Category Archives: Pac-10

Those who stay will be champions*

Five years ago I sat watching Patrick Turner and Mark Sanchez kneeling on the Rose Bowl turf, silent as Texas celebrated. From my perspective in the nosebleeds of the west stands they were pretty much the last USC players visible in the throng of streamers and burnt orange. They were both remarkably still, one knee down and one hand propped on a helmet. I remember thinking: These guys are going to lead us to another national championship. You just watched the single greatest football game you’ve ever seen, and it took maybe the greatest singular performance you’ll ever see. It’ll come again.

I still believe that. I still believe that the seniors who stayed – not just the ones who were slated to start or at least contribute in a major way but also the ones who had played the support role for so long and so often thanklessly unrecognized – would be champions.

This now goes against very obvious evidence to the contrary.

I think I knew Oregon was going to win. I think I even knew it would be by several touchdowns. That’s the rational part of me. The irrational part of me, the part that makes up well over ninety-nine percent of my being… that part said that 400 miles to drive on game day is nothing compared to the victory, the glory. Both parts were correct; it’s just that one was actually correct and the other still thinks the O’Dowd-Barkley fumbled snap cost USC the game, all the while ignoring Oregon literally running around in the Coliseum swerving back and forth as the Trojan secondary listened to ominous encores of Yakety-Sax and somehow the Ducks are lining up to snap the ball again even though they’re on defense and it’s a TV timeout and my god, is this the future?

I thought that several times during the game: is this really the future? Oregon’s offense has been documented; nobody was surprised at the outcome. Still: seeing it in person was a thing of beauty and pleasure, like watching apex predators doing their thing on the Discovery Channel. Wildebeest and seals don’t have to go to Eugene next year, though. I envy their demises in a totally pathetic and self-pitying way. Stanford’s win last year was also a thing of beauty: power running, play action, everything the Cardinal did involved kicking the shit out of us on every down in a brutal, pre-1989 USSR-putting-down-insurrections-in-Eastern-Europe kind of way. Stanford did not have USC looking so lost, though. Powerless, sure. Frustrtated without a doubt. But lost? Like we were playing an entirely different game with a different set of rules? Oregon made USC’s tackling look accidental, like they were sort of running into us and saying “Hey, good job man. Nice tackle. Thought I was going for six for sure,” and all the while T.J. McDonald didn’t even know the ball had been snapped and holy fuck there they go again.

I can admire that kind of dominance, but I wonder at the implications. I did not think much of Oregon’s skill players outside of LaMichael James and maybe Kenjon Barner, but this was a faceless wheel of destruction that required faceless cogs and sprockets to run the machine, and not Home Depot cogs and sprockets because this is a recession after all but literally stuff cobbled together out of wire and twist ties and pen caps, the kind of material you expected the federal government to use to build houses post-Katrina. The realization that this offense was different from the triple option, the Fun ‘n Gun, the spread, etc. was surreal at times. Those offenses were prolific, but they did not change the fundamental principles of football: time of possession meant something, and if you could hold the ball long enough you’d have a chance. Oregon is first in the nation in scoring and something like 115th in time of possession. Let that sink in for a bit.

It’s all a bit… rude. Running that offense with players I don’t even know the name of, and I live for this shit. I don’t even know where Darron Thomas prepped. I can tell what quarter it is by the Rorschach blots at Matt Barkley’s armpits because I’ve studied, and watching Oregon was new. New is unpleasant and foul and always disconcerting in college football. New usually means you’re stuck in the stands as some other team storms the field. New means we are old, and we are. And we were direct snapping to Marc Tyler half the game.

(We were also calling for bubble toss sweeps on 3-and-6 which is so old it’s almost recursively old, like we went back to all the plays ever called by every despised coach in the history of the game and condensed it: the trips left bubble screen when you need twelve yards, the run play on third and long, the designed 4 yard hitch on 3rd-and-6. It was an act of modernist despair and post-modern ennui, and I don’t know what any of that means because I was reading elaborate porn essays by David Foster Wallace in my English classes instead of shit about modernity and post-. It was certainly a new kind of futility and in certain respects it had a satisfying circuitousness to it, sort of like that song from the Lion King except by the end everybody but the hyenas are dead of dysentery.)

(Do sub-Saharan animals get dysentery?)

This got me to thinking. Oregon is the number one team in the country so there shouldn’t be too much shame in kinda-sorta giving them 3/4 of a game. I know I certainly don’t feel shame. Instead I wondered how long it’s going to be before I can go back to relying on USC football games as a rock solid source of love and pride and giddy affection rather than the current situation, which is probably best described as being filled with queasy apprehension and is described even better by 30 Rock via Alec Baldwin as “a guaranteed disaster, like eating a burrito before sex.”

Watching USC play has become a bit complicated for me.* My favorite game at the Coliseum was USC’s 70-17 win over Arkansas in 2005. That game had it all, and by all I mean utter destruction of the opponent. I am not one for tearful remembrances of close calls and hard fought wins unless they involve higher than normal levels of schadenfreude. A perfect game would be an eclipse of Georgia Tech’s 94-year old 222-0 victory over Cumberland, which was probably some kind of beauty school. I love 49-0 games. They make me happy in ways I would rather not diagnose. I’d like that back, consistently, and with vigor and anger and just a little bit of vanity. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, but I also know it’s hard to do. USC’s 21 point loss to Oregon is a very clear indication that my team is far away. Now the NCAA gets to crack its knuckles and decide whether it wants to add to my spiritual despair in the form of rejecting or accepting USC’s appeals. I must now face the knowledge that though redemption is just one Arizona State win away, it is in fact not really there at all until forces beyond my control – NCAA, the immediate senility of Chip Kelly and all his assistants – say so, and if history is any indication I will be shit faced drunk on New Year’s day, wondering what might have been. (Obviously.)

But it gets even more complicated, because the groundswell of the press and the people say it is so. Apparently the mystique of the Coliseum is gone. Besides the fact that Arash Markazi is viewed – however unfair it might be – as a Judas by the USC faithful, this article is extremely confused. The mystique of the Coliseum wasn’t the perceived invincibility of the Trojans on their own field, it was how the hell USC fans managed to get over their collective yawning for a few years and turn the place into a semblance of home field advantage. In that respect the mystique is gone: attendance figures are falling and will continue to fall until USC is ranked in the top ten with consistency. But then there’s this: that was the loudest Coliseum crowd I’ve heard in a long time. Ignoring the epic failures of the spirit squad’s contemptible mouse squeaks for chanting, it was a pretty good night crowd-wise. When USC exploded at the beginning of the second half and took the lead I overcame my usual attempts at civility and screamed “Choke! Choke!” at the Oregon fans behind me, then pointed at the silent away crowd in the southeastern end of the Coliseum and screamed, “It’s OK, they’re choking too!” This is very rare, and like all prodigies it foreshadowed events of great happenstance and stature, i.e. silent, glowering hatred and despair when the Ducks decided they were dangerously close to seriously messing up their points per game. Still, I was proud of the 88,000 or so fans who managed to show up and, even more surprisingly, wear red. There is still some shard of that pride left. And it was pretty cool to see the student section forget its apathy and rock out, even if it was to the way overplayed instrumental of Seven Nation Army.

None of that’s enough, though. This senior class will not have a national championship ring and it makes me sad. More often than I’d like to admit I think about scenarios where Reggie Bush comes back and redeems himself by mopping hallways and working at soup kitchens and holding PATs and then torching the rest of the Pac-10, but those are fantasy in more ways than just the obvious ones. Reggie Bush didn’t just leave, and he didn’t just transfer or declare early. He turned his back on us.

I wanted so badly for Stanley Havili to touch the crystal football, and then cradle it and stiff arm Rick Neuheisel. He deserved that. I’m not sure what kind of coda this season will have, and what it will mean to a guy like Havili. I know it isn’t the ending I wished for him, and that was with all my heart for a guy who stayed despite it all. I wished that for D.J. Shoemate, Havili’s former backup, even after he transferred to Connecticut. I wish the same for everyone who has a 2004 national championship ring: that they’ll never have to hear it wasn’t real. They know it was. I know it was. And I know it’ll come again.*

Patrick Turner had a solid but unremarkable career at USC. Mark Sanchez made my head dizzy with possibilities; he’s now the starting QB for the Jets and I don’t hold it against him. I think about what would have been had he remained for his senior year. Would it have stemmed the tide? Sanctions were coming no matter what. That 2009 defense was going to get exposed. Pete Carroll would’ve left anyway (right?), but losing his senior All-America quarterback instead of having a freshman All-America quarterback returning wouldn’t have helped. #1 and #6 played well and when they didn’t play well they played for USC, which means that so long as your name is not R. Jay Soward I will love you despite your drops, picks and false starts. #1 and #6 are still kneeling somewhere in the Arroyo Seco representing so much potential and promise and now all of that is memories and dreams, and that’s all they get to do now that my tangible connection to them is gone. Still, it’s a beautiful picture. I think about it idly, when my day turns to in-between moments and it makes me oddly happy, thinking about a 22-year old me thinking about the future.

I’ve always loved Bo Schembechler’s “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” It was such a Big Ten, 1960s steely-eyed thing to say. It was arrogant, too. Had Michigan succumbed to mediocrity Bo would’ve been fired to headlines reading, “Those Who Leave Will Make Us Champions”, which is the same thing but a lot more mean spirited. History loves a winner, though. I don’t know when I’ll again have that feeling in the Coliseum watching my team run up and down the field, dictating to my Oregon or Stanford counterpart in the southeast nosebleeds a contract for the better part of their souls as they watch their beloved heroes get absolutely dominated by USC. I definitely don’t know when we’re going to The Dance again. But I know this: I don’t have to watch Chip Kelly’s offense again for one more year, it’s four days ’til Saturday and I like our chances. If entropy powers one half of the universe, optimism powers the other.

Also, whiskey.

 

*I’d rather not explain how, when and why.

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It has become apparent I must be stopped, no matter the cost

The loss to Oregon State caused me to withdraw from the internet, television, newspapers and all forms of mass communication including but not limited to tin can-and-wire, shouting, smoke signals, imagined telepathy, real telepathy, gazing, ham radio, nostril flaring via elaborate mirror setups running along the beautiful oceanic stretch of Highway 1 from Cambria to Santa Cruz, the maritime code book, and talking. This is the first time I’ve been online since that terrible, terrible Thursday.

Apparently David Foster Wallace is dead.

This happened sometime around the fourth or fifth touchdown USC scored against poor, hapless, resurgent Ohio State, which was a week and a half before Oregon State, which means I am an idiot of elephantine proportions. Perhaps idiot isn’t the right word, but I do feel idiotic.

I like(d) DFW. “Genius” gets thrown around a lot these days, but he was a genius. More to the point of this blog, he was also an athlete who admired what athleticism represents, whatever that is (and DFW never claimed to know.) More than anyone else in the world he made me feel it was alright to ascribe awe, religiosity and mysticism to sports. He readily admitted, even after writing three essays about tennis and tennis players and an 1,100 page novel involving a tennis playing main character, he still couldn’t explain how Roger Federer does what he does. I have come to terms with the idea that I will never truly understand what happens on a college football field until I become a member of a Division I-A college football coaching staff and, in excruciating detail, review the tape. DFW, like Brian – whose own DFW obit I took, in absurdly monstrous dullness, as just a kind of “Hey, this guy is great. He’s not dead or anything. I simply wanted to explain how great he is,” further spiraling me into obtuse hell: I read most of it, glossing over some bits and recalling, very fondly, the beauty of footnote #17 from “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” but I still somehow missed the bit about suicide and, filing it in my internet cabinet of Things To Read And Do Later, assumed Brian was making a very accurate comparison between himself and DFW, and, yes, that’s all about as stupid as it gets – would very likely have been the kind of guy who’d break down game tape and watch it fully and comprehensively no matter the current situation, be that terminal illness, coitus or crippling spiritual agony due to a loss.

