Pigskin Pursuit

An eight year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Tag: American Conference

Central Florida vs South Florida – Knights gored by the Bulls in pursuit of reverse perfection….

We all turn our heads at car wrecks. We run to the window when we hear screeching tires, or watch the news with morbid fascination, our mouths agape during videos of a train derailment or capsized ship. It’s a part of us, the dark side of humanity.

So when I tentatively penciled a late November game at Central Florida on the calendar, I signed up to watch a college football car crash. I didn’t set out with the intention to see an 0-11 football team, things just kind of played out that way. During my torrid end of season planning, a trip to UCF was one of the only options available on Thanksgiving, and the Knights were in the twilight of their worst season in history. So while I never aim to see a program on its knees, I’d be a liar not to admit the trip to Orlando came with that same dark fascination that compels us to stare at the morbid. Sometimes, we just want to see things on fire. Exactly what, I wondered, would the atmosphere, fans, and players be like at a program about to complete a winless season?

The 2015 fall from grace was a rapid one for the Knights program. They are only one year removed from a 2013 campaign in which they posted a 12-1 record, finished ranked 10th in the nation, and slapped around a gun slinging Baylor squad for a major BCS Fiesta Bowl win. They even defended their American Conference title again in 2014, and posted a respectable 9-4 record before the wheels came off this year. But after beginning the 2015 campaign at 0-8, twelve year head coach George O’Leary (the same O’Leary of Notre Dame resume scandal fame) resigned, sending the Knights football program into a tailspin. Clearly, for a group of fans and players with a recent history of winning, things were looking dour in the Magic Kingdom.

It was an odd juxtaposition, I suppose, for the Knights to be located in Orlando of all places, home of Disneyworld. The happiest place on earth. Given my aversion to all things gauche, however, I didn’t hold high hopes for uncovering cultural diversions in the “theme park capitol of the world”, which was, in my mind, simply another soulless Florida wasteland of beige strip malls and insufferable family vacation attractions. While I would certainly be foregoing a trip to the rug rat hell of Mickey Land, an easy hour drive eastward to Merritt Island revealed a far more palatable cultural option – the John F. Kennedy Space Center. So on Thanksgiving morning, I skip the turkey, and head into space.

For a “family” attraction, the space center is anything but affordable. It costs me ten dollars to park, and a whopping fifty dollars for admission. And, despite the holiday, there are still plenty of tour busses and minivans pulling into the lot, unloading packs of feral children to roam about the grounds in light up sneakers, filling the air with a cacophony of wailing and squealing. One can only hope they are drawn towards attractions like the “Angry Birds Space Center”, and away from the more historical and culturally significant pieces of space history.

But entry price and sticky fingered toddlers aside, there are few places that arouse such fervent American jingoism as a trip to the Kennedy Space Center. Here, the triumphant, determined, American spirit is condensed into a single, 144,000 acre beacon of human ingenuity. Living abroad has given me an outside perspective on the vast cultural influence that the United States has had on the world for the past seventy years. And our space program and subsequent moon landings are, arguably, amongst the most impactful and defining cultural moments of the twentieth century. It’s impossible not to feel an overwhelming sense of national pride in the achievements here.

Highlights of the park include the “rocket garden”, a collection of rockets from the early days of the space program. Encompassing the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, they showcase the systematic, iterative process by which NASA engineers pushed their way into the black abyss a little bit deeper each time. The Atlantis exhibit sits in a building nearby, showcasing the thirty year history of the reusable Space Shuttle Program, which gave rise to advancements like the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.

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From the visitor center, I then board a bus which shuttles visitors over to the Saturn V complex. Along the way, the bus ride tours around the active part of the Kennedy Space center, known as Launch Complex 39. Highlights of the bus route include the Elon Musk funded Space X platform, the Vehicle Assembly Building (V.A.B) – which, at 524 feet is the largest single story building in the world – and, finally, the massive tracked crawler transporter that carries the towering rockets upright from the hangar to the launch pads. The sheer size and scale of the engineering here is almost impossible to grasp.

But the true gemstone of the entire complex is the Apollo/Saturn V Center. For even the casual space fan, the exhibitions documenting the lunar landings here are fascinating. Exhibits such as the Apollo 14 command module, the lunar landing module that the astronauts stepped out of and onto the moon (suspended from the ceiling because it cannot support itself on earth’s gravity) and the lunar rover are things that we’ve all seen in videos hundreds of time; but to see them up close and intimately adds a completely new dimension to the significance of those moments.

