We're off to the hinterlands of major-college football! Off to the mid-majors, where coaches pull down, on average, about as much as a good periodontist. Off to the MAC and the WAC and Conference USA--the land of small stadiums and large grudges, where just because you're bowl-eligible doesn't mean you're going to a bowl. So eager for exposure are these Division I-A have-nots that when television commands them to kick it off on a school night, they ask, "What time?" ¬∂ Last week, for the second time this season, ESPN aired games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. How does it feel to go a month without playing on a Saturday (Louisville)? What's it like to suit up on three Tuesdays (Toledo)? How does it feel to miss two days of school on the road, then arrive back on campus at 5 a.m., sore and bleary-eyed, to be told by your coaches that you'd better make it to all your classes that day if you know what's good for you? To find the answers to these and other questions, we embarked on a four-day, four-game college football odyssey. (And with Fresno State up 35-0 on visiting Hawaii last Friday night, photographer Al Tielemans and I ducked out to a high school game, too.) We were on seven flights for a total of 16 hours. We chatted up sideline reporters, graded mascots (TCU's scaly Super Frog gives small children bad dreams, I fear) and mingled with tailgaters from eight schools. (When I urge you to check out the cabooses at Louisville, I'm talking about the antique train cars outside the stadium--not the glutes on the cheerleaders.) We were treated to inspired music (the Northern Illinois band performed numbers from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and heard the winningest coach in D-I history deliver one of his signature utterances. During his postgame press conference on Night 3 of our odyssey, Bobby Bowden dropped a "dadgummit," providing a grace note to an otherwise ugly evening.
NOV. 9: TOLEDO AT NORTHERN ILLINOIS
IF IT'S TUESDAY, THIS MUST BE THE MAC
"On the one hand," Northern Illinois student Aaris Berry complains, while tailgating with fellow members of Sigma Alpha Mu, "we've got the university president taking out an ad in the school paper, telling us the team needs us to be at the game. On the other hand we've got professors scheduling quizzes during night classes, making sure we don't go."
"A lot of kids are blowing off classes anyway," adds frat brother Marquis Naylor. "I mean, this is Toledo."
What we have stumbled upon is an overlooked border war: Ohio State--Michigan writ small. Visitors approaching DeKalb, Ill., from the south on Route 38 are greeted with signs that read, ROCKETS FANS GO HOME and TUCK FOLEDO.
Posted on the marquee outside the Best Western is CONGRATULATIONS COACH NOVAK ON YOUR 100TH GAME. Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak is one of the good guys in his sport. If he weren't, he would've gotten fired after his teams lost 23 straight from 1996 through '98. But then-president John La Tourette liked the way he handled the adversity, saw encouraging signs and left him alone. Last season the Huskies were the toast of the mid-majors, opening with wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. They started 7-0, enjoying a giddy ride to No. 12 in the AP poll, before dropping two of their next four games, including one at Toledo. Against the Rockets the year before, NIU was seemingly on its way to a win that would sew up the MAC West title. The Huskies had already given Novak a Gatorade shower when, on third-and-forever with 41 seconds left, Toledo scored on a jailbreak screen to win 33-30.
It is known as the Rocket Whammy: Novak is 0-7 against his b√™te noir. But he likes his chances this year. The Rockets are coming off an election-night loss to Miami (Ohio), and NIU is undefeated in the conference; with a win the Huskies can clinch their division and guarantee themselves a berth in either the Motor City Bowl or the GMAC Bowl. Of course, at 7-2 overall and needing only six wins to be bowl-eligible, the Huskies will go to a postseason game win or lose tonight, right?
Please. This is the MAC, not the SEC. Unless the GPS systems malfunction in their rental cars, the guys in the butt-ugly bowl blazers don't come around these parts. Three times in the last six years the MAC had a team with 10 wins that didn't get an invite. "It's frustrating," says Novak, with a sigh. "We really have no margin for error."