I can only imagine a DFW essay about college football. Very likely he would be funny, sardonic, baffled and intrigued. There is something about the suffocating, all-consuming coverage of college football he’d riff on, and in extremely humane and agreeable terms. He’d have done it recursively, and then doubt himself in that pathologically remarkable way that, for me, more than the footnotes, abbreviations and clauses, made DFW DFW. He also had an eye for detail that made its best effect in his essays, which were always fair to their subject and more often than not the kind of thing that made you think, “Holy shit, are all magazines full of this kind of stuff? What have I been missing out on after decades of not reading The Atlantic? Fuck fuck fuck,” but actually not that howlingly despairing because it’s a salve to the soul not reading more stuff by guys much, much smarter than you, but still: he was good, and you knew it the moment you read paragraph one, i.e. pages 1-6.

And it took me almost a month to find out DFW is dead. I suppose that’s the kind of detail he’d have included in an essay about college football: this guy is serious about the game, he obsesses about it, he doesn’t even know there’s a recession going on much less the fact that the author is dead by his own hand, etc.

So where does this leave me? This isn’t some promise to myself about being more involved with the world. I will continue to be obsessed with college football. And it’s completely absurd to think I won’t be devastated the next time USC loses.

I think I need to write more. That’s about it. I haven’t written much over the past year, so that’s a pretty solid hard fact to bang my head against. It’s been a pleasant nine months of stationary 40-hours-a-week life. I have money in my pockets and whiskey in my glass and a heavily monopolized daily routine of work, friends and ritual. Not traveling reminds me of the non-romantic bits they exclude on the Travel Channel: gas station showers, shitty cheap food, constant paranoia, 14-20 year old British citizens, etc. It really is nice to be in one place for an extended period of time without worrying about an expiring visa. But re-reading DFW’s essay on Roger Federer recalls the warm comfort I felt in my sternum, radiating outward with gauzy familiarity, after recognizing a fellow traveler in the well invested but rarely believable realm of Sport-As-Truth, Or-At-Least-A-Kind-Of-Truth. Some guys choose comic books or jazz or cars or porn as their personal cross to bear, a fetish they believe reflects the world in ways very few people realize. This kind of devotion to genre is admirable from within, occassionally repulsive and incomprehensible from without. Knowing everything there is to know about DC cosmology, or Charlie Parker, or 1967 the automotive year, or the shifting axis of power between central Europe and the San Fernando Valley: these things matter to devotees because they are the accumulations of Biblical or rabbinic or whatever-text knowledge, which is not itself understanding but at least one way towards understanding.

I firmly believe DFW and I can agree that sports matter. He was a giant who will be remembered for his words, and for killing himself and depriving the world of an intellect so radiant it literally hurt to read his work, a throbbing behind the eyes that came directly from those areas of your brain responsible for piecing together clauses and signalling, klaxon-like, the approach of someone so far above you it’d be better if you’d just bury your head in a pillow instead of continuing to read this wonderful but depressing thing. I don’t think a young DFW imagined he’d be remembered as a sportswriter, but I do think some of his most personal moments on paper came via sports. They were so very often relevatory, so very often the kind of thing I needed to read at 3 a.m. I crave that. I had, I think, forgotten I crave that after two or three months of monotonous sifting of beat reporters’ resigned repetition of each other’s words and the absurd and ill-conceived talking points of columnists and talking heads, from spring ball to the day before Oregon State.

Now I want to find my lost copy of Consider the Lobster, and maybe finally garrote the person who never returned A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. They both contain essays on sports, the kind I’ve been talking about: beautiful, meandering, a little bit sad, always authoritative but never dogmatic, occassionally miraculous, and very much willing to stand back and say, “That’s just grotesque.” He had the chops and the rep to write this kind of stuff and actually get it published, full formed, without tacking on the neat little coda all sports stories are required to have. It’s literally insane they let him do this kind of thing. It wasn’t like DFW was this physical force of nature like Hunter S. Thompson, who’d pull a gun on you rather than have a foul adjective edited into mere libel. He was a dove. But he wrote like a convict: deep in it, unafraid of censure, maybe even a little addled by the walls and the solitary but somehow still a bit sweet, like doing time is enough to make innocence seem more tangible. It’s amazing stuff, and, shit, it’s about tennis – but I crave it. Truth be told, though, I’d much rather write right now even though it’s obvious I’m not going to fully satisfy that craving by writing what I want to read because 1) I’m no DFW and 2) it’s a craving that cannot be fully satisfied. Still, it seems like the important thing is to write.

USC 41, ASU 16; but it’s gonna be a more interesting post if things don’t go smoothly so, just this once, for David Foster Wallace, maybe I’m hoping things don’t go that smoothly.

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Prediction…

No matter what happens tomorrow, Karl Dorrell will be fired.

And USC will win.

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USC home games in Pasadena? What. The. Fuck?

The story is carried by the Times and, more ominously, by the USC athletics’ site. USC has been at the Coliseum for 80 years and has renewed its lease on, from what I understand, a year-by-year basis. The Coliseum Commission has offered a 2-year lease. USC wants “improvements such as bathroom and concession upgrades, new seats, new gates, new lights, and a new sound and video system” for the Gray Old Lady, which, after the long and thus far futile courtship of the NFL, is basically a request to at least partially run and improve the facility because, again, the Coliseum was hoping a pro team would swoop in and excrete gold plated shitters everywhere. That’s the breakdown of it in simple human gold plated shitter terms.

But it’s that running the facility part that’s getting the Coliseum Commission to be total jackassed buffoons about everything – even if USC…

…has offered to fund a minimum of $100 million over 10 years toward the repair and restoration of the Coliseum.

