The Alamo Bowl
Tigers vs. Northwestern Wildcats
December 29, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 25th
Tigers vs. Northwestern Wildcats
December 29, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 25th
A popular explanation for Southern California’s population explosion involves the Rose Bowl. According to legend, Pasadena is chock full of families who woke up on New Year’s Day in the sub-frozen muck of Terra Haute and turned on the TV to see a future Price is Right spokesmodel/Bob Barker plaything sitting atop a banana split float, waving to the sun-drenched spectators in the Rose Parade. Mom and Dad Rustbelt would look at each other and state the obvious: “Californy is the place we oughta be.”
I watched it, too, every New Year’s Day growing up in St. Louis. So when I lived in L.A., I would get up on January 1st and head over the 134 to the Rose Bowl. If you timed it right, you could get a prime parking spot by the stadium and take a shuttle to see the end of the parade (getting a bleacher seat for the beginning of the parade involved getting up at 3 in the morning, and really, if you’re awake when the new year is 3 hours old, you should be having sex, throwing up, or both). Then I’d make my way back to the Rose Bowl itself in plenty of time to watch USC embarrass Michigan or whomever. Sitting at the historic venue, you’re acutely aware that many of your friends are freezing and cursing, making the experience far more rewarding than watching it on TV.
The Rose Bowl is nicknamed, of course, “the Granddaddy of them all”—one of the most prestigious post-season bowls. The others BCS bowls are the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl, which officially go by the FedEx Orange Bowl, the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The Rose Bowl ducked that sponsorship trend by refusing to sully their name, going instead by “The Rose Bowl presented by Citi.” Which is sort of like claiming to be a courtesan rather than a hooker. Not to mention that there’s nothing honorable about being associated with a bank these days.
Bowl games have proliferated like photos of Britney Spears flashing her mezzanine level. In 1960 there were 8 bowl games, and it wasn’t unusual for a school to turn down an invitation. There are now 34 of them, and athletic directors open a Whitman’s Sampler of kiss ass to get their program into the one with a highest payout.
After what in hindsight appear to have been irrational pre-season hopes of making the national championship game, the descent to the Alamo Bowl was tough on Tiger fans. Not that the Alamo—or the corporately accurate Valero Alamo—was a bad bowl. It didn’t have a dumb name (the late Poulan Weedeater Independence Bowl is the gold standard against which all bowl monikers were measured). In terms of payout, the Alamo fell between the Holiday ($2.13 million) and the Gator ($2.5 million). It enjoyed a prestigious TV time slot, nestled comfortably into the Monday Night Football vacancy created by the end of the NFL regular season the week before. Not to mention that you can buy real Mexican jumping beans in the San Antonio airport.
So the problem wasn’t with the Alamo Bowl. The problem involved the mortar and pestling of Mizzou’s expectations. The team’s 9-4 record wasn’t embarrassing—particularly given the team’s history—but it was two games worse than 2007 with a more experienced roster. Two of those losses came in the final minutes of play, and those defeats resurfaced with Mizzou faithful like a floater in their formerly pristine Bud Lights.
After the crushing loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game, many Missouri fans spent the three weeks prior to the Alamo Bowl working up a frothing case of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Some considered head coach Gary Pinkel—runner-up to coach of the year in 2007—incapable of rearranging the x’s and o’s in a preschooler’s alphabet soup. Many fans now viewed Matt Eberflus, the defensive coordinator, simply as the assistant Pinkel wouldn’t fire. Eberflus’ secondary had begun the season giving up long pass plays against Illinois, and had improved only in their ability to point fingers at each other as they gave up long pass plays the rest of the year.
But the worst part were the grumblings surrounding Chase Daniel, who finished fourth in 2007 Heisman voting. His interceptions and fumbles had spiked since the Oklahoma State debacle. That Texas-sized confidence which built his legend worked against him as he tried to do too much under pressure. There were whispers about a mysterious injury.
The holidays came and went, with a commensurate drop-off in Mizzou jerseys given as gifts. On Christmas day, my brother—whose bookshelf includes works by literary titans like Ann Coulter—scoffed at the book on Missouri football I gave him and all but assured me that he wouldn’t read it. His disgust with the Tigers squished the modicum of Yuletide cheer he usually mustered. My brother needs an enema.
