The penultimate day of “sports week” here at the JMD blog is all about the ultimate party: college sports. What better time to discuss this amazing phenomenon than in a month famous for college sports, the NCAA basketball tourney commonly referred to as “March Madness”?
While the presumption that college sports is only a mania if you actually attended a college, I think the excitement and (for the most part) purity of the sports generates compelling theater for everyone. But let’s face it; those of us who “have” a school to root for are even more fanatical. Be it “Hook ‘em horns” or “Roll Tide” or the greatest of all, “Go Gators”, school pride breeds a special type of trash talk only college sports can create.
We haven’t taken a ride in the way-back machine in a while, so let’s hop in and travel all the way to my tadpole days in South Florida. In those days, anything to do with Miami was my team. The Dolphins for pro football. The Orioles for baseball (because their Spring Training home was in Miami). And for college sports, of course, it was the University of Miami.
I was not the most “aware” kid in those days. In fact, I had not even heard of the other state colleges at the time, big or small. When it finally came time to choose a college, UM was out because it was way too expensive for our modest family. It had to be a state school where the tuition was affordable. The University of Florida became the choice simply because it was cheaper and relatively close (about 5 or 6 hours, depending on how lucky you felt).
When I started school, almost every aspect of UF sports stunk. Major sports, that is. UF has always been strong in track & field, swimming, golf and others. But football and basketball were putrid (for example, one year I was there, we went 0-10-1 in football). Baseball was pretty good, though, and that was my favorite anyway.
But here’s the funny thing about college sports: when you’re attending college, it doesn’t matter if you’re winning…it’s the partying at the game that counts. Here’s the next funny thing though: once you start winning, then no one, not even the students, tolerates losing well. Weird.
Anyway, I didn’t have to worry about winning during my time as a student. “Back then”, all Florida colleges stunk. Then Miami got good. And then Florida State. And finally Florida. And one or all of them have been marquee schools ever since. As the inimitable Don Adams said, “Missed it by that much!” At their peak, each team had a defining characteristic: Miami had its swagger, FSU had its legend and UF had its wise-mouth “ol’ ball coach”.
The energy surrounding college sports is incredible. Despite its inevitable spots of tarnish from big-time money, the amateur level of the participants and youthful enthusiasm tend to reach into each of us and bring back those rabid days of screaming, cheering and partying before, during and after the game. Groups of alumni will gather at sports bars, homes and other locales to form their own cheering section. The passion runs deep and sometimes a bit rough, but it’s timeless. Decked out in shirts, caps, shorts, face paint, car decals, flags, underwear (yeah, we’ll just let that one go unchecked); I watch the college “adults” act more carefree than their professional sports brothers and sisters.
A couple jobs ago, I worked in an office with a perfect melting pot of college sports: a manager with Florida State ties and multiple staff with Florida and Miami ties. When football season came (where the most heated rivalries were at that time), the rhetoric in the office elevated to all-out trash talking. Good natured, but groan and laugh eliciting. All three teams played each other then, so there could always be the possibility of a clear-cut “state champion”. Woe be to the group whose team lost the weekend they played each other. They didn’t just suffer that week; they suffered the rest of the year. Their only hope was to force themselves to root for one of their arch-rivals to beat the team they lost to, just so they could abuse the group abusing them. In an odd twist, at my last company, I ended up working for that FSU manager (now a VP). The levels of authority never got in the way of good, solid college trash talking, though!
Over the last decade, my college teams have had some amazing success, affording me a good long period of preening and sarcastic sympathy for my rivals. Last year, there was a little slippage in the football team and the backlash was immediate and vicious, pent up for those many years. The relish was palpable, but still the undercurrent was friendly, not mean-spirited. Fortunately, UF’s basketball team is doing well this year while my rivals are hanging on by a thread, begging for scraps at the March Madness table. Hmmm, I think I need to go out golfing with one of those friends and perhaps spend a few holes discussing his basketball chances. It’s even possible I might slip in some mention how well my team is doing.