Tailgating Tales

First of all, let me say this… I LOVE tailgating! Who doesn’t? And I truly love tailgating prior to home games in Auburn. It’s a great way to get “ready” for the game. It’s a time to eat, drink, and socialize. It’s a time to discuss your team’s game and also to watch other teams play, before and after, your game. In a nutshell, it’s a whole lot of fun!

With that in mind, let’s get right to it. I’m going to take a look back at three of my most memorable tailgating experiences that I’ve enjoyed on the road. I will do this chronologically.

Cal vs. Stanford – 1986

Aha! Fooled you didn’t I? If you know me at all, you were probably thinking, “Now which Auburn game is Bird going to mention first?”DSC02503

Well, we didn’t really begin getting into tailgating until the Pat Dye era on the Plains. And by the time this was in full swing our family had moved to the Bay Area of California where I was a seminary student and campus minister at The University of California at Berkeley.

The ‘Big Game’, as it is known, was played in Berkeley that year. Our whole family attended the game. That included my wife, Melodye, our son, Luke, and our daughter, Leah. Luke was eight and Leah was three. I won’t tell you how old I was. You can do the math.

As we strolled across the famed Berkeley campus, the thing that struck me was the elegance of the tailgates. There were beautiful flowers in lovely vases, linen tablecloths, china and flatware. Now this wasn’t the case at all the sites but there was an unusual amount of that sort of setup to my mind.

And, of course, we were just about a 35-45 minute drive from Napa Valley and there were some fine wines and champagnes being poured. Us? We ate Blondie’s pizza and drank draft beer. It’s a long way from Wilcox County, Alabama to Northern California folks. But we were eager to learn!

And, by the way, the once beaten Stanford Cardinal (I REALLY want to put an “s” at the end of their name) was upset by the ONE WIN Cal Bears.

Dartmouth vs. Fordham – 1994

I was in my second year as a AAA Inspector and had accepted an out-of-territory assignment to New England. I was to do some work in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It was early the first day of October and I had been there for about a week.

After spending the night at The Inn on Golden Pond, yes THAT Golden Pond, on Wednesday 9/28, I found myself at a small motel somewhere in that area on Thursday night. Auburn was playing Kentucky that evening and I called a couple of places to make sure I located a spot that had ESPN.

Auburn whacked the Wildcats, 41-14, and I enjoyed a few Samuel Adams Honey Porters during the contest. I wasn’t in my best shape on Friday morning but it was time to knock out a handful of calls and settle in, somewhere in Western New Hampshire or Eastern Vermont, for the weekend.

I finished work just south of Hanover, NH which is the home of Dartmouth College. Dartmouth, as you may well know, is a member of the Ivy League.

Well, Dartmouth was playing Fordham the next day AND there was a balloon festival nearby in Vermont. The hotels in the area were full. Great planning, Bird!

I did manage to wrangle a room at a Howard Johnson, across the river from Hanover, in White River Junction, VT. Whew!

So, Saturday morning rolls around and I opt out of the balloon festival, which began at daylight, and chose to spend the bulk of my day at the football game between the Big Green of Dartmouth and the Rams of Fordham.

IMG_2254Do they tailgate in the Ivy League, I wondered? Yes they do! I arrived at the campus well before kickoff and began to circle a parking lot when I spotted a group of Dartmouth fans literally gathered around the rear of a very nice SUV. I rolled down the passenger window of my blue Saturn sedan and shouted greetings to the nattily-garbed crew.

They encouraged me to park and join them at their tailgate. I did.

Well folks, you have never met more hospitable group of fans in Athens, Oxford or Knoxville. They shared hors d’oeuvres, some of which their guest from Lower Alabama had never enjoyed previously, and wine with me. We also talked a little football and I was allowed to share with them a little about Auburn University, her family and our beloved Tigers.

