Thursday, July 4, 2019

On my season-long college football bar crawl

One undeniable part of the appeal of sports (to me, at least) is the communal aspect. When the game goes well, it's fun to feed off the energy of others, and when things don't go well there's comfort in numbers and solidarity. No matter how convenient the living room may be, I will never trade it for the roar of a stadium, or even a sports bar, gone wild. I believe this to be exponentially more true with college sports. I think most would agree that college stadiums/arenas are much more raucous than professional ones  - the best professional sports venues are usually described as a "college-like atmosphere". I've always theorized that college sports fandom tend to be more passionate than pro sports fandom, because your college team is the one you chose, as opposed to the one your parents did. Moreover, college is so often such a formative and memorable time of your life that it's easy to see why people retain such a strong emotional bond to their college team. However, I believe that college football fandom reaches an even higher level, because the unique form of sectional pride that gets attached to college football teams. I could go on for hours about the geopolitics of college football, but for your sake, I'll refrain.

Some background on my fandom: When I first got into sports, my family lived in Corvallis, where my dad worked at Oregon State University. One of my earliest sports memories was OSU smashing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Thus, I grew up an Oregon State fan for better or worse (Ok, mostly mostly worse, except during baseball season). Besides Oregon State, I've always also had a general affinity for USC and Boise State, the details of which I'll get into below. The rest of my family never cared much for college football until my brother went to Ohio State for college, at which point they all became Buckeye die-hards. As I've gotten older though, I've gotten closer and closer to the nirvana of true objectivity. Part of the reason for that is that I went to a college (Caltech) that doesn't have a football team of its own, but happens to be located in the city (Pasadena) that means the most to the sport as a whole.

One of my favorite college football podcasts, Athlon Sports's Cover Two podcast, has an annual tradition: at the start of every college football season, hosts Braden Gall and Mitch Light map out a dream road trip for the college football season. The only rule: you may not ever see the same team twice (if you're interested, here was my road trip for 2018). It's a fun exercise, not only because it's an interesting combinatorial optimization problem, but because it emphasizes some of the biggest factors that college football so uniquely great, namely: the intense sectional pride at the heart of the sport's popularity, the myriad of local game day traditions, and college football's geographical reach that is unparalleled among American sports.

In 2018, I was inspired by this idea, and wanted to carry out my own version of experiencing all that college football fandom has to offer. While I don't have the time or money fly to stadiums across the country, I do have a bus pass, a phone with google maps, and enough of a paycheck to withstand a weekly bar tab. Thus, I came up with a different idea: each week, I visited a sports bar dedicated to a different college team. Unlike Braden and Mitch, I didn't restrict myself from seeing the same team play twice, but I did restrict myself from visiting the same team bar twice.

At a basic level, the main reason I wanted to do this was to meet other people in the area who love college football as much as I do. Most of my grad school friends aren't big into sports, and the ones that follow football almost exclusively follow the NFL for fantasy football purposes. But I was also interested to hear stories about what game day is like at historic venues, especially during the years when those teams were firing on all cylinders. I have no regrets about where I chose to go to school, but I can't say I didn't feel some degree of envy to those who went somewhere with a D1 football team. Finally, I was excited just to get an expanded taste of San Diego's second-to-none bar scene.

I really wasn't sure what to expect going into this excursion. San Diego does beer and tacos better than anybody else, but it isn't exactly known as a college football town. I ended up being pleasantly surprised by just how many team bars the city had, and just how well-attended these bars were on Saturdays. I think it goes to show just how much college football teams mean to so many different people.

Week 1: Bay City Brewing (Oregon State), followed by Home and Away (Auburn)
On the first weekend of the season I woke up early to go to Bay City Brewing for Oregon State's 9am game at Ohio State. The owner is a graduate of Oregon State's medical school; he was a practicing surgeon until he decided to open up a brewery. All of us knew the game would be over by halftime, and we spent most of the time reminiscing about the Beaver's baseball national championship from the previous summer. Side note: Oregon State actually gashed Ohio State for some pretty big runs in the game. Beaver fans knew about the deficiencies in the Buckeye well before the rest of college football caught on.

At around halftime, I left Bay City to go to Home and Away, the local Auburn Tigers bar, for Auburn's opener against Washington. I actually attended Auburn's national championship loss to Florida State in 2014. I have warm recollections of talking to tiger fans on the shuttle from the stadium back to the Old Pasadena - they were good sports about the loss, and had healthy respect for the football played on the other side of the country.  Home and Away had a pretty good turnout of Auburn fans, but I also spent some time talking with a USC-UCLA couple, and an Iowa-Notre Dame couple. There was one father/son Washington duo, and I spent a good chunk of time watching with them, as a form of Pac-12 solidarity. The game was pretty frustrating for both sides, I still had a good time, and I was mostly happy for for the offseason to be over.

