So-called "big-time" collegiate athletics has had an awfully rough year.
When the entire QB Cam Netwon affair - you remember, the father of Auburn's star quarterback getting caught offering his son's services for a six-figure sum of money - feels like it happens a decade ago, you know the overall feeling of college football in those Bowl Subdivision ranks has to be one of nausea rather than school pride. Between the horrors at Penn State, which are unfolding in slow motion in front of the entire world, and the latest conference realignment madness, where money has made a Boise State to the Big East scenario plausible, "big-time" college football, and perhaps even all of "big-time" college athletics, seems severely broken.
And then, suddenly, amidst all the lunacy, something comes along that makes you remember why you started following college football in the first place.
Many, many people do not consider Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS football, "big-time", if they're even aware of it at all. But if any person calling themselves a college football fan wants to see what it's really all about, they ought to watch the entire ESPN3 broadcast of what I saw live in person in Towson, Maryland.
You couldn't have been there, listed to the game on the radio, or watched the game on ESPN3, and not felt like this was "big time".
Even early in the process after the game was announced, you knew this game was going to be something special.
For Lehigh, it meant playing against a team many young Lehigh football alumni had competed against in the past. Starting in 1986, and concluding in 2003, the Mountain Hawks had played against Towson almost every year, including seven times as a member of the Patriot League. This wasn't a faceless opponent that they had never seen before; this was a school that, while never being a direct rival, had some memorable games as members of the League.
For Towson, it was much more than just a game, too. It was an announcement that they had arrived in the world of college football.
The Tigers, after leaving for what is now the CAA, had a couple of good season in their time in the most powerful conference in FCS. But for the most part, their stay in the CAA has been rough. Last year, they finished 1-10, and were picked to finish last in the CAA behind teams like Richmond, James Madison, Villanova and Delaware, all former FCS National Champions.
That they went from 1-10 to 9-2 in 2011 is an incredible story in and of itself. But doing so and getting a home playoff game - something that seemed inconceivable to anyone except, perhaps, Towson athletic director Mike Waddell and Tiger head coach Rob Ambrose, made an incredible story into one of opportunity for Towson athletics.
It was the Tigers' first football championship since they first became a Division I program in 1987 - a long road which included stints as a limited scholarship, Patriot League need-based aid, and finally a full scholarship member of the CAA with the full allotment of 63 merit-based scholarshipc.
The playoff now wasn't just about a CAA championship, though that was great in its own right, with President Barack Obama appearing in a picture with the CAA football championship trophy at a recent Towson basketball game. It was an opportunity for Towson to show the world that they had arrived as a "big-time" program at the FCS level.
While none of the current upper athletic administration was around during Towson's stint in the Patriot League - though Ambrose was an assistant coach under then-head coach Gordy Combs at that time - there was an unspoken undercurrent through the two weeks that Towson, at one time, was the just under the athletic prestige of a school like Lehigh, back in the Patriot League days. But now, as CAA champions, the feeling was that Tigers had passed their Patriot League "phase" - and were now looking at competing for a national championship, the perfect storybook ending.
It would be a chance to show off their entire sports complex, which underwent a massive $32 million renovation beginning in 1999 and ending in 2002, which seats 11,198 spectators for football. "It ranks as the third largest facility of its kind in the Metropolitan Baltimore Area behind M&T Bank Stadium where the NFL Ravens play and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home to Baltimore's Major League Baseball franchise," the Tiger's website crows about the stadium.
Lehigh and the Patriot League had a nice, little, academic league, in that Tiger-centric view. But Towson, once a part of that, was going for it all with bold athletic moves that the Patriot League could only dream about. That undercurrent was evident in how much time and energy the Towson athletic department put into the party atmosphere they set up at Johnny Unitas stadium.
For a week and a half Towson's athletic department went on a full-court press on publicizing the playoff game, calling it one of the biggest events in their athletics history. And they did an excellent job, promoting the game in all ways possible. Not only through new methods like social media either: they were creative, working closely with the town community to drum up support, and offering a ticket package for both the playoff game and the men's basketball game versus George Mason that evening.
They worked with the Towson chamber of commerce to set up tents. While parking was a bear, they sprawled out the tailgate sections around the stadium in order to accomodate all their (mostly new) fans. And by all accounts, they did a fantastic job making it a pregame atmosphere that felt "big time".
They worked with Lehigh, too - but also engaged in some gamesmanship as well.