The same could be said when he faces Toledo. Things are looking good for Northern Illinois in the second quarter when wideout Shatone Powers snares a deflected ball in the back of the end zone to put the Huskies up 17-7. Yet slowly, inexorably, the whammy exerts itself. Toledo coach Tom Amstutz goes for it on fourth-and-one from his own 39 and converts. That gamble leads to a touchdown. As the Rockets pull away in the second half--they will win 31-17--I am standing on the Toledo sideline with MAC commissioner Rick Chryst. He speaks of a day when MAC football games will no longer go up against, say, The Rebel Billionaire on Tuesday nights. Starting in '06, he says, changes in the BCS will give MAC teams and other ambitious mid-majors broader access to the lucrative bowls. "I believe I'm going to see a MAC team kick it off on New Year's Day," he says. "I really believe that."
Tuesday Night Lights, as Chryst sees it, are a means to that end, though not everyone shares his enthusiasm. In a dank stadium hallway after the game, I offer condolences to Novak on his eighth loss to Toledo, then ask him how he feels about playing on this night of the week. "I'm totally against it," he says. "I love the exposure, but I just don't think Tuesday night was meant for college football. We get so entranced by this thinking that it's such a big deal to be on TV, but we're prostituting these kids a little bit."
Joe, tell us how you really feel.
NOV 10: TCU AT LOUISVILLE
HUMP DAY AT PAPA JOHN'S
He cannot answer your questions, cannot speak at all while in costume. No self-respecting mascot would. After putting in a strong half during the Louisville--Texas Christian game, Jason Wade hits the dressing room inside Papa John's Stadium. But after pulling off his beaked head, stepping out of his winged suit and turning it all over to his understudy, Wade, a.k.a. the Cardinal, proves quite voluble indeed.
He's not thrilled to be working on a Wednesday. For one thing, he says, his team had a short week to prepare, while the Horned Frogs had 11 days. His other concern relates to the Cardinal March--the team's promenade through throngs of cheering fans two hours before kickoff. On a Wednesday a lot of people couldn't make it. "The March was lackluster tonight," the senior says. "I know it's important to be on TV as much as possible, but I hope that Wednesday-, Thursday- and Friday-night games aren't going to become a fixture, once we get into a better conference."
In case you haven't heard, Louisville is not long for Conference USA. The Cardinals, like the Jeffersons, are movin' on up. As the cover of the football media guide says, LOUISVILLE GOES BIG EAST 2005.
Even if the Big East has taken it on the chin of late, losing Miami, Virginia Tech and (next year) Boston College to the ACC, it carries more cachet than C-USA--not to mention an automatic BCS bowl bid. The upgrade is in keeping with Louisville's dramatic rise. Playing in the palatial Papa John's, the Cardinals were improved first by coach John L. Smith, who was hired away by Michigan State two years ago, then by his successor, Bobby Petrino. Known for his fertile offensive mind and his ability to cultivate quarterbacks, Petrino has brought the Cardinals into this hump-day game at No. 12 in the AP poll, the team's highest ranking ever. They look better than that against TCU, taking a 55-14 lead in the fourth quarter before backups give up two meaningless scores.
"In the last month," says Petrino, "our games have been on Thursday, Friday, Thursday and Wednesday. We don't know what Saturday football's even about."
Junior linebacker Brandon Johnson longs to get back to Saturday games. He is tired of being ... well, tired. Morning classes on days following a night game on the road are the worst, he says. "I'm in class with my head bobbing, but the professor doesn't want to hear about how tired I am. Trust me, the professor does not care."
Before Louisville's mid-October road trip for a Thursday game at Miami, where the team suffered its only loss this season, Johnson told his marketing professor that he would be absent on Friday. But there was a test that day, so she insisted that a proctor accompany Johnson to Miami. "I'm sitting in my hotel room taking a test," he says, "while I'm thinking about how I'm going to tackle Frank Gore."
What really rankles Johnson is that while Louisville does battle on weeknights, inferior teams are accorded the privilege of appearing on Saturday telecasts. "Florida ain't ranked in the Top 25, and they're on TV every Saturday," he gripes. "I tell people all the time: College football is not how it used to be. It used to have six powerhouse teams in the power conferences. Now you've got Utah and Boise State and Louisville in the mix." He ticks off teams with two or more losses--Florida State, Miami, Alabama--and recalls the worst game he's seen this season. "How about Penn State and Iowa a few weeks ago? What was the final score, 6-4? Are you serious? Come on, man. That's not even football. Meanwhile teams like us are getting the shaft. But we're used to it. That's what makes us tough."
NOV. 11: FLORIDA STATE AT N.C. STATE
WITH BOBBY, ANY DAY IS GAME DAY
Just because we're taking a brief detour into a better neighborhood--for tonight's game we visit the landed gentry on Tobacco Road, in Raleigh--is no reason to expect opulence. Wolfpack Towers, the part of Carter-Finley Stadium housing the press box, is under construction. Journalists must sign a waiver to work there. We ascend to press row in a construction-site elevator called a hoist. I feel like I should be wearing a hard hat, I tell Annabelle Vaughn, N.C. State's sports information director.
"We actually do have to wear them when we come up here during the day," she tells me. "It's tough on the hair."
The game is coyote-ugly. In the first half Florida State surrenders an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown, commits a penalty to nullify a 70-yard punt return of its own and gains 38 yards on 30 offensive snaps. N.C. State leads 10-0 at halftime, and Chris Gilmore has to sit in the stands and take grief from his buddies. A Seminoles fan from Lake City, Fla., Gilmore is delighted his team is playing on Thursday night. If the game were on Saturday, he'd miss it. He and the other three guys who made the 50-mile drive together from Fort Bragg, N.C., are specialists in the Army. They ship out on Saturday for Iraq.
It's Gilmore's second deployment to that country, and you get a sense of how he feels about Iraq from the first nine letters of his e-mail address: Ihatesand. He and his buddies have been told they'll be over there for 16 months this time, so he's looking for any reason to live it up tonight. Finally, early in the third quarter, the Seminoles give him one, driving 45 yards for a touchdown. "Looks like they finally woke up," he says. "I've been to seven of their games, and I've never seen 'em lose."
In fact, Florida State scores 17 third-quarter points and holds on to win 17-10, handing Bowden his 350th career victory. "Now this, tonight, was really just an old defensive battle," the coach declares afterward. He is chalking up the low score to great defense. Dreadful offense had just as much to do with it, but to point that out would be to draw attention to the job being done by his son, offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, with whom some members of Seminole Nation have lately been displeased. So why go there?
Instead, we ask Bowden p√®re how he and his Seminoles feel about having to play on a Thursday night. "We still don't like it, although it's nice to have that exposure," he says. "Down through the years, being on television has meant so much to our program."
When he arrived in Tallahassee in 1976, Bowden inherited a program so weak that school officials were thinking of folding it. He put Florida State on the map by putting his job on the line. His willingness to play any team, anywhere--his '81 squad played at Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Notre Dame, at Pitt and at LSU, winning three of those games--brought national recognition to his program. Bowden has earned the right to play on Saturday.
Sandwiched, as always, between burly state troopers, Bowden walks toward the locker room after the game, then suddenly turns around and strides the length of the field. The coach had forgotten to salute and thank the Seminoles band, as is his custom. After he has done so, the musicians serenade him with Happy Birthday. (He turned 75 three days earlier.) As they sing, Bowden's grin cuts the mist like a beacon, and it's difficult to begrudge him even this sloppy victory.
I am pleased, also, for Specialist Gilmore, now eight for eight with Florida State.
NOV. 12: HAWAII AT FRESNO STATE
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'D RATHER BE IN CLOVIS
As Hawaii's players leave the field after pregame warmups, they file past the Bulldogs' marching band. A brave trombonist taunts the visitors, shouting, "You're in Fresno now!"--as if there were any danger of mistaking the San Joaquin Valley for Oahu. "You're in our house!" He seems unconcerned that any one of the Warriors could seize his instrument and wrap it around his head like an Ace bandage. The trombonist feels emboldened, as do all Bulldogs when they are in the Dog House.
Pat Hill has made this an intimidating place to visit. Since becoming Fresno State's coach eight years ago, he has behaved like a young Bobby Bowden. His scheduling philosophy is, Any team, anywhere, anytime. Since 1999 his teams have won at least eight games each season, with a best of 11-3 in '01. They've beaten nine BCS-conference opponents in 12 tries. His goal is to play in a BCS bowl, and TV exposure is part of his strategy. To get it, Hill has had to make a kind of Faustian bargain in greenlighting numerous Friday-night games.
The rub is that high school football is a big, big deal in the Valley on Friday nights. By scheduling TV games on those nights, Fresno State has antagonized some of the citizens and scholastic coaches it seeks to win over. Hill has an intimate knowledge of the conflict: While the Bulldogs are routing Hawaii 70--14, Clovis High is taking on Clovis West nearby. Starting at right cornerback and returning punts for the Clovis West Golden Eagles is Matt Hill, the second of Pat's three sons.
Clovis West trails 7-0 when I arrive at halftime. On the first play of the second half, Eagles tailback Kyle Duffy goes 71 yards for a touchdown. The roar of the crowd would be considerably louder, says Clovis West athletic director Karen Sowby, if the Bulldogs weren't playing across town. "We love what they do for our community," she says, "but it hurts us [when both teams play at the same time]. It will probably cost us around $6,000 [in lost gate receipts]."
Says Pat Hill, "I'd rather play on Saturdays, and we're going to keep trying to earn it. Whatever day they ask us to play, we're going to play."
After answering reporters' questions following the spanking of Hawaii, Hill provides this final score, unprompted: "Clovis West 21, Clovis 7."
I arrive home late the following morning, weary but happy. It's Saturday. There are some good games on.
Next week: Tim Layden on the BCS--how it got this way and where it's headed.
Boise for Breakfast
IT'S SAFE to say that more than a few folks on the San Jose State campus were snug in their beds when the Spartan Stadium gates opened at 8 a.m. for last Saturday's game against Boise State. Eager for any kind of TV exposure, the two WAC teams agreed to move up their 2:02 p.m. PDT kickoff five hours, to 9:02 a.m. (believed to be the earliest start ever for a Division I-A game) to accommodate ESPN2. Still rubbing the sleep from their eyes, the unbeaten Broncos, 31-point favorites, needed two overtimes to defeat the Spartans 56-49. Despite the close call, Boise State--riding the longest D-I winning streak in the country, at 20 games--climbed one spot in the BCS standings, to ninth.
Official attendance at the game was 28,867, but the crowd appeared to be a fraction of that. Still, those who were up for the game were really up for it. As tailgater Rick Perez, sipping a rum and cola, told the San Jose Mercury News, "It's 12 o'clock somewhere."
One Foot In the Door
ALTHOUGH THE lights dimmed on Utah last Saturday, the school's BCS bowl prospects brightened considerably the same day. A power failure at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie delayed the start of the Utes' game against Wyoming for more than 90 minutes and knocked the Mountain West showdown off the air. Viewers missed another near-flawless performance by Utah, as quarterback Alex Smith completed 17 of 27 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns, and carried 14 times for another 90 yards in a 45--28 win.
The victory, coupled with Wisconsin's loss to Michigan State (page 136), lifted Utah (10-0) back to sixth in the BCS standings. That's the promised land for the Utes: A Top 6 finish by a non-BCS conference team like Utah guarantees the team a spot in a BCS bowl--for the Utes, it's likely the Fiesta, on Jan. 1--and a payout of $14 million to $17 million for its conference.
By strengthening their bowl position, the Utes weakened the BCS status of once-beaten Cal (4) and Texas (5). A guaranteed at-large berth for Utah would leave only one spot for those two teams. With a comfortable advantage over the Longhorns in the voting and the BCS computers, the fourth-ranked Golden Bears appear to be sitting pretty. Then again, this is the BCS.