I grew up in a big football family. My uncle played for Swanee (The University of the South). My grandparents did not miss a home game. Now one must understand that this was in the late 1950's. The University of the South is located on the edge of the mountains in the middle of Tennessee. The Domain (as the campus is known) is one of the prettiest places I have ever been, all 10,000 or something acres of it. My grandparents lived in the country between Bennettsville and Bleheim, SC. That trip was 475 miles, a 10 hour drive back then.
At home my grandparents followed college and pro-football weekly until they passed away. My parents graduated from Wake Forest and would go to Winston-Salem for games. Finally my father adopted the University of South Carolina as his "team" since it was only a 45 minute drive. He had a parking place and 6 seats on the front row of the upper deck. And for years through rain, sleet, the cold, and the heat we went to the Carolina games to watch the team lose and come home defeated only to pack-up the following Saturday and try again. It is pretty bad when the team's slogan was "Wait Until Next Year".
Two things my father always wanted was a grandson (the IVth) and to see Carolina have a winning season. My nephew Will was born in the fall of 2000, the year Carolina had their shining season. Daddy passed away in December 'nough said.
So I was brought up in the world of Division I Football - the big leagues of the SEC and ACC. Where ESPN would host Sports Center in the parking lot. It was not unusual for the games to be televised nationally and everyone was waiting for the weekly national rankings to come out and scrambling for a major Bowl invitation. But it was also the world of big money, huge crowds, players who were going pro, and the "us" and "thems". Yes, everyone had fun tailgating and watching the game but one got lost in the huge crowds moving like large herds of wilder beasts to and from the stadium The traffic just getting out of the incredibly large parking lots could take hours.
Then I came to work for the Citadel and found a breath of fresh air. The Citadel is a Division 1-AA school and a member of the Southern Conference. Last year the school tied for the Southern Conference Championship. Naturally another college came and offered our coach a better deal and he moved on. After interviewing many coaches, the college decided to move one of the assistant coaches up to the Head role. Well, it was a wise decision.
Yesterday afternoon The Citadel clenched the Southern Conference Championship, albeit in overtime, beating Samford at homecoming. So we are headed to the playoffs with a 9-0 season, something the school has never had. But it is not the winning team that thrills me. It is the feeling of being a part of "real" football. My being in the President's Office has nothing to do with it.
The Citadel has an alumni following like no other. Johnson Hagood Stadium is relatively new with terraces and suites. Unlike Williams Bryce (USC's stadium) that holds 80,000 screaming fans, Johnson Hagood has total seating for 20,000. (This year only 16,000 due to some issues with part of the stands.) On game day, yes there is traffic but cars are parked in campus parking lots, on the neighborhood streets, in designated spots for those who pay for or merit them. Locals arrive in golf carts or walk from their homes. Tailgating is everywhere, all about. There is a true feeling of community.
The corps marching in and sitting together brings out a sentimental feeling for many. The band with its drum and bag pipes is hard to miss. One can easily make their way around the stadium grounds to find any party they are looking for. Some would say it is "small time". I would beg to differ. To me this is true football. Citadel students, alumni, and fans are not lost in the many tens of thousands attending an event. They are a community that come to enjoy the game and cheer their team.
This is not a commercial enterprise. Oh, sure we need to make money any way we can. The alumni are not just loyal they are generous. No doubt one reason is that they are part of it. Unlike the big leagues where one needs to cough up $25,000 or more to garner a parking place in some lot within walking distance and a promise of seats, and those who can "only" give $5,000 are promised tickets to "several" of the home games, the Citadel is only so big. Therefore, everything is much more accessible to everyone.
Yes one can purchase a nice suite located on the 6th level of the stadium with limited access, catered food, and open bar (in most). I'm sure the Brigadier Foundation offers memberships that gives one better access, parking, and seats. But with a stadium that only seats 20,000, everyone is closer to the field. You know these cadets are playing for the love of the game. Oh, over the years several have gone to the pros. But this is football for the game itself.
So yesterday's victory was more special because the community of The Citadel can revel in it together. It is just a better experience when it is a smaller enterprise. One really feels a part of it. The win is more heartfelt.
So we are off to the play-offs with a new coach, a winning team, and an elated alumni. Perhaps the Holidays have started early after all.