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But the biggest spectacle is the sheer mass and presence of the Saturn V rocket itself. Laid lengthwise on its side only 15 feet from the ground, suspended by heavy steel columns and extending over a football field in length, hovers a fully restored Saturn V rocket from the heyday of NASA’s 1960’s space race. 363 feet long and 33 feet in diameter, the Saturn V remains, to this day, the largest and most powerful rocket ever constructed. Beyond its dizzying size, this giant “flaming candle” may be the most complex engineering challenge ever built in human history. Walking beneath such a monument to man’s ingenuity is humbling to say the least, and sends the mind spinning.

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To step back and think about all of the minutia – every single button, switch, bolt and screw had to be accounted for, tested, and retested; then every little part of it painstakingly assembled into this hulking, explosive giant – perhaps the most complex machine ever constructed – all of it done manually and analog, without the aid of anything resembling a modern computer; and then hurled at thousands of miles an hour through temperatures of thousands of degrees, hundreds of thousands of miles from earth directly into the ice cold vacuum of space; and then have the entire contraption do a U-turn and come home again with its pilots in one piece (never mind that whole “landing on the moon” thing in between): the whole undertaking simply defies imagination. It’s impossible to grasp the extent of the engineering challenges encapsulated here by watching grainy videos on television; one has to visit this place to truly grasp the magnitude of the achievement. Attendance should be mandatory for every American.

Or at least make a visit here a prerequisite for entry into Disneyworld….

After a morning of space exploration, I take an afternoon appetite to one of the premier barbecue haunts in Orlando – Four Rivers Smokehouse. Boasting fourteen locations throughout the state, my expectations for a “chain” barbecue joint were pretty dim. Then again, nearly every bite of barbecue that I’ve had in Florida has been completely mediocre, (including a visit to famous BBQ loudmouth Myron Mixon’s “Pride N’ Joy” location in Miami), so I didn’t have anything to lose. Worst case scenario, I could always hit the “Beefy King” afterwards for a reliable steamed beef sandwich.

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An impressive selection of micro sodas greets me inside the doors of Four Rivers, and a mosaic of colorful bottles and flavors from small bottlers all over the country line the cooler. To my satisfaction, the aroma of smoke wafts through the shiny new restaurant, the menu features a full selection of Texas barbecue offerings, and beef ribs are even available on the weekends. Good signs so far. I settle on a combo of brisket and pork ribs, which, the cashier proudly proclaims, are smoked over hickory. As I move on down the ordering line, the meat carver happily accepts my request for slices from both the point and flat of the brisket. I raise an eyebrow in subtle approval…

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Retreating to a table, still skeptical of anything Floridian, I gingerly gnaw on each of the protein offerings. Both of them, to my astonishment, are well crafted. Ribs pull cleanly from the bone with only a slight tug, and the fat cap on the brisket is completely rendered into unctuous, tender morsels. This is quality barbecue. If there’s a fault, it’s that the meats lack a strong smoke profile, and the hickory profile is faint. If I had to guess, I’d bet that they are using a gas or electric smoker with wood assist – a setup which produces easily replicable, consistent results, but lacks a smoky punch. Regardless, this is actually good barbecue, and, by middling Floridian standards – it’s outstanding.

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From there I walk over to the UCF campus, one of the most unique pieces of landscape architecture in higher education. As one of only two campuses in the country designed as a series of concentric rings, (the other school being UC Irvine) the entire campus is arranged like a bullseye. Inspired by Walt Disney’s original plans for EPCOT, the campus was centrally planned from the beginning (as opposed to the organic outward sprawl of most universities) and intended to be pedestrian oriented. The Student Union and Library are located at the center of the bullseye, contained within the Pegasus Circle walkway. Progressing outward from the center, the rings become (appropriately) Mercury, Apollo and, finally, the outermost circle – Gemini – the only such circle accessible to vehicle traffic. The circles are further divided up into pie shaped wedges by other walkways radiating out from the center, what remains is a campus plan that resembles a dartboard. Different wedges of the pie then make up the different colleges within the University, interspersed with a handful of ponds, parks and fountains that offer respite from the hot Florida sun.

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Evidently “theme park” planning in Orlando even applies to higher education.

UCF itself is a juggernaut. With enrollment at over 63,000 students, it’s quietly the largest university in the country. Given its size, parts of the campus feel like a small suburban subdivision. There’s a shopping village on the perimeter of campus, where students can select from Jimmy John’s, Dominoes or Dunkin Donuts, among other chain eateries. Fraternity row looks like an upscale cul-de-sac in the subdivision, with giant plantation nouveau style homes flanking both sides of the street. There’s even a skating rink and ferris wheel set up on Knights Plaza. A few tailgaters revel across the street from the Plaza, their tent and coolers set up along a beautiful long stretch of Bermuda grass that penetrates all the way to the center of campus known as the “Memory Mall”.

I begin my walk towards Bright House Networks stadium along the brick lined promenade that connects the football stadium to the baseball park. A huge steel sculpture of a Golden Knight mounted on a horse rears proudly in the middle of the walkway, as the brassy regalia of the UCF Marching Knights files in towards the entrance gates. With a sole finger thrust in the air, I track down a free ticket to the contest quickly, a season ticket actually, made from thick plastic and attached to a lanyard. There’s a bar code at the bottom of it, scanned for each home game, but since this is the last home game of the year it’s an easy giveaway. On the front of the laminated plastic the slogan reads “Back to Back American Conference Champions 2013 & 2014”, a subtle reminder that the Knights are only a season removed from success.

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The stadium never fills up, as one would expect, and there are vast swaths of the aluminum bleachers vacant on a Thanksgiving night. But the fans that do show are of the die-hard ilk, and as passionate as you’ll find in the game. They do their best to rise and cheer, screaming when the Knights come storming out of the tunnel – some of the players for their last home game.

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As the contest kicks off, for a few fleeting minutes, the Knights faithful are given a glimmer of hope. For an 0-11 football team, the crowd is a surprisingly vociferous and passionate bunch, their energy and commitment a credit to the Central Florida fan base. UCF quarterback Justin Holman marches his squad down the field, grinding out 61 yards on nine plays before kicker Matthew Wright boots an easy 28 yard field goal through the uprights. The knights jump out to a quick 3-0 lead, the crowd cheers wildly and boisterously, as if they had forgotten about their 0-11 mark. For a moment they know the feeling of confidence.

But that would be the end of it…

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The remaining 55 minutes of the game is a thorough curb stomping at the hands of the South Florida Bulls. Aside from their 61 yard opening drive, the Knights only squeak out another anemic 140 yards of offense for the rest of the contest – cementing their position as the worst offense in the entire FBS for 2015. Holman would revert to form, tossing two interceptions and completing only 10 of his 26 attempts. His counterpart for the Bulls, however, stuffs the stat sheet on the night. USF signal caller Quinton Flowers accounts for all five of the Bulls touchdown, firing three of them through the air and scampering for another pair. By the time the final whistle calls mercy, the Bulls have gashed the Central Florida defense to the tune of 455 total yards of offense, running away with a 44-3 blowout.

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If the Knights 0-12 finish tells us one thing, it’s that clearly, not every story in the Florida fantasy land has a happy ending….

Looks like Knights fans will have to hope for something better in the sequel.

But if there’s a single takeaway to be taken from my trip to UCF, it’s that even for smaller programs at the end of catastrophic seasons, there are still fans that don their jerseys, pack their trunks, and motor in on a holiday night to cheer their squad until the final whistle. And that is what true fandom is all about….

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East Carolina vs Temple – Pirates scuttled by the Owls…

It’s Wednesday night and I’ve just pulled into a gravel parking lot in Goldsboro, North Carolina. I’m on my way to Greenville, out towards the eastern reaches of the state, past the sprawl of Raleigh and the banal office parks of research triangle. Out here there is an outlier to be found. A rebel. A renegade. A program with perhaps the most rabid football fan base in the entire Tarheel state – the aptly named ‘Pirates’ of East Carolina.

The Tarheel State is a basketball state first and foremost, the landscape dominated by the hardwood floors of the ACC Conference. Down here, football is a mere footnote, as some of the titans of the sport like Duke and North Carolina believe that true athletic competition doesn’t begin until March.

But in Greenville, things are different. East Carolina calls the American Athletic Conference home, and their fans are a notoriously rowdy, raucous departure from the gentile, bowtied southern mannerisms of Dukies and Tarheels. At 50,000 seats their stadium even boasts larger capacity than both Wallace Wade (Duke) and Groves Stadium (Wake Forest), which they routinely fill. Among the Pirate contingent, there seems to be a perpetual chip on their shoulder about their ACC brethren, and they are quick to remind you that in Greenville, things are different.

While the game would be a Thursday night kickoff instead of a Saturday afternoon affair, it would be far from a tame one. Temple was coming into town for a primetime, ESPN tilt, along with the invariable hoopla that comes from the network talking heads. While historically Temple would usually be a rather tame draw, the 2015 vintage of the Owls were soaring, sporting an unblemished 6-0 record and a lofty #22 ranking. With the stakes raised for the contest, swarthy Pirate Nation was already hoisting their battle flags in anticipation.

But before a marquee Thursday night showdown with the undefeated Temple Owls, I’ve got some needs to attend to. Barbecue. Eastern Carolina whole-hog style barbecue, specifically. Unlike their western “Piedmont” style brethren that smoke pork shoulders exclusively and douse it in red sauce, the Eastern Carolina style espouses the use of the entire pig and a vinegar based sauce. Minimally prepared and cooked whole over a hardwood (usually oak or hickory) fire, the various parts of the finished hog are then chopped with a pair of heavy cleavers into a vinegary mélange of minced porky delight.

In this barbecue crazed state there’s even a division (a feud according to some) among Carolinians over which style of barbecue, West or East, is the “true” form of the art. A quarrel that even went to the state senate, and is reflected in the verbiage of North Carolina house bill #433 (http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2007/Bills/House/HTML/H433v4.html). It’s comforting to know that the North Carolina legislature has solved all of the other pressing issues of the state, and now find themselves idle enough to tackle such demanding issues as settling semantic barbecue squabbles.

Personally, I’m not one for politics, and I’ll gladly to cross the aisle when it comes to smoked meat.

A trip to Greenville, then, would put me smack dab in the middle of some of the finest hog slings the Tarheels have to offer. With three of the state’s preeminent destinations on my itinerary, I punched a few extra holes in my belt and prepared for a North Carolina pork-a-palooza.

Back in that gravel parking lot on the night before game day, I’ve just pulled into Wilber’s BBQ, one of the legends of North Carolina barbecue since 1962. The place is busy for a Wednesday night, and a steady stream of customers flow in and out with paper sack takeout orders gripped tenderly under their arms. The interior is an homage to pine. Pine paneling, pine chairs, pine ceiling held up by exposed pine beams, and, with no detail overlooked, there’s even pine picture frames on the walls. Fortunately, they keep the Oak for the cook shack out back.

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The menu is up on the wall. An ancient Coca Cola branded slide letter menu board, which proffers a handful of BBQ plates or meats by the pound. They’re out of ribs for the night, so I order a combo of chopped pork with fried chicken instead. The combo comes with a classic array of Carolina style sides; a generous basket of golden fried hush puppies, house made coleslaw, and Styrofoam cup of sweet tea poured over crushed ice. The pork here is minced fine, mixed with a few morsel of outside brown and a waft of oak smoke. Adorned with a few shakes of Wilber’s vinegary sauce, the meal is the archetype of North Carolina style barbecue.

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From Wilber’s, I speed forty minutes east to Ayden, home of Skylight Inn, screeching into the parking lot in a cloud of dust only minutes before they close up shop for the night. If Wilber’s is a legend, then Skylight Inn is the patron saint of North Carolina barbecue. The fires here have been burning since 1947. They’ve been featured in countless magazines and television shows, fed a few presidents, and claim a James Beard award for American Classics.

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In keeping with the classics, I order the whole hog BBQ tray for $7.50. The hearty combo includes two cardboard trays stuffed with chopped pork and coleslaw, along with a notebook sized slab of the heaviest, most dense corn bread I’ve ever encountered. For refreshment, a Cheerwine is fished out of an ice bucket next to the register – the North Carolina equivalent to Dr Pepper. The food here is served stacked, a tower of porky delight. I’m given a sheet of wax paper to spread it out on, and a basket of Skylight’s sauces are arranged on the table.

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While I generally eschew all forms of BBQ sauce, the vinegar sauce indigenous to eastern North Carolina pairs exceptionally well with their style of whole hog chopped pork, which can often run on the dry side. The spicy pepper vinegar sauce at Skylight in particular, is the perfect balance of heat and acidity to cut through the rich, unctuous pork. Although, to be fair, the protein here could easily stand on its own sans adornment, as one would expect after sixty eight years. It’s got a kiss of smoke and just enough fat to stay moist. But when my teeth chomp down on a few odd chunks of unexpected bone and gristle, sending electric shockwaves up my jaw, it sours the experience. Perhaps the butcher ought to be a bit more careful with his cleavers.

