Off The Beaten Path Of College Football

Alex G. Spanos StadiumWhen is 2,782 miles and one letter equal to one light year?

The quick and obvious reply is “only on the ‘It’s Game Time Somewhere’ Tour”, but the full answer requires a little explanation.

As for the mileage, that is the distance between FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland and Alex G. Spanos Stadium on the campus of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

On Labor Day evening, I traveled to FedEx Field to attend the marquee game of the college football season’s opening weekend:  Boise State vs. Virginia Tech. On Halloween weekend, I made the drive up California’s central coast to witness Cal Poly’s Homecoming game against the Red Flash of St. Francis (PA) University.

OK, so the 2,782 miles weren’t exactly logged in direct chronological order, but you get the idea – the two games were a long way apart. But the physical distance was secondary to the real difference between the two games – that one letter. The distinction between a “C” and a “B”, to be exact. Hear me out on this.

Going into their game, Cal Poly was ranked 22nd in college football’s FCS division – the one formerly known as Division 1-AA (in order to distinguish it from the money-drenched Division 1-A). The acronym FCS stands for Football Championship Subdivision, which is not to be confused with the FBS, which stands for Football Bowl Subdivision.

The latter is, ahem… “administered” by the BCS, which is more or less the Corleone family of college football.

That’s a lot of acronyms to process, so let me simplify it all for you. The FCS is the division in which college football teams actually determine a national champion on football fields, through a playoff system. Quaint, I know. And something I had to see.

Alex G. Spanos Stadium is pretty close to state-of-the-art for a school of this size. The field itself has been around since 1935, but in 2006 it was renovated and expanded with funding that came primarily from a $4 million donation from its namesake, the owner of the San Diego Chargers. And it has the fingerprints of an NFL-style stadium all over it, at least from the skybox and club seat aspects.

The opposite side of the stadium is where The Bird and I settled in, right next to the student section. From that vantage point it felt like any small college stadium in the country, with aluminum bleachers and tons of school spirit. The total capacity of Spanos Stadium is listed at 11,075, a number which was pushed, but never seriously threatened on this Homecoming Weekend.

This was a far cry from the 86,587 people who took time out of their Labor Day weekend to join me at that FBS game between Boise State and Virginia Tech. That game was memorable for a number of reasons, but the thing that stands out most prominently in my memory was wading through beer cans and broken bottles in a FedEx Field parking lot which just prior to kickoff looked like a dumpster had exploded every 100 yards or so.

At FedEx Field I paid $50 (plus $12.60 in various fees) to sit tucked in the corner of the stadium, in the next-to-last row. Technically I could see the game from there, but it required a lot of assistance from very large video boards. Here at Cal Poly, twenty bucks got me a seat on the 40-yard line, just nine rows off the field. And I didn’t have to worry about the drunk guy next to me throwing up on my shoes.

On Labor Day I saw Big Time Football. I came to Cal Poly for Good Time Football.

Don’t get me wrong – parking at Cal Poly had its own quirks. Having arrived on campus early, we followed signs to reach a General Parking lot which was adjacent to the “Dairy Sciences” facilities. Ever the shy retiring one, The Bird asked the parking lot attendant, “Does it smell like this at the stadium?” Thankfully it didn’t.

As we made our way across campus to the stadium and found our seats, I paid close attention to all of the local pre-game traditions and rituals. And as I took in the festivities while waiting for the game to begin, I couldn’t decide whether what I was seeing was a muted version of flashier “big time” college football games, or whether those games are just over-produced adaptations of this simpler, real-life version.

         

Whatever the case, the prerequisites for 21st century college football were all in place at Spanos Stadium, including the “crazies” – those with bare chests (the guys, anyway), crazy wigs, body paint and the like. Early on though, this group seemed like they were more or less going through the motions, trying to replicate what they saw on television as if it was required of them. It seemed a little forced and certainly not genuine.

What was genuine was the emotion surrounding a moment of silence prior to the game.

That request was made in order to honor the 22 people who had lost their lives 50 years ago that weekend, when the Cal Poly team plane crashed moments after take-off on the way home from a game against Bowling Green in Ohio. Only two of the 48 people aboard that flight avoided physical injury, and as was detailed in a thought-provoking article by the Los Angeles Times’ Diane Pucin on the 50th anniversary of that day, nobody avoided the mental anguish.

Many of the surviving members of that 1960 team took part in the coin toss ceremony, which was moving not only for them, but for many others in attendance. Even the current Cal Poly Mustangs appeared impacted by the enormity of the moment, despite the fact that the crash itself pre-dated the memories of even their parents.

It took a little extra time after this sobering ceremony, but gradually the drama built per usual in anticipation of the signature part of any football game – the opening kick-off. Which in this case promptly sailed out of bounds. A false start on the first play from scrimmage followed that. Two penalties before play had even begun in earnest.

OK, maybe this level of football isn’t exactly what I had envisioned.

To be concluded in next post…

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