacing the Cyclone on the helmet was the new “I STATE” logo. Unimaginative, but a boon to the merchandising department.
ISU did not go quietly into the soft, cold night. Early in the second quarter they picked Daniel off on a deflected pass that should have been caught. Three plays later, though, William Moore returned the favor, stepping in front of a receiver and batting the ball to himself, gliding in 17 yards to make it 21-0. For all practical purposes, that was the football game. But the Cyclones never let up, performing like a team that wanted desperately to improve. They moved the ball through the air—with the large deficit, they had no choice—and ended up posting 336 passing yards, only two less than the Tigers. Other than the precision of the Tiger passing game, the story of the night belonged to Derrick Washington. He averaged over 11 yards per carry, including one against the grain cutback for 52 yards, with Maclin providing an escort into the end zone.
At roughly 9 o’clock, Mizzou cornerback Carl Gettis intercepted the Cyclones again. With the score 45-20 and Missouri grinding out a final drive, it was time to start the long ride back. I skedaddled back to my car, beat traffic out of town, and loaded up on cheap gas and cheaper coffee as I listened to Mike Kelly and John Kadlec call the final minutes of the game through Sirius.
The winner of the Missouri-Iowa State game receives arguably the stupidest trophy in sports, the Telephone Trophy. It came into being following a cross up in the lines to the press box that allowed the coaches to hear each other’s plays during the 1959 game. The problem was fixed before the game started, but Ma Bell decided that their screw up was worthy of commemoration with a phone on a wooden block. The cradle of the phone is painted Mizzou colors on one side and Iowa State hues on the other. A trophy is a trophy, I guess, and the players embrace the weirdness.
More important, The Missouri Tigers had won the Big XII North title and would take on either Texas, Texas Tech, or Oklahoma in the championship game on December 6th. But the Big XII North trophy did not make the trip to Ames, so, boys, rally 'round the telephone.
For long stretches, I had 88/80 all to myself. I bumped up the cruise control and made the most of the fuzz’s absence. Even more tolls stood in my way than the front end of the trip, and the change rattled in the kitty envelope. Rolling into Chicago around 1:30, I trudged up my back stairs to greet my dog, Georgia. She is not on the austerity program, and had earned raw hamburger as a treat for her patience. I slumped in a chair and tallied the cost:
- Gas $57
- Tolls $12
- Lunch $3
- Parking $15
- Brat & hot chocolate $5
- Road coffee & sandwich $4
Friday, November 14, 2008
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.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
November 1, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 14th
Tiger AP ranking: 14th
With the 2008 presidential election careening to a resolution, the weight of the issues facing our nation could turn even Kelly Ripa into a scowling, venom-spewing Bea Arthur. But if the cluster fuck in the Mideast, the sharpest economic downturn since pelt trading, and a $700 billion taxpayer funded bailout package that may or may not bail anything out haven’t coaxed you out on the ledge yet, that can be remedied. Join me for a trip to Waco, Texas!
Ah, Waco. Home to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum (the law enforcement group, not the inept baseball team). Waco, where you’ll also find the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, featuring inductees like A.J. Foyt, Tom Landry, and Ernie Banks (and you thought he was Mr. Cub!). Waco, site of the Dr Pepper museum, where you can learn about the gut-wrenching 1950s decision to drop the period from “Dr.” Given this Wacornicopia of thrills, a trip there should be eagerly anticipated. But tell anyone you’re headed to Waco and will they mention any of these cathedrals of learning? ’Course not. They’ll make a joke about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.
Waco is located on Interstate 35, equidistant from both Dallas and Austin. Rather than an eclectic mix of Austin’s liberal weirdness and Big D’s citified ways, this town somehow got handed the no-fun gene. I arrived in time for unhappy hour on Friday. Based on the headline in that day’s edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald (“Trio of weekend fires ruled as arson, linked”), the townsfolk still can’t get enough of that burning things down thing.