Bellied on barbecue up for the night, I bed down in a cheap motel in Greenville and crank the rattling air conditioning unit to its maximum in an attempt to ward off the inevitable meat sweats.

****

As Thursday morning awakens, I brush off cobwebs from the pork induced coma the night before, wipe the grease stains from the corners of my mouth and go hunting for a late breakfast. It’s game day in Greenville, there’s a bright blue sky overhead, a spring in my step, and a hankering to punish a few more pigs. And when it comes to barbecue in Greenville proper, there is only one true option: B’s. (yes, thats the whole name)

If you have an image in your mind, of the idyllic, ramshackle southern barbecue joint, go ahead and erase it immediately. Replace that image with B’s BBQ instead, which embodies a veritable checklist of every criteria a proper BBQ joint should satisfy. It reads like a barbecue fairy tale incarnate.

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For starters, there’s no website.

There isn’t even a phone.

Every floorboard and wallboard in the joint is uneven, crooked, or patched up. There’s a broken handle on the rickety old screen door, and the awning over the take-away window is covered in years of soot and ready to collapse. Service is exclusively cafeteria style, and sauce is served in old whiskey bottles on the mismatched tables. They are only open for lunch, Tuesdays through Saturdays, and when they run out of food each day, the place simply closes. Of course, given the lack of a phone, there’s no way to know this unless you actually drive by.

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As if those weren’t credentials enough, B’s has their own road – B’s Barbecue Road. Which isn’t a little driveway spur, mind you, but a well-traveled, two mile stretch of county road.

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I arrive early, but there’s a line formed already. It’s barely 10:30, and patrons are stacked up at the sliding take-away window while the woman inside barks the orders back to the kitchen. A massive oak tree shades the picnic tables out front, while smoke billows from every corner of the screened hut cook shack. There’s a few dozen bags of Kingsford Charcoal stacked up in the corner, a forgivable offense for a place that remains unchanged for nearly forty years.

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As if scripted from a movie, a farmer in a mammoth 8 wheeled Steiger tractor pulls up for lunch, the clunky diesel motor barely croaking to a stop before he clambers down the ladder and trots over to the take-away window. Clutching a steaming Styrofoam box a few minutes later, he scurries back to the iron behemoth, hoists himself into the cab, and lurches off in a black plume of diesel smoke, a full box grader in tow behind.

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Beyond the famer, the true beauty of a place like B’s lies in the parking lot, a dusty gravel log jam of vehicles from every socio economic class. A Mercedes S-Class pulls in next to a concrete contractor’s dump truck, while a Volvo station wagon sidles in next to an old Chevy C-10 pickup. Polished loafers and rolled up French cuffs huddle over the picnic tables next to dusty work boots and ripped t-shirts, all of them nose deep in a box of pork or chicken.

I order the combo plate; a generous heap of chopped pork and a chicken leg for $11.75. The hefty Styrofoam box comes fully dressed with coleslaw, boiled potatoes and four corn fritter logs, and it’s paired with a cool, Carolina sweet tea to wash it down. The pork is classic North Carolina style, finely chopped and generously doused in a peppery vinegar sauce. Chicken is the real star of the show, however, moist and smoky inside with a delectably crispy skin, it makes me a poultry believer for an afternoon.

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With a football game on the horizon I head into downtown Greenville and find easy free parking on the corner of 10th and Forbes, and decide to walk off the hefty lunch with a stroll through the East Carolina campus. There’s a nice treed quad in the heart of the campus, anchored by a Cupola, a feature oddly reminiscent of the “Old Well” at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill a few miles up the road. On a pristine Thursday afternoon, the campus is buzzing, and the students show plenty of spirit decked out in their bright purple Pirates gear. Pee Dee the Pirate Statue stands proudly on the opposite side of the quad, attracting a few visitors that pose in awkward positions with the poor sailor.

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As I make my way further South towards Dowdy Ficklen stadium, the sidewalks are thick with ECU fans, the surly, bandanna wearing Pirate logo on full display in the melee of tents, chairs and flags. The stadium is surrounded by tailgating on all sides, and fans have turned out early for the festivities on a Thursday afternoon. I spot a few custom tailgating rigs of interest, a former delivery ban outfitted with a bright Pirate paint job and satellite TV, as well as a full length retired coach bus that someone converted into a massive tailgating land yacht. East Carolina fans are widely reputed as some of the most raucous tailgaters in the game, and a few laps through the lots confirms that reputation.

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I secure a ticket in the lots for twenty five bucks in section 16, a seat on the 30 yard line and a prime spot for viewing the fabled Pirate entrance. But walking into the stadium, my purple shirt quickly falls out of fashion. Pirate Nation has deemed the primetime matchup a “blackout” game, and legions of fans are decked out in solid black, a few devoted students even going the extra mile and painting themselves in full body skeletons.

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As the pregame clock ticks down, the Pirate mascot raises an ECU flag onto an aluminum mast behind the endzone. The crowd rises to its feet, anticipation thickens in the night, and they exchange boisterous chants of “purple”……”gold”….across the field. Soon after, an inflatable pirate skeleton in the west endzone begins to quake as the tinny notes of Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” come screeching across the loudspeakers. Bright purple smoke wafts from the mouth of the skeleton, billowing and hovering heavy in the air like a brush fire. As the guitar chords reach their crescendo, the Pirate squad comes bounding out of the helmet, streaking across the field enveloped in purple fog. The crowd wails away at the top of their lungs, rhythmic clapping echoing off the press box façade. It’s everything a phenomenal entrance should be, and among the most unique in the sport.

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On the field, the Pirates look formidable for the first three quarters. They play smothering defense, holding the ground heavy Owls to a paltry 72 yards of rushing the entire night. As the teams jockey back and forth for field position early in the game, the conservative Pirate attack finally breaks through, reeling off a 14 play, 80 yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. Pirate quarterback Blake Kemp manages the game well, and shines for a moment as the second quarter draws to a close when he leads the team 75 yards down the field before firing a touchdown strike to wide receiver Quay Johnson with only :18 seconds remaining in the half.

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Coming out of the tunnel after the break, the third quarter turns sloppy. The two squads trade a few punts, and the Pirates throw an interception which is offset when Temple botches the following field goal attempt. Both teams held scoreless in the third frame, the Pirates cling to a tenuous 14-10 lead as the quarter draws to a close.

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The atmosphere grows tense, and the smell of an upset wafts through the anxious Pirate faithful. Between the third and fourth quarter, the crowd rises to its feet, compelled by the crushing guitar intro of Guns n’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”. Once standing, the entire stadium crosses their arms in an X shape above their heads to mimic crossbones, a handful of them waving bright crimson Jolly Roger flags with the slogan “No Quarter” emblazoned across the bottom. The same red “No Quarter” flag is hoisted ceremoniously onto the aluminum flagpole in the east endzone, replacing the purple one. The slogan, a reference to the pirate policy of taking no prisoners and offering no quarter once engaged in battle, is the fourth quarter rallying cry for the team and fans alike to fight until the bitter end. The raising of the “No Quarter” flag at the start of the 4th quarter is a tradition unique to ECU football, and a menacing one for opposing players and fans alike.

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Unfortunately, on this night, the No Quarter flag bears the mark of the black spot. The Pirate defense, which had remained stout for three quarters, collapses. With 3:31 remaining in the fourth frame, they give up a crushing 71 yard touchdown drive, and the Owls regain control at 17-14. The hobbled Pirates add to their woes only four plays later, when after going three and out on offense, their ensuing punt attempt is stuffed by Temple. Assuming control with only a 15 yard field, Owl running back Jahad Thomas promptly scampers into the end zone for another score, extending the lead to 24-14. Down by 10 with scarcely two minutes remaining on the clock, the Pirate’s fate is sealed in Davy Jones’ Locker, and the purple faithful head for the exits.

In the end, East Carolina is one of the gems of the American Athletic conference and college football at large. It has a rabid, quirky fanbase and a handful of unique traditions that belie its smaller prominence on the national landscape. It feels more like an SEC “light” school, and the Pirates could easily hold their own when it comes to game day atmosphere amongst some of their larger conference brethren. In fact, East Carolina may, arguably, make for a more interesting football gameday visit than its basketball crazed neighbors on Tobacco Road. But for now, it remains one helluva sleeper and I’d gladly go back for a marquee Saturday matchup, and maybe a few more bites of barbecue….