Week 2: Union Kitchen and Tap (Clemson)
For week two I debated going to the local Clemson or Texas A&M bar for the big showdown. I ended up going with Clemson because it was easier to get there without driving. I consider myself something of a Clemson hipster, in that I was high on this program earlier than most. Throughout the Tajh Boyd era, I always felt they good enough to compete for a national title; when they won the ACC in 2011, I was convinced that Dabo had raised the program's floor to 10 wins, and that their losses in big games had more to do with mental mistakes than a talent deficit. Even after the humiliating loss to West Virginia, and even through the losing streaks against South Carolina and Florida State I believed in Clemson. That sentiment paid off once they upgraded from Boyd to Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.

The game ended up being tighter than I think anyone expected, but the Clemson faithful were completely unflappable; they had total faith in Clemson's ability to execute with composure down the stretch. Imagine saying that sentence ten years ago.

Week 3: Sandbar (Boise State)
Oregon State and Boise State have always had an ambivalent relationship. The teams have played several times over the years (usually with Boise State coming out on top), which naturally breeds hostility; on the other hand, our shared hatred for the Ducks brings us together. I however, always rooted for Boise State during their glory days; their offensive style was mesmerizing, Chris Petersen always seemed like one of the genuinely good guys in the sport, I always thought it would be cool if they had made it to the championship game of the very BCS that had been engineered to shut them out, and Kellen Moore is my favorite player of all time (the rest of the list: Colt McCoy, Tajh Boyd, Rey Maualuga, and Tyrann Mathieu).

When I planned out my bar crawl, I wanted to make sure I visited the Boise State bar for their annual marquee, out-of-conference "prove it" game. (Side note: it really is incredible to think that Boise State has elevated its reputation to the point that it can get teams like Oklahoma State and Florida State(!) to play home-and-homes with them). The turnout was impressive, and the bar erupted when Brett Rypien threw a touchdown pass to put the Broncos up 7-0. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. The fans were still gracious in defeat, and after the game I spent awhile at the bar with them watching the rest of the day's games and reminiscing with them about the Moore era.

Out of all the bars I visited, I thought Sandbar had the best food and drink. San Diego takes its tacos seriously, but unfortunately a lot of tacquerias leave vegetarians like myself out to dry. Not Sandbar. The south fries their chicken, the midwest fries their cheese curds and oreos, and out here we fry our avocados. I cannot recommend this dish enough to any traveller passing through San Diego.

Week 8: Guava Beach Bar & Grill (Washington)
This week I went out with a friend of mine in the PhD program who attended UW during the Sark years. Most of the people in the bar had purple shirts, but it wasn't standing room only the way it was at other bars. I definitely want to try this place out next year when they have a bigger opponent than Colorado.

Week 9: Project Bar and Grill (Florida)
The Florida-Georgia game is pretty high on my bucket list. The game is obviously legendary for its atmosphere, and unlike almost all of the other great college football rivalries, this one's in a big city rather than a remote college town, making it relatively easy to get to. I was debating whether to go to the Gators or Bulldogs bar for the cocktail party; however, when I heard that the local Gator alumni association was turning the watch party into a community outreach event, I knew where I wanted to go.

About an hour before the game, we all met at the bar to volunteer for Hashtag Lunchbag. We spent the morning preparing sack lunches that would later be distributed to help feed San Diego's homeless population. They set up different stations for people to prepare different parts of the sack lunches. My girlfriend and I spent most of the time opening up the sacks and filling them with granola bars and fruit, and passing them off to the sandwich station. We also spent some time writing up cards with words of encouragement. The alumni association had a deal with the bar: donate $10 towards buying food for the lunches, and you got a free drink.

I had a lot of fun talking with the fans there, many of whom had gone to games at the swamp during the Wuerffel/Spurrier or Tebow/Meyer years. A few of them mentioned that they thought it was a really pleasant surprise to see fans from other teams come to volunteer with the Gators. We also connected over the fact that like most Gator fans during the aughts, my family soured pretty hard on Urban Meyer the more time he spent in Columbus.

Overall, this was my absolute favorite stop on the bar crawl. Unfortunately, Project Bar and Grill has closed since then, but I can't wait to visit the Gators at The Smoking Gun next fall. Side note: If it were up to me, Florida vs. Georgia would always be slotted into the last Saturday in October - what better way to pregame for Halloween than with the world's largest outdoor cocktail party?

Week 12: Cavu Brewery and Restaurant (USC)
I did not grow up a USC fan, but at this point I may as well call myself one (my girlfriend likes to call me a Fauxjan). At this point in life, USC is the team I follow the most closely, and the team whose success brightens my Saturdays the most. There are a few reasons for the transformation. First, I did grow up a Pac-1012 fan, and historically USC has been our region's juggernaut. I know a lot of other pac-12 fans won't like hearing this, but the fact is that if we want the rest of the country to take west coast football seriously, it has to start with USC getting its act back together.

Second, I have endless amounts of respect and adoration for what Pete Carroll and what he accomplished at USC. As in, I literally own a Pete Carroll t-shirt (styled after Obama's "Hope" posters from the 2008 campaign). I wore that shirt when my girlfriend and I went to the USC/Texas game at The Coliseum in 2017, and on this day wore it again in lieu of my usual Oregon State shirt.  I will concede that Saban and Meyer have had better careers because they were better at avoiding inexplicable losses to inferior teams. However if I needed to win a big game tomorrow, I know Pete is the guy I would want on the sideline. But what I respected the most about him was the way he scheduled out-of-conference teams as aggressively as possible. Most coaches try to find one big neutral-site showcase game along with two or three cupcakes before getting to conference play. By contrast, Pete Carroll would schedule as many power conference teams as possible, and he had absolutely no fear of going into a hostile road environment. His teams relished the chance to measure themselves against the tallest stick possible - and they did so despite the fact that the BCS actually disincentivized scheduling tough games! While the playoff has definitely forced teams to schedule better, right now Kirby Smart is the only coach with Carroll's gumption and chutzpah. I feel no shame about rooting for USC on the sole basis of Pete Carroll's legacy.

Third...I like Los Angeles. A lot, actually. I come across a lot of people who don't like LA, both online and in real life, and I honestly just feel bad for those people who don't know what they're missing. I loved living there in college, I always jump at any excuse to visit whether it be to see my college friends in Pasadena or visit my girlfriend when she was at USC. Speaking of which...

Fourth, I feel like it would be rude to date a Trojan while rooting against them. I can't lie, I am not sad about having a somewhat legitimate excuse to climb aboard the Cardinal and Gold bandwagon.

Ok, back to the bar crawl. The USC bar wasn't actually located in San Diego but rather its very fancy and expensive suburb La Jolla. Somehow that fact is simultaneously incredibly fitting and incredibly ironic. I was really hoping to meet someone who went to USC during the Carroll era but all the alumni were older than that. We all went into the game assuming USC wouldn't possibly lose to lowly UCLA, and so we spent most of the game debating whether to fire Clay Helton or not. But then a funny thing happened - USC did end up losing to lowly UCLA! That result seemed to settle the question for everyone in the bar (though apparently not for Lynn Swann).

SEC Championship Game: Bootlegger (Alabama)
The Florida game was my favorite overall experience because of the volunteering. But in terms of atmosphere during the game, Alabama, like their football team, was number 1. We got there about 30 minutes before the game and the bar was PACKED with crimson. It was immediately obvious that we were going to be standing for the next four hours. The alumni association was selling raffle tickets for fund scholarships for San Diego kids going to Alabama for college; for $20, they would measure your arm and give you a roll of tickets of equal length. Before the game the DJ was blaring  (I kid you not) Sweet Home Alabama; during the game, after every Alabama score he would provide the music to fight song while the bar patrons provided the lyrics. Throughout the game, the mood of the bar fluctuated like a tidal wave. You could hear a pin drop when Tua had to leave the game, and you couldn't hear yourself think when Jalen Hurts threw the go-ahead touchdown pass. I've been to sports bars for big games, but none of it compares to this particular afternoon.

Some other highlights from the game:

  • I wore an Oregon State shirt, and my girlfriend wore a USC sweater. When we walked in, she was welcomed by a bevy of dirty looks. When we talked to one woman from the alumni association, we learned that she and few other people in the area had some rather unpleasant interactions with local USC fans in 2016, when the two teams opened the season against each other. Later however, that same woman gave my girlfriend a complimentary Alabama cup sleeve, as a reward for trekking into hostile territory.
  • When I told that same woman about my bar crawl project, she was disgusted that I had used up one of my slots on Auburn.
  • While talking with the fans there I taught them something they didn't know: Mike Riley, former coach of Oregon State as well as the (then) San Diego Chargers, played quarterback for Bear Bryant.
  • We actually ran into a fellow USC fan. He was wearing Alabama gear, but when he saw my girlfriend's sweater he gave her the fight-on salute. One of his kids goes to Alabama, and the other one goes to USC. He told us (in a low voice) that he likes USC a teensy bit better because it's so nice to visit.
As long as I live in San Diego, I know where I'll be on the first Saturday of every December.

