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I Went There: Alabama @ LSU in Baton Rouge

This past June, I read Dixeland Delight, a book by Clay Travis in which he traveled to every SEC stadium in one season. As I turned the pages, I realized three things:

1) I had to go to travel to my first SEC game this season. (I’ve been to three bowl games where Wisconsin played SEC teams – Auburn, Arkansas, and Tennessee, but I wanted to see an intra SEC matchup in its natural habitat.)

2) I had to go to a night game at LSU.

3) That game had to be against Alabama.

Everything about the experience surpassed my very lofty expectations.

The Tailgate

As I was boarding my Friday flight from Chicago to New Orleans, the airport television showed clips of diametrically opposite Obama and Romney responses to the exact same data set in that day’s jobs report. I laughed about it and made some joke with the two people in front of me in line. We started talking, I told them that I was headed down South to see Bama-LSU, and my new friend Dennis said that he was also going to the game and invited me to his tailgate where they would be roasting a pig and cooking a full cauldron of jambalaya. Yes please.

On Saturday, my dad and I got to Baton Rouge at about 2:00, found free parking about two miles away from Tiger Stadium, and made the hike. About a half-mile away from the stadium, parking lots full of tents started popping up. The volume and breadth of these tailgates was staggering. There must have been 5,000 tents. Everybody went all out. Full spread. The works, really. Everywhere you looked, somebody was grilling or smoking something. For the next five hours, the smell of bold flavors wafted through the air.

At about 3:00 pm, we found Dennis’ tailgate in Touchdown Village, one of several parking lots FULL of RVs. (Dennis had spot #161 and the lot extended much further.) “How do this many people even own RVs?” I asked.

“They give them to us when we graduate.”

The first thing we saw?

Succulent.

I asked Dennis how they even knew how to do that. “It’s just second nature,” he said.

Here was his cauldron jambalaya, which we topped with white beans from a separate container. It was phenomenal:

Our entire experience was the personification of southern hospitality. Everybody we met was incredibly friendly. They thought that it was awesome that we came to Baton Rouge to see a football game in which we didn’t have any real rooting interest in either team and went out of their way to be gracious hosts.

A lot of LSU tailgates had a satellite dish and HDTV set up. It was almost the norm, not the exception. I badly want this to be a staple of my existence but don’t think I’d have any clue how to execute it even if I had the means to afford it:

Did it surprise me that the LSU crowd was overwhelmingly in support of Mitt Romney? Of course not. The EXTENT of it, though?

#ViewFromMySeats

You can’t tell from the photo, but we were in the Alabama season ticketholders’ section. We scalped these seats outside for far less than comparable tickets had been going for on Stubhub in the weeks and months leading up to the game. (This always happens.)

As soon as I got there, I heard a voice from a few rows back: “Did you go to Camp Nebagamon?”

It ended up being Warren, who along with his friend Brandon that he grew up with in Birmingham and was sitting next to, I had not seen since 2001. It’s a small world after all. I cannot believe he recognized me.

In our row and the row behind us: Mary, a LSU med student who was born in CT and is a DIE HARD fan; Brian, who traveled from Portland to visit Mary; Marqueann, who traveled from Kansas City for the game; Conrad, Timmy, and Tommy H., originally from San Francisco. We were all pulling for LSU.

Why was I rooting for LSU?

1) Home team.

2) Underdogs.

3) Rooting for Nick Saban to beat Les Miles would be like cheering when Scar kills Mufasa to beat Simba in the Lion King.

Before last year’s match-up, Wright Thompson profiled Miles:

Breakfast is an anchor. He sees the kids to school, kissing them goodbye, using all the information he’s gleaned from Kathy and their master schedule. During those few minutes in the morning, he is relevant, knowing who has a test and who has a game. He isn’t a shadow passing in and out of their lives.

How can someone be a coach and a father? From his first job in coaching, Miles has dealt with that question. He and Wangler were graduate assistants at Michigan, and they saw what coaching did to families. One day, Wangler remembers, a colleague told them his “wife did a great job raising their kids.” Miles and Wangler looked at each other, and afterward decided that they’d figure out a different way. The most chilling warning came from longtime Colorado coach Bill McCartney, who pulled Miles aside and promised him that one day his kids would come and tell him what kind of father he’d been, tell him how he’d succeeded or failed. By that time, McCartney told him, it would be too late for regrets. The message was clear: Long after a coach forgets the scores of games, he’ll remember a devastating undressing from a grown-up child.

Last week, Pat Forde wrote about trying to engage the curmudgeonly Saban in friendly conversation. He didn’t get far: 

Lesson: Saban doesn’t do small talk. He wasn’t going to waste a moment’s breath or energy in engaging in banal pleasantries that had nothing to do with helping Alabama knock the crap out of Florida’s quarterback.

