Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hanging at the BCS

More or less by plan, I spent the last four days in Phoenix at the BCS shebang; a national   championship football game, a real wallapalooza,  also took place. I ended up there with my sister as a member of the PAC-10 Council and found myself rooting for Oregon, of all things, in PAC-10 solidarity. My sister knows infinitely more about football then I do so it was a pleasure to understand what was going on rather than just watching the pretty patterns and missing ninety percent of the skill and chessplaying on the field.  We had a great time enjoying the game and spectacle.

The Game

A great college football game! The bigger, faster and more talented team won, but only in the last two seconds. Both teams played offenses that no professional football team would dare play. Half the receivers and all the quarterbacks would be carted of the field, and several the the big guys would have heart attacks from exertion in a pro game. Auburn turned all the tables when it opened for three quarters and played the high powered ultra-fast Oregon offense only with better personnel. Hats off to the team for morphing its crisp college offense into the ultra-max to match the Oregon game. The average play got off in 9 to 15 seconds. Auburn felt in control most of the game but could not break the undermanned Oregon defense. I mean Cam Newton outsized three of the four defensive linemen. Meanwhile Oregon dealt with the ultra-offense by shuttling in hockey line substitution patterns. We were all surprised at the end to see that Oregon had actually amassed 400 plus yards mainly in the air, but the vaunted Ducks left alot of points on the field with overthrown passes and horrendous penalties one leading to touchback and another pulling them beyond field goal range, others giving Auburn third and fourth chances.

But Oregon was Oregon and pulled out two, yes two, two point conversions. They added one fake punt pass to add to their touchback. The weird half time score of 16-11 must have driven the bookies crazy. Auburn defense manhandled the the Oregon offensive line, and the Oregon QB spent the whole day under pressure while Oregon's critical running game disappeared under a mass of large, fast and smart defenders. Auburn scored and seemed set to score again and again, but could never quite put it away with bad passes on fourth down in the end zone, interceptions, and very uneven offense. Both teams slipped and struggled with an unforgivable sodden field.

Somehow Oregon, clearly outmatched, hung in there and launched a last minute drive and scored on shovel pass and then topped it with a leaping dunk catch for a two point conversion. Game, set, but not match. Auburn had three minutes, plenty of time for either offense. A strange but very heady carry by their freshman running back lead to a freakish gain after it looked like he had been stopped, but neither his knees nor wrist  never touched the ground, and he sliced forward for 37  yards. Auburn blew forward again and kicked a field goal from the one foot mark as the clock expired. Everyone was exhausted from the game and there was no gloating, just a huge recognition, even from the  muted SEC chants, that people had witnessed one hell of a college football game. The tension never let up, ever, and it certainly felt better than the last four championships.

Spectacle

The game served as the main course after three days of party. I am painfully aware of the corporate superstructure of the event and the logos and Tostitos pervade the place, but the structure itself supports a remarkable celebration that I participated in. It's kind of like the holidays, you just eat, and hang and watch TV then eat some more. The plan seemed to be that we all end up stuffed with every kind of Tostitos possible including their new "artisanal" flavors. Every table had bags of myriad Tostitos  along with amazingly tasty and horrendously unhealthy Tostito dips.Notice that I am capitalizing the corporate name out of good grammar, not corporate sponsorship.

"Sightings" occupied the time between eating and hanging. The real stars at events like these are not the Conference Commissioners or the University Presidents and certainly not the Athletic Directors. Unless you were infamous like Cam Newton, it wasn't even the players. No people whispered about  "Lee sighting" or maybe  "Kirk sighting" or an "Saban Sighting." People prowled the banquets and parties makings lists of how many stars, I mean ESPN commentators" they saw.

You got a true sense of the real secret world government Sara Palin and others worry about when a cavalcade of very black and I presume armored ESPN Escalades purred up to the Phoenician hotel. Guys in black suits with sunglasses stood by their black Escalades gleaming in the Phoenix sun muttering to the black hook ups in  their ears. Through the opaque glass you might glimpse shadows of Erin Andrews, Jon Gruden or Brent Musburger.

The spectacle thrives on color and score several strong style points for tradition. Auburn's band marched crisp and accurate wehrmacht style.   13 xylophones and twirlers twirling white rifles augmented the flawless precision. Their blue and orange team uniforms glistened clean and classic. After ESPN nattered for two weeks about what Oregon might wear (think what that tells us about ESPN), the Ducks ran around in glow worm shoes and carbon or graphic or something pants while their band lumbered along with very large bright yellow bibs. Auburn looked great. For those who noticed, Auburn's cheerleaders wore demure orange dress while Oregon's wore newly designed day glow bikinis.

Outside the stadium looked vaguely  like an 1950's flying saucer, and most, but not all,  of us got the irony of two real universities playng in the non-university University of Phoenix stadium.  Inside, however, the stadium erupted with endless noise and cheers and divided into orange and yellow. Again pure college ball. Colors matter. Colors defined the tribes gathered for the battle, and the whole stadium reflected the  two dominate colors: orange and yellow.

I knew this but forgot and wore a really cool peach shirt that morning.  A PAC-10 colleague gently pointed out that "peach" faded into the orange color spectrum and I probably should not be wearing it. So I doused myself in purple to flaunt my UW affiliation and prove, since it is hard to deal with the  the nouveau riche Ducks, to support PAC-10 solidarity.  I admit the overweening SEC presence did make it easier to do. I sat in the Duck section and counted at least six different yellows; butter, daffodil, bright sun, day glow yellow, day glow yellow/green puke and some others. That sort of captured Oregon; the Auburn side, like their band, wore one official orange, just one.

Waltzing around the stadium with roof closed, you could feel the vibrations, although not like the Seattle Seahawks last week who registered about 2 on the Richter scale, really, the earthquake monitors around the Puget Sound picked it up! Everywhere you looked people walked around in blue and orange striped overalls, war eagle fringed painted faces, tiger tails spouting from orange pants. A pair of green/day glow painted guys wearing green and yellow harlequin outfits took each others pictures while WAR DUCK placards competed with WAR EAGLE cheers ( you have to remember Auburn is the Tigers but their call is the WAR EAGLE, it is a bit confusing but a marketing bonanza). Frat guys wearing yellow togas or blue Togas jeered at each other. Some fans wore "In Chip We Trust" shirts.

I realized again and again how much fun these spectacles engender. I also realized how much we use sports to   call forth communal and tribal loyalties. In some areas of the country parents have been known to refuse to pay tuition if their children defect to a rival school rather than the family heirloom school. Inherited blood loyalties as well as adopted loyalties  manifest themselves in the sports competition. The colors, perceptions, sense of unity (even the belief that a Husky could root for a Duck, I avoided several awkward bathroom confrontations from yellow and green clad folks insulted by my purpose by loudly proclaiming "PAC-10" and the bathroom took up the chant, "PAC-10, PAC-10," thankfully. Bathrooms do not make good confrontation grounds. Speaking of which I believe that University of Phoenix Stadium is the only sport venue I have ever attended where the men's bathroom lines were longer, I mean 2 to 3x longer than the women's lines? Beer, college or is there something in the air?

While I paced myself and sat at every TV timeout, we stood, hollered and watched for the entire game. My sister has promised to hide the photo of me wearing a day glow pom pom as a wig, but for just a moment, we could all enjoy the sport, the excellence and the loyalties that sport competition permits.

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