I had ordered four Alamo Bowl tickets. Accidentally. The Mizzou ticket office sends out a complicated form offering ducats to every mathematically possible bowl game, and at some point in the three-hour application process I had apparently become disoriented and started checking everything. A quick look on stubhub.com showed that the $70 tickets were going for $8.95 a throw.
The Alamo, again, was a solid mid-level bowl game in a desirable city. Tell that to my friends and family. You’d have thought I was asking them to change Mark Mangino’s bedpan. To many Missouri fans, the idea of leaving the frigid Midwest for 70 degree temperatures and fresh margaritas only reminded them that their team didn’t make a BCS bowl. Tim “Buddy” May wanted to go but had blown his football budget and wife favors for the year. I gave Cousin Jimmy one of the tickets for Christmas in hopes that holding one in his hand would boost the possibility of his attending. He respectfully declined. A few of my Northwestern friends expressed interest in going but fell by the wayside when they realized that the Wildcats hadn’t won a bowl game of any kind since 1949. Many of my Northwestern friends are rich, and they didn’t get that way spending money the way I do. They would watch the carnage on TV.
In fairness, the economy was being held together with duct tape and the recession-proof crystal meth industry. Plus, it was gift-giving season. Lucky for me, I held top position this year on my Christmas list. Using frequent flyer miles for the travel, I employed William Shatner to beam me into a room within walking distance of the stadium for $92.
Chicago was cold and grey when my flight took off, which is to say it looked like Chicago always looks in December. The week prior the wind chill had fallen to -30. I stepped off the plane into 72-degree weather and realized that I had forgotten to pack shorts. You forget that you even own shorts during Chicago winters.
Like a lemming, I hit the River Walk.
Everyone tells you to hit the River Walk in San Antonio. It’s the thing every tourist does, and I certainly qualified. The appeal of the River Walk is as obvious as its intentions are modest. It’s a place to grab something to eat or drink while you gaze at a body of water, something that, really, can’t be done anywhere else in America.
Today the River Walk was packed with Northwestern and Missouri fans. Slow-moving Northwestern and Missouri fans. Fans who wanted to savor everything the River Walk had to offer. Fans who moved like a senatorial pay cut bill through congress. As a member in good standing of the Facebook group “I secretly want to punch slow moving people in the back of the head” (1,142,722 strong and counting), this raised a concern. I did not punch anyone in the back of the head, but boy howdy, River Walk was ripe for it.
I always try to sightsee as quickly as possible, once beating Clark Griswold’s record by enjoying the grandeur of the Grand Canyon in .08 seconds. So my River Walk amounted to more of a River Cover-Ground-Like-You-Need-Imodium. Nonetheless, I saw plenty:
A roughly 50/50 split of Mizzou and Northwestern fansThe Northwestern fans were unfailingly polite, the polar opposite of Oklahoma fans. Sooner rooters are so dumb and obnoxious you wonder how they hold down jobs. Northwestern fans are so nice and smart you wonder why they bother with football.
A purple “Nerdwestern” tee shirt (proudly worn by a student)
One fan wearing a Mizzou shirt and a Northwestern hat. What are you, Swiss? Pick a side.
Tour boats containing tourists floating slowly down the river without getting punched in the back of the head, while they learn the history of the indigenous people who sit in restaurants eating and drinking as they gaze at a body of water.
After what seemed like a sightseeing eternity of five to seven minutes, a call came from my Austin friend Manny. He directed me away from the River Walk to the Market Square area, to a restaurant called La Margarita. It was here that he courted his wife, Janice (aka “Baby Cakes”). As the name implies, La Margarita specializes in that drink—traditional, premium, and just about any taste-the-rainbow flavor you can name. They had prickly pear margaritas, which, to me, just sounds like you’re at a bowl game. I’m not much of a margarita drinker, though, because they’re sweet and have been known to cause people to blow out a flip-flop and step on a pop-top. My Zagat entry: La Margarita serves delicious micheladas.
There was one more stop to make before I made my way over to the game: The Alamo. Wait, check that, the bar across the street from the Alamo. A place called the Menger Bar. Built in the 1800’s, it looks like an old-time hotel saloon, which is exactly what it is. It’s also where Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders, who trained here (in San Antonio, not the Menger Bar). There are photos of Teddy all over the walls, and a moose head hanging over the entrance that I’m assuming he either shot or talked into giving himself up. As the game approached, I stared into the eyes of our 26th president for some sign of rooting interest. Ever the politician, he just smiled and pretended not to hear the question. Bully, indeed.
The Alamodome’s exterior looks like cross between a riverboat and a publicly funded sports venue. It’s ugly, but you have to give the city planners credit—they swung for the fences architecturally. And whiffed. I’ll bet those were exciting times leading up to the unveiling, when they pulled off the tarp, everyone gasped, and the architectural critics fainted. On the inside, the Alamodome is a bit more bare bones. I’d been told by a cabbie that the facilities are outdated, in the sense that it was built in 1993 and gaudier stadiums are now getting the nod for NCAA regionals. The best examples of this were the postage stamp-sized scoreboard video screens, which fairly screamed, “the bond issue didn’t pass.”
But the Alamodome was plenty gussied up for the likes of me, and they served cold beer. I sat with Mizzou Alumni President-Elect Jackie Clark and her parents. Jackie is more dependable for showing up at Missouri Tiger football games than Truman the Tiger, and wears more tiger gear than he does.
After exchanging pleasantries and holiday fruitcakes, we shared our deepest fears about the game we were about to watch. The Tigers were on a two game losing streak, and only 4-4 in their last eight. The Wildcats had won 3 of their last 4, losing only to Big 10 powerhouse Ohio State during that stretch. They finished the regular season beating the teams’ common opponent, Illinois, more convincingly than the Tigers had.
More to the point, the Wildcats had the mojo. No matter how Missouri spun it, the Alamo Bowl stood as a disappointing consolation prize, albeit one they had justly earned. Northwestern, conversely, exceeded expectations in 2008—going 9-3 after a 6-6 season in 2007—and the Cats were thrilled to be there. Moreover, Pat Fitzgerald, the youngest coach in the NCAA, had them believing in themselves. Fitzgerald starred at linebacker for Northwestern in the mid-90’s and had just been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Coach Fitzgerald had listed goals for the team at the beginning of the year, and one of the most prominent was to win a bowl game. In short, this guy was the sort of leader who made Patton look like a slacker.
The Alamodome holds 65,000, but it wasn’t holding them tonight. Sections sat mostly empty near the rafters. Still, the fans who showed up were ready—the Northwestern side for an upset, and the Missouri boosters, hoping not to witness disaster.
Missouri received the opening kickoff. Northwestern avoided booting it deep to Jeremy Maclin, which is what smart coaches do—i.e., don’t let the best player on the other team beat you. Mizzou’s m.o. had been that they cruised to easy wins when they got off to a good start, and lost when they didn’t. Chase Daniel looked eager to play, as always. On the first series, he converted on third and long, marched the team to another first down, and then, just across midfield, threw his first interception of the night. It wasn’t his fault—the receivers ran into each other and the ball deflected to a dude wearing purple. The Wildcats capitalized with a six-play drive, culminating with a 35-yard touchdown pass, which scorched the already burnt toast Mizzou secondary. Suddenly, the double-digit point spread Mizzou was favored by looked like it could be reversed.
It wasn’t lost on me that many college football fans love the Wildcats. Northwestern is the only private school in the Big 10, by far the smallest, and combines high academic standards with traditional football insignificance. I saw a fan hold up a sign that read:
EveryI knew that this was, as an NU grad would put it, a statistically accurate statement—well within the standard deviation of the bell curve distribution measuring intelligent fan sentiment.
