Thursday, November 6, 2014

Guest TIgerBlog: In Search Of Football

TigerBlog, as he has often said, has never been to a big-time, Power Five college football game, other than at Rutgers - and that was long before RU was in the Big Ten.

He loves to go to Ivy League football games, with their charm, their history, their competitiveness, their true student-athlete ideal. It's just that there would be something really special about going to a game at, say, Ole Miss or Louisville or someplace like that.

TB watched most of the second half of last Saturday's epic - and ultimately semi-tragic - game between Auburn and Ole Miss. Ryan Yurko and Brendan Van Ackeren, TigerBlog's colleagues from the business office, saw it in the stadium.

Yurko and Van Ackeren took advantage of Princeton's light home schedule last weekend to head on the road to experience college football. Van Ackeren played football at Lehigh; if TigerBlog had to choose a position Yurko might have excelled at in football, it would probably be holder.

The two - plus Yurko's brother - set their itinerary several weeks ago, before they realized how big Auburn-Mississippi would be. They also stumbled onto another great game and had a an experience that they won't soon forget.

Van Ackeren, whose wife Lisa is Princeton's softball coach, did the chronicling: 

Everyone has a bucket list.

Such lists take various forms, and cover a myriad of interests, hobbies, geographies, etc. As employees in the collegiate athletics space, and fans of the spectacle that has become college football, colleague Ryan Yurko and myself (Brendan Van Ackeren) used the relatively quiet weekend on campus, coupled with the anticipated late-October chill, to embark on a southern college football swing that included five Division I campuses and three nationally-televised games across four days.

The road-trip commenced at Vanderbilt and included stops at Western Kentucky, Louisville and Memphis, before culminating on the storied “Grove” of Ole Miss. Many miles and BBQ dinners later, we find ourselves back in the friendly confines of Jadwin Gym, happy to share the experience with Tiger Blog.

In advance of our three-games-in-three-days College Football gauntlet, we used our scheduled “off-day” to tour the beautiful city of Nashville, expand our appreciation for country music and pay a visit to the Vanderbilt Commodores.

The scenic campus and overt emphasis of the Student-Athlete certainly drew parallels to life at Princeton. It was refreshing to see the Academic All-America accolades displayed just as front-and-center as the All-SEC Honors. With that being said, there was no mistaking Vanderbilt’s efforts to build, bolster and brand in an effort to keep up in the arms race that has become SEC football.

We had the pleasure of catching up with defensive coordinator Dave “Koto” Kotulski (who served in the same capacity at Lehigh during my collegiate playing career there) and head coach Derek Mason, who both arrived from Stanford this past offseason and are truly two of the good guys in the business.

The Vandy coaching staff was gracious enough to extend us the invite to that afternoon’s practice, where we watched the Commodores game-plan for their eventual 42-28 victory over Old Dominion.

Upon leaving the facility that evening, we could not help but sense that it is only a matter of time before Mason-led Vanderbilt is able to “Anchor Down” and become a major force in the formidable SEC.


Thursday was headlined by a visit to Papa Johns’ Cardinal Stadium to watch No. 25 Louisville try to play spoiler to No. 2 Florida State and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in their quest for a second consecutive national championship. Despite Princeton Softball Assistant Coach Jen Lapicki’s allegiance to her alma mater and beloved Seminoles, Ryan and I were fully entrenched in the Louisville corner and pulling hard for the primetime upset.

The drive to Cardinal Stadium included stops on the campus of Western Kentucky, who we quickly learned are nicknamed the Hilltoppers for a reason, as well as the Louisville University KFC Yum Center, quite possibly the finest modern arena in college athletics. The hospitality of the Louisville tailgate crowd far exceeded any expectations and made for a delicious dinner consisting of chili, sausage and chicken wings, not to mention a cold beverage or two. The highlight of the tailgate was undoubtedly our encounter with a NJ-bred Louisville fan singing the praises of Shawnee, N.J., superstar and Princeton basketball assistant Brian Earl.

