So this is what you guys do.
On Nov. 13, my wife Jen and I — and my wallet — headed down to Columbia, Missouri, to visit our daughter at the University of Missouri.
It was on this trip that a bit of history was made. No, not me bringing my wallet.
I would attend my first college football game as a fan. That’s short for fanatic.
Added bonus: I would tailgate for the first time.
How does this work?
The day began at the local Hy-Vee, where we had to pick up contributions to the tailgate. I’ve never been in a grocery store on game day.
It was packed. More elbows were thrown than in the press box food line.
Next up: a stop at the daughter’s sorority house — my first time in a sorority house. What?
We packed a cooler and began the walk to the stadium.
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It was a parade of good vibes and energy. There’s something magical about a college campus on a home game Saturday afternoon. I had no idea.
Mizzou, 4-5, was playing South Carolina. But that was beside the point.
There were 3½ hours before kickoff. At a time when I would usually be looking for an elevator to the press box, I was wearing a jersey and carrying a cooler.
Along the way, we saw the village of tents and grill smoke. Don’t forget to stop and smell the aromas.
Finally, we arrived at our tailgate, hosted by the parents of my daughter’s roommate. A prime spot, right outside the end zone gate at Faurot Field.
You pay good money for that parking lot. The best spots are first come, first serve.
There was hot food and cold drinks, enough to feed an army. A flagpole attached to the car. Tailgate chairs. Three hours of conversation.
I took a walk around the stadium. It was a city of tailgating, from the small to the elaborate, with big screen TVs and catered food. Grown men throwing a football. Music cranked up.
Smiles everywhere. The game seemed secondary.
There I witnessed an entire world that I knew existed but never experienced.
At one point, a campus cop came whirling through with his lights on. He stopped at a tailgate. Not to hand out tickets. But to get a burger.
By the 3 p.m. kickoff, many had gone into the stadium. But many stayed outside.
Wait. Go to the game. But don’t go in the game. Stay and party outside.
The three of us decided to venture in. Our hosts remained outside. You could see the stadium video board from their car. Every play was shown on the board. Why go in?
We had tickets somewhere in the stadium. But we decided to stand in the end zone, the perfect perch to talk and socialize and occasionally watch a complete pass.
At halftime, it was dark. And getting cold. Somebody said “Let’s go downtown.”
Just like that, I left a college football game at halftime to go downtown.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wanted to do that in the last 10 years of Nebraska games.
We helped our hosts pack up the tent. They drove home. We headed to watch the second half in a cozy establishment, wall to wall, with some folks watching the game and many more not.
Why didn’t you guys tell me about this?
I have found a new happy place. After all these years of life in the insulated box, I have a better appreciation, and understanding, for this game we love and why we love it.
It’s harder than ever, though, right?
College football has really lost its mind this time. In the last month alone, the sport seems to have gone off the rails and on the fast track to extinction.
Is the sport we love in trouble?
The going rate for a coach has rocketed up to $8-10 million per year.
Coaches bolting with little regard for what they left behind. Miami coach Manny Diaz’s job hinging on whether Mario Cristobal wanted it or not.
A handful of boosters ponying up hundreds of millions for coaches’ salaries, in a sense becoming like owners.
The transfer portal. Name, image and likeness.
Now watch what happens when you put the two together, and schools bid on transfers using NIL money.
Meanwhile, an overmatched NCAA has wished everyone good luck.
Where is it all headed? Over a steep cliff?
No. College football will survive. It will adjust. Always has, always will.
Coaches have always chased a better job, a better life. The money is better than ever. So is the pressure.
Coaches have left teams in the lurch before. They’ve preached loyalty and integrity and then ducked out the back door.
Meanwhile, boosters have always had control. Check those names on all the buildings on campus. In many cases, one or two boosters funded athletic departments.
It’s happened before. The difference is donors are now billionaires instead of millionaires.
Money, money, money. That’s what the playoff is about. That’s what playoff expansion to 12 is all about.
But here I see opportunity.
Playoff expansion will promote more interest in the sport. There will be 20-25 teams who may not make it, but their fans will think they’ve got a chance until the end.
The transfer portal is an issue the college game has never had to deal with.
I’d like to think this trend will hit a wall when most of the young men figure out that there is no magic shortcut. That sticking it out is a better option.
Perhaps that’s naive. We live in a reset world.
But the portal could help create parity, perhaps strengthen the game.
Schools armed with NIL money will have a chance at difference-makers they normally couldn’t touch.
What I know is that college football is one tough bird and has survived over the last 100 years. If player deaths and world wars couldn’t derail the sport, I think it will handle the portal.
And with all the insanity off the field, remember the most mind-blowing stuff still happens on the field.
College football always delivers. That’s why we watch. Why we’ll always come back.
For me, the answer is right outside the stadium, under the tent with the chairs and red solo cups.
A tailgate party can’t save the sport. Or can it?
There’s a power, a spirit, in the game that you can’t see or feel in the press box.
From that chair under the tent, I didn’t care about realignment or transfers. You talk about the coaches and the games, sure.
But you realize there are more important priorities at work here.
The people, the friends, the experience.
On that cold November day in Columbia, I could look out over the sea of smoke and see why the game will be around forever.
College football is our happy place.