Tuesday, September 05, 2006

APRES TENNESSEE

Woke up way early Friday morning. Felt like I was flying to Hawaii. No cares. So excited. Couldn’t wait to join the group which had already arrived in Memphis and taken the Nash Trash tour.
Landed in Knoxville and saw the signs, “Bogg Coker for Congress." Gas was $2.45. We were south of the Mason Dixon line. My mind was filled with Scopes, Williams Jennings Bryan, and Davy Crockett.
Pulled into the Hilton. Bears everywhere. Confidence reigned. Lee Corso was honorary Alumnus of the year.
Lew Holtz was on the Band wagon. Finally, the rest of the world was learning what only we knew. It was sweet.
Off to Calhoon’s on the Tennessee River. Angry I’d left my 12 gauge home. Could have shot out the lights which spelled “Hoons”—and “Cal” would have stood out in all its glory. The image was so Southern
Ran into Tim. He’d snuck into the stadium and was returning from the “walk through.”
“Tedford had them all stand on the goal line, hold hands, then slowly walk down the field shouting, “THIS IS OUR HOUSE.” Perfect.
Boats were pulling in along the river getting ready for tomorrow’s tailgating. What a sight. Even the lights on the Bridge alternated Orange and White.
As one local said, “We’ve never lost a party.”
The air was electric. It was off to Riverside Tavern for real Southern Ribs. More Bears. It’s family. It’s fun. Run into old friends. It’s almost like the 60’s, only back then the hair was thick and the bodies were thin, instead of vice versa.
Hospitality every where. Strangers buy us drinks. “Were we enjoying our trip?”
Back to Calhoon’s. Jammed. Band comes in and whips everyone into a frenzy.
Cab down to Old town. Sullivan’s and the Blue Cats. Streets packed. It’s party time. Kno
Fortunately, I was prepared for all the Southern belles, for at the Lair I’d recently read the Playboy (just for the articles) which had featured “The Girls of Tennessee.” Now I don’t know if you still read Playboy. Alas, I guess I don’t—at least not enough. For this was clearly not your father’s Playboy. Let’s just say it was closer to Bi Bi Birdie, than a simple Calendar shot of Marylyn. ‘Nough said.
Bars closed at 3pm—which was probably a good idea.
Breakfast, and then Bloodies up in Stoney’s Suite.
Game wouldn’t start until 5:30, so at noon a nap seemed like a good idea. Found myself lying down with Cindy on one side and son, JJ (he and pal Chase had crashed on the sofa bed) on the other. Eyes closed, I was in heaven with my favorite people and my favorite team. How good could it get?
Heaven? Wait, I was in Tennessee. I could nap in Heaven. Jumped up and joined the crew as we walked down the River towards the stadium.
Boat read Mama Knows Best. Looked good to us. Walked on board and introduced ourselves. Before they gave us a beer, we had to have a cherry soaked in moonshine.
Greg, the Captain, then said, “Have you seen my banana?” Deliverance flashed before my eyes. We were trapped at sea! Da na na na na na na!
Fortuneately, it turned out his banana was baked in vodka and was (apparently) a real Southern delicacy.
An entire flotilla was moored along the River, all getting ready for kick off. One of the most beautiful sights in College football.
Finally, hiked up to the convention Center where the “Bear Ripoff—er Bear Tailgate” was taking place.
(Someone needs to work on this. Sixty bucks at the door (45 if you made a res in advance), for a piece of dried chicken and some plastic forks. You got to stand in line and pay for a drink, measured out to keep Thumbelina sober.
One thousand Bears were in the room. Why put 1000 alumni in a bad mood?
Actaully, even getting ripped off couldn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
The band played. The gals danced. We cheered. Sandy spoke, Jack Clark, spoke, Morton talked. We were putty in their hands.
But it was time to tailgate for real, so we walked down to the River.
It looked like a Cal Trans Convention. Orange was everywhere. Everywhere.
When Linda said she didn’t like Beer, the gal with the big blond hair said, “Honey. I know jez what you need. A pink panty pull down—only she pronounced it, “A payeenk payntee puhl-down. Thayat’s, Voedka, Payeenk lemoenade, and spa-rite—floated on the tie-op. Nayver mee-ix it ee-in.”
No Toto. I don’t think we were in Berkeley, anymore.
She went on to point out her daughters who wanted to be Cheer leaders (she might have been saying short order cooks at Macdonald’s). She (of course) had been a “Maya-ger-ayette.” Yuck Cheerleaders! Well what are you gonna do about the youth?
Then it was into the stadium.
109,000 fans—104,000 all in the same color Orange. I’ve been to every major team sporting event known to man (excepting World Cup), and I’ve never seen anything like it—not Super Bowl, World Series, Notre Dame/SC at South Bend, Kentucky Derby—nothing could compare. And the noise—playing Rocky Top at full volume during practice couldn’t have been one, one hundredth the decibel level.
(BTW at $50 per ducat, that’s some 5 million dollars per game! At half time, the football program presented a check for $1,300,000 to the School!) Cal Athletics runs about a 5 million dollar debit each year.
A little birdie that had been in the locker room said the Bears were really ready to play. They had that look. They had focus.
We would find out.
Being the South, they started off with an invocation, thanking God for among other things, “Football.” It was nice.
The band then played a salute to our troops.
It was nice.
They then played their alma mater, and we were trying to hear what words they had which rhymed with teeth. It was nice.
Well, on the opening kick off, starting tight end Craig Stevens was knocked out cold. “For Craig Stevens to be like that something is wrong, because he’s the toughest kid on our team,” said Tedford in next day’s paper.
Well, no excuses—but that has to effect kids. What did young Longshore think when he saw what happened to “our toughest player?”
And Mixon, our All American DB was out.
Tennessee was fired up.
The noise would rattle anyone. It seemed like the building shook.
