During my travels I’ve generally made a point to visit to some of the biggest venues in the colorful world of college football. Understandably, I tend to focus my exploits on the major conferences and stalwart institutions that make the sport a national treasure. However, as I press further into the depths of the sport, and constantly seek new adventures and venues to investigate, the Middle American Conference had eluded any of my travels thus far. With the conference beginning mid week play in November, this made for the perfect opportunity to sample a few MAC games with my weekends already booked at larger venues. A quick glance at the schedule revealed Ohio University and Toledo playing on consecutive Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and I decided to launch my inaugural MAC doubleheader from Columbus.
Touching down in the Capitol city, the crown jewel of Ohio, I bee line for the newly opened Melt Bar and Grilled location in the upscale Short North area. Since opening its first location in Lakewood, OH in 2006, Melt has fast become a sensation in Ohio, even garnering considerable national exposure. Specializing in massive, indulgent grilled cheese sandwiches with dozens of combinations, the decadent menu is the very definition of comfort food. As if the alluring fare weren’t enough, the bar features over twenty different taps of local beer, and the menu boasts 150 different varieties of bottled swill for the hopheads.
While deliberating over the various heart stopping choices, I finally settle on a “Dude Abides” sandwich, chosen exclusively for the Big Lebowski movie reference. After an agonizing forty minute wait (the location is new and still had a few kitchen kinks to work out), the massive offering is dropped in front of me. Thick slabs of toasted white bread are layered with home made meatballs, fried mozzarella wedges and layers of Provolone and Romano cheeses. The hefty sandwich stands nearly six inches tall, and after a disastrous attempt at picking the creature up, the hand to hand melee soon devolves into a gooey, depraved, fork and knife conquest. Face smeared in marinara and gluttonous shame, I slink off the barstool and waddle out the door…
From there, it’s an hour ride down winding US33 into Athens, Ohio. The drive is surprisingly picturesque, as the undulating road winds through hilly state park and national forest land. Athens seems like quite a pleasant village, cozy streets are flanked by shops, restaurants, and the usual assortment of college town watering holes. Every Halloween, the place explodes, as the small town nearly doubles in size with nearly 20,000 visitors for the Athens Halloween Block Party. Obviously, Ohio University is the mainstay in town, and the well manicured campus grounds are flanked by classic Georgian brick architecture across sprawling quads. It seems like quite an agreeable place to spend four or five years…
As I approach Peden Stadium, I’m reluctantly forced to shell out five bucks for parking. The entire area surrounding the stadium Ohio University campus, and they’ve got all the lots on lock down. A few big shot donors enjoy a tailgate right outside the main entrance to Peden, their set up complete with a custom bright green Ohio Bobcats tent. Apart from them, however, the closest lots are mostly empty on a chilly Tuesday night.
I make up for the five dollar parking ripoff by securing a free game ticket. As I approach the ticket window for one of the fifteen dollar seats, a gentleman taps me on the shoulder and hands me a freebie on the 40 yard line – row 3. I’m starting to like the MAC already.
Shortly after I find my seat, the game kicks off as the mercury drops into the low 20’s. While cold games during a sunny afternoon can still be quiet tolerable, at night they are sheer misery, and a constant battle to keep warm. Despite the cold, the Bobcats come out competitively in the first half. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton connects for the Cats’sole touchdown, and they head into the tunnels at halftime trailing 17-13. I head into the tunnels myself for a piping Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate.
In the second half, however, the Kent State Golden Flashes take command. In one of the stranger plays I’ve seen this year, 260lb. Flash defensive lineman Nate Terhune takes a direct snap on a 4th down and 4 and rumbles 61 yards for a touchdown. Visibly wheezing in the endzone after the lumbering run, it’s the longest play from scrimmage the entire night. The Golden Flashes would tack on a few more touchdowns in the second half, and run away with a 44-13 blowout win.
Before I leave, I snap a quick photo with Rufus the Bobcat mascot. While I don’t usually make a point of getting mascot photos, Rufus became a national sensation in 2010 when he relentlessly pursued and wrestled Brutus the Buckeye to the ground during a tilt against the Ohio State Buckeyes (VIDEO). That he did this during the Buckeyes revered pre game entrance in front of 105,000 people, immediately made the story a front page scandal. Brandon Hanning, the student inside the Bobcat costume at the time (since excused from the school), premeditated the entire fracas and made no bones his vitriol towards Brutus in this interview (LINK). As a fan of any mascot altercation, I simply had to get a photo with one of the best brawlers in the biz.
In the end, my first MAC conference game was an interesting diversion from the usual lineup of heavy hitting premier programs. To be clear, the atmosphere is a far cry from a typical Big 10 game, and drawing a comparison to those types of programs would simply be unfair. If I had to put my finger on it, a MAC conference game has a similar feel to a minor league baseball game – in a good way. The stadiums are smaller, family friendly and more accessible, with easy parking and almost zero traffic congestion. Tickets are cheaper and plentiful, and you can generally sit wherever you prefer. The entire atmosphere is noticeably more relaxed, although fans are still passionate and prideful about their chosen school. The game itself is slower and less precise than the big time schools, but that’s exactly the appeal. The vast majority of players are here simply for the love of the game, and suit up knowing that few of them will ever play on Sundays. Absent is the semi-professional machinery that comes with seven figure coaches and bloated TV contracts. It’s here, in conferences like the MAC, where the true amateurism and mission of college athletics is still alive and well. And I’ll be back for more…
Full Clickthrough gallery below: