Monday, December 19, 2011

We Saw It All On The Radio

(This will run in the Ruston Daily Leader at some point. It runs here now. I was the 'color analyst' for Louisiana Tech football this year, teamed with my old friend and Tech Athletics Hall of Famer Freeway Dave Nitz, who is 7th on the current list of football games called for one school; Tech vs. TCU in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 7 CST will be Freeway's 427th or 428th call of a Tech football game...Here's a look at our season from the booth, though it is just the tip of Mr. Iceberg...And the photo is of Dave and me at Fresno State; the Hall of Famer is on the left...)

It started at 9 at night in a south Mississippi tropical storm and ended in mid-evening in a steady north Louisiana rain. In between was the football version of something mixed up enough to look like the inside of my grandmamma Ruth’s handbag.

It really was the strangest season of Louisiana Tech football I’ve seen since joining the program’s radio crew. It was also the first season of Tech football I’ve seen since joining the radio crew, but still…

Steve Davison had been the caddie for longtime Tech football play-by-play aficionado Dave Nitz, a Tech Hall of Famer we call “Freeway” because of his love of the road and its love of him. The only thing that’s been on the road more than Dave in four decades of radio work is asphalt.

Steve and his wife Sarah had twins in the spring, causing Steve to opt for “color analyst” early retirement. So I got the job in a way familiar to me: I begged. I was in the ear of LA Tech Sports Properties general manager Mason Ellenberger so much that by the time I’d broken him down, there was hardly enough of him left to scrape up with a putty knife and put in a shoe box.

(His original offer was $400 a game, which I laughed at. I countered. He laughed. Negotiations continued over a few stressful weeks, all the while with me remembering what my dad had taught me, that I could do most anything I wanted if I were willing to pay the price. We finally settled on me paying Mason $100 per game; I drive a hard bargain. $400 a game? Ha. That Mason. I swear.)

On the LA Tech Sports Network crew were returning veterans Dave and sidekick Benny Thornell, a statistician with a love for and encyclopedic knowledge of Tech athletics. (Benny knows where the bodies are buried.) The rookies were me and sideline reporter Max Causey, a quarterback for the 2001 Western Athletic Conference champion Bulldogs and a member of the Tech family since before birth, literally: his mom Linda is the daughter of Mrs. Gerry Lambright and the late Maxie Lambright, Tech Hall of Famer and former Bulldogs football coach. Max was juiced.

Other rookies included engineers Chris Brister and Ryan Kavanaugh, who split duty and were the only people besides Mason who knew how to hook up anything that would involve fans begin able to actually hear us on the radio.

I won’t give you the play-by-play here, but I can tell you that our first road trip was the season opener to Hattiesburg for the 9 p.m. game at Southern Miss. To be at the game five hours early as Dave prefers, we – me, Benny, Max, Ryan, Tech associate athletic director for media relations Malcolm Butler and Freeway -- left from Thomas Assembly in a van around 11 a.m. and made it all the way to Tallulah’s gravitational pull before stopping at Dave’s favorite restaurant. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: it’s called Wendy’s. (Dave suggests the hamburgers.)

Dave still hasn’t seen the Tech-Southern Miss game. The rain and fog on our broadcast booth window turned the thing into a shower door. Inside the booth was an actual shower; we had four trash cans catching water. (I am not joking.) I pressed my forehead against the glass to spot jersey numbers I hand-signaled to Dave, who watched as best he could on the end zone’s giant TV screen. Max battled the elements and looked like a prune in postgame.

We unfolded ourselves from the van back in Ruston, all cheery and whatnot, at 6:30 a.m.

That was the beginning. The season’s been well-documented by now, so you know that what ended up as a WAC championship and berth in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl started off more like something you step in and can’t get off your shoe. Dave and Benny took it particularly hard, and again, I’m not kidding. A 1-4 start – three heartbreakers and a game against Hawaii in which the team reacted terribly – well, it made every other game a grind. You could not afford to lose and still entertain any thought of a championship.

And what a grind it was.

But what a finish.

For the first few games, I hung something in the press box to make Dave feel at home, and each item had a story and fit the opponent. An old Southern Miss jersey, a pair of Houston Astros pants, and on like that. But it wasn’t working. So starting in Idaho, I taped just a baseball card of Dave (there IS such a thing!) and an advertisement for the new Wendy’s Hot ’n’ Juicy burgers to the press box wall. Seven games and seven wins later, I haven’t changed a thing.

It helped, of course, that Tech quit turning the ball over late. Started intercepting passes. Completed balls deep. Played like a band of brothers, whistle to whistle.

I could go on and on with examples, and maybe soon I will. But for now – I mean, since I am an “expert” color guy and all – I’ll just say that after all the limp-offs and plane trips and penalties and momentum swings and gut checks, the sole team standing atop the WAC really proved itself a champion. Anybody who knows anything about football will tell you that the team who won the WAC worked its way up a hill to get there, earned it step by step, down by down, quarter by quarter, game by game.

And when the smoke from the long regular season cleared, there was only one jersey at the top of the mountain. Its color was red and blue. Even a rookie color analyst could see that.