Person is pulling for
The Tigers defense tightened and the teams exchange field goals, making the score 10-3 as the first half wound down to the final minute. With the Cats pinned inside their 40, they punted to Jeremy Maclin. The kick didn’t have much air under it, and as it wobbled toward our end of the field, Jackie’s father and I both muttered, “He’ll return that.” Maclin hauled it in, made one defender miss, and sprinted 75 yards to tie the score. It was a mistake—there’s no way a smart Northwestern grad like Pat Fitzgerald would order his punter to kick to the all-purpose yardage leader in the NCAA with a minute left before halftime. Unless, like Patton, he courted trouble.
The emotional lift from Maclin’s punt return felt so good that I enjoyed a peanut coated ice cream at halftime, which, in honesty, I probably would have enjoyed had he fumbled. Surely the Tiger offense, which averaged over 40 points a game, would get going. Everything depended on Chase Daniel, who had thrown two interceptions and seemed to be second-guessing himself.
On the first series of the second half, the Wildcats scored on a another touchdown pass. I could have used a Northwestern grad to tell me if it was statistically possible for our secondary to become any more confused. The extra point hit the upright, making the tally on the miniscule, sad scoreboard 16-10.
I imagine that this was the point at which bowl-loving fans at home began to settle in for an ESPN instant classic. I, alternatively, began regretting my ice cream decision. Daniel led the offense back the other way, tossing a strike to Danario Alexander to give the Tigers their first lead of the game, 17-16. On the next series Mizzou made it 20-16—still tight, but moving in the right direction if you thought black and gold were cool colors.
With the third quarter winding down, C.J. Bacher, the Northwestern QB, threw a fade pattern that got hauled in just beyond the reach of leaping defender Kenji Jackson, giving NU the lead again at 23-20. By now I had given up on the Tigers turning the contest dull. Just win, baby, I pleaded, channeling my inner Al Davis.
The final quarter opened, and the Missouri defense started making plays. They actually appeared to be gaining strength. The Wildcats began soliciting yellow flags to help. Unfortunately, Daniel, who threw his third interception on a terrible pass at the end of the third quarter, had developed a case of the yips. With just over nine minutes left in the game, on a sideline pattern intended for Tommy Saunders, he threw the ball to the cheerleaders. Saunders threw up his arms in frustration, and for the first time in a career in which he set every major Missouri Tiger passing record, Chase Daniel heard boos. As tough as it was to watch what was happening, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed at any fan who saw fit to boo a kid who was harder on himself than they could ever be.
Coach Pinkel couldn’t take Daniel out of the game. His quarterback had earned the right to fight through this, and besides, even with a compromised throwing arm, he still represented Mizzou’s best chance to win. But with time running down, the coaching staff tried to alleviate the pressure on their off-target star by calling more running plays. It worked well enough to generate a modest drive that drew the Tigers within field goal range. With three minutes left, all-time NCAA accuracy-leading kicker Jeff Wolfert tied the score at 23.
The Tiger D stopped Northwestern on four downs and took possession on their own 43 with a little over a minute left. And just as suddenly as he’d lost it, Daniel appeared to right himself. Still, the coaches called for quarterback keepers and only short, low-risk passes. With :03 left on the clock, the most accurate kicker in NCAA history trotted out to kick the game-winner in perfect, climate-controlled conditions. At this point in the game, if you were a Tiger fan, an ugly win suited you just hunky-dory. Northwestern called a time out to make Wolfert think a bit longer about the kick—a tactic that never seems to work.
From the angle at which I sat—almost parallel to the uprights—all I could tell was that Wolfert hit the ball squarely and it had room to spare. I looked to the referees, who looked at each other, and then waved off the kick as no good. The 44-yard field goal started a few feet to the wrong side of the right upright, and never hooked back.
The Northwestern sidelines and stands erupted in an orgy of pumping purple arms. If I had one of those sad little hospital wastebaskets, I would have vomited in it. The momentum had shifted back to the Wildcats, who certainly deserved to win as much as the Tigers did, and now had that tarted-up hussy Destiny on their side. Northwestern won the overtime coin flip and wisely chose for Mizzou to take the ball first. Generally speaking, this is a solid strategy—since in overtime each team takes the ball at the 25-yard line and tries to score, the second team to get the ball knows exactly what they must do. The fact that the Tiger offense had sputtered all night added a generous dollop of psychological pressure to their challenge. Fitzgerald had his riding crop on the Tigers’ throats, or whatever Patton metaphor you prefer.
Overtime began. The Tigers called three running plays, moving the ball to the Northwestern 7. Then, Daniel took a snap in the shotgun and it handled it like it was a joy buzzer. He quickly regained a grip and, with no time to think, fired a strike to Jeremy Maclin in the end zone. The momentum had shifted again and now the uphill climb belonged to Northwestern. Nothing short of a touchdown and extra point could keep the contest going.
C.J. Bacher moved his team, but they stalled at third and goal from the eight-yard line. Many Missouri fans (ok, me) couldn’t help but remember the disastrous end to the Kansas game. But this time Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore came unblocked on a blitz and converged at the quarterback. Bacher fumbled, and the ball bounced backwards, resulting in a loss of 23 yards. A desperation 4th down pass got batted down by Moore, the Tigers had won, and Chase Daniel had avoided a meltdown of Zinedine Zidane proportions.
I hugged Jackie. I high-fived everyone within palm distance. Jackie’s dad and I soared several feet in the air and did the hip bump.
Gay—in both senses of the word—multicolored balloons descended from the rafters. Modest, don’t-burn-the-dome-down fireworks exploded. And arguably the best quarterback in Tiger history hugged his head coach, moments after ending his career with a touchdown pass to arguably the most explosive Tiger player ever. Missouri fans would debate whether or not this senior class was the best in history. But as they walked off the field together for the last time, I felt certain that they were the most fun to watch. They’d climbed the polls from unranked in 2007, culminating in an exhilarating one week tenancy at the #1 slot. They’d played in a New Year’s Day bowl for the first time since 1970—and won. And as the 2008 season unfolded and it became apparent that they wouldn’t reach those heights again, they summoned enough pride and talent to quell the backslide and depart as winners.
We returned to the Menger Bar in time for last call. The mood was mellow—if Teddy Roosevelt were there he would have been wearing his Rough Rider jammies. Jackie’s dad and I donned our imaginary head sets and did the requisite post-game wrap-up, and then Jackie ushered her mom and dad into the cool, clear night.
I was beat, but felt that I should hit one celebratory bar before turning in. The barkeep recommended Mad Dogs, on the River Walk. Jackie’s friend Lou—who had me convinced that Chase Daniel was nursing a secret injury—walked over with me. Mad Dogs was raging full of students. It was a bit of a theme bar, but since the theme involved coeds and waitresses in short kilt skirts, I approved. It was loud and the DJ banged hip-hop off the walls—this was as good a place to celebrate a win as any.
A young guy in a Northwestern shirt bellied up to the bar, and upon seeing our attire rolled his eyes and invited us to rub it in. I assured him that I rooted for the Wildcats when they weren’t playing the Tigers, and besides, an overtime win hardly prompts taunting. The kid was 22 years old and enrolled in the Northwestern ROTC program. I told him that I hoped he would stay out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he assured me that because he intended to serve on submarines, that should be doable. Al Qaeda’s submarine fleet, I’m told, is minimal and low-tech. I bought him a beer and he confirmed the rumor about submarine food—that it’s the best served in the military, maybe the entire public sector (at least one submarine chef has served in the White House). We talked fondly about Evanston, Illinois, a town where bowling, trick-or-treating, and skipping are illegal, and concluded that the skipping ordinance was probably spottily enforced.
I wished him luck, and he felt compelled to return the favor of buying a round. So my last drink of the last game of the year was a Jager bomb with a student whom I predict great underwater things for.
I strolled out into the night, avoiding the River Walk and its slow walkers, and headed back to the hotel. The college football season wasn’t over, not by a long shot. There would be New Year’s Day bowls, and I’d help my friends root their teams on. Beyond that, the BCS machine would churn toward another awkward attempt to crown a national champion. Once again, the winner would be disputed.
But only a few teams vie for a national championship in any given year, and they tend to be the same ones. For the majority of fans who may never see our teams get there, that’s not something to lament. Because for us, the real college football season ends when the team we care about files into the tunnel for the last time.