They knocked us off the ball both on offense and defense. Still, we were in it.
We played them almost even in the first quarter. Ever the Riverboat Gambler, Tedford had Longshore throw deep to Jackson on the first play of the game. He beat his man for a 31 yard gain. We were going crazy.
Marshawn didn’t get a carry on the first possession.
In fact, in 6, first half possessions. On three of them, Marshawn never rushed the ball once.
He ended the half with 5 carries for 35 yards. One went for 16 yards and one for 15. He’s a threat to break it every time. What are we missing here?
On three of our possessions, we had a penalty putting us in a hole—2 false starts-- one delay of game.
First quarter ended seven love. We had traded interceptions and punts. We were in it, though they had a slight edge and were up 7, nothing.
2nd quarter, we started form our 8 (Jackson made a mental error and fielded a 55 yard punt, running backwards at the 6), and on the basis of 3 runs and one completion moved out to the 45. Then back to the pass. A sack, completion (to Lynch) and sack, forced a punt.
The Vols started driving, and after 8 plays with a 2nd and 7, they clearly saw something (ESPN.Com reported they were stealing our defensive signals). Mecham split the seam and caught a 42 yarder for a touch. He was wide open.
Still, love 14 wasn’t awful, though we had to kick off to open the second half.
Schnieder rooted it into the endzone and Tennessee started on its 20.
Ainge threw incomplete. Then he hit Meacham on a short out. Thompson went for the ball and missed. Meachem spun and ran 80 yards for morale busting score.
Thompson just missed. He’s going to be great, but today was not his day. We were to learn later that he had a cast on his hand. Poor kid couldn’t wrap up anybody. Lots of guts, but interesting decision to play him.
Alas, on their next possession (after a booming punt by Larson), they hit Swain at the 30—he squirted free from Thompson for 6. 28 to zero.
At that, the rooting section started taunting us: “S.E.C. S.E.C.”. We countered with “S.A.T. S.A.T” But it gave us scant satisfaction.
“They didn’t make it (the change at DB) as soon as I thought they would,” said receivers coach Trooper Taylor.
We were three and out, down 28 zip.
We punted to the 50. They started at our 43.
Hardesty carried around end, was stopped at the 40, but not wrapped up. He squirted free and took it in for 35 to zilch.
It was then we were taunted again by that chant I hadn’t heard since my wedding night. “Over Rated, Over Rated.” It cut to the core. We, as fans, were completely deflated.
Ayoob entered the game, and after an interception, got us on the board with a field goal. He found Jackson for a 40 yard touch and it was 35 to 11, with us having the ball in the 4th with 12 minutes to go.
We then dropped three passes in a row—all for a first down. Not that we would have won, but a score there would have been one break from scaring them to death.
I counted 9 dropped passes (on two we had our hands on the ball first, but were stripped). Though it’s true for both sides, maybe it was tough to pick up the ball in all that orange.
So what are we to make of all this?
First, as fans of big time college football, we are clueless. We haven’t a hint how hard it is to play at this level. We don’t know just how many years it takes to build a program that belongs, and how many players it takes to get there. We may not either know the price or be willing to pay it. Fortunately, we do have Tedford—though we probably don’t deserve it.
This is why the stadium project is so huge.
Quotes in the paper the next day were somewhat telling: From Coach Trooper Taylor “One of their defensive backs was talking about ‘Make sure you watch ESPN’ because he was going to put on a show. He put on the wrong show.”
“…They thought they were going to come in here and whup on us. When you have that mentality, you’re going to underestimate a team. We came out here and proved a point.”
“We hit them in the mouth a couple of times and they kind of jumped back.”
“It was key guys out there dropping their heads, so we knew it was time to go to work.”
“We kind of made him quit a little bit.”
“After that, he (Longshore) got down on himself and started making some bad decisions.”
Just kids talking, or is this accurate?
Are we that slow (comparatively) or do teams suffer from “cement legs” when they fly in on Friday and have to play on Saturday?
Where were the big hitters? We have them, but for some reason, they disappeared?
In the history of College football, in it’s opener, has a Heisman trophy candidate only run the ball only 5 times on his team’s first 6 possessions?
Anyway, bottom line is that great programs like Tennessee can have an off year, but they make some adjustments, change a coach or two, keep up the recruiting, improve their facilites, and go about their business.

The lessons from that Neyland stadium were many. One, play for “fewest mistakes.” Play it straight. Play it simple. Play it smart. Until you shut them up, you can’t razzle dazzle and out finesse them.
Tedford is the most crucial first step. But we have a long, long way to go to play consistently at this level.
At some point we’re going to have to decide what we want to be when we grow up.
On the upside, if you see us winning a Bowl game this year, the Pac 10, or a BCS Bowl (all are still possible) it will be because of the lessons learned on that dark Saturday when we were schooled at the foot of Rocky Top.
The other lesson was how much nicer people are in Red states than Blue. We were surrounded by decent hard working, nice people who lived by the golden rule, and generally cared about their neighbors and their guests (us). They are generous, not cynical and they love their god and their country. Oddly, they were the tolerant ones. We were humbled by their humanity, and lucky to be in their orbit. It’s counter-intuitive, but I walked away feeling we were the ones with the strong prejudices and the lack of tolerance.

Go Bears,
Jeffrey Earl Warren ‘70
Go to the new Blog:
www.jeffwarren.com/