I enjoy the 23 flavors that make up a refreshing Dr Pepper as much as the next parched throat, but I’m not here to sightsee. Waco is home to Baylor, the largest Baptist University in the world. In other words, Par-tay. The Baylor Bears hold the distinction of fielding the only Texas football team in history that does not include the word “Texas” anywhere in its name. The Bears’ football fortunes have been modest, to put it delicately. They historically reside in the cellar of their division and have failed to garner a win against four different conference teams since joining the Big XII conference in 1996. Given the success of Brigham Young University and Notre Dame, you have to wonder if God doesn’t have it in for the Baptists.
But this year Baylor fans found faith in something secular. An argument could be made that freshman Robert Griffin may be the most talented first-year quarterback in the country. Gary Pinkel compared him to Brad Smith, the All-American Missouri QB who preceded Chase Daniel. Smith possessed maddeningly elusive running ability but proved inconsistent passing downfield. Griffin, conversely, had yet to throw an interception in his first eight games. The extraordinary freshman notwithstanding, odds makers had posted Mizzou a 20-point favorite.
Friday happened to be Halloween, and I was hungry for steak, a beer, and a glimpse of Baylor coeds dressed in something that would cheese off the church elders, much as Kevin Bacon's dancing had managed to accomplish in Footloose. The steak part was easy—those could be found at the Lake Brazos Steakhouse, overlooking, luckily enough, Lake Brazos. One rib eye, a side of fried okra and a Budweiser later, I was handed a bill that read, “Go Cowboys!” Clearly, the Bears faced an uphill battle here.
My Austin-based friend Manny had given me the names of two bars in Waco, and I managed to find one of them: George’s. It had the meandering look of a gin joint that opened in the first half of the 1900’s and added editions periodically as Waco’s liquor laws relaxed. Almost everyone drank from fishbowls called “The Big O,”—so named because students in the repressed ’50s used the word “orange” as code for beer. The Big O cost $2.75 and contained 20 ounces of golden nectar. Malt beverages, as we all learned in Econ 101, are recession-proof but price elastic—meaning that people trade down from Anchor Steam to PBR during economic downturns. Put another way, when the stock market loses 900 points and our government considers granting Grand Canyon naming rights to China, the Big O is the way to go. The Big O did have a downside: hefty, with an extra wide mouth, prudence dictated that it be anchored to the bar rather than sloshed around a packed bar and spilled on a good ol’ boy.
Considering the date, 95% of the patrons weren’t wearing costumes. This made the fat guy in the Fred Flintstone outfit sitting at the end of bar far more surreal looking than he otherwise would have been. With game day looming and no naughty costumes in sight (Wilma Flintstone disappointed), I called it a night as the strains of Charlie Daniels Band’s “Drinking my Baby Goodbye” followed me outside.
One of the problems with following your team every weekend and subsisting on Big O’s and stadium food is the disgusting physical condition you end up in. I had decided ahead of time that Waco would be boring enough for me to fit a run in. I’d jog for 5 miles, or until I saw a church, whichever came first. After about half a mile I came across an airplane hanger-sized house of worship dubbed the Praise Temple Assembly of God—a featureless monolith constructed of yellow corrugated metal. A satellite dish hung from the back. I’m not against shaking down willing congregations for money, but for God’s sake (literally), put up a statue or some stained glass. It doesn’t have to be Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa—that’s clearly too much skin for Baptists, anyway—but give the flock something to look at while they ponder eternal damnation. This joint looked like they’d have Fatheads of NFL stars where the Stations of the Cross would go in a Catholic church. I figured that three laps around the building (for the Holy Trinity) constituted a workout. Did I voice a silent prayer for the Tigers while Just Doing It? That’s between me and Funky J. Separation of church and gridiron.
It was Baylor’s homecoming, and as I drove around looking for breakfast, I took a wrong turn and nearly impaled my car on an abstinence-themed parade float. The Baylor campus looks modern, austere, and well endowed—in the generously-funded sense of the term, not the giant wiener one.
