1. I want to sell more books.
Okay, that’s one reason. But it’s a really, really good reason.
If you enjoy this opening and want to read more, you can purchase Eyeblack Odyssey for $13 on Createspace, Amazon, or order it through your local bookstore. I expect it to also be available on Kindle sometime after I learn how to decode what the hell Microsoft Word did to it (in 27 years?).
DISCLAIMER: Dave Gladow owns the copyright to all of the following material. It cannot be reproduced or distributed without written permission.
1 HOW DOES SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPEN?
Whenever I told people about what my wife, Cait, and I were planning to do that fall of 2009, that is, to attend a different college football game every weekend, the response was most often something in the neighborhood of “Cool!” Well, either that or a blank stare of incomprehension or indifference (I knew instantly that these people were not my target demographic), but yeah, for the most part, it was intrigue and excitement.
Almost invariably, the following question would come.
“So what games are you going to?”
Now this wasn’t an easy question to answer, primarily because the answer was in flux up until the very end. But also because there was something in the neighborhood of a dozen games to go through, many of which wouldn’t appeal to someone on first glance, but were arrived at through months of (probably unnecessary) debate and consideration. How does one convey that in a few seconds?
Well, one doesn’t. But a quick rundown of the highlights is certainly a good place to start now:
Florida State vs. Miami
Kansas State vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Georgia Tech vs. North Carolina
Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma State
Mississippi State vs. Florida
Bayou Classic (Grambling vs. Southern)
The first two were no-brainers. Cait went to Florida State and I got my degree from Kansas State. To call each of us raving homers probably doesn’t do either of us the appropriate amount of justice. Suffice it to say, when we found out Kansas State would be swinging near our home base of New Orleans, and that a Labor Day weekend trip to Tallahassee was indeed possible this year (always a question because of work), we started planning those trips immediately.
Georgia Tech-North Carolina came about due to a combination of having friends in the Atlanta area and having a forgivable work schedule on the docket that would accommodate a long trip. Similar considerations made Texas A&M-Oklahoma State a possibility. And anything close to New Orleans (including the University of New Orleans, Tulane, the Bayou Classic, the Sugar Bowl, and LSU) was imminently feasible as well.
Florida was a must-see in this particular year, thanks to the presence of everyone’s new personal Jesus, Tim Tebow, and the fact that the Gators, fresh off a national championship, were widely considered the best team in the NCAA* (though it didn’t quite work out exactly like that with Alabama ultimately winning the national championship). The question was how to see the Gators: a.) close to home; and b.) as cheaply as possible. Mississippi State quickly emerged as the best choice.
* The NCAA is a governing body of college athletics and everyone’s favorite whipping boy (naturally) because they are presumably in charge. Ergo, everything that is wrong with the sport, including those things they have no control over whatsoever, like the BCS and Urban Meyer’s ego (more on these things later), gets lain at their feet. This isn’t particularly fair, but I have no problem with it, seeing as how the organization tends to be so limp-wristed anyway (again, more on this later).
For us, it then became a process of filling in the blanks with good local matchups. An early goal that severely limited our options was to see every major college football team in the state of Louisiana. Happily, we accomplished that goal (though apologies go out to Louisiana College for not making the cut). Likewise, we wanted to see as many different teams as possible … meaning no repeat of teams (which would have been easy to do with a team like LSU or Tulane). Amazingly, we almost managed to make that happen as well. The only exception by the end of this giant sordid mess was ironically enough Florida, one of the participants in the Allstate Sugar Bowl* … thanks of course to pesky Alabama and its dominating performance in the SEC Championship.
* The Allstate Sugar Bowl is an example of a bowl game, a location-specific, sponsored football game staged at the end of the regular season between two teams at the upper end of the college football spectrum. Or at least that’s what it is in theory. There are now seemingly more bowl games than teams. Seeing as how they are a nice boost for local economies (because the teams’ fans typically invade the host city, which is usually someplace warm and sunny) and a wonderful opportunity for corporate shilling (sponsorships galore), this stands to reason. But bowl games are also controversial, primarily because they take the place of a playoff, which is something many people want (but some people don’t). Make sense? No? Keep reading.
The end result was a diverse schedule that would take as all over the State of Louisiana (as well as the rest of the South), seeing teams from BCS conferences like the SEC, ACC, and Big 12; teams from the middle and lower reaches of the Football Bowl Subdivision* like Tulane, Louisiana Tech, and Louisiana-Monroe; intense rivalries from the Football Championship Subdivision like Grambling-Southern and McNeese State-Northwestern State; and even a couple of startup programs and club teams just trying to get their feet wet in South Alabama and New Orleans, respectively.
* The Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS, is the new term that nobody uses which applies to teams who compete at the level formerly known as Division I-A. The Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, is the new term that nobody uses which applies to teams who compete at the level formerly known as Division I-AA. Years of usage had trained football fans everywhere to understand the fundamental differences between the two levels (“I-A” meant schools with bigger budgets, bigger enrollments, and bigger names competing in bowl games, while “I-AA” meant schools with smaller budgets, smaller enrollments, and smaller names competing in a conventional playoff system.). In addition, to anyone with even a cursory understanding of outlines, it made sense (A comes before AA). Naturally, none of this was confusing enough for the NCAA, so they decided to switch to the more generic-sounding FCS and FBS, which even if one knows what the acronyms stand for, are still madly confounding (The Football Bowl Subdivision still crowns a champion … so why isn’t it called the Football Championship Subdivision as well?). This (in other words, “madly confounding”), my friends, is what college football is all about.
The cherry on top, in retrospect, is that we got to see two of the biggest headline-makers in America in Texas A&M and Miami, a full two years before they would each attempt to annihilate the sport in those negative headline situations I promised not to spend much time on earlier. And I won’t now, except to say that it was good to evaluate each program on its football-related activities, and not on its destructive capability.So what else did we see on this glorious college football trip (other than a ton of football games, I mean)?
More than you might think.
Not to sound too cheesy, but we saw plenty of what really makes this America’s game. The sport is just the beginning — fellowship, community pride, and a sense of being part of something bigger than oneself are certainly factors as well. Someone (William Shakespeare?) once wrote, “Football is not a game, but a religion.” True, he was indicting the lunacy of it all (when he wasn’t writing Hamlet), but he was right on point at the same time. For better or worse, football has taken its place in American culture as a focal point for our passion.
I’d be tempted to agree with snobby critics and call it a complete waste of time, but that would probably (okay, definitely) be an indictment of my own psyche. Because no matter how often I try to convince myself otherwise, I care what happens. There have been plenty of frustrating evenings where I try to put my mind on something else (like fried oyster po-boys, for instance) only to fail and obsess over the outcome of the game(s) anyway. And when it comes to college, there can be no greater fervor than what I (and millions of other people like me, including my wife) experience every fall on a weekly basis.
But why do I care?
Because I do.
That may seem a little circular or existential, but it truly is the simplest explanation. A worthless endeavor for all practical purposes, involving groups of people I have often times never met or interacted with (I say “often times” because, having worked in sports for some time, I actually have met or interacted with a fair number of athletes – this isn’t as cool as it sounds on the surface.), yet the sport is something I still find myself grasping to with great urgency and fervor. Moreover, I identify and brand myself with one side over another, and consequently base some of my happiness on whether that side wins.
For some, sure. For others, no way. I’m in the second group, but if you aren’t, I can understand your trepidation. It’s no doubt much like my own initial experiences with sushi, in which I somehow came to discover that the cold, slimy sensation oozing down the back of my throat was actually pleasurable. I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t. So perhaps the best way for me to address this sushi-like doubt it to tell you more about myself, and how, even when I know I shouldn’t, I still care.
My early interactions with football consisted primarily of getting smacked around in the mud by my friend’s older brother in his backyard as a seven-year-old, then basically a vacuum of nothing at all memorable until I was a teenager. I blame Kansas State, my father’s alma mater, for much of this.
You see, in the State of Kansas in the 1980s, you rooted for one of two football teams, either the Oklahoma Sooners or the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Did you think I was going to say KU and K-State? You’re not big on college football history, then. No self-respecting individual would cop to cheering for one of the Kansas schools during football season in the 1980s. This was sure lunacy, as it would doom you to 10 losses a year and a whole fit of crying … and that was if you were an adult. If you were a child, it was even more traumatic.
Our house was a Kansas State house, so that meant we didn’t watch football. That sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. I remember exactly zero K-State games being on television (even with fewer games being broadcast, the Wildcats of the 80s would have been considered more averse to TV execs than a pool of toxic waste), and maybe one game I attended in person. I can’t be sure if it was K-State or a half-empty Div. II game though in retrospect … those things were really pretty similar in those days.
So during my formative years, I had exactly zero teams to root for (any long-time Chiefs fans know this to be true). The effect was partial blessing, partial curse. On the positive side, it took football off my radar completely, allowing me to focus my energies on important kid things like He-Man and trying to pull my extremities out of the things I had jammed them into (I wasn’t all that bright). But when football came down from the heavens and revealed itself to me a few years later, I fell hard. It was like my brain had not received its football fix for 15 years or so, and then it went overboard to compensate. I was an instant junkie, snorting lines of football wherever I could. For the athletically gifted or bold, adventurous types, that might have meant trying out for the team and getting one’s glory on. For me, it meant tracking statistics so I could play fantasy football.
I went on like this for several years, until it was time to pick a university. Fortunately, years of brainwashing from my father had taken hold and I couldn’t realistically even consider those silly mythical birds down the road. So that meant K-State.
And this is where I come to the point of madness, because it really can’t be described as anything else. To this point, football had been a distraction, a hobby, heck, even an obsession. I’d watched the Wildcats grow into a decent program the previous two years. I listened to the radio guy talking about the “parting of the Red Sea” when the Wildcats finally beat Oklahoma, and I watched the team’s second bowl in history as it pummeled Wyoming. The good guys came close against Nebraska, tied Colorado, and somehow climbed into the rankings and made themselves consistently relevant. But none of that took hold of me the way my first game in person as a student did.
It was 1995. Kansas State was good. They were playing someone who wasn’t. But the mismatch, on the surface, didn’t mean a whole lot. My team (and it had already become my team) was in the stadium. They were fast and talented. They were deep and experienced. They made big, exciting plays. They were something to be proud of.
Caught in the middle of a maniacal student section screaming itself into a lather, I became ensnared in the insanity. The Wabash Cannonball rang out into the hot summer evening, and the crowd burst into motion. These people were not just enthusiastic and proud, like I was. They were also hungry. Years of losing, of being picked on by the bullies of the conference, had hardened these people into ravenous creatures. Winning was something to be snatched from the other guy, at all costs. Because if you didn’t, you’d lose … and losing was death.
That day changed me. I became the hungry. I don’t know that another fan base that hasn’t seen the embarrassing defeats and horrible beatings can truly reach that same level of passion and desire, but I do know that it can be done, because I lived it at my alma mater.
If something is given life and importance by a great many people, it has an automatic worth as a result of that. Get beyond the coach-speak regurgitation that tells us the athletes benefit tremendously from the experience (this is sometimes true), or even the theory that any former or amateur athlete can identify with the combatants out on the field in a profound way (this is pretty much nonsense) … instead, look around at the other fans the next time you go to a game. Their investment — emotional, financial, and otherwise — makes the game matter. If someone wins or doesn’t isn’t so much the point at the end of the day so much as the existence of the game itself. The outlet known as football keeps us sane. It keeps us connected. It keeps us passionate. Most importantly, though, it keeps us alive (unless you’re watching Baylor lose to UNLV by failing to take a knee … I think that single play was probably responsible for more suicides than any other).
But it goes further than that, even. Some of y’all have had your hearts hardened already, and platitudes of emotion and passion aren’t going to do a whole lot for you. So it’s a good thing college football does some more tangible good as well.
Statistics show that only 2.3 percent of all football programs in America are profitable. Okay, I made that number up. But the actual number, according to the NCAA, is still low (19 programs as of 2008). But what the figures don’t take into account are the added financial benefits a football team can produce. I speak primarily about sunflower seed sales, of course … and if you want to be slightly less silly, enrollment and licensing too.
My own alma mater is a good example. Kansas State, when football god (okay, I’m biased) Bill Snyder was hired in 1988, was suffering from poor attendance, small enrollment, and virtually non-existent branding. And now, today, all of those things are still true. But at least the school is trying now. And truth be told, the university has seen some pretty significant growth in name recognition, merchandise sales, attendance, and even enrollment … and all of those improvements have come about thanks to a commitment to football (they even won me over thanks to their constant curb-stomping of over-matched foes).
I think too much can be made of the “financial benefits.” And when the sordidness begins to creep into the nightly news and replace the highlight packages, it’s usually about the money. But I have seen firsthand the good that can come from it as well. The economic impact on the community. The growth in the university. The pride. The joy.
On the football journeys I took with my wife, we saw the gamut of football programs (and level of school commitment to the sport). We saw club teams that had to raise their own finances just to exist. We saw teams making their first, timid steps into an actual competitive arena. We saw teams that occupy the lower end of that spectrum, struggling just to make ends meet. And we saw the big dogs of the sport, where commercialism and big money dictate policy as much as any sense of community or tradition (but where those ideals of community and tradition are still in place). In short, we saw it all.
In the following chapters you’ll see a sometimes funny, sometimes insightful view of our experiences at various college football games in the South. And hopefully, you will enjoy our journey almost as much as we did.
Our complete schedule:
(Sept. 5, 2009) — South Alabama vs. Hargrave Military Academy
(Sept. 7, 2009) — Miami (Fla.) vs. Florida State
(Sept. 12, 2009) — Kansas State vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
(Sept. 19, 2009) — New Orleans vs. Texas-Arlington
(Sept. 26, 2009) — Georgia Tech vs. North Carolina
(Oct. 3, 2009) — Louisiana-Monroe vs. Florida International
(Oct. 10, 2009) — Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma State
(Oct. 17, 2009) — McNeese State vs. Northwestern State
(Oct. 24, 2009) — Mississippi State vs. Florida
(Nov. 7, 2009) — Tulane vs. UTEP
(Nov. 14, 2009) — LSU vs. Louisiana Tech
(Nov. 19, 2009) — Southeastern Louisiana vs. Nicholls State
(Nov. 21, 2009) — Southern Mississippi vs. Tulsa
(Nov. 28, 2009) — Bayou Classic (Grambling vs. Southern)
(Jan. 1, 2010) — Allstate Sugar Bowl (Florida vs. Cincinnati)
If you enjoy this opening and want to read more, you can purchase Eyeblack Odyssey on Createspace, Amazon, or order it through your local bookstore. I expect it to also be available on Kindle sometime after I learn how to decode what the hell Microsoft Word did to it (in 27 years?).