They arranged for plenty of space for travelling Mountain Hawk fans to watch the game - yet, mischeviously, arranged for Towson's band to be situated directly next to them at the game. They gave Lehigh a spot for their 1,500 strong delegation to tailgate before the game - but they made sure it was a long, long way from the field.
As I went into the stadium and the press box, the Peter Gabriel song "Big Time" went through my head when I went in the elevator to the multi-tiered press box, past the Minnegan Comcast Presidential suite where VIPs could watch the game with a fully catered buffet. Once inside, Towson's press box put Delaware's icy unheated box to shame - no relying on spotty wireless here, as I plugged in and was ready to go by kickoff.
The game had everything an FCS playoff game should ever have.
Two conference champions battling for supremacy. The winner advances for a chance for the national championship, the other goes home. It would have been "big-time" enough without the coincidence that Towson was once a Patriot League squad, but with that little bit extra, it made the game even larger.
The game itself, too, would have everything.
The game would have six ties, and three come-from-behind offensive drives by both teams, making the tension for both sides almost unbearable. Big plays for touchdowns, but also grinding drives that resulted in scores. Superstar players, like senior QB Chris Lum and Towson RB Terrance West.
It was, indeed, a prizefight between two of the nation's top teams, as you can see from the highlights below:
While ESPN3 is not technically a broadcast network, the crew working the game really captured the feel of the game well piping in the crowd noise of both sides and the audio of both bands, Towson's extensive band and Lehigh's smaller pep band contingent.
The broadcast team of Bob Picozzi and John Gregory also conveyed the "big-time" nature of the game with great, engaged commentary. They made a slip-up or two - calling Towson a Patriot League team probably made not a few Patriot League presidents smile - but they were into the action on the field in a big way, feeding off the desperate energy that only a college football playoff game can generate.
Not to take away from Lehigh's great local broadcasts of football games, but when ESPN comes to town it does feel different. It feels national. It feels like a highlight on SportsCenter is a real possibility at any time. You get the extra camera angles, and the close-ups on the individual players, that make it special.
And the energy of the game from the fans was anything but small-time. A sellout crowd and a game with so many momentum shifts made sure all 11,198 fans, Lehigh and Towson alike, stayed at the game and absorbed all the thrills and heart-stopping plays. From the press box, you could both see and hear the jam-packed Lehigh section, covering nearly half of the visiting stands.
Capturing the energy from (what I presume is) an IPhone is the following video:
I was blessed, too, to be seated close to the radio folks from Lehigh, Matt Kerr and Mike Yadush, who were calling the game for ESPN 1230 and 1320 in the Lehigh Valley. While a wall separated us, hearing the ebb and flow of emotion of the game from them added immensely to my own enjoyment and to my live tweets from the game. (It's worth going to LehighSports.com and listening to Kerr's call of Lum's third-down completion to sophomore FB Zach Hayden to ice the game - it will give you chills.)
In the end, the game ended being "big time" for both Towson and Lehigh.
Towson was "big time", because they were able to do what some thought was impossible - win the toughest conference in the country, and host a playoff game. They set up a great party at their place, filled the stadium, and made it memorable for everyone in attendance. People in the Towson community will come back to see this young team again during the 2012 regular season, that's for certain, and it's all due to the efforts of the folks in that athletic department.
But Lehigh's football team was "big time", of course, because they won a game that many folks didn't think they could. Head coach Andy Coen was 0-7 against CAA competition, and as a program Lehigh had only beaten the CAA champions on the road once, 24-23 at Richmond, in a college football world that was completely different than the landscape we have today.
These Mountain Hawk players have believed in their credentials to win the national championship all along, but this Saturday they made believers of a whole lot more fans. They knew they could come into this hostile environment, and not waver.
Every day, we read new revelations about Penn State, or the latest crazy conference realignment scenario that has everything to do with TV money and nothing to do with reason. But this Saturday, for those paying attention, two schools that ought to be considered "big time" put on a "big time" production, played a "big time" college football game, and showed exactly how "big time" they were.
For Lehigh, the challenge becomes putting one "big time" challenge behind them and focus on the next "big time" game.
Already among the Lehigh players, a YouTube video of the FargoDome is making the rounds - showing exactly what the Mountain Hawks will be getting into when they head to Fargo, North Dakota this weekend to take on the North Dakota State Bison.
That's the other magical thing about the FCS playoffs. It goes from one "big time" game to another.