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Connecticut vs SMU – Huskies blow the battle for the American Conference basement…

If I’m being honest here, I don’t hold much love for Connecticut. As a native Massachusetts boy (masshole), the entire state of Connecticut occupies that strange, soulless, transition area between the brash arrogance of New York, and the coarse, blue collar sensibility of the Bay State. Perpetually congested with traffic and void of the natural beauty of states like New Hampshire or Maine, I doubt many would lose a wink of sleep if the Nutmeg State seceded from New England entirely. Already soured by other visits to Northeast schools, frankly, I had low expectations for a trip to UConn.

But as the College Football season dwindles into December, pickings become slim, and with a Saturday home game on the calendar, this would be a perfect opportunity to sample a game in Storrs, without having to sacrifice a pristine October weekend. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even get to visit Storrs, because UConn had made the brilliant decision to ship football games off campus into the barren wasteland of East Hartford – a half hour drive from the flagship campus. They are hardly an exception here; a similar mindset has infected a few schools in the Northeast, as Rutgers and UMass have made similar blunders with their respective programs.

To put it bluntly, the 2014 version of the UConn squad is hardly an attractive draw. Sporting a 2-9 record, the Huskies are a far cry from their 2010 glory year where they finished the regular season 8-4 and snuck into a Fiesta Bowl berth while a member of the now dismantled Big East conference. Led by first year head coach Bob Diaco, the former defensive coordinator of Notre Dame, the Huskies were hopeful for their third win on this weekend as the visiting SMU Mustangs sported the worst record in the FBS. Winless in their first 11 games, the Ponies had fired head coach June Jones, and interim coach Tom Mason would be manning the headset. If there was a single silver lining on the day, at least one team had to win.

My friend Tyler would be along for the adventure, and after joining me for the Oklahoma & TCU doubleheader earlier in the year, he was seasoned enough to lower expectations for UConn Football. The drive from his house in Suffield is a short one, and with tickets already secured ahead of time, we spend a few extra minutes “tailgating” inside his Ford Explorer with a bottle of whiskey and bag of Doritos while a steady drizzle turns the grass parking lot into a mud pit. As the clock winds down towards kickoff, we set off toward the grandstands of Rentschler Field, still getting frisked on the way in by inane security proceedings. Clearly, a scarcely attended football game on a rainy Saturday in December is a prime target for terrorist activity.

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While the UConn basketball programs (both men’s and women’s) enjoy considerable fanfare, even on a national level, it’s obvious that the football program here gets a distant second billing at best. The grandstands are all but vacant on a grey, misty Saturday afternoon and half the concession stands are abandoned. We have our choice of seating options, and take shelter under an overhang during heavier bouts of rain.

Surveying the stands I, shockingly, cannot locate a single Mustangs fan that had made the sojourn from Dallas for this heated American Athletic conference rivalry tilt. It’s proof positive of the ridiculousness of conference realignments that pit teams with no historical or geographic nexus against one another. The same money grabbing, incongruent, logic which put Rutgers and Maryland into the Big 10. I’d also love to get a whiff of whatever paint can the bean counter at the turnstiles was huffing, because the official stated crowd of 22,921 has the comma in the wrong place.

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On the field, the game proves to be an entertaining mess. The ball slick with rain, special teams errors abound – punters fumble with the ball, and kickers whiff on extra point attempts. All told, there are eight turnovers between the two squads, each of them doing their best to thwart victory. Fortunately for the few fans willing to brave the elements, UConn controls the first half. They punch in three touchdowns on a couple of sustained drives, and enter the locker rooms comfortably in command 20-6.

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In the second half, however, the Huskies collapse. They cough the ball up three times in the second half alone, adding further misery to their woes with a botched field goal. On the other side of the ball, SMU dual threat quarterback Matt Davis explodes. He scrambles for 191 yards and a touchdown, while feeding rumbling rusher Prescott Line for another pair of touchdowns. The Ponies reel off 21 unanswered points to upend the Huskies, trotting away with the first win of their dismal season to end up at 1-11. In a fitting end to a sloppy game, however, SMU incurred not one but two procedural penalties while trying to line up in victory formation. With their last win dating back to November of 2013, evidently they were a little rusty…

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After the game, we herd into Bears Smokehouse in Windsor for a post game feast. Founded by Kansas City native Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, the smokehouse is reputed to be one of the finest BBQ establishments in the state. Served cafeteria style, the menu features a standard array of barbecue offerings, along with a few novelty items like “Paw Paws Poutine” and “Moink Balls”. Perhaps the most interesting item on the board is the “Bears BBQ Sandwich Challenge”- an 8lb, $75, quivering mass of meat that comes free for the select few able to tackle it within the 45 minute time cap. For those daring enough, there’s also a $500 prize attached to the sandwich if you can “Beat the Bear” (McDonald himself) at quaffing the offering, no small feat considering he is one of the top ranked competitive eaters nationally.