But, again:

As part of that deal, the school would be in charge of running the venue.

The above quote makes it seem as if the university would be the sole manager which doesn’t seem to be the case to me. Either way it looks like the two parties are at an “impasse” right now, though I don’t know how realistic it would be for the Coliseum to give up its longest running, most faithful and highest profile tenant.

But, hey, at least they’re voicing their complaints about USC.

“As far as we’re concerned, they asked us for two years and the commission gave it to them,” said Pat Lynch, the Coliseum’s general manager. “If they asked us for five years, we’d give them five. If they asked us for 10, we’d give them 10. We can’t read their minds.”

Really, Pat? Really? That’s the problem? Because USC has gone above and beyond the call of duty by physically projecting, with mouths and pens and paper and voice boxes and stuff, what’s on its mind.

“Although we have been a faithful tenant of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for 80 years, we must now seek other alternatives for the good of our football program and our fans,” said Todd R. Dickey, USC’s senior vice president for administration. “The Coliseum has not benefited from substantive physical upgrades or preventive maintenance for more than 10 years because the commission has focused on attracting an NFL team that would renovate the stadium.”

Yeah the bathrooms could be improved. I suppose it’d be nice if the JumboTron was actually in sync with the audio, but that’s me. That whole Trojan Nation thing beneath the torch is pretty stupid, sure. But considering how old it is and how long it’s gone without “substantive physical upgrades” I think the Coliseum is fine as it is – it’s got chair backs and it’s not Cal’s Memorial Stadium, so I think those are two things that don’t need changing. And beer. We must have beer again.

The 2008 and 2009 future schedules of USC and UCLA each have one date when the teams would play a home game on the same day, but that logistical problem is just a small reason why I can’t see this “impasse” resulting in USC leaving to play in the Rose Bowl – and USC is actually closer to the Rose Bowl than UCLA, but obviously a stadium right off campus is just a bit closer than that. If it does happen, though, I seriously doubt the fickle Los Angeles fan bases will manage to sellout the Granddaddy even with the Trojans playing games there. USC can’t even fill the Coliseum to capacity when it’s No. 1. Can anyone imagine a USC-Oregon State game at the Rose Bowl? 75,000 would be optimistic. Ugh, what a nightmare.

Don’t even get me started on trying to get out of the golf course parking lots.

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Chauncey!

Chauncey Washington’s 220 yards were a career best, but no one ought to be surprised. I had Chauncey penciled in for greatness because, as we all know, former CIF Southern Section Division X players who make it to DI-A are the shit.

(Actually, I can really only think of three off the top of my head: Chauncey, Desmond Reed and Napoleon Kaufman. But they are all of them the shit.)

(Also, I have to hand it to Cal. Their throwback jerseys were thoroughly whatever in terms of asthetic appeal, but they triumphed over Washington’s throwbacks in one very important aspect: if you’re going to put on throwback jerseys, it’s important to don clothing that makes you look more like LSU and less like Notre Dame.)

The game ball must obviously go to Chauncey, but I finally got to watch USC play and I was completely unsurprised to see SS Kevin Ellison completely dominate the field. He missed two tackles but one of those was due to him trying to pop the ball out and another happened because Cal’s Justin Forsett ran like a greased up, incontinent Thor on his way to Asgard’s bathroom. (This imagery is not mine: it’s Neil Gaiman’s. That English bastard has a lotta nerve writing things before me.)

I do have to admit that, as I was sitting at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Knoxville full of nervous hatred, I jumped up and screamed “FUCK YOU” at Cal QB Nate Longshore after he got picked off by Terrell Thomas. I didn’t really mean it, Nate. It’s just that Desean Jackson got so little TV time I had to scream at somebody.

Jackson, who had two catches for 41 yards and two punt returns for zero yards against USC in 2006, had five catches for 64 yards and one punt return for zero yards in Strawberry Canyon on Saturday night. The above picture shows Thomas tackling Jackson on a punt return and also sums up Jackson’s contribution to the game.

Jackson looks like a cross between a gazelle and Edwin Moses, the eternal 400-meter hurdle champion who won 107 consecutive finals from ’77 to ’87, and in actual meatspace this bestiality analogy does Jackson no justice: #1 will out run anything with less than three legs and pat himself on the back while on the podium, but the gazelle and Edwin Moses were creatures of action and very rarely fonts of bombast and ego. Gazelles – when not hampered by the lack of a voicebox and higher thought – usually offered helpful, non-self centered advice only in African myths and folklore, and Moses – when not burning a hole in someone’s face with his I-may-very-well-want-to-kill-you-at-the-end-of-this-race stare – spoke of the self only in terms of winning: “I have the killer instinct,” Moses said. “It’s ego. When I’m on the track, I want to beat everyone.” I suppose if ESPN had been around during Moses’ streak he might very well have, when confronted by a couple dozen mics after every win, spouted off something ridiculous. He didn’t, though. He just ran and won. Gazelles don’t get asked for quotes much, either, but I’m pretty sure they just run and eat grass.

Desean Jackson called out Terrell Thomas in ESPN The Magazine’s college football preview, saying that Thomas needed the help of triple coverage and, by logic, shouldn’t have been talking trash.

Asked about the Thomas incident, Jackson told writer Bruce Feldman, “That dude was just talkin’ to be talkin’. If Pete Carroll told his 10 other players to focus on everything else and it was just me and Terrell Thomas, oh man, I’d expose that dude. But being the best player, you gotta deal with that stuff. It just makes you better.”  Apprised of Jackson’s comments on Wednesday, Thomas said, “He had two catches and we won — that’s all I care about. He can take it as an individual matchup. I enjoy the competition, but we play a team game. . . . It wasn’t just me. It was the whole defense.” Jackson also said he would rather defeat the Trojans than win the Heisman. “Honestly I don’t need to win it if we beat SC,” he said. [Can't find working link to LA Times article.]

