In our family trip to Yellowstone park, my wife, son, and I took a long side trip to Cody, Wyoming to experience something that everyone ought to experience at least once in their lifetimes.
I remember it well - the clowns, team roping, bull riding, the works. The crowd was encouraged to participate, and you couldn't help yourself after a while: you had to, somehow, show your appreciation for the displays of ability that were going on.
I thought back on that "rodeo" a lot when I flew down to Lynchburg, Virginia to take in the Lehigh football game. It was a lot more packed than the "rodeo" I went to in Cody - there's a lot more money in Liberty University than there is in "rodeos" - but, like the show I saw in Wyoming, it wasn't just a football game, it was a spectacle.
Flying into Lynchburg's small airport, it's possible to see beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including a particular mountainside owned by Liberty University.
You can tell it's owned by Liberty by the oval-shaped "LU" monogram etched in the hillside, where the folks at Liberty have clear-cut a portion of the ample forest surrounding the area and set up something that is visible both from the road and from the air.
It's just one of the many indicators that the University, whose president is Jerry Falwell, Jr., is looking to leave a very big footprint on the world of higher education.
Everywhere you looked in the area was a sign of Liberty's money and dedication.
One very cool example was the man-made year-round, all-weather ski area visible at the top of the same LU mountain.
(I was proudly told later that it was the only one of its kind in North America - it uses the same technology to create a skiiable surface used by the folks in Dubai in the "Mall of Emirates".)
At noon as we landed, on a picture-perfect afternoon in perfect fall sunshine, we also skimmed above the immense sports complex that Liberty enjoys.
Did you know Liberty has a hockey team? Or an indoor soccer team? I found out for myself as we flew over the dedicated buildings for those two sports alone.
Coming in, you also got a beautiful aerial view - from the left side of the plane, that is - of Williams Stadium, where the Mountain Hawks were going to be competing that very evening.
I did not take the seven hour bus ride to Williams Stadium in 2004 - the last time Lehigh traveled here - but folks like Keith Groller of the Morning Call told me that it was basically unrecognizable from the stadium they visited back then. Only a couple of years removed from a renovation to expand the stadium to a capacity of 19,200, Mr. Falwell already has another expansion plan in place in increase capacity to 30,000 by 2015. By then, the Flames hope to be invited to play FBS football.
As a football fan, I couldn't help but be dazzled by the entire athletics complex, and that was even before I set foot into Williams stadium, which would happen hours later.
To enter the stadium, we were escorted through the same tunnel that the players use to enter the field of play, through the athletics building and inflatable "Liberty" awning. Later, I'd see that it was also decked out with a fog machine, and the Williams' PA system would boom out music to introduce the Flames, where the 17,000 fans would stand and cheer their football team.
The "press tower" - yes, that's what it's really called - is actually a five-tier structure, where the fourth and fifth floors are dedicated to the press. The third tier was actually a sort of luxury suite, where scores of invitees enjoyed high-quality food, carving stations, and friendly service, and the ground floor led out to the "concourse", where inflatable bouncers and games for kids were available outside.
My memory flashed back to an FCS team that was ostensibly at the same level as Liberty, LaSalle. In the final year of existence of their non-scholarship football team, I saw the Explorers face off against Wagner at their tiny multi-purpose facility, where the press box was literally an awning and six chairs. This was, um, different than that scene.
I had to walk around and get a sense, on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon, what tailgating was like at this facility, so I left the ample press box, and my laptop, to walk around and visit Lehigh's sponsored tailgate.
Hours before gametime, there were plenty of Liberty fans enjoying soda, outdoor grilling, and playing toss-type games for entertainment while waiting the kickoff. (Liberty, as befits a Christian school, is a dry campus with dry tailgates.)
As I walked around, plenty of cheery students asked to give me free things. A Lance Armstrong-type wristband, to ask me to vote. Liberty Stickers. Donuts. (Really - there were Liberty students offering passersby donuts. That was definitely a first for me at a football tailgate.)
Though I wasn't wearing any Lehigh paraphernalia, when I did go to the Lehigh's tailgate, sponsored by the Lehigh Football Partnership, I was also struck by, well, the niceness of the home crowd to the Lehigh fans. Many, many people were not only willing to heap respect on Lehigh's team, but also showed a lot of football knowledge of their Flames as well. These were not just eager fans - they were eager fans who knew something, and talked about the night's matchup without seeming like they were ready to deck you.
I am not one to hate niceness in an effort to burnish my writing credentials. Even so, I was taken aback as to how much I enjoyed the positive atmosphere overall. Having spent so much time around Philly - in the 700 level, listening to fans heckling opposing fans while ostensibly observing a moment of silence, home of the "Hanging Judge" and all sorts of un-Brotherly behavior - I thought, perhaps, I might be maudlin for, say, a drunken fight, or at least a verbal tongue-lashing of an opposing team. I was not.
There is something magical about college football, how it can take a small, local community and unite it, for a day making them bigger than Philadelphia, New York City, Dallas, or any number of grand, urban cities. I got the feeling in Lynchburg that while some folks would be in the Golden Corral, enjoying their blue cotton candy and paying very close attention to the Bowling Green/Virginia Tech game on ESPN, many people's football worlds were centered on the game with the FCS Top 25 team coming in to play that night.
The focus of the community we talked too was almost entirely on the game in Williams Stadium that evening - you could feel it in the air. To them, there was no other game. That's not always the case wherever you go. I'm not sure if it was a "south of the Mason/Dixon line" thing, a blue state/red state thing, or just a Liberty thing. But that's what I felt.
Kind of like the "rodeo" in Cody. When my family and I went there, there were some other activities going on at the time - the Rough Riders' convention, or something like that, was happening on TV miles away. But on that night when we were there, the "rodeo" was center stage, and it was the biggest show in town. It dominates the landscape. The focus of Cody is the "rodeo", and as far as anything else is concerned, nothing else exists.
Seeing familiar faces at Lehigh's tailgate, where barbeque and slow-cooked chicken were enjoyed, was great. Some even brought their own cups - the better to enjoy their own, um, sort of drink on the sly, preferably mixed with some Coca-Cola on the rocks.
Whether the other brave Lehigh souls who made the trip broke out some cigars later I do not know, but hanging amongst them for a while was definitely different than walking amongst the many happy, but calm, Liberty fans who were there hours before kickoff.
I detected more nervousness among the Lehigh fans - a natural nervousness that might come from fans of a nationally-ranked team whom, at 3-0, had plenty to lose with a matchup against an 0-3 school a little bit desperate to get their first win. Plus, anyone who even had a sidewise look at the stadium knows that Liberty offers the full allotment of scholarships to their football players, no different than Delaware, New Hampshire, or last year's champions, North Dakota State. As good as Lehigh has been, they knew intrinsically this would be a huge challenge. This was not just any 3-0 team.
As I walked back into the stadium and took the elevator back up to the press box, I wondered about the number of people Liberty University must have work at their stadium, either students or full-time staff. 50? 100? It seemed like everywhere you looked there were students or employees, collecting garbage, holding an elevator for you, serving patrons food. All smiling; all there to try to make your stay pleasant. All eerily knowledgeable about football. And knowledgeable about Lehigh's football team, too.
I have no idea if Liberty rolls out the red carpet for, say, Coastal Carolina the same way it was rolled out for Lehigh. Probably not. Perhaps the good tidings turn inside out when, say, Stony Brook comes to town - perhaps their knowledge of RB Miguel Mayonset becomes a taunt to vicious to reprint here.
But as FCS gamedays go, this one was tough to top - and I've experienced quite a few of them.
To no one's surprise, I am a big fan of the Lehigh gameday experience. Murray Goodman stadium is a great place to watch a game, and like Lynchburg, South Mountain's forests are a beautiful sight on gameday, as are the smells of grilled meat, cigar smoke and crisp, cold Yuenglings in the parking lot.
Liberty's pregame experience is also beautiful - yet at the same time so different in many ways to the one I'm accustomed to. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much.
The students start rolling into the "rodeo" more than an hour and a half before gametime - at least if they want to get on TV, or get featured on the 36 by 20 LED video screen that looms above the entrance for the Liberty players.
One by one, they trickle down the hill from their dorms, and take their place across from the press box, all wearing near-identical red shirts. (Blue body paint - sported by a suprising number of students - was also seen.) By gametime, they've covered nearly the entire East stands, along with Liberty's marching band, the "Spirit of the Mountain", comprising over 100 members.
First, though, the band is on the field along with the players, though, taking part in th pregame introductions. They are a spectacle all in themselves, with the marching band playing the national anthem, an "A" team, a "B" team and a "C" team of cheerleaders, the Flames Mascot, an Eagle, and the Flames' entrance music - all the while, the fog pours on on the field, and fireworks and flames - yea, flames! - shooting out of the top of the video screen.
(Instantly I wanted one at Lehigh. Steve Lomangino, Lehigh's Sports Information Director, told me he'd get right on it. Your move, Mr. Sterrett.)
Along with the other regular Lehigh media members, we looked at each other kind of like the kids at Hogwarts on their first day at school. Multiple bathrooms! Multiple wireless connections! A hundred page game program, and a full graphical two-deep! (Those items may not sound like much in comparison to the exploding scoreboard, but believe me, it is.)
Folks like Chris Lang, the beat reporter from the Flames from the Lynchburg News-Advance, probably laughed to himself as we were ooh-ing and ahh-ing.
"I had an argument with the architect about that media deck in front of press box row," Liberty sports information director Todd Wetmore noted. "I told them it wasn't a good idea to have that to block the view of the reporters. So I just tell them to steer clear of your area, so you can see the game."
Many FCS schools would love to have the problem at their facility that their TV cameras have too many options for shooting the game. The concrete row easily accomodated Liberty's camera crew, and and Lehigh's broadcast crew of Steve Degler and Mike Yadush. And that wasn't counting the College Gameday desk-style set and Liberty's play-by-play crew of Mike Tilley, Ray Jones, D.J. Jordan, Mike Rutigliano and Erin McKeown.
The sun was still out, but is about to set on as pretty a view of the Blue Ridge mountains as you dare believe. And the game hadn't even started yet.
You really have to hand it to the folks at Liberty: they have managed to create a great gameday experience for their kids. Nothing feels small-time about the effort put into these facilities, the scoreboard, the press box.
Fortunately, for Lehigh fans, though, this wasn't the Mountain Hawks first "rodeo".
It would have been easy for them to look around in awe - as, admittedly, I did - at the facilities and be intimidated. When you are in that stadium, hearing the announcer announce "That's a Liberty..." and the sea of red yells "FIRST DOWN", pointing their thundersticks in the direction they're going, there is nothing else happening in the world at that moment. The center of the world is Lynchburg, Virginia.
You know the story of the game by now: Lehigh jumped to a 14-0 lead, gave up the next 20 points, and then took advantage of two key plays to hang on and leave Lynchburg with a 28-26 victory.
After the game, Lehigh's players drenched coach Andy Coen with water, and gathered in the locker room afterwards, the emotion of the day spilling forth. The real LU, on this night, was Lehigh, and coach Coen was as fired up as the players about the win as he talked with us, the media, afterwards.
"I'm really, really proud of this football team," he said, his voice raised from the music from the PA system, the raw outpour of emotion, or both. "Our guys hung in there. The message before the game was to compete, compete, compete. We knew we were stepping up a level here. The guys certainly answered the call. There wasn't a point where we thought we wouldn't find a way to win the football game."
In a way, the "rodeo" had the effect, I think, of bringing this team closer together.
Lehigh has one big attendance game a year back home: "The Rivalry" with Lafayette, where they face a sellout crowd upwards of 16,000. Against Liberty, they actually faced an even bigger crowd of 17,000 fans: all, except a tiny sliver of Brown on the home side, rooting for the Flames.
Many on this team have been in big FCS environments before. Two years ago, it was Harvard, Northern Iowa, and Delaware. Last year, it was Towson and North Dakota State. It was nothing new for those players.
There is something about an enviornment like this - so big, so partisan, so wanting the home team to win - that can bring a team together if they simply find a way, somehow, to get the victory. The wins feel bigger; the losses feel bigger.
That's probably the way it is with a calf roper in a "rodeo", too: in front of a big crowd, getting the big reaction from the fans, it changes you. Something happens. You've proved yourself. You've done something few have done.
Lehigh experienced the "rodeo" this weekend in Lynchburg, and they became a much better football team. You could feel it.