Sunday, June 10, 2012

Southern Nights: Missouri's first season in the SEC

Sept. 1, vs. Southeastern Louisiana: Missouri opens its 87th season at Faurot Field with this tuneup game against the Lions. On the first play from scrimmage, super freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham catches a quick pass and dashes for a 17-yard gain before he is tackled. A hush falls over Faurot Field. DGB got... tackled??? Already? But we tweeted about him so much. (That's what we think of your rules, NCAA.) We chanted his name at that basketball game. This wasn't in the script. After a bit more internal debate, the fans decide that, well, a 17-yard gain is a pretty good start. Raucous cheering erupts and continues largely unbroken for most of the game and DGB makes a great first impression and the Tigers roll the overmatched Lions.

Sept. 8, vs. Georgia: Faurot is on fire (figuratively; metal benches and concrete make poor kindling) for Mizzou's SEC debut, against Georgia, the defending East Division champions. A rogue booster known only as "Benskie" reportedly makes a $1,000 donation to Marching Mizzou in exchange for the band playing "Marching Through Georgia," a peppy ditty glorifying General Sherman's vicious, destructive, spirit-crushing march through Georgia during the Civil War. Georgia fans become enraged, and respond by imploring their band to play their fight song, "Glory, Glory, to Old Georgia," which is itself set to the tune of another Union Army song, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

High on life in the SEC, Missouri can't resist poking a stick at the Bulldogs a bit more. Instead of removing the shirts of one student section front row to paint a message on their bodies, the Tiger's Lair leaders paint lengthy Sherman quotes about punishing Georgia on the bare chests of every member of the front row on the entire East side of the stadium: "My aim then was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us... Make Georgia howl." The big screen camera pans along the painted row in the final frenzied minutes before kickoff, near the end of the line revealing a shirtless Hope Driskill, a 2012 Mizzou grad and 2011 Miss Missouri USA, prompting a roar from the crowd not heard since Gahn McGaffee's thunderbolt kick return to start the famed 2010 game against Oklahoma.

Riding the energy from the crowd, Missouri rolls to a 21-10 halftime lead. Normally mild-mannered Georgia coach Mark Richt explodes on his team at halftime, shouting, "They're mocking you! Put these newbies in their place! For your girlfriends, for your sorority girls, for Georgia!" Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray leads a frantic comeback in the fourth quarter, and Georgia pulls out a 34-31 win. But Missouri has earned a dose of SEC respect for their effort and their gameday atmosphere.

Sept. 15, vs. Arizona State: This game has "letdown" written all over it for Missouri, after the cataclysm with Georgia and before the trip to possible SEC East favorite South Carolina. But Arizona State has "letdown program" written all over it. The game is close for a while, but the Tigers pull away in the second half, and Missouri avenges last season's overtime loss at Arizona State with a comfortable win.

Sept. 22, at South Carolina: Missouri plays a fourth straight game in Columbia, but this time it's the one in South Carolina. Steve Spurrier is at his confident, easygoing best leading up to the game, good-naturedly reminding reporters that he won the Heisman Trophy more recently than Missouri football has won an outright conference title. The Ol' Ballcoach trots out on the field on gameday in shorts because it's hot, he's Steve Spurrier, and he can. Monstrous South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney puts Missouri quarterback James Franklin's surgically repaired right shoulder to the test. The shoulder holds up, but the game Gamecock team is too much for Missouri, especially in the other Columbia, dropping the Tigers to 0-2 in SEC play.

Sept. 29, at Central Florida: The Tigers arrive in Orlando shocked to find Central Florida is actually pretty good, favored to win the Conference USA. Since it's Florida, the video board showed the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders version of the "Call Me Maybe" music video during pregame warmups, possibly in an attempt to distract the Missouri players. (Lecherous aside: maybe best cover video for this song.) The Knights take a lead into the fourth quarter, but Franklin plays brilliantly down the stretch, leading the Tigers to the win. In postgame interviews, DGB raves about the Spiderman 3D roller coaster at Universal Studios.

Oct. 6, vs. Vanderbilt: It's a James Franklin-off on a beautiful autumn day in Columbia, Mizzou's quarterback vs. Vandy's coach. Missouri fans get the elusive win over Vanderbilt that they've pined for since the (second) Grover Cleveland administration. (Mizzou's last win over Vandy was 1896; they had only played once since then.) Having taken part in the time-honored SEC tradition of beating Vanderbilt, Mizzou truly feels like a conference member now. Never mind that the first huge conference revenue-sharing check won't arrive until the following summer.

Oct. 13, vs. Alabama: Crimson Tide fans begin arriving in Columbia on Wednesday, piling up like hailstones, hailstones that holler odd things like, "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer!!!" After the almost pastoral scene for the win over Vanderbilt, Faurot Field is again at full throat for another showdown with an SEC heavyweight. In a hard-hitting, vintage SEC game, Alabama grinds out the win. Afterward, a terrified Maneater student reporter asks Tide coach Nick Saban what he thinks of Columbia, and if he's looking forward to his next trip to Faurot. Saban: "In 12 years? Don't you know how our conference schedule works? Hell, son, I may be dead in 12 years."

Oct. 27, vs. Kentucky: Missouri enters its Homecoming game with a modest 4-3 record. But Mizzou does Homecoming right, and the fans enjoy the festivities. In stark contrast to the Alabama game, there are very few Wildcat fans to be found in Columbia for the game. But the few in town would like you to know their Wildcats won the national title in basketball. Missouri decides it needs rivals, so, owing to both states' (sorry, Kentucky, the state's and the commonwealth's) divided status during the Civil War, the game is dubbed "The Secession? Bowl." A rivalry trophy is produced, although it looks a lot like the old Telephone Trophy from the series with Iowa State, with the Iowa Sate half hastily painted Kentucky blue. Missouri wins big, but the on-field highlight may be the postgame coaches handshake, when Kentucky coach Joker Phillips looks at stone-faced Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and asks, "Why so serious?"

Nov. 3, at Florida: Missouri kicks off its month of three SEC road games with a trip to the Swamp, one of the most daunting venues in the nation. Early in the game, Florida linebacker Jonathan Bostic drives Franklin into the ground, injuring the quarterback's shoulder. In comes backup Corbin Berkstresser, who is, uh, stressing significantly as the Swamp gets louder and louder. With Missouri backed up near its own goal line and the play clock dwindling, Pinkel calls timeout. Quoting Saban in the same stadium the season before, Pinkel yells at his young quarterback to "calm the f--- down!" This is actually a decent bit of life advice, and Berkstresser settles down as the Tigers hang in the low-scoring game. At the half, Truman the Tiger "chats" with Albert E. Gator and his wife/girlfriend, Alberta. Truman contemplates his bachelor ways. Bess the Tiger, anyone?

In the second half, ultra-intense Gator coach Will Muschamp is his raving, cursing, headbutting, bleeding self. When DGB lines up on Muschamp's side of the field, the coach stands as close to the receiver as possible, making the Gator-chomp gesture with his arms. He later tries to rush the field, yelling, "I'll show you how to tackle that S.O.B.!!!" Fortunately Muschamp is restrained by his staff. The coach also demands his assistants "make one of them Tupac hologram things" for him so he can go into the game undercover. This obviously doesn't happen, but Muschamp's intensity motivates his team, or their terror of failing does, and the Gators grind out the win.

Nov. 10, at Tennessee: The Tigers run out onto the field in the South's biggest football venue, Neyland Stadium, as Tennessee's Pride of the Southland band plays "Rocky Top." Vols coach Derek Dooley, deep in the midst of a job-saving campaign, is prancing up and down the sidelines in his bright orange pants. The band plays "Rocky Top." Franklin shows no ill effects from last week's injury, and Mizzou jumps ahead early. The band plays "Rocky Top." Rapidly maturing Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray has a seven-yard completion. The band plays "Rocky Top." The Vols take control with a big second quarter. The band plays "Rocky Top." Missouri's late rally in the face of 104,000 screaming fans, probably the biggest crowd to ever see Missouri play a football game, falls just short. The band plays "Rocky Top."

Nov. 17, vs. Syracuse: The only drawback to the SEC getting its conference action going earlier in the season is less intriguing November nonconference games such as this. Syracuse is a name Mizzou fans recognize, but that's because of their basketball success. The game goes like one would expect a matchup of SEC and Big East schools to go, with Missouri winning comfortably, enjoying a nice respite amidst the waves of SEC road games in tough venues. During the game, however, Pinkel finds himself compulsively singing/humming "Rocky Top," like Elaine's dad singing "Master of the House" in that Seinfeld episode.

Nov. 24, at Texas A&M: Pinkel arrives in College Station, checks his mail, then begins final preparations for Missouri's third game here in three years. With Arkansas set up as Missouri's opposite-division permanent rival in future schedules, the Tigers will go from playing at The Home of the 12th Man three straight years to playing there every 12 years. Making the situation even more odd are the Aggie fans themselves, who say/yell seemingly nonsensical things like, "Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck;" "Aggies never lose, they just occasionally get outscored" (WTF?!?); and "Aggies never lose, though they may run out of time." The Aggies have disposed of former coach Mike Sherman, a.k.a. Mr. .500 win percentage, and Kevin Sumlin may do good things with the program. But Missouri is comfortable with Kyle Field at this point. For the third straight year against Mizzou, the Aggies "run out of time," and the Tigers end the regular season with a win, finishing 7-5.

*          *          *

Though most Mizzou fans would have liked to see the Tigers make more of a run at the SEC East title, most fans are okay with the season and feel the program is off and running in the SEC. The Tigers crush another disinterested, interim-coached team in their Anytown USA bowl game. Pinkel is offered a huge sum to write a tell-all book about his first season in the SEC, tentatively titled "Southern Nights." The normally reserved Pinkel is unsure, although the money is tempting. Athletic Director Mike Alden peruses a few sample chapters from sessions with a ghostwriter, and suggests Pinkel wait until they're both retired to cash in on the book offer.

Two days after the Bowl Championship (1) Series National Championship (2) Game, Alabama radio host Paul Finebaum begins breaking down the outlook for spring ball and the next season. Football season never sleeps in the SEC.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Belmont will grind your dreams to make its bread

The track at historic Belmont Park is huge. Like Alaska, it's probably bigger than you would imagine. At one and a half miles, it is the longest dirt track in North America. But for myself, as a horse racing fan, no part of the big track seems longer than the cruel homestretch, where 11 Triple Crown bids have failed since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978.

The Belmont Stakes is an unforgiving extinguisher of dreams. "The Test of Champions" is an exacting one. The horses in the race have never raced more than a mile and a quarter, so that whole long stretch drive in new territory. Until five weeks before the Belmont, they hadn't run in a race longer than a mile and an eighth. Any horse trying to win the Triple Crown has to deal with three weeks of media attention leading up to the Belmont, more rested horses who aren't running in their third race in five weeks and the obvious weight of expectation to liberate the sport from its Triple Crown drought.

Horse racing fans and the industry yearn for a Triple Crown winner. The current 34-year drought is longest ever since Sir Barton became the first of the 11 Triple Crown winners in 1919. Since I began following horse racing in the mid-90s, there have been seven horses race in the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. It's been a slew of near-misses, bizarre upsets and breakdowns.

1997: Silver Charm won the Derby and Preakness in dramatic fashion, showing great heart and landing on the cover of USA Today. Silver Charm stuck his distinctive silver, gray and white head out front in the Belmont, leading with 50 yards to go. But Touch Gold roared past Silver Charm deep in that great, interminable homestretch, thwarting the Triple Crown bid.

1998: Real Quiet, like Silver Charm, was trained by Bob Baffert, and took the lead in the homestretch of the Belmont. Have you ever seen in horse racing movies where all the characters urge the jockey to make his move, but the savvy jockey waits just a beat longer and then goes? Real Quiet's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, is very accomplished, but most people say he made his move too soon. It's hard to "hold your fire 'till you see the whites of their eyes." Real Quiet raced to about a five-length lead, but Victory Gallop reeled him in. I remember thinking, "He's gonna do it! This is happening! ...Uh ...Um ...Where is that finish line?!? Where is it?!? ... ... ... (unable to muster words)" Victory Gallup by a nose.

1999: Ridden by the sometimes troubled Chris Antley, trained by the legendary D. Wayne Lukas, Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby as a 31-1 longshot, then won the Preakness to set up his bid for history. The horse was running third when he pulled up lame in the homestretch with a broken leg. Antley was credited for realizing the injury quickly, dismounting, and holding the horse's leg up to avoid further damage, likely saving Charismatic's life. Antley's life spiraled downward after that, and 18 months later he was found dead under mysterious circumstances.

2002: War Emblem looked strong winning the first two legs and giving Baffert a third shot at a Triple Crown. But War Emblem stumbled out of the starting gate in the Belmont. He recovered to briefly take the lead on the final turn, but he was spent. In a stunning result, 70-1 Sarava raced to the win, becoming the longest shot winner in Belmont Stakes history.

2003: A group of "regular" people owned Funny Cide, bringing an everyman appeal to this Triple Crown bid. But in an example of why it's so tough to achieve the feat, Empire Maker, beaten by Funny Cide in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and came to Belmont Park more rested. Empire Maker ran away from Funny Cide in the homestretch, winning by 5 1/4 lengths.

2004: As much or more than any recent Triple Crown bid, Smarty Jones' effort in 2004 had racing fans thinking history was likely. Smarty Jones went off as a 1-5 favorite in the Belmont, and 21.9 million people watched the race on TV, the most since the 1970s. But alas, 36-1 long shot Birdstone won, breaking hearts and leading Birdstone's jockey, trainer and owner to apologize that Smarty Jones didn't win.

2008: Big Brown seemed invincible. He won both of his races before the Kentucky Derby, then won the Derby by 4 3/4 lengths. He won the Preakness by 5 1/4 lengths. The horse's backstory wasn't one of the heartwarming tales common to horse racing; he was essentially owned by a hedge fund and his trainer admitted to giving Big Brown and other horses steroids that were banned in some states, just not the ones that host Triple Crown races. But most fans simply wanted a Triple Crown winner, and Big Brown seemed to be the horse for the job. His, um, confident trainer said it was a "foregone conclusion" that the horse would win the Belmont and the Triple Crown. The Test of Champions does not appreciate arrogance, it would seem. Big Brown fought his jockey early in the race, then somewhat mysteriously eased up in the homestretch, finishing last as 38-1 long shot D'Tara won (seeing a pattern?). Big Brown had previously had a cracked hoof, but that was believed to be taken care of. I've read that the horse may have had a shoe loose, but it still seems a bit controversial why jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled him up. In any event, Big Brown's fighting his jockey's efforts to hold him back early didn't do any favors for the horse's chances of winning. The drought lives on.

Saturday, I'll Have Another will become the 12th horse during the ongoing drought to race for the Triple Crown in the Belmont. He'll start from the outside post position, and face horses who ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness to rest. History tells the story of how difficult it will be for I'll Have Another to prevail. If the above recent history has taught us anything, it's that should I'll Have Another come barreling down that famous homestretch and win on Saturday, the horse will have achieved something remarkable.