Missouri holds pep rallies before most away games. My friend and President-Elect of the Mizzou Alumni Association Jackie Clark gave me the coordinates and advised me that the administration had requested that any alcohol consumption be “discreet.” As I crawled down South Valley Mills Road toward Floyd Casey Stadium (named after Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show) I searched for a properly discreet liquor store. Less than a mile from the stadium, gleaming like an oasis of buoyant camaraderie amidst scowling repression, stood Frank DiCorte’s Bad Bear Liquor Emporium. Frank offers quality products at competitive prices to suit all of your discreet tailgating needs—Bad Bear Styrofoam coolers, Bad Bear Ice, Bad Bear cozies, and recession-friendly Busch Light tall boys six-packs for $5.25. So inspired was I that I splurged and bought a Bad Bear bobble head, which featured sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt and jauntily held a highball aloft to toast the disapproving Baylor administration.
The Mizzou tailgate party was just getting underway. Jackie expertly hit all the talking points in her stump speech, landing hard on the factoid that Tiger athletes led the nation in academic performance. Athletic Director Mike Alden took the stage next, providing a strategic roadmap for winning the game: Stop Baylor's Robert Griffin. The Tigers needed to put pressure on the gifted young field general, yet not over pursue lest he dance outside for big gains. The band didn’t make the trip, but the cheerleaders did, and someone popped in a cd to lead the gathered throng through a fight song medley. It would be a stretch to describe any of these modest proceedings as raucous—except in contrast to the Baylor tailgates, which were nonexistent. Baylor fans visited with each other, politely drank Dr Pepper, and whereas at most big schools you have to keep your eye out for errant nerf footballs and drunken beanbag throws, no projectiles interfere with your walk toward the stadium here.
The National Anthem was preceded by an invocation, a ramrod-postured minister from the school addressing the crowd from the field:
“Lord, as we prepare to begin this athletic contest, watch over the participants and the fans gathered in this stadium. Spare the athletes from pain, or if pain be thy will, at least make it only a slight hamstring tweak. If our groins be pulled, grant that they be pulled in a manly fashion, and not by homosexuals. Finally, may the Lord Jesus Christ, who anoints all gridiron sacraments, lead us to victory over the Godless heathen from a land grant university whose existence emanates not from thy will but from a land mass granted by that fey wig-wearing liberal Thomas Jefferson. Amen.”The introduction of the Baylor team starts with the “Baylor Line,” a tradition in which students, all wearing shirts depicting their graduation year, storm the field before the team comes out. This day, to pump everyone up for homecoming, the team entered from the stands rather than the locker room. The team and the Baylor line mingled together on the field, a few students donning uniforms if the player wearing it could be overpowered. The effect looked like a swarm of directionless bees.
Mizzou received the opening kickoff, with Jeremy Maclin running the ball out to the 35. The offense picked up their score-at-will pace set the previous week in Colorado. They marched for touchdowns on their first two possessions. With the score 14-0 and the Tigers driving at the end of the 1st quarter, it appeared that they’d build up a big lead and then, with Baylor forced to play catch-up, put pressure on the Bears’ young quarterback. Then, taking the snap on 3rd and goal from the Baylor 8 yard line, Chase Daniel threw an interception right into a Baylor player's midsection.
Seizing the chance, Griffin led Baylor down the field, mixing runs up the middle with sideline horizontal passes. He legged in a score to make it 14-7, and the crowd—only around 35,000 in a stadium that held 50,000, began to sound like 70,000. Missouri answered the touchdown, with Daniel directing the Tigers from their own 7 to make the score at halftime 21-7.
The Floyd Casey concourse defines "bare bones." I bought something identified only as “sandwich” and walked to the gated-in exterior, which is far more pleasant. The Texas sun had been bearing down on the field, making the game day temperature of 80 degrees seem warmer. On the stadium’s perimeter, though, it felt far more temperate. The contest seemed reasonably in control for the Tigers.
