When I stopped managing this site, I was relieved to not have to pay close attention anymore to a team that screwed up week after week and constantly annoyed me. This season, I decided to have some other experiences and try to find whatever it was that had been missing from our own games these last few years. It was a college football walkabout.
I didn't really know what I was looking for when I started. It's not like I was looking for a new favorite team, so why was I doing this? Was I trying to have fun watching football again? To remind myself that I still love this sport? Because I could? I had no idea, but I figured that the answer would reveal itself sooner or later.
I already wrote about how my friend Ryan and I ended up with SMU season tickets. I went to some of those games, but they didn't really help. Mind you, their brand of football was a lot more exciting than watching USF struggle to score any points at all. (USF was so hideous that eventually I just stopped tuning in. The Memphis game was the last one I paid any real attention to.) But with SMU, I was only trading one irrelevant team with tepid fan support for another.
The detachment was a perk. I didn't care when SMU fell way behind, or blew big leads, or lit up the scoreboard, or made death-defying comebacks. All I wanted was chaos and entertainment, and I got some of both. Still, that wasn't what I was looking for.
One night, I tried stepping up in class and scalped tickets to the TCU-Texas game in Fort Worth. That was a different kind of disappointment. It was the first time the Longhorns had visited TCU since the Southwest Conference broke up in 1995. The stadium was sold out and the crowd was electric. Unfortunately the sky was electric, too. The game was delayed for three hours. I left and then went back to the stadium at 11:00 to see if maybe some kind of post-midnight frenzy would sweep over the remaining crowd. Not so much. The Frogs got smashed 30-7. This wasn't what I was looking for, either.
Was I going to make it the entire season and still not learn anything? It was looking like it. Then came another new experience. Way back in early October, Ryan had floated the idea that he might be able to get tickets to the Baylor-Oklahoma State game the weekend before Thanksgiving. The stakes for the game grew by the week until it became, at the time, the game of the year in the Big XII. Then in a twisted way, the weather cooperated. It turned so cold and icy that the tickets landed in Ryan's hands because no one else wanted to go. Sounds like a sign, right? I grabbed an armload of cold-weather gear and headed for Stillwater.
You knew right away that this was a big event. It was an absolutely crucial game, and the crowd was ready to drag the home team to victory themselves if necessary. (I'm sure they were deafening, but I had three different winter hats covering my ears, so I couldn't really tell.) Oklahoma State played brilliantly on both sides of the ball and flattened Baylor 49-17. The crowd was euphoric, delirious, and maybe a little disbelieving. After all, when the Cowboys had lost to West Virginia, of all teams, who could have possibly seen a seven-game winning streak coming?
It was a serendipitous day in Stillwater, and a fantastic evening. As I drove through the frozen night back to Texas, I tried to make sense of it all. Why did that game do it for me? What did that game have that all the others didn't? How did it relate to USF?
The answer was obvious, and for USF, pretty grim. That Oklahoma State game mattered in a way that our games haven't recently, and likely won't for years to come. Not only that, but starting next year USF won't have the margin of error Oklahoma State had along the way, where they could lose a game or two and still work their way back up the ladder. Without automatic access to the new big-money bowls, you have to compete with 60 other teams for one spot, and any game could be the end of the line. And even if the Bulls were to somehow go 12-0, they might still get left out.
We grew our program up from nothing, we made it into a BCS league, and like Oklahoma State, we were playing these high-stakes, memorable games once every couple of years or so. (Maybe not THIS high of stakes, but West Virginia in 2007 and Cincinnati in 2009 were pretty important at the time.) Then for any number of reasons, we failed. We didn't take advantage and prove our worth. The program collapsed after 2010, we had our seat at the big table taken away, and now we'll be lucky to play a truly important game once or twice in a decade. For all we know, it may never happen. The party is basically over, even if it's still happening on paper.
It's all very difficult for me to accept. Like with anything good that happens to you, it's worse to have an opportunity taken away than it is to never get it in the first place. Until I figure out how to be happy with our new, smaller lot in life (and I don't know when that's going to happen), I don't think I'm going to be able to watch many Bulls football games. Each game will remind me that like USF almost always does, we figured out a way to blow our golden opportunity.