What a beautiful day for football it was! Early October in New England is peak fall foiliage season and the reds, golds, oranges and purples were absolutely brilliant! I was actually able to stroll around the field! Try that in the SEC! I even gathered the Big Green cheerleaders together and they happily posed for a picture!IMG_2255

I don’t even remember who won the football game. But I do remember it as one of those days that you look back on and smile as you recall the special time you had, as well as the people and place that made it possible.

Go Big Green!

Auburn vs. Ole Miss – 2012

We rolled into Memphis late Friday afternoon before this game, which was scheduled to kickoff before noon on Saturday. To say Auburn was struggling in 2012 would be an understatement. But we were going to spend two nights in the land of Elvis, Sun and Stax records, and have a big time in The Grove.

After settling into our hotel we decided to walk down to The Peabody hotel, have a beverage and watch the famous ducks do their thing. The lobby was packed with tourists and football fans from both Auburn and Ole Miss. There were also a few other Tigers from Memphis enjoying the spectacle.

When the show was over there were two Rebel fans that grabbed us as we walked past them. They welcomed us warmly, gave us their contact information, and invited us to tailgate with them on Saturday.

Mercy! We had to get up early, after an evening of revelry on Beale St., to make the tailgate in plenty of time before this SEC early game. We left Tennessee and made our way toward the land of Faulkner and Vaught not too darn long after dawn. We even encountered two ‘working girls’ stumbling along right in the middle of Lamar Avenue. Mercy deux!

We found a parking slot within a stone’s throw of campus and headed for the famous Grove. As we made our way through the maze of tents, a kindly Southern Gentleman stepped from the cover of his group’s spot, shook my hand and said, “Y’all look thirsty.” I responded that indeed we were.

He pointed us in the direction of two lawn chairs and introduced us to the bartender of this aggregation. This gentleman inquired as to our drink of choice and I replied that I would let him surprise us.

While we watched this fellow ably concoct some cocktails, we marveled at the setup. There were sets of tents arranged three or four across and three or four deep, cases of liquor and beer stacked three or four high, and a buffet that would rival that of any good restaurant.

It wasn’t long before the couple we met at The Peabody, the night before, arrived, and we had no idea that this was also their tailgate and their friends. We were just taking up some kind Rebels on their offer of hospitality.

IMG_0571Very shortly, yet another Ole Miss gentleman came up to us and asked if we had tickets. We told him yes, but he asked again if we were sure and thrust two tickets toward me. I politely declined his generous offer and thanked him profusely.

It then occurred to me to get some pictures of this amazing gathering. Melodye asked me to corral the bartender and she would snap a photo of us.
We put our arms around each other, smiled, and just before my bride snapped the picture, our newly found friend shouted, “War Eagle!” I grinned broadly and responded with a resounding, “Hotty Toddy!”

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Falling Leaves and Footballese

I was taking my daily walk, a week or so ago, when I felt a small rush of wind that was not summer like. This minor gust was a tinge cool and dry. It was then that a few dying leaves floated gently to the ground.

I immediately went into my shotgun stance, took the imaginary snap, and bolted toward right end on a zone read. I faked a pitch to my trailing tailback, tucked the pigskin, and dashed for 15 yards before I was knocked out of bounds.

First down!

It’s that time of year! For those of us who are rabid college football fans, excitement is abound. Every team is 0-0. No one has yet to lose a game. Anticipation is off the charts.

From “the loveliest village of the plains” to the bluegrass that surrounds Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky to the sprawling acreage of College Station, Texas. I can feel it, I can sense it, and I can almost smell the tantalizing scents of tailgate fare wafting on the breeze across the terrain of the sites where I will attend college football games this autumn.IMG_1037

“We’re on the cusp of a big year! Maybe we’ll make a New Year’s Day bowl. Can we win it all?”

But alas, the reality is those hopes, those 0-0’s will transform into 6 & 6’s, 5 & 7’s and, gulp, 4 & 8’s, for a great number of teams, by the conclusion of Thanksgiving weekend. There will not be many, if any, 12 & 0’s this fall.

Speculation. That is ALL we have right now.

Prediction. That is theme of the day.

Consternation. That is the mood of the pessimist and many a realist.

Exaltation. That is final word for all too few when the dust settles in January of 2016.

And that is a shame.

Everyone wants to know what lucky teams will make the College Football Playoff. What four teams will make it to Dallas and Miami? And the biggest question of all: What TWO teams will make the triumphant march to Glendale ?

It will be from that great Arizona desert that the players, alumni and fans of only ONE institution will hoist index fingers high above their heads and proclaim, “We’re number one!”

What happened to teams two through four who did, indeed, make the second installment of the College Football Playoff?

Many will leave the arenas of those great host cities with their heads hung low and their middle fingers raised high, or at least in their hearts and minds.

Again, that is a shame.

For all too often it is just about who is number one.

I have found myself in both of the above mentioned scenarios.

I reveled in the euphoria of victory on January 10, 2011 in Glendale, AZ.
DSC02793

I wallowed in the dejection of defeat on January 6, 2014 in Pasadena, CA.

But you know what? With a bit of time and perspective I was able to put both of those experiences in their proper place. The result in Glendale was grand and glorious. The experience in Pasadena, and the greater LA area, was blissful.

My dear wife, Melodye, and I enjoyed both of these experiences immensely. Sure! We wanted ever so badly to win BOTH of those ball games, but we did not. But what we did, in each case, was revel in the moment.

Now please bear with me as I, ever the sentimentalist and nostalgist, savor and share a few small slices of those grand times…

High five-ing security, as they encouraged us to “bring it back home”, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when we boarded our plane to Phoenix.

Singing, in my mind, Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Coming Into Los Angeles’ as we descended into LAX.

Dining on sugar-cured duck breast at The Roaring Fork restaurant in Scottsdale. Being questioned by our server, with a laugh, if that is what we Auburn fans would be having, seeing as how our opponent was Oregon. 😉

Securing our room in Redondo Beach, CA and discovering, much to our delight, that it was number 116. Our street number, in Acworth, GA, is 116. We took this as a good sign. It typically is just that.

Chatting with the staff at Los Olivos restaurant and laughing at their descriptions of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, who had dined there just a couple of nights prior.

And driving from our beach motel, picking up a close friend in north LA, and following her directions to the the hallowed grounds of the Rose Bowl. I could hear Keith Jackson doing his intro to “the grandaddy of them all.” I was awestruck at the beauty of the San Gabriel mountains. And as we strolled those grounds, talking and gawking and exchanging “War Eagles”, our ‘little buddy'(a nickname I gave her many years ago) remarked, “You guys are family!”IMG_1292

We are. We are indeed.

It is this family, in times of victory or defeat, that helps make every college game day experience special.

From the pen of David Housel, an Auburn man…

“What Is Auburn?

Far be it from me to try to answer that question. There are as many definitions of Auburn as there are Auburn men and women.

It would be safe to say, however, that Auburn is much more than a football game. It is much more than winning and losing.

It is a spirit. It is an attitude. It is a way of looking at life and at one another. It is, almost, a way of living. Unless you have experienced it, you will never know what it is; you will never understand it. Once you have experienced it, you will never be the same. A part of you will, forevermore, be an Auburn man or an Auburn woman.”

As we kick off OUR season here at Campus Pressbox, I want to wish each and every one of you, and your respective teams, good luck. I hope that your seasons are filled with magical moments that will last a lifetime.

Now let’s all go make some memories (and win a few football games as well)!

The Times They Are a Changin’

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or
you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changin’”

These words from Robert Zimmerman (Bobby Dylan to you and me) certainly ring true today, as they did, exactly fifty years ago, when this record was released. And that, most definitely, applies to the college football landscape.

From the AP and UPI poll systems, to the BCS, to the College Football Playoff, things have evolved dramatically in NCAA football. And THAT is an understatement.

From “three yards and a cloud of dust” to the HUNH (Hurry Up No Huddle), our father’s football is now almost unrecognizable. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that is a bad thing. Remember, at one time there was no forward pass. Can you imagine the furor when that change came into play?

