Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tech Tale | by Jay

Georgia Tech is nestled in the bosom of downtown Atlanta, and on game day the campus grounds are filled with people tailgating. What a difference between ND and Tech, where folks are allowed to park right on campus, unload their tents and kegs and portable music and charcoal grills and set up right in the middle of the quad.

Once upon a time at ND, some lucky few had parking passes on the lot behind the old bookstore. One roommate's father was part of this group, and I remember eating sandwiches and drinking beer right on the basketball blacktop, the dome shining down upon us. Tech is still like that. It's a very laid-back atmosphere, and the few cops I saw patrolling campus seemed friendly and welcoming; I even saw one officer cheerfully helping some fans set up a canopy. It was really hot on Saturday during the day, and at one point, we grabbed a twelvepack and ducked inside the Student Union to escape into the air conditioning and catch some of the Michigan-Vandy game. Nobody hassled us. I don't have much experience attending ACC or SEC football games, but from what I gather from friends and family (and great books like RJYH), this is de rigueur as far as the tailgating scene goes down South. My wife's family are mostly Tide fans from Mobile, and so I hope to catch an Iron Bowl someday soon and enjoy some more laid-back, hassle-free, Southern-style game day festivities.

"What'll ya have?" Other friends of ours hosted a tailgater in the parking lot of the Varsity, a burger and chili dog drive-in joint just across the highway from the stadium that I'm sure you've heard about. We headed over to the Varsity after bouncing around campus, and ended up there with about an hour and a half to spare before kickoff.

The place is gargantuan. It holds fifteen-hundred people, easy, with a long serving counter and various "rooms" nicknamed by the TV station they're tuned to. For the Tech games they sell off their parking spots to tailgaters, and some enterprising classmates of mine snatched up about five in a row.

The chili dogs at the Varsity are exquisite. We polished off a few, washed them down with beers in the parking lot, then headed into the game. Heaven.

The "Wreck". The Wreck is hilarious. The Wreck is a restored 1930 Ford Cabriolet Sport Coupe adorned by cheerleaders which comes roaring out of the tunnel through a cloud of steam, narrowly missing Tech band members, sideline reporters, and punters doing pregame warmups. It's like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, turned up to 11. I wonder how many sousaphone players in Tech's band get run down by the Wreck every year. It's easily the most dangerous pre-game "tradition" I've ever seen.

Unfortunately the marketing masters at Bobby Dodd don't stop at just showcasing hallowed and authentic traditions like the Wreck. No, they've given in to the circus mentality surrounding public sporting events that says any smidgen of down time must be filled with a contest, a video promo, fan giveaways or advertisements. The action on the field stops, and you're immediately assaulted with cheesy ads on the jumbotron. It's relentless and it's pervasive and it really, really sucks. It was almost as bad as Heinz Field last year, and that's saying something.

While most everybody we met was friendly and welcoming, some Tech fans were a little chippy, probably due to the lateness of the start and the all-day drinkfest that unfolded on campus. Cheers of "Overrated" piped up all over the stadium. That undercurrent of belligerence seemed evident on the field as well, with players from both sides jawing and shoving and generally playing to the echo of the whistle. The fans, in turn, recycled the vibe. When Tech linebacker Philip Wheeler smacked Brady Quinn helmet-to-helmet and the refs threw a flag, a collective groan emanated from the crowd, as if to say, come on, that was clean. On TV, a lone bottle bounced off the turf and hit the head referee as he was announcing the call; what you didn't see was the shower of cups, bottles and debris raining down onto both endzones. For a second, I thought I was in the Big House. Meanwhile, the players kept snapping at each other and barking at the referees. Even consummate niceguy Bob Morton got in a shoving match.

In the second half the cloud began to lift from the ND offense, and we began picking up chunks of yardage with Darius darting right and left. From section 211 it was tough to figure out exactly what was different, but we knew the attack had changed, and it was paying off. Key quote from Charlie's Sunday presser, where he talks about getting Brady out of the "pass" part of the run/pass option plays:

I think when we tweaked -- in the middle of the second quarter when I kind of went off the game plan, I kind of said, okay, we're going to have to call [runs] just to get these things run the right way. So from the middle of the second quarter through the third quarter, we got into some [plays] we felt [it would not leave us] in third-and-long situations...[situations] that we were getting ourselves in for a quarter and a half, which I thought was killing us. Every time you turned around, it was third and 12. I thought that was killing us.

I just said at halftime, we're not going to be playing the game at third and 12. We may not convert, but we're not going to be third and 12.

We finally started hitting a groove, especially on defense, and it got to the point where the mood lightened, and the closeness of the score became less dire. My fear subsided as the game went on, and when we got the ball back with just over five minutes to go, I remarked to our group that I wouldn't be surprised if we were finally clicking well enough to simply run out the clock from this point on. And we did. Travis Thomas, the prodigal running back, appeared with miraculous fresh legs after playing all game on defense and burned out the clock.

We retired to the hotel bar at the Omni, the raucous scene of the crime from the night before, where Orson and Warren and Brian and Mike and I had racked up a bar tab into the multiple hundreds in giddy anticipation of the start of the football season. Now, after an exhausting, unsettling victory, scattered Irish fans sipped their nightcaps in quiet consternation. When Fowler and Herbstreit stepped off the elevator and bellied up to the bar, there was hardly a stir -- we were still digesting what had just transpired. We'd won, yes...but there were definitely issues.

It seems fitting that a road trip to an esteemed technical school would also complete a sort of mathematical proof, one that Charlie began chalking up on the blackboard last year. Each time after the oh-so-close defeats at the hands of Michigan State and Southern Cal, Charlie proffered the notion that there is no such thing as a "good loss".
"If you're waiting for me to say it was a good loss, you won't hear that here. Losing is losing, there are no moral victories."
No Moral Victories. I took it to heart last year, after waltzing out of the Michigan State game a little too flippantly, disappointed by the loss but clearly not distraught. Charlie disabused me of that mindset right quick
; as Patton once said, "I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed." No moral victories is an emblematic reminder of just how high the bar has been raised at ND.

Well, Tech proved that the inverse of "no moral victories" is equally true. After our vaunted offense sputtered and we limped home with a four-point win, Charlie w
as pressed to size up the quality of the victory:
"There is no such thing as a bad W," said Weis.
Yer darn tootin'. It's a binary world in college football, and while the Sports Reporters on ESPN Sunday morning debated the relative and variable merits of Notre Dame's performance (Is ND's offense this bad? Was Tech really any good? Is this a "bad" W for the Irish?) they missed the essential truth of the situation: a win's a win, and it doesn't have to be pretty. 14-10? We'll take it.

On to week 2.

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