I think it’s pretty obvious who got the better of whom here, so I won’t bother pointing that out. I will say that you should never, ever talk about winning Heismans and beating your rival and which one you’d rather do. Cedric Benson once said he’d rather win the Heisman than beat Oklahoma, perhaps not realizing that to do the one he had to do the other. Jackson is a fine player and will more than likely make someone else’s pants soggy with fear-urine when he opts to leave for the NFL, and I am grateful for it because I really only have one pair of jeans. I am also grateful because one of my favorite athletes of all time is Muhammad Ali, who perhaps invented but nonetheless perfected the art of trash talking and who dominated his sport for fifteen years. Trash talking is a wondrous thing, but only if you win. Those who jaw to the extent that Jackson has should be lifted up on high when they follow through and laughed at when they lose. I am now laughing at Desean Jackson, and rightly so. If you respect yourself, college football and the theory of trash talk, you should join in.

Now bring on the Holiday Bowl!

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OH NOOOOOOS

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Week two: Oklahoma 51, Miami (Fla.) 13, The U, bat wings, a cathedral

Norman, Oklahoma is, for lack of a better word, awesome. It is a word I do not use lightly. I am aware of the connotations.

Nonetheless I propose this descriptor in the hopes that those who come after me and my trailblazin’ ways do not ignore this part of Native America, as it’s put by the license plates, for fear of isolation or idolatry. Isolation? It weighs in at a respectable 102,827 residents as of July 2006. (Okay, perhaps that doesn’t shore up my argument.) Idolatry? You may have Norman there. I’ll spare you fatted calf analogies. Sooner football is The Alpha and The Omega here, and I specifically did not wear a pretty cool orange western shirt while in town simply out of respect for the local Levites. I’m not even sure if the orange could be categorized as “burnt”.

What was I expecting? I’m not sure. Provincialism, certainly. Cowboy hats. A distinct inferiority complex stemming from a rivalry with a state that is geographically four times larger, population-wise five times larger and, image wise, the size of the entirety of the United States of America – at least according to Europeans.

I found, instead, just another college town focused on the one thing college towns do best: channeling mom and dad’s hard earned cash into state revenue streams that emptied directly into a slush fund made entirely of Red Bull, triple sec and vodka. In this respect, at least, Norman is your average American (college) town.

I do not properly recall all of the roughly 120 hours I spent in Norman. Friday afternoon to Sunday morning is represented by that icon so endemic to Windows: the unknown file.

I can say with all certainty – after much deliberation, observation and concurrence from fellow observers, whose own conclusions matched mine to a degree nearing perfection once the minor aberrations common to such straw polling were eliminated, and indeed, ignored from the very start – that OU has attractive co-eds.

Moving on.

I had a number of interesting run-ins, conversations, moments of observation and points of confluence during my stay in Norman. A number of them occurred in Louie’s Too, a bar located on Campus Corner and the site of much of my haziness. I had to go to Oklahoma City, though, to land the big one.

On Friday, Sept. 30 I drove to a hotel near Oklahoma City’s airport to pick up a game ticket from a Miami fan. This fan was put into contact with me through the help of the indefatigable army of one that is a Georgia based USC fan who will go nameless. From here on in I will use fake names in order to shore up my guiltiness for writing about conversations the participants probably assumed were private. I will also, for no reason, switch to the present tense.

I pull into the hotel and the first person I spot once I get out of my hideously pinging Maxima is Williamson. Williamson is purposefully bald, short, squat, dressed in dark gray jean shorts, baggy white shirt, Euro trash shades and holding a frosted Miami Hurricanes beer glass. He is black and perhaps 35. He eyes me curiously, perhaps sifting, mentally, the odds of an Asian Sooner fan. Toby, the man I am here to meet, makes it clear that Sooner or not I am expected and temporarily welcome.

We exchange greetings, go down to the pool to drink beers and allow the two older men (Toby is in his early fifties, white, with a large bulbous nose the color and texture of an over ripe orange and the stoop and gait of a contented vulture, and I’m sorry to write this because he is a genuinely likable man and a Miami fan who travels with the team to every game) to stop sweating so profusely. It rains intermittently in anticipation of the next day’s weather, a collection of scudding clouds, pouring rain and roasting sunshine that can only be termed “extremely confused”.

Before I am even seated on a pool lounger with a frosty Shiner Bock in my hand (oh, to have the financial wherewithal to offer total strangers drinks! oh, to have the financial wherewithal to offer myself drinks in the plural!) Toby and Williamson are already discussing how the weather – hot, humid, incessant – will favor the ‘Canes. I listen politely, knowing as I do that homerism is no match for the kind of epic ineptitude represented by Miami’s offense of late. I have settled on prognosticating, amongst OU fans, a 14 point win and explaining to anyone from Coral Gables that Miami will lose by 6, but in the inner sanctum of my soul where the monkeys and their typewriters and the chains connecting one to another are located I have settled on a 9-10 point spread favoring the Sooners. The outcome (51-13 in favor of OU) does no one any good, except perhaps the 78,000 crimson clad in Gaylord Memorial.

Toby and Williamson are fascinating, engaging, well versed in team history and personally present for many of the infamous games in The U’s history. The two spend an easy forty minutes talking about both the 1987 Fiesta Bowl – known as the Camo Bowl to some because of the fatigues worn by Jerome Brown, Michael Irvin and the rest of that devastatingly self assured crew who churned out 445 yards to Penn State’s 162 yet still lost 14-10 – and the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which needs no explanation except that these two consider it a win and refuse to see otherwise. It has been 20 and 4 years, respectively, since those bowl games and yet the ability to talk about the two most painful losses in Miami history is unflagging. I wonder how many times they’ve done it before. There is, suddenly, a stark vision of Williamson crouched, his face painted in the olive drab colors of army issued camouflage, a Bowie knife in his teeth and the endless furnaces of Hell’s rage shining, fluoroscopically, from eyes that focus on a dim window somewhere in the Heartland of America where Terry Porter sits in a recliner, completely unaware of what’s about to happen.

I also imagine that after the deed Williamson, covered in jugular blood, comes up making “The U” sign with his hands and doing a little dance.

This is in no way a reflection on Williamson. He is as likable as a fat kitten that claws everyone, which is to say “Oh my god, that kitten clawed the shit out of her. That’s pretty funny!” It is, instead, a glimpse into the arterial fury Miami fans bear Porter, the judge who threw the pass interference flag in Arizona, and, frankly, what self respecting ‘Cane hasn’t thought about creeping up to Porter’s house at least once in his life? If only to put up “The U” and run away?

It is a measure of these two’s obsession with college football that I jot down notes amounting to the above with no more than a shrug.

Toby and Williamson are also the first true recruitniks I have met on the road. (Williamson reveals his online handle at a Hurricane message board they both frequent, and Toby is delighted. It turns out Toby is a lurker. I am also a lurker there, and it saddens me – and makes me question my level of focus in my chosen field of obsession – that I recognize Williamson’s screen name.) The discussion turns easily to Miami’s latest recruiting class and the wonders new head coach Randy Shannon is working. As they range over who’s going where and what silent commitments are holding true or flaking, I am continuously and increasingly dismayed by the number of familiar names I hear. That I am aware of 17 and 18 year old high school football players in the Miami-Dade area is slightly disturbing, but that I can converse and, yes, argue about their fates with men twice my age is a fact that comes full circle later on in the conversation.

At one point Williamson interjects himself with a good deal of stuttering pomp (he does this a lot). It is vaguely like being silenced by a cheery howitzer that wants to know if you’ve got enough to drink, and, man, you really should try some of this cheesecake. It’s the bomb.

The meaty part:

Williamson: It honestly got to the point where I thought Larry Coker was genuinely retarded. And I got friends with retarded kids, you know? I don’t say that kinda shit lightly. But what he did with The U? The only explanation is mental retardation.

(Okay. The above is not the meaty part. But it’s so good I couldn’t leave it out. The meaty part, which occurs about five minutes later after a rambling discussion of a particular Miami-Dade recruit who will go unnamed:)

Williamson: Now I’m gonna say something and don’t take it outta context. I’m gonna say it and you two’ll think bad of me, but don’t take it out of context. It’s just gotta be said. You gotta understand where I am coming from. [Note: Williamson is originally from Tallahassee and is now living in Corpus Christi, Texas. Yes. A 'Cane fan from Tallahassee.] There are seriously some niggers runnin’ around out there.

(Heavy pause to emphasize the phonological properties of the end of the word “niggers”, specifically consonant choice.)

Williamson [cont'd]: You see some of these kids these days and they act like they already own the place. You see ‘em on TV announcing his commitment on national TV and he thinks he’s the shit, you know? And for all he know, he is the shit! He’s gettin’ out of the projects and going off to play D-I ball. Two years later he ain’t even on the team. He’s kicked off or he can’t make it because he can’t even read and then he’s somewhere else, some shit school where he transferred to and suddenly he ain’t anything but a washed up nigger. And he ain’t even 19 or 20. If his high school hada dropped football he would’ve stopped going to school in the first place, so maybe he’s lucky to’ve made it to 19 or 20 in school.

Toby: I’ll tell you what it is: these kids have been built up from childhood, everyone telling them how good they are. They are putting athletes up on a pedestal.

Williamson: Sure, sure. They’ve got moms and uncles and shit hangin’ all over ‘em from Pop Warner on. They can smell it. It’s the money. People go crazy over it. And these kids come in and they can’t hang anymore. You look at someone like Willie Williams, he thought he was king of the world.

(Miscellaneous hoo-hahing about lobsters, limos and the like. It is utter black comedy, because behind it all you can sense the disappointment represented by Williams, who was expected to be a new Jonathan Vilma or D.J. Williams for Miami.)

Williamson [cont'd]: Now he can’t even start at Louisville. Louisville. [Note: this is after the Cardinals gave up 42 points to visiting Sun-Belt champ Middle Tennessee State.] And the coaches use that shit against us all the time. They use it in recruiting. Urban Meyer.

(This last is said with a contempt that doesn’t so much oscillate as it does crescendo, but crescendo is wrong because it implies a denouement. It is the wail of the banshee in the highest registers of hatred and it knows no end, and though natural human respiratory inertia demanded a terminus to the word “Meyer” the spirit of the thing rattles on and duly upward and, probably, Downward, and I am impressed. Toby snorts at the mention of Florida’s coach, crosses his arms and shakes his head exactly the way a Brahmin would while watching a leper attempt calculus.)

Williamson [cont'd]: They use that shit against us, the [Florida International] brawl, Bryan Pata, they say…

[Uptight white voice:]

“Oh, Miami, you don’t wanna go there. South Florida’ll ruin your career. Stay away from Miami.”

But let me ask you this [note: it's unclear if he's really asking me, or if he's asking a Rhetorical Other, or perhaps the source of the uptight white voice, but it's crystalline that he is serious, so I, too, attempt to look serious and not fidget and, say, scribble furiously in my notepad, which I have explained away by invoking the hallowed precepts of gas mileage and the financial calculations that go with it], okay? Do these niggers become niggers the minute they put on a Miami uniform? When do they become thugs? Do they start committing crimes once they put that helmet on. No. Niggers is niggers.

(At this point it should be noted that Williamson seems like a self made man: studious cell phone in a holder at his hip [the kind of holder, I might add, that screams "Call me anytime, here's my card, I know a good window guy who'll get you a deal, just call me, it's always on, here's my fax, too, so you can send me the itinerary for next week's lunch and say hi to Brandy for me, willya?"], the finances to afford a hot ticket, a nice hotel room and the time to make it all work instead of, say, working. He’s also got that frosted “The U” glass which is infinitely annoying if I were wearing crimson and cream, but I’m not so it’s endearing and maybe even a little bit cool, because hey, now I want one with Traveler on it. He is, all in all, a very likable guy and a huge Miami fan. In another life Williamson would’ve made an excellent preacher, the kind that spat fire in church and delivered swooning women into, if not Heaven, then at least the earthly delights only a self believing minister with a burning hunk of love can bring to a mortal woman. His banter with the Hooter-ish girls at the sports bar we end up going to is priceless. They love him. I love him because he is the center of a floating orbit of cleavage.)

Williamson [cont'd]: But these same coaches always come back to South Florida because Miami-Dade is where the football is at. You can pick up the leftovers once Miami and Florida State and Florida are done and you still gonna have stars. They know it, the kids know it. These kids need to get out. They need to get outta there, and the coaches feel that. They’re just like those uncles and moms and everyone else. Instead of money these coaches smell desperation, and in the end what do they care if a couple a’ niggers don’t make the squad? They get to look tough by kickin’ ‘em off, but the odds say some of these kids are gonna make it long enough to get drafted, and that means wins. You think Urban Meyer cares? You think he can relate? Shit, he’s whiter than a napkin, sorry Toby. That’s no disrespect to you. It’s just the truth. That’s why Randy Shannon is building something special…

Williamson goes on to recite, almost word for word and certainly a few sentences verbatim, an article by Gary Smith in the Sept. 10 issue of Sports Illustrated. After reading the article myself it’s hard not to root for Shannon, and hard to not scoff at Williamson’s claims that “Shannon is building a family. He’s building something special.”

Williamson and Toby are both fans of Miami, which is located in a state as racially diverse as any out there. Is this what allows them to discuss race so openly? Somewhat after the above, Toby says:

Toby: You know what Notre Dame’s problem is? They have trouble recruiting the black athlete.

There isn’t a single moment where any of us – not me, not Williamson and obviously not Toby – show a single sign of outrage or even disagreement. There is much agreement, and glee at the expense of Notre Dame, but no one bats a lash at Toby’s pronouncement. Notre Dame fans might counter with arguments regarding academic standards, which one could counter is in fact racist, and the argument can go on and on and on, but it remains that the same comment that got Fisher DeBerry fired after an absolutely stellar career at Air Force (he led the Falcons to 12 wins in 1985 and, at one point, a No. 4 ranking) can be uttered so casually and be taken so casually by three men sitting around a table, drinking beer, discussing football and accounting, between them, three separate racial categories.

I will note, however, that not thirty minutes after the following was said:

Toby: I’ll tell you what it is: these kids have been built up from childhood, everyone telling them how good they are. They are putting athletes up on a pedestal.

… the discussion turned rapidly to five star high school prospects Miami was eying, five star prospects that were no longer prospects in that they had committed to Miami (chest thumping, knowing nods and winks) or else to someone else (teeth gnashing, speculation on lack of skill, size, honesty, moral fortitude, humidity survival training, testes, good parenting, etc.), five stars along Miami’s defense and offense, five stars along Oklahoma’s defense and offense, why the ratios balanced favorably to produce an obvious two touchdown win for the ‘Canes, why those five stars would lead Miami undefeated through the rest of their slate to Nawlins where they would defeat USC, whose classes of five stars were overrated anyway and besides, Forston is coming to Coral Gables. C-A-N-E-S! CANES!

The irony is clearly not lost on me.

It also becomes clear, as Miami fans arrive throughout the week, that Norman is getting less white as game day draws closer.

The game itself is a laugher. Miami’s vaunted defense is occasionally great, more often just good and sometimes appearing mutinous as they glance at the ‘Cane offense sipping water on the sideline, perhaps deciding what floral arrangement worked best with the centerpiece. (Hint, Kirby: don’t go with the Lavender Rose.) Oklahoma has the curious habit of playing visiting team’s fight songs at the beginning of the game. Sam Bradford is efficient and though it seems, especially in warm ups, he doesn’t have the velocity a top D-IA QB should, he nonetheless makes the relatively rocket armed Kyle Wright and especially Kirby Freeman look like JV lambs pulled up for playoff slaughter. The specter of Friday night, where Miami fans consistently out cheered OU in Louie’s Too, particularly with their chants of “Boi-se Sta-ate!” (“Pea-each Bow-owl!” just doesn’t have the same kind of viciousness), is fading quickly. In fact there doesn’t really seem to be animosity at all. The student section is entirely too young to remember the span of time when Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer went 33-0 against the world and 0-3 against Miami, and, frankly, the contrast of the garishness of orange and green with the almost somnambulant earth tones of Oklahoma does nothing to incite blood rage between two fan bases that are, above all else, merely confused by each other. The game is over by the middle of the third quarter and the exodus begins as Miami flip flops back to Freeman. Oklahoma looks deceptively dominating, but there is a stretch in the second quarter where the offense can’t do anything and the defense is giving up ground to, of all things to happen in this game, the Miami offense. I would’ve been less surprised if Oklahoma’s defense found itself giving up ground to North Texas, which had been called in to spell the Hurricane attack. What could’ve been a close game (21-13) ends up being a disgrace for Miami fans, one of whom notes that he hasn’t “felt this embarassed since Syracuse in ’98” when the ‘Canes lost 66-13 to the Donovan McNabb led Orangemen. It is exactly like watching the fall of empire condensed into sixty minutes. I wonder where Williamson is, and if he’s as high on Shannon now as he was back at the hotel. How much does “building a family” count for if you get embarrassed on national television? Probably as much as anything Larry Coker said in 2006.

The coolest thing about the whole game? That it’s played on Oklahoma’s field, which is actually sloped to allow the old wing teams to get to the edge and cut upfield. The gradation is noticeable and, for lack of a better word, astounding. It’s like a giant rabbit burrowed in a straight line from one endzone to another. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I was in Nam.*

A word about shame. Enough days spent sleeping in your car will eradicate any and all sense of it. I have no compunction about getting up whenever the hell a trucker wakes me up in the middle of a Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot (24 hour bathrooms), opening my door and hawking my lungs out the way your gramps used to do back when you were young and scared of things that sounded like Cobra Commander dying in a cage filled with pop rocks and Coca-Cola. I certainly have no objection to brushing my teeth and letting the by-product dribble onto the asphalt beneath the driver’s door. And, frankly, I never really cared very much about smelling vaguely French because I have lived in Paris and it eventually fades into olfactory white noise. There is one thing that bothers me, though: bat wings.

I am practically Bruce Wayne circa falling-down-that-hole-into-the-cave when it comes to my fear of bat wings. It is the bane of any long distance driver’s existence, and in a town as hot and humid as Norman was? I was at wit’s end. So, as much as you, the reader, might not want this advice I will offer it nonetheless: forget about scrubbing the armpits, the back of your ears, whatever… just eliminate the bat wings. Making that a part of the nightly pre-sleep routine is now tantamount to my survival.

So here I am in Lincoln. I will spare you the details of my getting here. It involved my trusty navigator, Henry, telling me to drive on freeways that were sometimes existant, sometimes closed down and, in one memorable instance, the shape, form and texture of Casper the Friendly Ghost, which is to say none because he’s ectoplasm and ectoplasm does nay have shape, form or texture.

Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium is a cathedral. There is no other way to describe it, though I do wish they’d stop naming stadiums “Memorial”. As I was walking around Oklahoma’s stadium the Tuesday before the game, I sat down and scribbled the following:

“This is a cathedral built for a religious people and a religious country.”

That sentence can be just as easily applied to the stadium here in Lincoln, but on Monday night? When I arrived at the stadium at two in morning? With the wind whipping around me and all sorts of priorities ahead of simply staring at a stadium, like perhaps finding a place to sleep? The way the southwest face of Memorial was lit up reminded me of Camelot, my favorite childhood story. The white stone edifice is etched with the following words: “NOT THE VICTORY BUT THE ACTION: NOT THE GOAL BUT THE GAME: IN THE DEED THE GLORY.”

If I thought Oklahoma football was religion, Nebraska football promises to be zealotry on a level unseen. There is literally nothing else in this state except Cornhusker football. They fired a coach who led them to 58 wins and 19 losses in six seasons. And their stadium?

It’s got another quote on it:

“Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.” -William Jennings Bryan

This is going to be an amazing game.

States visited: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska.
Miles traveled: 2,300ish.
Times showered: Showered?
Games watched (at least partially): Oklahoma-Miami (Fla.), LSU/Va. Tech, Colorado/Arizona State, TCU/Texas, Texas A&M/Fresno State, Michigan/Oregon, NC State/Boston College, Notre Dame/Penn State.
Mosquitoes killed: Not enough.
USC Panic-Meter: High. But I’ll wait ’til after the game to panic/martyr myself/buy Nickleback albums.
*as in Namibia, my nickname for my high school football field, which had nothing to do with southern Africa and, as such, engendered a good deal of confusion amongst my teammates.

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SEC to phase out Pac-10 by 2012

BIRMINGHAM, AL – Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive ended the league’s Spring Media Day by announcing the conference would begin preparations to officially phase out the Pacific-10 by the 2012 season.

Slive stressed that the change “would not happen overnight” and that players, coaches and fans needed to be patient.

“We’re working on this thing to get it right. It’s gonna happen, but not immediately. We’ve been taking steps in this direction for decades. The groundwork is there. We just need to see it through to its proper conclusion,” said Slive.

Even USC, considered by many to be the “black sheep” of the Pac-10, has seen flashes of crazy obsession LSUoverUSC BCS champ go suck it condoms!

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Dirk Koetter’s wife names Dennis Erickson as starting husband

TEMPE, AZ – Former Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter’s wife, Kim, announced that current ASU head coach Dennis Erickson would be her starting husband. The decision comes less than 24 hours after the Koetters renewed their marriage vows in a private team ceremony.

Dirk Koetter, left, is reportedly “confused” and “devastated” by the switch, and is expected to transfer to a new location in a few weeks. Speculation is centered around nearby Scottsdale where Koetter would have a good shot at becoming a starting significant other after sitting out the NCAA-mandated one year transfer period.

“I’m sorry for the way this had to happen but this is the right decision. It took me a long time to make, longer than it should have. The repercussions and the responsibility are mine. This is on me,” Kim Koetter read from a statement.

“I just hope we can put this past us and get ready for the 2007 redecorating season,” she added. “I feel that we have a promising team of drapes and accented furniture, and I look forward to what Dennis can bring to the table with his proven leadership abilities and his paycheck. Hopefully some kind of centerpiece of cut crystal. A decanter, perhaps.”

The husband switch comes on the heels of one of the nation’s most highly anticipated marital battles in several seasons. As the initial starter many figured that Dirk Koetter would have the edge, but Erickson’s numbers (148-65-1 in 18 years as a college head coach, an undisclosed salary from ASU) beat out Koetter’s (66-44 in 9 years, a non-existant salary from ASU).

At least, that’s the current story.

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Pac-10 to phase out defense by 2012

WALNUT CREEK, CA – Pacific-10 commissioner Tom Hansen ended the league’s Spring Media Day by announcing the conference would begin preparations to officially phase out football defense by the 2012 season.

Hansen stressed that the change “would not happen overnight” and that players, coaches and fans needed to be patient.

“We’re working on this thing to get it right. It’s gonna happen, but not immediately. We’ve been taking steps in this direction for decades. The groundwork is there. We just need to see it through to its proper conclusion,” said Hansen.

Even USC, considered by many to be the “black sheep” of the Pac-10, has shown flashes of non-defense in the past.

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