Rose Bowl: American Junkie (Ohio State)
Right after the Alabama game, we briefly wandered into the Buckeye bar down the street. I had thought about coming here for Oregon State's opener against Ohio State (before I found out that the Beavers had their own location), and I wanted to see what the place was like on game day. We were greeted by a large inflatable Brutus when we walked through the door. Half of the bar was officially dedicated to the OSU alumni association, with a massive Ohio State flag draped on the wall and 40 inch projection of the game. But even the unofficial half of the bar was drowning in a sea of scarlet and gray. I couldn't stay long due to dinner plans, but I couldn't wait to come back for OSU's bowl game.

One month later, I convinced my brother to come with me to San Diego for new year's eve. We would go to the holiday bowl together, go out with my friends for New Year's Eve, and go back to American Junkie for New Year's Day to watch his bucks play Washington in the Rose Bowl. When the game arrived, we (along with my girlfriend) went downtown an hour before kickoff to ensure we could get a seat. It turned out that this wasn't necessary. The bar had Ohio State fans scattered throughout, but it wasn't painted scarlet like we expected. This could have been because most of the local fans were out of town for new year's, or maybe they were just disappointed about not making the playoff and not excited about the opponent. Still, I was pretty surprised that their cakewalk against Northwestern drew more of a crowd than Urban Meyer's swan song at the Rose Bowl. Thankfully, there were enough fans there that my brother got the chance to participate in a rendition of Carmen Ohio after the game.

Between the explicit lack of championship stakes, the game being functionally over by halftime, and the general hungover feeling that permeated the bar, this was by far the least intense viewing experience of the year. I want to try as many new places as possible next year, but I will strongly consider coming back here during one of Ohio State's bigger games.

Looking Ahead
This bar crawl ended up being everything I hoped it would be, and it made 2018-19 the most memorable college football season of my time as a fan. As someone with a nasty habit of coming up with absolutely terrible ideas, I will cherish whatever victories I can find. Every year I am anxious for July and August to end so that college football can be back, and this year that feeling is doubled. Here are some of the venues I have in mind for 2019:
  • I already know I will be at Sandbar for Boise State's opener against Florida State, I will fit a USC game in with my girlfriend, and if Alabama makes the SEC championship I will be at Bootlegger for that game. I will surely be at The Smoking Gun if/when Florida does another community outreach event (hopefully preceding the cocktail party). The Florida and Alabama bars are actually about a minute away from each other, and I may double-dip if those two meet for the SEC championship.
  • I have a pair of grad school friends who are die hard Utah fans. They attended the university during the year when Utah beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. They were the ones who got me and my brother some really good tickets to the Holiday Bowl. Every year we meet up to watch the Holy War with the local Utah alumni association at their location. Unfortunately that didn't happen last year because the game was played over thanksgiving, but this year the game is on the opening Thursday night.
  • Last year I went to the Clemson bar for their game against Texas A&M; this year I'm thinking of going the Aggie bar for their return trip.
  • The local LSU bar is in the same neighborhood as my girlfriend's apartment - I'm thinking of going their for their clash with Alabama. Rather than wearing an Oregon State or USC shirt, I will be wearing a shirt with Ben Simmons, the former LSU basketball star and my current favorite player in the NBA.
  • I haven't yet decided whether to go to the local Notre Dame bar or the Georgia bar when those two teams meet.
  • There is a local pretzel and beer bar that is a 5 minute walk from my apartment. They are a dedicated Philadelphia sports bar, and I went there to watch a couple of the Sixers playoff games this past Spring. They are trying to get connect with the Penn State alumni association to become one of the official spots for Penn State games, and if so I will definitely be there.
  • Miami and Florida play week 0. I plan to go the Gator bar later in the season, which leaves the Hurricanes bar for that day.
  • Some of the other teams on my radar for next season (based in no small part on the bars they picked): MichiganMichigan StateOklahomaVirginia Tech (also a dedicated bar for my NFL team, the Steelers), and West Virginia.
  • There was one common trend that I found pretty hilarious. At the bars, the wait staff actually wore the team colors on game day. One waiter at Bootlegger actually had a "Saban for president" pin on his shirt. I'd like to pretend that when hiring, each of these places sent out bat signals for servers who attended each of the different schools
  • Auburn and Alabama were the only places that sang the fight song after scores. Alabama has, in my opinion, the best fight song in the sport, but I'm hoping to hear more different tunes this year.
  • For fun, here's my dream college football road trip for 2019:
    1. Utah @ BYU
    2. Texas A&M @ Clemson
    3. NC State @ West Virginia
    4. Notre Dame @ Georgia
    5. Kentucky @ South Carolina
    6. Auburn @ Florida
    7. Oklahoma vs. Texas
    8. Oregon @ Washington 
    9. Penn St @ Michigan St
    10. Miami @ Florida St
    11. LSU @ Alabama 
    12. Wisconsin @ Nebraska
    13. UCLA @ USC
    14. Ohio St @ Michigan