|Highway 35 revisited|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
First off, let me apologize to Marquette fans everywhere. It's my fault.
I wrote in Saturday's installment of my tour of Final Four schools that though I had a great time on each campus, my loyalties rested with Marquette to win the championship. Given that I have spent much of my life rooting for the San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Mariners, that was the kiss of death.
I can't take the entire blame, though. When a team trails by 29 at half, trails by more than 40 in the second half and eventually loses by 33, some of the responsibility rests with the team. What a beating. As my friend Rod said, if Al McGuire described Marquette's 1977 championship as "seashells and balloons," Saturday's loss was "broken beer bottles and used condoms washed up on the Jersey shore."
I imagine Marquette fans are taking the loss much harder in Milwaukee than Texas fans took the Longhorns' loss in Austin. They would have to. I know there are some rabid basketball fans at the University of Texas, because I talked to some. But I spent three days on campus and saw one person wearing a Final Four T-shirt. One! I talked to a student who actually had a ticket to the Final Four, and he didn't know that T.J. Ford was a sophomore or that the women's team was in the Final Four as well.
I was told that Pete's on Sixth Street is a real Texas hangout that features frequent sing-a-longs to the Texas fight song. Obviously, I was misinformed. When I walked by during the game Saturday night, there was almost no one in the bar.
Then again, Pete's wasn't alone. The street was filled with people, but several bars that showed the game were nearly empty and several others were playing music rather than the game. The Longhorns' first appearance in the Final Four in 56 years coincided with the Texas Relays, the big annual track meet that draws thousands. According to one bouncer, the Texas Relay fans took over a good portion of Sixth Street, pushing Longhorns fans elsewhere. Plus, he said, the most rabid Texas basketball fans made the relatively easy drive to New Orleans.
Well, maybe. But even the two bars I visited that were crowded with fans were so quiet that I could hear every word Billy Packer said on TV. And even though I prominently wore a Syracuse T-shirt, no one hassled me. Had I worn the opponents' colors at a bowl game, I'm certain they would have lassoed me, marinated me in barbecue sauce and tied me to an anthill. But only three fans even commented on it, good-naturedly asking why I was wearing a Syracuse T-shirt and a Texas cap. (What can I say? After the Marquette debacle, I decided to hedge my bets.)
The most passionate fans I found were five students from India who watched the game in an otherwise empty cafeteria at the Texas student union building.
Texas hung in there until the end before losing their first Final Four game in more than half a century. Oh, well. Football practice starts in four months.
My original plan was to tour each Final Four campus, then make the eight-hour drive from Austin to New Orleans for the championship game. I have never been to New Orleans and dearly wanted to go there to experience one of the country's great cities and its notorious party capital.
My nefarious editors had other ideas. With more than enough ESPN people already in New Orleans, they thought it would be better for me to drive back to Lawrence, Kansas, and watch the game there.
I had my doubts about this plan, but the drive up Interstate 35 had its highlights. I stopped in Arlington for a needed baseball fix and watched the Mariners whip the Rangers. I passed exits for Nolan Ryan Expressway, Dale Earnhardt Way, Mickey Mantle Blvd. and Shannon Miller Parkway. I stopped in Norman, