Friday, September 28

Go West, Young Man

Odometer: 6291
Location: Seattle, WA
States visited: Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington

I love traveling solo. I have always found that when it comes to getting in touch with the culture and character of a place, you will always lose a little something by having a group to fall back on socially. Having done Europe, South America and various American cities on my own, I knew that this journey would benefit from my relative solitude. But when my brother told me he’d be up for going with me to Seattle and then down to Dallas, drives of 30 and 32 hours, respectively, it didn’t take much to convince me. I believe after a quick, “Are you serious?” I gave an immediate “Definitely!” The crazy thing is that he returned from an around the world trip on Monday afternoon, with his most recent stay in Australia. Even if he had to sleep half the journey, he would be a major benefit to getting to the destinations safely and with some measure of sanity.

When I hit the road for the first game, I had a month to plan and, aside from forgetting my toiletry bag until I was in Hyde Park, departure went without issue. Even then, I was only going to be away from home for three weeks on that stint. This exit was entirely different. I had a day to pull everything together for two and a half months on the road. I can now say with great authority that staying up until 3am the night before a 2000 mile drive is not recommended.

So we set forth a little later than planned on Tuesday morning, knowing that two-thirds of the country lay before us. My brother’s internal clock was still on Australian time. I have no idea how he even managed to get in the car, let alone stay awake most of the way.

On my way out of Chicago, it was somehow fitting that I drove directly past the building where I spent the last ten years in a career in market research. It was a job I greatly enjoyed over that time, but so far this one has been even more fulfilling. The experience of leaving my only place of employment since college was an extremely surreal one. I had no delusions of spending my entire working career with the same company, and I certainly didn’t plan on lasting a decade. It was very difficult to leave a place with interesting work and incredible people. I haven’t given the job much thought since I first hit the road for South Bend, but now I have a bit more perspective on things. After four weeks, I can safely say that my new occupation is beyond full time and the most engaging challenge I’ve ever taken up.

Wisconsin and Minnesota felt like old hat, especially since they came at the outset of the drive. South Dakota is a much bigger state than people realize. It is loaded with touristy locales, at least based on the billboards along the way. There are various caves, a petrified forest, Wall Drug, and something called the Corn Palace, just to name a few. I have no idea how big tourism is in SD’s GDP, but I’m certain the billboard business is healthy. Because people don’t really visit South Dakota as a destination all that often, most of the traffic consists of drivers passing through. And if they’re passing through South Dakota, they’re on a really long drive. So it makes sense that they’d want to break the journey up a bit with a stop at the Corn Palace, especially if they have restless kids. I have to imagine that in-auto DVD players are killing the Corn Palace’s revenue. We spent Tuesday night at a friend’s place in Rapid City, just twenty miles from Mount Rushmore. Sadly, there wasn’t time for a visit. Maybe when I do an Alfred Hitchcock book, I can return and spend a little more time. The more upsetting part was only having a couple awake hours to visit with a friend I hadn’t seen in three years (and two kids!). Up and out early, we hit the road and entered Wyoming. The terrain is hilly, but totally vacant. Despite the lack of landmarks, I managed to miss the police officer who clocked me at 88 in a 75. I had a firm goal of zero tickets on this endeavor. So much for that. In Wyoming, without a Corn Palace to attract tourist dollars, they have to generate revenue through speeding tickets. I can’t blame them, and it was foolish of me to turn off the cruise control. I was asking for it. From there, we drove through Montana for about nine hours. After crossing the Idaho panhandle at sunset, we settled in for the last leg. Four hours across Washington. My brother has done this drive several times and compares eastern Washington to Indiana. Lucky for us it was dark by then and we couldn’t see what we were missing. Just west of Spokane, with my brother at the wheel, we were nabbed for 78 in a 70. It was unbelievable. But the cop let us go with a light warning. The going theory is that they pull a lot of people over in Spokane , hunting for drug addicts. While we probably seemed a bit haggard after 1600 miles, we were clearly sober. By 11:30, we had arrived at our destination in Seattle, ready to crash out for a much deserved sleep. In hindsight, the highway 90 drive is one that would best be served by a leisurely pace. But the great northwest beckoned and we had friends to see. Abe, Teddy, George, Thomas and the rest of the sights will have to wait for the next time around.

Finally, I was contacted by a kindred spirit the other day who is also traveling around the country and taking in a whopping 24 games(!) this season. I thought my schedule was aggressive. He also has a blog covering his journey as well. His name is Jonathan and you can track his progress here.

Bucky Tailgate Report Up at SI

The Wisconsin tailgate report card is published at SI On Campus. Click here to read it.

Here's what people won't be doing when they read my Cheers/Songs evaluation:

Sunday, September 23

On Wisconsin

Odometer: 3976
Location: Madison, WI
States visited: Illinois, Wisconsin

For once this season, I had a weekend where driving was not taking up a full day of my time. Madison is just a few hours from Chicago, and it’s a relatively easy trip. I will get the other extreme over the next two weeks with a drive to Seattle followed by one to Dallas. But this drive was a bit more relaxed. With warm weather scheduled, I was able to pack light and just hop in the car and go. By the end of the weekend, I was kicking myself for not spending any time in the town before. It may not be Disneyland, but you can have a ton of fun there.

After the nondescript Wiscinois countryside, cruising into Madison on the beltway reveals a picturesque downtown perched between two lakes with the capital dome rising above it all. In a weird way, it almost felt like Wisconsin’s version of South Beach. I can’t properly explain this, but I knew I was arriving when I got there.

Writing the tailgate report for SI On Campus has brought some expected challenges. I have overlapping, but somewhat conflicting tasks on Saturday. I have to meet people and interview them for the book. I have to take in the tailgate experience for SI. And I have to enjoy myself at least a little. But the benefit is that it has sent quite a few people to this space. One such person who lives in Madison noticed I was a Michigan grad and sent me a note saying hello. Not only that, he offered me a place to stay. This was an extremely generous offer which I immediately took. Lo and behold, we quickly figured out that we lived in the same dorm our freshman year. However, the only interaction we could (vaguely) remember was watching an episode of Beavis and Butthead in his room back when that show was in fashion. He and his wife not only had me stay with them, but showed me some of Madison’s finest haunts. Friday began at The Avenue for a Door County style fish boil. The appetizer was of course fried cheese curds, and dinner was excellent. From there, we hit Essen Haus, a German restaurant featuring gigantic beersteins, a Polka band, and drunken revelers. The band closed with an Polka version of “On Wisconsin” which got everyone riled up – including the Iowa fans in attendance who started a “Let’s Go Hawkeyes!” chant. Not ready to pack it in, we hit one last place – a small, classy bar with drinks named after famous people. I had a Benny Goodman. I can’t remember exactly what all was in it, though I’m pretty sure bourbon was a main ingredient. Not fifteen minutes after we arrived, a wild brawl broke out between a dozen women. It was complete chaos. There was no way to determine who was fighting whom or why. After standing there gawking for a minute, beer bottles started flying and we realized that it was time to go into duck-and-cover mode. Within minutes, everyone involved in the melee scrambled out of the bar, presumably to go their separate ways or continue the altercation on the street. We lingered and chuckled about the situation a bit, more in disbelief than anything else. On my way towards the stadium Saturday morning, some students were playing cornhole in front of their house. An SUV driven by an older gentleman and flying Hawkeye flags cruised by and they gave it the finger. Welcome to Madison! I got out to Camp Randall way too early. Very few people were set up for tailgating or at the bars by the time the early games kicked off. Perhaps LSU threw off my perspective on this stuff, but I figured that because most Wisconsin games begin at 11:00 people would be set up by then. So I hit the relatively vacant campus, climbing to the top of Bascom Hill. Again, the view over Lake Mendota is sweet. They also have an outdoor deck at the Memorial Union where you can grab a beer or just hang out. I can imagine going to school here would mean spending many hours on this deck before winter really hits.
There’s a certain theme of vulgarity that is embraced in Madison on gameday. Beyond the bird flipping I witnessed to start the day, fans in yellow t-shirts were frequently called out by everyone nearby with an “Assssshole…” chant. A car drove through town with “Fuck Iowa” painted on its windows. I’m not one of these “think of the children” kind of people, but I am one of these “do something creative” kind of people. In the stadium, the student section throws around some profane cheers which are extremely well organized and certainly fun. But all this cursing-for-the-sake-of-cursing stuff just made the fans look boorish. You’re better than that, Bucky. The Iowa fans I spoke to did say that they were being treated well, for the most part, so this loutish behavior is really just surface level. I’m not trying to say that Wisconsin fans are jerks – far from it. Everyone was very generous with food and drink throughout the day. But they could step up the razzing and make it something more unique or worthwhile.On the west side of Camp Randall, there is a neighborhood comprised mostly of students. Everyone wears red shirts, often emblazoned with further profanity. And everyone drinks. A lot. Walking past these homes, you would see flip-cup followed by two story beer bongs followed by beer pong. Everyone is throwing back the suds. With an evening start to the game, by the time kickoff rolled around, the inhabitants of this neighborhood ranged from tipsy to trashed. It was like a convention of college drinkers with each address representing a booth featuring the wonders of hops and barley. All the fun appeared to be extremely harmless, save the guy who tried to pitch a beer bottle from distance only to have it rim out and smash in the street where people were walking. He ran back into the house rather than clean up his mess.My ticket was in the upper deck at the south end. I longed to be in the jammed student section, though the people around me were very nice and into the game. The students are a large, energetic bunch who are there to have fun. Throughout the day, people mentioned the long stretch of dark years for Wisconsin football. From the mid 60s until Alvarez took over in 1990, there was very little to cheer about in Camp Randall stadium. Because of that, people looked to have fun in other ways. Hence the profanity-laced battles between sections. The Jump Around between the third and fourth quarters is a thing of beauty. I had a great vantage point to appreciate it. Fans throughout the stadium sing the fight song and the alma mater – better than I’ve seen at other schools so far. After the game, the marching band and cheerleaders take the field for the fifth quarter. It’s a bit “band campy”, but a ton of fun. Near the end, the students demanded Swing Town, a song the administration reportedly is against being played in the stadium because of the cursing involved from the students. When the band adhered to their request, the elation could be felt across the venue. The game itself was one that I’m sure a lot of people would complain about. But I like a stout defensive struggle, and that’s exactly what this was. Iowa’s defense impressed, but Wisconsin managed to wear them down just enough by the end of the game to get the scores they needed. After playing mistake-free football for the entire game (no turnovers, no penalties), Iowa committed three penalties on the key Wisconsin scoring drive, and that’s why they lost the game. I wasn’t overly impressed with Wisconsin. They’re a good team, but they’re going to have to step things up a bit if they want to win the Big Ten. Cutting down on turnovers and penalties is going to be crucial for them. After three blowouts and one hanging-on game, I was glad to finally get a seesaw battle that came down to the wire.

Friday, September 21

Nebraska Tailgate Report Is Up

The latest tailgate report is up an can be found here. I hear that Wisconsin doesn't have much of a tailgating scene, and that people mainly go to bars before the game. I may have to take a different approach this week.

Either way, On Wisconsin!

Sunday, September 16

Heart O The Heartland

Odometer: 3287
Location: Crete, NE
States visited: Iowa, Nebraska

While being home for a few days was nice, it was also a challenge because there is far more distraction there. Friends and family want me to say hello and I have to worry about things like paying bills and fixing broken garages. Consequently, time moves really fast and I feel like I’m not getting enough done each day. My goal was to depart on Thursday morning for Nebraska, but because there were still so many items on the to-do list, I didn’t shove off until about 2pm. This of course meant that I hit traffic on the way out of town. When I finally arrived at the Super 8 on the outskirts of Crete, Nebraska (population 6,028) it was after 10, and I had to choose between Pizza Hut and Burger King for dinner. My Pizza Hut waitress, a young woman who had recently enlisted in the army, told me she had just been to Chicago. “How’d you like it?” “It was scary. I barely left my friend’s apartment.” I didn’t get into how she was going to like Fallujah, but I can’t imagine that’s going to go over so well if she gets deployed one day.

Crete is a quaint, smalltown USA kind of place. It’s the type of town I haven’t spent any time visiting since I was a kid on family road trips. I wanted to spend some time there on Friday, but because my hotel’s wireless internet was not working, I had to get into Lincoln early so I could check e-mail.

I had no idea what to expect from Lincoln, having only been there previously as a quick stop on road trips to Colorado. The university is split into two campuses, East and City. On Friday afternoon, both the city campus and the downtown area had a sleepy feel. There was not much going on. Even a lot of the businesses were closed. Maybe everyone was hanging out on the east campus. The only amped up people I found were some sophomores who had been waiting by the stadium since Thursday evening so they could get front row seats Saturday night. The Haymarket area comes off as a bit touristy and manufactured, but still nice. I spent more time in the downtown section which started to pick up once evening hit. I was astonished by how cheap the drinks were and immediately lamented the half-hour drive back to Crete. Passing up dollar-beer night at a packed college bar is not a choice I make without significant consternation.But the main event was on Saturday, and I was able to arrive early and immediately checked out my boys in line at the student gate. They were still the only ones there and campus security had forced them to remove their tent. If anyone was upset by the suddenly cold temperatures, it was them. Three guys made it through the night and were left famished while waiting for their replacements to relieve them. Gameday held their broadcast from within Memorial Stadium. I poked my head in to check out the scene. After dogging them for having only a couple hundred people in the audience last week at LSU, I was astonished to find the entire west grandstand completely full of red-clad Husker fans. Reports indicated that they comprised a Gameday record crowd of 18,051 people. And all of ‘em were riding Kirk Herbstreit. I was impressed and amazed. I can’t imagine standing there for two hours watching a TV show, but these people seemed excited to be there. One could argue that the LSU fans were more serious about getting down to the business of tailgating, and that’s a potentially valid point. Interpret the difference as you will. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gameday lean towards more visits to Lincoln in the future. Tailgating ramped up more slowly than at the other schools I’ve visited, but that could be because everyone was still in the stadium. Tailgate lots were wedged in to all sorts of places, and the whole thing felt a bit cramped. After the impossibly friendly greetings I received from people at Clemson and LSU, I found the Nebraska folks were a bit reserved with me when I first approached. That may have more to do with the fact that I had gotten used to the southern crowd than any real skepticism from people. Once we got a dialogue going, however, everyone was extremely nice and generous. I have been really blown away by how welcoming all the fans have been at my first four stops. I’m going to try not to take it for granted going forward. Several decades ago, Bobby Bowden brought his upstart Florida State Seminoles into Memorial Stadium to play Nebraska. That was back in the day when his team’s motto was “anyone, anywhere.” They managed to win the game, and it crossed Bowden’s mind that his team wouldn’t be able to get past the raucous crowd alive. Instead, the Husker faithful gave his team an ovation as they left the field, prompting Bowden to say, “Those are some of the best fans in the country”. To this day, Nebraska fans have a reputation as being the best. What that means is that they respect their opponent and its fans. They cheer hard for their team, but applaud the visitors if they deserve it. All the Nebraska fans I spoke to took this mantle very seriously and actively do their part to uphold it. The visiting USC followers all seemed to be having a great time, and joined in with tailgates all across the various parking lots. With no ticket, and no media hookup, my plan was to wait until close to kickoff and see if the scalpers were dropping their prices. Rumors of tickets being sold on e-bay for 500 dollars meant that there was a good chance I would be watching the game from a barstool. After about forty-five minutes of asking, I stumbled across a foursome headed away from the stadium who had a ticket to sell. They had no price in mind and I foolishly blurted out “80” for the second time this season (Notre Dame as the other instance). They accepted my offer and I said, “I’ll see you in there.” “Oh, uh, no.” They were going to the bars. I knew that if I hustled, I could make it to my seat in the 94th row of the north endzone section in time for kickoff. Even though the north end is the new part of the stadium, getting into the seating area is a major crush. There was a little pushing and shoving, and one shorter guy who had his woman in tow pushed me to the side and tried to pass where there was no room. When he found his way blocked, there was nowhere for me to move, and I was between his wife and him. He turned to say something to her and hit me in an open eye with the bill of his baseball cap. I flinched and rubbed my eye, but the guy didn’t say a word. I said, “Hey man, you just poked me in the eye.” His response: “You popped your head in there!” I was a little bit surprised, particularly because I was in Nebraska and I was struck by how nice everyone had been the entire weekend up to that point. I said, “All I was looking for was a ‘Sorry, dude.’” “Next time, don’t pop your head in there!” People who have been reading since the days of my old blog may recall a far more extreme altercation involving a short guy wearing a hat. I’m proud to say that I kept a much cooler head this time, merely exclaiming, “You make me want to root for the other team, guy.” The craziest thing about all this was that he only made it into the stadium about fifteen seconds before I did.

I put it behind me and at long last climbed many stairs up to my spot. The seat next to mine was vacant, which I thought was odd since the people selling my ticket only had the one. The stadium was buzzing with excitement. All day, people kept mentioning how this was the first time they had hosted a #1 team since the 1978 Oklahoma game. The game begins with a ritual called Tunnel Walk. The blast The Alan Parsons Project’s Sirius (the same intro the Chicago Bulls use) and show a video on the jumbotrons. The music heightens the intensity, but I have to say that the video came off as tacky. It was a series of CGI football players doing things like jumping out of a plane and walking through a waterfall. They should use Tommie Frazier highlights. That kid was fast. Anyway, the place was going wild and I was glad to be there. USC took their first possession for an awfully quick touchdown drive from their four yard-line. Soon after that, a man came up to me and said I had a bad ticket. At first I had no idea what he was talking about. Back on January 1st, 1998, I purchased a fake ticket to the Rose Bowl and still managed to use it. Ever since then, I have been wary of scalped tickets and made sure that what I was buying was genuine. I pulled out my ticket and showed it to him. “No, you don’t understand. You have a stolen ticket.” At Nebraska, if you lose your ticket or if it is stolen, you can go to the ticket office, show your ID, and have it replaced. You are then instructed to tell security if you find someone sitting in your seat. I find this policy questionable at best. What’s to stop someone from having a friend go sell their ticket and then go into the game anyway. Like all college stadiums, things are packed pretty tightly. But unlike other college stadiums, even the alumni stand most of the game. Todd, the guy who had the original tickets, wanted me to head all the way to the opposite end of the stadium and go to the student section which is general admission. However, since he graduated in 1989, I was a bit skeptical of his info and didn’t want to risk getting shut out entirely. Once I told him that I’d come in from Chicago just to see this game and assured him I was rooting for the Cornhuskers, he was extremely cool to me, knowing that I was even more mad about the situation than he was. Four people were drinking in a bar with my 80 bucks, which goes a hell of a long way in Lincoln. Todd turned out to be a hell of a nice guy and an extremely loyal and passionate Nebraska fan.

Many fans bring in helium-filled balloons which they release when Nebraska scores their first points of the game. Sounds kind of cheesy, right? Well, at least at a night game, it creates a really cool scene. My photo doesn’t do it justice: At kickoff, it was already pretty frigid. As the game wore on and the USC offensive line wore down the Husker defense, the wind picked up and the temperature continued to drop. I stuck around until Nebraska scored a touchdown to make it 38-17. At that point, I decided to head out and beat the traffic. I sorely wanted to hit the bars again and take advantage of the bargain prices. But after another long day of meeting and eating – and with a half-hour drive back to Crete, I decided to pack it in. The drive from Chicago to Lincoln is a tiresome one, but I’m definitely up for doing it again sometime. Home and home vs. Michigan? How’s that sound? Someone get Pederson and Martin on a conference call…

Also, I want to give a thanks to my friend Brandon of Midwest Coast Bias. He helped me get set up with some crucial information and also kept me updated on the Michigan/Notre Dame score while I was busy chatting with red-clad revelers. Just for Brandon – and everyone else, here’s that run you all mentioned:

Sorry, Florida fans. But you'll get your say in about six weeks.

Friday, September 14

More SI On Campus Tailgate Reports

Two new tailgate reports are up. Clemson came out on Monday, and LSU was posted Thursday. Thanks to everyone for reading - here and there! Look for a Nebraska report next week... No idea on the day yet. Whenever I finish it...

Thursday, September 13

Baby Dontcha Wanna Go

Odometer: 2632
Location: Chicago, IL
States Visited: Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missoui, Illinois
Mississippi Crossed: Thrice

After a fruitful weekend in Baton Rouge, I was found myself without a definitive plan for Sunday morning. For the first time in this endeavor, I didn’t have a specific place I was supposed to be. Having never been to New Orleans and also having been told of the wonders of the Jazz sandwich at Verdi Mart, I decided I would spend Sunday night in The Big Easy and then slowly make my way north to Nebraksa. But then I started thinking about my finances and realized that I could make it home in one straight shot if I left right away, saving me at least $300 in the process. So that’s what I did.

Highway 55 goes pretty much from Baton Rouge all the way up to Chicago. It’s about 14 hours if you don’t stop anywhere to eat or see the sights. Not that I passed too many tourist attractions along the way. Tempted by the lure of Memphis, I opted to keep on truckin’ and get home as quickly as possible. Towns with names like Ebenezer, Gluckstadt, Braggadocio, Cape Girardeau, and Coffeeville also piqued my curiosity, but they would all have to wait for some return trip. I’m holding up surprisingly well on these long drives, largely due to all the technological doodads I have with me. My I-pod has been on shuffle, and I’m currently at song 334 out of 4418 (“Budo” by Miles Davis in case you’re curious). SIRIUS satellite radio has its flaws, but four straight hours of Howard Stern can scoot you across a state with minimal boredom. A digital voice recorder allows me to take notes while avoiding a choice between pulling over and causing a sure accident. And cruise control is probably the third greatest invention in history (after air conditioning and soap – seriously, imagine how reeky everyone was before soap).

I’m a big map guy. I’ve always been good with maps and was handed navigational responsibility on family trips at a very early age. For my birthday, my brother gave me a Garmin GPS Navigator thingy which has reduced the stress of driving by myself. The thingy was badly in need of a nickname and while talking with a recent Clemson grad, we stumbled across one by accident. “Grandma” (so named because the girl misunderstood my mumbling) pretty much tells me what to do every step of the way. That has made things a bit weird for me, a map guy, in that I never really know where I am. I only know where I’m going. It has been a challenge for me to take it on faith that Grandma knows the way, but with a few minor exceptions, she has been very on point. She often yells at me when I defy her, be it a pit stop or to take a route I think might be better. “Turn right!” You can feel the scorn when I don’t follow her directions. Any deviation from her declared path is always met with a disdainful, “Recalculating!” But Grandma has been an extremely useful companion getting me where I need to go while breaking long drives up into chunks between turns.

A few other items from LSU:

College Gameday (built by the Home Depot!) was in Baton Rouge. It looks like a much bigger deal on TV than it does in person. They have flawless technique in using all the best camera angles to make things look packed even if they aren’t. It was viciously hot because there was not a bit of shade on the field where their set was plunked down. There were only a few hundred people crammed around the stage, but on TV, it looked much greater. I think Gameday is going to be in Lincoln this Saturday (those guys are following me around – I had my schedule set up way before the season started!). For the most part, people are glad to have them in town because it obviously means it’s one of the top games of the week (provided the game airs on ABC or ESPN). But as far as the show itself goes, I don’t think there’s much of an appeal for the fans.

In addition to Tyrus Thomas, Shaq was in town for the game. Here’s a picture of his bus: It’s one of the most ostentatious things I’ve ever seen. Emblazoned with a painting of Shaq lording over famous movie gangsters like Vito Corleone, Tony Montana, and Jimmy Conway, there’s no question who owns the vehicle. Plus, it has the Superman logo Shaq has attempted to adopt as his own. Here's guessing that Shaunie won't be seeking this bus in the divorce settlement. At least the license plate was done in tribute: “WILT C”

All throughout the day, LSU fans told me one of their favorite things about being an LSU fan was Tiger Band. People began lining the road that leads into the stadium hours in advance to witness the band’s entrance. It was like the Gay Pride parade in Chicago. OK, no, it wasn’t like that. But I was impressed by what a showing there was. The band comes right by Mike the tiger’s enclosure and enters via the student gate to wild cheers and applause from the crowd. Obviously they were just getting warmed up for all the screaming set to take place inside the stadium. Perhaps this was a bigger event because it was the first home game of the season, but I was impressed nonetheless.
Off to Lincoln next!

Sunday, September 9

Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez

Odometer: 1712
Location: Port Allen, LA
States Visited: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana

Note that this posting was really supposed to be split into two, but it’s been an extremely busy time here at Road Games HQ, so it’s all going to come down in one.

The first person I spoke with on Saturday morning closed our conversation by telling me, “You’ll see a lot of characters here.” He didn’t know how right he was.

I did not have much of a plan on Friday and spent most of the day working and conducting phone interviews. Right as I was set to try to hit the town and see what’s what, the skies opened up and a long torrential downpour battered the area. I decided it was not the appropriate time for me to drive around trying to find a place where I could buy a pair of waterproof pants. The rain died down just a little and I headed across the Mississippi River to see what I could see on the campus. I was really just wandering around in my car, trying to get a feel for the place. I probably should have stopped and tried to find a bar somewhere, but again, the weather was awful and people generally didn’t seem like they were out and about. I did finally manage to get some waterproof pants, but along the way, I spotted a liquor store whose sign read, “BOURBON TASTES LIKE FOOTBALL.” I knew I would have plenty of opportunity to party on Saturday.

The temperature climbed well into the 90s on Saturday which, coupled with the rain from the day before, made for a pretty sticky day. By 10am, it was already nearly unbearable. This meant that when I stopped to chat with people, I made sure I spent as much time in the shade as possible. Luckily, the on-campus tailgates were all shrouded in trees so that was an easy proposition.
When people found out I was from Chicago, they immediately tried to see what I could handle. First it was boudin (pronounced “Boo-dahn”) which is kind of like dirty rice made into sausage form. Salty and spicy, it was right up my alley. At my next stop, I was handed and oyster shooter. The raw oyster, vodka, and tobasco sauce was kind of hard to take down in one shot, but I managed. It wasn’t exactly a way to savor the oyster, but I’m sure my stomach liked it. Local flavor was on display all day long. I sampled Jambalaya, Pastalaya and other Cajun delicacies. I also had some excellent kebabs. Whenever someone in Hokie gear would pass by a tailgate, the LSU fans would growl and shout, “Tigah bait!” It honestly scared the hell out of me the first time I heard it. I was munching on some boudin and talking to a guy in his 50s, and he suddenly yelled, “Come on! RRrraarrrrrrrr! Tigah bait!” Until he said the tigah bait line, I had no clue what was going on and thought he had momentarily gone insane. The best thing about this process is that as soon as they are done berating the opposing fans, they invite them in for drinks and food. At halftime of the game, I asked one of the Hokie fans what they thought about it and they said, “Yeah, it gets a little old after a while, but it’s a lot better than what they could be yelling.” Seriously, they could have been Rutgers fans.

The folks at LSU have a lot of axes to grind. With no natural rival, they create the hate where they can get it. Lots of people wore anti-$aban t-shirts, but the bigger ire was directed at USC. One gentleman asked me where I was going next, and upon learning that it is Nebraska vs USC, he shouted, “I hope they beat the fuck out of USC. Fuck USC!” That was par for the course whenever USC was mentioned. The Tiger fans are still not over the 2003 split title, and root against USC every week. Though they would love nothing more than to meet them in the National Championship game this year. And based on how solid LSU looked Saturday night, I’d say they very well may end up there. The LSU tailgate scene is quite the party. The main goal of all tailgaters is to live it up. Between the food and the drinks and the music, it’s a full on party. College students mingle with alumni and swap stories and beverages. I’ll put it this way. This was not the only eight-person funnel I encountered. The LSU athletic department treated me extremely well. They not only gave me a press pass, but I was also able to interview one of their Athletic Directors, a game marshal, and a man who’s been working one of the gates there for over fifty years. After spending my day beating the heat, I made my way up to my assigned place in the press box. I am not going to say that I didn’t belong there. I write a column of SI On Campus and I am working on a book about college football. That makes me a journalist, even if I’m not a properly trained one. But when I arrived at my spot, I found I was placed between Steve Megargee of and Matt Hayes of the Sporting News. To Matt’s left: Stewart Mandel (, Dennis Dodd ( and Pat Forde ( Let’s just say that all of those gentlemen have more distinguished writing careers than I do. At least at this point. So it was a bit surreal being up there, and seeing how things operate. The most notable thing is that all of these guys are college football fans just like the rest of us – save for the fact that they have to be objective. But they were all keeping eyes on the other games going on and chatting with each other about big plays (one let out an “Oh Colt” when McCoy threw a pick-six to TCU) and surprising upsets (“South Florida took the lead!”). Until the LSU game kicked off, the scene wasn’t that different from any of us hanging with our friends and watching football. Once the game began, I didn’t spend much time in the booth as I’m trying to meet fans, and while the journalists certainly are fans – they’re not exactly the kind of fans I’m seeking. Fifteen minutes before kickoff, I bolted for to join the crowd. In the elevator, I rode down one floor with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. Then, upon arriving at the field level, the first thing I saw was Chicago Bull Tyrus Thomas.

But I was there to get the fan experience. I can safely say this was the loudest stadium I’ve ever been in. With all due respect to Clemson, which was extremely loud in its own right, Tiger Stadium is otherworldly in terms of volume. Fans screamed their heads off the entire game, even after it turned into a blowout. In the second half, I moved to a seat where a kid behind me who must have been eight years old was hollering his brains out. I was totally impressed. Again, I go back to the fact that Michigan crowds should be much, much louder. There is no excuse for our lack of volume. I wanted to hit the bar scene a bit, but after another extremely long day in the heat, I figured it was best to get back to the hotel room and get some notes taken. I want to give a shout-out to my friends at Tiger Pimp Nation who provided me food, drink, and tales.

Finally, I have to say that while I’m glad that the rain held off for the most part on Saturday, it appears that I missed out on all kinds of soaked shenanigans that go down when the weather is worse. LSU tailgates, jackass style:

And this:

Reverse angle:

Nebraska/USC is up next. See you there!

Friday, September 7

First SI Tailgate Report Is Up

In addition to the blog and the eventual book, I'm also doing a little freelance work for's On Campus section. That has helped a little bit in dealing with the more reluctant interviewees, especially when it comes to taking photos of them. There will be one of these per week, and the Notre Dame edition is now posted up on the SI On Campus wesbsite.

So give it a click and let me know what you think. I'm just glad they ended up using the Saddam Hussein tattoo... Direct link to the column can be found here.

Thursday, September 6

Friendly Faces in New Places

Odometer: 1125
Location: Clarkston, GA
States visited: Georgia

First a couple of tidbits left over from the Clemson trip. Rather than occupying houses off campus, most of the fraternities at Clemson all live in a quad – basically dorms, but all the dorms in the quad are faternities. For the last several years (either five or fifteen, depending on who I was talking to), they were not allowed to have “tailgates” before games. Something about too much underage drinking or some such thing. Monday marked the return of the quad’s tailgate. To make sure they had really did it up, a Led Zeppelin cover band named Zoso was hired to play the party. They ripped it up despite the lead singer’s bald spot, and the crowd really got into it. It was an odd scene. It was like ten fraternity parties all fell on top of one another and joined to form an amorphous blob of a frat party. Also, the fraternity guys dress in shirts and ties for the game, while the sorority girls wear sundresses. Often times, the shirts and dresses are orange.
My dad sent me a press release that talked about Clemson trying to step up recycling on gameday. Part of me is glad to hear it, while another part of me says, “well, it’s about damn time!” There actually were a fair amount of blue bins around, but nowhere near what they actually need because there are so many tailgate areas. Anyway, as you can see, the amorphous fraternity blob did its part:
I snapped a (somewhat fuzzy) picture of Bobby Bowden doing absolutely nothing near the end of the first half. This is pretty much how he looked the whole game. At least he’s a good recruiter, right?
On my way to Atlanta, I stopped in Athens, Georgia since the UGA game I’m going to is going to be in Jacksonville. They had a really cool downtown that reminded me a lot of Ann Arbor, but with more bars. I hung out there all afternoon and envisioned how much fun it would be to spend a weekend there. The campus wasn’t as nice (at least the parts I saw), but with such a cool downtown, who cares? One major difference was that one of the Bulldog paraphernalia stores didn’t merely have the typical t-shirts, stickers and Jordan jammers. They carried sun dresses in UGA colors. Not gonna see this in Big Ten country. Then again, I defy any of these women to wear a sun dress to Camp Randall stadium in November…
Another reason I was so psyched for this trip is that I’m going to get to see a lot of old friends who have left Chicago or are friends from even longer ago. Tuesday evening, I arrived at Erik & Chrissy’s Dander Palace in Clarkston, GA. It’s just barely OTP (outside the perimeter), making technically, but also figuratively suburbs. Erik and Chrissy are not "suburb people," but they have two very large dogs and three cats. They managed to land a really cool house with a gigantic yard which is great for the dogs. Why am I telling you this? I just wanted to show off my new Atlanta lingo. Because I was only there for a couple days and everyone had a lot of work to do, we didn’t really go ITP. But they were excellent hosts and we had a hilarious time retelling old stories and looking up subversive terms on Wikipedia. Maybe next time.

Now it’s off to Baton Rouge for what purports to be the biggest game on the schedule this week. I can not wait to get down there. Geuax Tigers! And Hokies, too!

Tuesday, September 4

Racing Downhill

Odometer: 974
Location: Easley, SC
States visited: Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina

The eight hour drive from Cincinnati to Clemson started early and went easily. The hilly terrain in Kentucky was picturesque, but Tennessee was downright gorgeous. The curvy path through the Smoky Mountains passed dangerously close to Boone, North Carolina – home of Appalachian State. A fill-up at a local gas station allowed me to catch a glimpse of the frontpage of the Sunday paper. Three guesses as to what the lead story was… Seconds after encountering a billboard for the “As Seen on TV Outlet,” I passed an absolutely gigantic cross erected by the side of the road. It had to be at least fifty feet high. Finally, on descent out of the mountains, I saw a roadside market that consisted of only two stores. One advertised peaches and boiled peanuts, a delicacy I have yet to try, though they sound interesting. On the next swing through, I’m definitely going to give them a shot. The other store was called “Dixie Outpost” and the sign boasted “Pro-south merchandise” which appeared to consist mainly of bric-a-brac stamped with the Confederate flag.

I couldn’t stop at any of these places because I was on my way to Clemson, South Carolina and wanted to get there in time for the “First Friday” parade. Every year before the first game of the season, a parade runs through town and then culminates in a pep rally. Of course, since the first game was on Monday night this year, they had “First Sunday,” and no one knew whether they should call it First Friday or First Sunday. (Thanks ABC!) Absolutely everyone was wearing orange, a fashion statement that would continue throughout my time in Clemson.
Before arriving, I had gotten in touch with a couple of Clemson bloggers from Danny Ford Is God. They were such incredibly generous and gracious hosts and truly gave new meaning to Southern Hospitality. Not only did they show me around town and clue me in to all kinds of Clemson traditions, they made me dinner on Friday and hooked me up with a ticket for the game. Plus, they knew how to navigate the blue laws and get us some beer on a Sunday night (Thanks ABC!). Just an amazing performance by those guys. Check out their blog, too because it’s very well written and entertaining.

Those who know me well have probably heard me mention that I haven’t spent much time in The South, and that was one of the many reasons I wanted to take this trip in the first place. My second time in South Carolina has further showed the state to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. Nearly everyone I met was eager to get to know me and extremely hospitable. Having now spent a combined three days on the eastern and western extremes of the state, I have to say it’s the friendliest place I’ve ever been.

Clemson is a former military academy, and it seems that everyone there really knows the history of the school. The town of Clemson has about 12,000 permanent residents, but 17,000 students. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the town is of course dominated by the campus. Even though it’s perched on a the side of a sloping hill, the football stadium is incredibly tall and can be seen rising up from various points on campus.

Fearing limited parking, I arrived very early on Saturday morning and nearly broke the Corolla pulling into a grass “lot” which was actually a big hill near the library on campus. It’s a Corolla “Sport” which means there are some fancy-schmancy ground effects. I was directed over a small ridge and was certain that I’d busted off the part that hangs below the front bumper. But when I got out, Adam seemed fine. (Yeah, that’s right – my car is named Adam Corolla – because it has big freaking eyebrows just like me. Now you know I’m just dorky enough to name my car. The last one was named Bela Corolla after the gymnastics coach. Let’s just move on…) At Clemson, there isn’t one main tailgate zone. People pull their cars up in lots and fields all around campus. All of the tailgating is free, but certain spots are reserved and other fields are permit-only. People with RVs and reserved spots start showing up three days before the game.I spent about 12 hours roaming the grounds, meeting as many people as I could. By the end of the day, I felt like a goose being prepared for foie gras. Everyone insisted that I ate and drank with them. It was ridiculous. “Have some barbecue” was the most frequently uttered sentence. Again, southern hospitality at its finest. Absolutely everyone was dressed in orange. Even the porta-johns are orange.Once in the stadium, I had an absolute blast. My ticket was for the Hill, a general admission grass section dominated by freshmen and sophomores. It’s steep as hell, but I managed to grab a spot about ten feet up on the three foot wide flat ridge. Clemson players enter the stadium via that same hill, each touching Howard’s Rock before sprinting down the hill at the signal of a cannon shot. I should have been a little closer to where they come racing by, but I could see the helmets. It’s one of college football’s great traditions, and was really exciting to see up close.

The stadium has the distinction of the loudest outdoor crowd noise on record (127 dB at the Miami game – I was told this stat repeatedly throughout my two days in town). It did not disappoint. When Florida State took the field offensively, it was deafening. That continued to happen, particularly in the first half when Clemson was beating the tar out of Florida State. I have always been disappointed with the volume in Michigan Stadium (as has just about everyone I imagine). The only time I remember it being truly loud – loud in that same overwhelming way that Death Valley was loud Monday night – was against Notre Dame in 1997. Michigan clung to a seven-point lead and proceeded to turn the ball over in its own territory on three straight possessions. Tommy Hendricks intercepted a pass in the endzone on the first one, and on the next two, the defense moved Notre Dame backwards. Death Valley does have a very high upper deck which has to help keep the sound in, but every one of those fans participates and yells their brains out. There’s no reason Michigan can’t do better…My plan for all these games was that I would try to be neutral – you know, like a real journalist. But after a couple days in town and meeting so many cool people, I became wrapped up in the whole scene. I too donned an orange t-shirt and cheered hard for the home team. When they scored their second touchdown, the entire hill was leaping up and down. Like and idiot I joined in and then was immediately reminded that I have a totally wrecked left knee. The pull of the fun atmosphere was undeniable. But on future scores, I wisely didn’t leave the ground. For the fourth quarter, I moved around to excellent seats at the forty yard line. Clemson was able to hold on for victory, and the crowd was given the opportunity to rush the field in an organized, civil way.After being on my feet for 16 straight hours, my knee was stiff as can be and I was pretty wiped. In fact, all the fans were pretty wiped. For people who’d just seen their team hold on for a dramatic victory against a conference rival and start the season with a leg up on the rest of their league, you’d think they would have been going crazy. But I think a full day of tailgating and the stress of holding on for a tight win had taken its toll. Plus, the game didn’t finish until midnight and everyone there except me had to go to work or school the next day. Getting out of town to my hotel ended up taking about an hour and a half. I waited over a half-hour to “let the traffic die down” and then waited in a line of cars that simply wasn’t budging. Clearly, the town of Clemson wasn’t designed to handle that much traffic leaving at once. If it were a normal Saturday, then I’m sure people would go back to their tailgates and trickle out naturally. Thanks ABC!

All in all, I had a fantastic time. If I ever get the opportunity again, I would love to go to another game there. Maybe a home-and-home vs. Michigan? That would be sweet, wouldn’t it? Nah, too close to Appalachia…

Monday, September 3

Dealing with Distraction

Odometer: 428
Location: Cincinnati, OH
States visited: Indiana, Michigan, Ohio

My departure from Chicago was of course more complicated than it needed to be, but that’s probably not a surprise. As stated previously, there were many tasks to complete and people to contact and stuff to pack. I had made it all the way to Hyde Park by the time I realized that my toiletry bag was not among the luggage I loaded into the car. Just minutes from the Skyway entrance, I made the snap decision to go back home for the bag. That brain fart set me back over an hour. Consequently, there was no visit to the college football hall of fame.With all appropriate gear now in tow, the trip to South Bend was quick and easy. This did not prove true once I got there. I have a Garmin GPS navigational system and it certainly has its strengths. But it has no idea where you’re supposed to park for the Notre Dame pep rally. After doing a long lap around South Bend, I finally figured out where I was supposed to be and was greeted by the marching band playing the Virginia Tech fight song in the parking lot outside of Notre Dame Stadium. With the pep rally due to start in one hour, I scrambled to get in line for my free ticket. The lap around town proved to be a potentially major setback as the ticket queue stretched nearly the complete circumference of Notre Dame Stadium. It was amazing. Either Irish fans are really into getting something for free or they’re ridiculously devoted to the team. The Joyce Convocation Center was packed to the rafters with people prepared to scream wildly in celebration of the season’s commencement. Students arrived from their dorms dressed in customized matching shirts, chanting and cheering as they walked across the campus. In the arena, the noise was deafening as fans welcomed Charlie Weis, Joe Theisman, Chris Zorich, and the 2007 football team. Two guys wore gigantic paper mache masks resembling Weis and Lou Holtz, though they couldn’t see very well and kept bumping into one another while trying to find their seats. As the crowd filed out on the last echoes of The Victory March, all seemed confident that they would indeed crush the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets tomorrow.Tailgating began pretty early for some – I arrived at 8:00 am and many folks were already set up. I strolled around campus for a bit and then joined Jay of Blue Gray Sky for a breakfast burrito and a bloody mary. Now that’s how you start a football Saturday. Most fans donned the new “official” T-shirt - green with the words “Together as One” over the leprechaun logo – or a Notre Dame jersey. There was an astonishing amount of cornhole being played. Apparently this game is gonna make it…I strolled around the grounds, trying to get the hang of this whole “Hi, I’m here to crash your tailgate and write down every thing you say” routine. For the most part, people were very nice and certainly up for talking to me. I even met a few former Notre Dame players who, at this point, blend in with everyone else. When they heard I went to Michigan, nobody got on my case about it. “Well, that’s a good school!” was probably the most frequent response.

However, as the day wore on, people began to inform me that Michigan was struggling to keep pace with Appalachian State. This was certainly distracting news. Then text messages from my Michigan friends came through saying things like, “I am having an effen meltdown with this team! SERENITY NOW!” and “Heisman – what?” I was faced with my first major dilemma of this project (well, aside from the whole quitting my career thing). The Michigan/Appalachian state game was on at a few tailgates. I could plunk myself down and watch – or I could keep working. After much internal struggle, I chose to keep doing interviews and talking with people about Notre Dame.

After entering the stadium, I called my friend Mike to get a status report. I could barely hear him, but I learned that we had taken the lead. He tried to give me play-by-play, but it just came out, “Oooorp! Uyyyyp! DoH!” I couldn’t hang on any longer. It was time for Notre Dame to start playing. I learned the news of Michigan’s ultimate defeat along with 86,000 other people from the Notre Dame Stadium public address announcer. It was the only thing they would be able to cheer about all day, and not the place I would pick to hear such news. I was totally distracted for the entire first quarter (along with the Notre Dame offensive line, apparently). Inner conflict swelled. Had I let my team down by not watching, and was this the punishment? Or did I simply pick the right year to go out on the road instead of remaining entrenched in my normal devotion to Michigan? As time passed, I leaned towards the latter. I am glad I didn’t watch that game.

Things didn’t go much better for the Irish faithful in South Bend. It was an ugly game featuring fumbles galore and not much in the way of downfield passing. I scrambled out of there once there was no remaining chance for an Irish comeback and hit the road. I’m spending Saturday night with my aunt and uncle in Cincinnati. Then it’s off to Clemson for another game. I just hope I’m not cursed. After the disasters in Ann Arbor and South Bend, I have to start wondering.

ND Post Coming

I promise I'll get some posts up here soon. I've been driving and Clemsoning since the Notre Dame game ended. Until then, this will have to tide you over:

Popular Posts