Missouri kicked off to start the second half. Using the same offensive game plan as the first half—runs and horizontal passes—Griffin led the Bears to another score. The Tigers didn’t respond, punting after a sack and two modest gains. The Bears took possession at their 34, and twelve plays later the score was tied. Baylor was playing ball control, and with the sun acting like a magnifying glass on the Missouri defense, it was working.
Jackie Clark ditched her President-Elect obligations and showed up at the beginning of the 4th quarter. The first words out of her mouth were “What the f?” The crowd roared its approval as we watched the two teams trade touchdowns again, knotting the contest at 28. When, in the next series, Daniel was picked off on a tipped pass, the prospect of spending an evening in Waco after blowing a 14-point lead seemed a very real and depressing possibility.
But with the aid of an offside penalty, the Mizzou defense forced a Baylor punt. Just under 9 minutes remained in the game as the offense began moving down the field and trying to eat clock in the process—something the Tigers almost never had to do. The noise level peaked as the Baylor faithful tried to will another turnover. The Bears flushed Daniel from the pocket and a diving interception attempt near midfield just missed. The Tigers kept driving. At 3rd and 5 from the Baylor 15 yard line, Chase took the snap and rifled the ball toward Tommy Saunders, who had over 100 yards in receptions on the day. A Baylor safety stepped in front of Saunders. Eyeing nothing but yard markers between him and a go-ahead touchdown, he dropped the ball.
Fourth down and five yards to go from the 15-yard line. Two minutes 31 seconds left. A tired Missouri defense. Plenty of time for Baylor to drive down the field. It was decision time—kick a field goal or go for a first down.
There’s nothing automatic about a late fourth quarter field goal in a tight game. The next best thing may be to send Tiger walk-on kicker Jeff Wolfert into the game. At one point in his career, Wolfert converted 90 consecutive chances in conference play. He stands to obliterate the all-time NCAA record for kicking accuracy. So the decision for Coach Pinkel was an easy one. After a fruitless “icing the kicker” time out, Wolfert drilled a perfect 34-yarder to make the score 31-28.
Baylor took the ball at their own 21 with no time outs left. After an incompletion and a 2-yard gain, Robert Griffin stepped back, planted his feet--and threw the first interception of his collegiate career (an NCAA record for most attempts without a pick to start a career). Brock Christopher squeezed the pass tight and fell to the ground. Mizzou would survive.
The Tigers wearily trudged off the field, Chase Coffman visibly limping. Jackie talked me into waiting by the team bus. We found Jeff Wolfert’s parents and congratulated them. His mother told me that, because the score was tied rather than the Tigers trailing, there seemed a little less pressure on her son to make the kick. So that’s where he gets the ice water in his toe.
Chase Daniel appeared, obliging cell phone photographers and autograph-seekers. Coach Pinkel, hair still wet from the shower, looked like Churchill’s proverbial man who had been shot at without result. Mike Alden wore happy relief on his face, telling us that all he cared about was that the team was 7-2, not 6-3. The Tigers looked anxious to get the hell out of town.
Back at George’s, the Big O's have never tasted so frosty cold and delicious. Most of the Mizzou fans had left for Austin or Dallas, leaving Jackie Clark and I to watch the 7 p.m. Texas-Texas Tech game. The presidential election stood three days away, and the flat screens featured last-ditch commercials for several local candidates. In one of them, a candidate’s opponent had “100% WRONG!” stamped across his face. Not 75% or even 90% wrong—this unscrupulous varmint literally had done nothing correct whatsoever.
The Tigers came into Waco and, depending on who does the tallying, may have been as high as 49% wrong. Still, against a rising Big XII South team, on that squad’s home turf, that was plenty good enough. In football, as in politics, even a one-point winner takes all.