Four years prior to Dylan’s release of “The Time’s They Are A Changin’”, I began my immersion into sports. EVERY sport. I could not get enough of sports back in 1961 and for many, many years there after.

I have now lost a great deal of my passion for professional athletics, although the Mantle and Maris home run chase of 1961 remains somewhat fresh in my mind. But I have not lost one iota of enthusiasm for college football. If anything, the love of that sector of sports, has grown in leaps and bounds. And it is quite humbling for me to find myself both writing and podcasting about that great game today. That was always a dream for me.

All of this sparked my thinking about what has become the FBS and how its current state might appear to those coaches of yesteryear. It also piqued my interest in how those coaches’ tenures compare to those of today.

I took the numbers of six legendary figures and matched them against all of the coaches who followed them at their respective institutions. I ranked them in order of the original coaches winning percentage.

1. Paul “Bear” Bryant – University of Alabama – 1958-1982
232-46-9 .824
9 coaches since – 273-122-1 .690

2. Johnny Vaught – University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) – 1947-1970 and 1973
190-61-12 .745
10 coaches since – 256-243-4 .512

3. Vince Dooley – University of Georgia – 1964-1988 – 201-77-10 .715
3 coaches since – 222-101-0 .687

4. Frank Broyles – University of Arkansas – 1958-1976 – 144-58-5 .708
10 coaches since – 276-178-3 .607

5. Charles “Cholly Mac”- McClendon – Louisiana State University – 1962-1979
137-59-7 .692
9 coaches since 276-144-6 .654

6. Ralph “Shug” Jordan – Auburn University – 1951-1975 – 176-83-6 .6754
7 coaches since 315-150-6 .6751

Four of the “legendary” head men coached at their one school for 25 years. One piloted his school for 19 years and one roamed the sidelines for 18 years at his institution of higher learning.

The one big thing that jumped out at me is that NONE of these great universities has had a winning percentage, as high as the “legendary” coach, with all of the coaches that followed him… COMBINED! ZERO. NADA.

Now boys and girls, that includes some very good coaches at each and every one of these schools. Nick Saban coached at both LSU and Alabama. Pat Dye coached at Auburn. Lou Holtz coached at Arkansas. David Cutcliffe coached at Ole Miss and Mark Richt is currently the head man at Georgia.

How about this? You have 6 of the greatest coaches of all-time who coached a total of 137 years between them. On the other hand, you have 48 coaches who coached a total of 202 years. NOW hold on! That gives the 6 coaches an average tenure of 22.8 years apiece while the remaining 48 guys averaged 4.2 years each!!!

As the former voice of Ole Miss football in the 60’s, Stan Torgenson, was known to exclaim… Hoo Hoooooo MERCY!!!

Obviously, some of these latter coaches held their positions for extremely short periods of time. Bill “Brother” Oliver was the interim coach at Auburn, in 1998, for 5 games. John L. Smith had the same position at Arkansas for 12 games and Mike Price of Alabama… well you know the story there.

So, sports fans, where does this leave us? One one hand, you can talk about “the good ole days”, simpler times, loyalty, and the like.

Conversely, one can speak of the demand to “turn it around quickly”, the huge number of demands on a coach’s time, social media, and all that goes with being a CEO of the mega-corporaate structure that is FBS football in the 21st century.

But, regardless of all this, there is one undeniable thread that weaves its way throughout the history of college football… WINNING. “Just win, baby” as, now deceased, Oakland Raiders owner, Al Davis, was oft-quoted.

Winning does “soothe the savage beast” that is today’s college football fan, but just for a bit. That fan wants to win today, tomorrow and forever. That fan also wants to win big and with style. And that winning includes having the best facilities possible.

So, what would I say to today’s young and eager, prospective college football coaches, if I had them as an audience? To those coaches whose tenure at a school might, possibly, fall into the 4.2 years average that was mentioned above?

My answer might go something like this…

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or
you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changin’”