He wasn’t even going to feign interest in what I was saying. He wasn’t going to indulge me with a response, courteous or discourteous, lest it might lead to even more small talk that cluttered his bubble and destroyed his focus and thus destroyed his soul.

So that was that.

Does Saban win more? Yep. I’d still rather root for a team coached by Miles. Winning with Saban comes at a cost. He’s a mercenary. If he has a soul, he’s done an incredible job at hiding it from the general public. It’s easy to forget it, but football is what we do for fun. When that fun is sucked out of the process, favorable outcomes are less enjoyable. He’s a remorseless sociopath. Think I’m exaggerating? Read this.

There isn’t an element of what he’s accomplished that is distinct to Alabama–there are probably 20 schools that have the resources that would enable him recruit and develop the exact same players in the exact same system.

Alabama fans worship Saban like a man in devout love with a supermodel girlfriend. They’d be blindsided if he abruptly left for another coaching job in the NFL or even college, but would it really shock anybody else?

If I were in Saban’s position, I’d stay at Alabama for another 15 years, win 3-5 more national titles, and be revered as a Golden God in a community that worships football success as much as any community worships success in anything. With Saban, though, who really knows? It might not be fulfilling for him to compete on a playing field that he knows he can dominate. He might yearn to prove to himself and the rest of the world that he can win at a higher level in the NFL, whose teams will keep calling. Will he turn them all down or will the man who left Michigan State for LSU, LSU for the Miami Dolphins, and the Dolphins for Alabama again succumb to wanderlust?

LSU fans are down on the MadHatter Les Miles, whose gambling luck has been comparatively less successful the last few years. However, his team starts every season with a legitimate chance to win a national title and are rooting for a man who is loyal and emotionally balanced. As an outsider who has not gone through all of the trials and tribulations, I think they are lucky to have him.

Also: Miles’ record at LSU: 82-20 (.804). Saban’s record at LSU: 48-16 (.750)…

(Acknowledged: Saban has a better overall career winning percentage and two more – and counting – national titles. Many of Miles’ wins, including his national championship, came with Saban recruits.)

The game!

I’ll embed a video as soon as I can find it on Youtube but for now you can watch them here.

Quick summary: Alabama was up 14-3 at halftime, LSU roared back, taking a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter. The Tigers defense was stifling until Bama got the ball on the LSU 28 with a little over a minute to go following a missed 45-yard field goal. Bama marched the ball up the field in four plays, scoring the go ahead touchdown with about 50 seconds left.

Many of Les Miles’ gambles did not pay off. There was a failed onside kick, a botched fake field goal, and two missed field goals from distances that stretched his kicker’s range. I was cool with them. When you are competing against a better team – and LSU was 10-point underdogs headed into the game – you have to take chances to win. On Saturday, many of them didn’t come through, but it’s foolish to judge a process based on the outcome. I have no problem with his throwing everything including the kitchen sink to try and come away with the win.

The Crowd

With HDTVs that captures the game better than a lot of (though not our) seats in the stadium, being part of a roaring crowd has to be a huge differentiator. Otherwise, why leave the house?

At Tiger Stadium, the effect was almost indescribable. From the opening kick, the crowd was into it. Fans did not need cues from the video board or PA system to get loud when the Tigers were on defense. When the team needed a boost, the crowd reached deeper for an extra gear. Over 90,000 became 1. This was simultaneously humbling and empowering to be a part of.

My favorite uniquely-LSU moment happened when the band played Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and the student section chanted along. OPERATOR WON’T YOU PUT ME ON THROUGH I GOTTA SEND MY LOVE DOWN TO BATON ROUGE HURRY UP WONTCHU PUT HER ON THE LINE I GOTTA TALK TO MY GIRL JUST ONE MORE TIME…CALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLIN’ BATON ROUGEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

I can’t find any video of this happening before (though videos of the student section singing along with the PA exist).

Going to Games with My Dad

This was my third football game in eight days with my dad. (The other two were Michigan State @ Wisconsin and Jaguars @ Packers.) I’m truly blessed  to share these experiences with him and to have two parents that are both so supportive of my endeavors. This trip was high on my bucket list (which has been rapidly dwindling over the past couple years). The experience more than satisfied my intellectual curiosity and desire to have a wonderful, unforgettable time. THANK YOU!!!!!!

Seriously, Make this Trip.

If you are a football fan, you must see a night game at LSU. It’s non-negotiable and impossible to overhype. You will not be disappointed.

 

 



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