The game featured everything an impartial fan could ask for – high scoring, including 10 touchdown drives of seven plays or less; huge swings in momentum; David jumping on Goliath early to the tune of 21-0 before trying fearlessly to hang on; the home team possessing the ball at midfield down less than a touchdown in the closing minutes.

In the end, Florida State showed the moxie of a team that has not lost since 2012 and defeated the upset-minded Cardinals 42-31. There would be no storming of the field, but nevertheless, what a game/stadium environment it was.


Friday entailed the longest leg of our journey. We drove the 390 miles from Louisville to Memphis, scooping up younger brother Matt Yurko on the way, to attend the American Athletic Conference tilt between Memphis and Tulsa. No fan should arrive at the Memphis Liberty Bowl without first paying a visit to Central BBQ and consuming as much slow smoked Memphis style BBQ as humanly possible (FIVE STARS!).

We arrived at Memphis not expecting to see a sold-out 60,000+ seat stadium with college football playoff implications like our other stops. What we got was an aspiring mid-major program that made every effort to market its product and provide a memorable Homecoming evening. Pre-game festivities included the traditional Tiger Walk, in-stadium treat-or-treating and a costume contest, topped off with a 60-minute Bret Michaels concert, the last of a four-game Tailgate Concert Series.

One obvious difference between Princeton and Memphis was the presence of a live Tiger, Tom III, gracing the tailgate lots and stadium sideline in his cage on wheels. Outside of that, there are many similarities to be drawn between the game day challenges, and ensuing efforts and successes we face here at Princeton to that of the non-Power 5 institutions. Following a 40-20 Memphis victory and quick trip through Beale Street, it was on to the Magnolia State.


Our final stop marked the true epitome of the road-trip, and included an experience that should top any college football fan’s bucket list: Saturday afternoon in “The Grove.” On these seven fall weekends, the Ole Miss quad just outside Vaught Hemingway Stadium is transformed into a sea of red and blue tents, southern cooking and Ole Miss Rebel love.

We stepped foot in The Grove nearly eight hours prior to kickoff, and there were already tents and accompanying tailgates covering every patch of grass in all directions, many set up during the midnight hour. Rather than fully depicting The Grove experience in this blog, we will leave it up to each of you to visit Oxford firsthand.

If the Ole Miss tailgate scene and competing “Hotty Toddy” and “War Eagle” chants were not enough, the Football Gods were gracious enough to bless us with a match-up between the No. 3 and No. 4 ranked teams in the nation, two pillars of SEC and College Football tradition. Auburn and Ole Miss were ranked sixth and 18th at the time we booked the trip, but stellar performances to date yielded a virtuoso championship elimination game.

The game was electric. Ole Miss and Auburn traded touchdowns much of the evening, leaving one with the feeling that the last team with the ball would leave that night record intact. For all who witnessed the finish to the game on television, you cannot even imagine the raw emotion in the stands surrounding our goal line seats (yes that goal line). You hate to see any student-athlete lose his season, let alone after an amazing catch-and-run that virtually flipped the script on the National Championship outlook. After 60 minutes of championship-level football, Auburn prevailed 35-31.


That wrapped our college football excursion through the SEC, ACC and AAC landscapes. Each campus and each match-up provided a different lens to the current state of college athletics, and notably college football.

During every conversation I have had with coach Dave Kotulski during his Pac 12 and SEC tenures, he is quick to point out that while the stadium size and TV ratings change, the schemes, execution and commitment of the student-athletes remain constant. That serves as a healthy reminder that our Princeton coaches and student-athletes are every bit as invested and committed as those we root on in sold-out stadiums and arenas.

With that, Ryan and I are excited for the next college football game on our agenda – Princeton vs. Penn this Saturday at Princeton Stadium.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy 145th birthday, Princeton football.

In five years, it'll be the sesquicentennial anniversary of the date that you bequeathed upon the nation the joy that is college football.

Mark the occasion by running the table via beating Penn, Yale and Dartmouth.