I order a bit more restrained, opting instead for my usual humble combination of pork ribs and brisket (they were out of sausage). My request for slices off the brisket point (the fatty end) flummoxes the surly counter woman, however, and we spend the next few minutes debating the finer points of brisket butchery to accommodate my audacious request. Patiently enduring a few of her audible groans, the matter is finally settled and I slide on down the line. The food might be southern inspired here, but the hospitality is decidedly New England gruff. Unfazed, I add a massive beef rib to my burgeoning aluminum tray – a rare treat outside of Texas, and too tempting to pass up.

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Retreating to a table, we dive into the carnivorous offering while Tyler’s kids provide entertainment by smearing mac and cheese all over their faces. Bites of brisket are well rendered with a pronounced black bark, but could use a bit more punch from the smoke (they use a gas fired Southern Pride). The massive beef rib falls effortlessly from the bone into strands of unctuous morsels. The texture is there, but, once again, the smoke is lacking. Regardless, this is decent barbecue that could do well anywhere, and by pedantic New England standards I’d call it excellent.

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In the end the trip to UConn was exactly what I expected it to be, mostly mediocre. It’s never going to be a college football hotbed, and to think otherwise would be delusional. But spending a weekend with a lifelong friend is never a bad thing, and I’d gladly endure another miserable December game in East Hartford again if it means drinking whiskey in a muddy parking lot with a best friend.

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Special thanks to my friend Tyler and his wife Kristy, as always, for their incredible hospitality and loyal following.  Can’t wait to hit another road show with you next year!

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Temple vs East Carolina – Owls pillage the Pirates…

My trip to Philadelphia was a quick one, fouled by wet weather and a lackluster Temple squad that plays their home games in the sterile NFL confines of Lincoln Financial Field – home of the Philadelphia Eagles. Before any football was played however, I made sure to sample a few of Philadelphia’s finest sandwiches for breakfast. No, I’m not referring to the iconic Philadelphia cheesesteak, a City of Brotherly Love staple that I sampled extensively back in 2012 (read the reviews here). Instead, I decided to try out a few of Philly’s other, lesser known staple – the roast pork sandwich.

There are two spots known for these delightful porcine gut bombs: Dinic’s and John’s Roast Pork. I try the offering at Dinic’s first, located in the Reading Terminal Market, a converted rail terminal that houses dozens of enticing food vendors. Crafting the sandwich in this location since 1980, the Dinic’s example is exquisite – nice crusty bread holds the tender slices of pork, while the provolone and hot peppers all blend into perfect bite after bite. The sandwiches are crafted with care here, and it shows.

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From there I head down the road to John’s Roast Pork, a tiny stand with counter service on the industrial east edge of town. Dishing out the classic roast pork since 1930, they top it with provolone cheese and the “greens”. I retreat with my foil wrapped prize to one of the outdoor tables (there is no interior seating), and unwrap the hefty offering. While the John’s location has more of a nostalgic, blue collar feel – the sandwich doesn’t quite measure up to Dinic’s. The bread turns soggy and disintegrates into a mushy mess, and the pork, while nice and moist, lacks true “porky” flavor and eats rather bland.

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Overall winner: Dinic’s.

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Once I saunter over to Lincoln Financial and grab a quick ticket for twenty bucks, the game itself is a soggy, depressing affair. The rain pours the entire time, and wind whips through the stadium pelting my face in misty gusts. Temple lists the official attendance as 22,130, but if there were more than 2,000 fans there then I’ll wear a Dallas Cowboys to the next Eagles game. It’s a shame, however, that more of the Owls faithful didn’t turn out for the contest because the Pirates were easily the biggest home game match up of the year. Sporting a 6-1 record and lofty #23 ranking, the East Carolina Pirates were the juggernauts of the American Athletic conference, and had their sights set on climbing further up the ranks. But the Owls won’t be pushed around in their backyard. They take it to the Pirates, jumping out to an early lead and never look back, capitalizing on five turnovers from the sloppy East Carolina squad. Temple runs away with a 20-10 victory, and their first victory over a ranked opponent since 1998! The biggest Temple win in 16 years, and I just happened to be there for it – you’re welcome Owls fans….

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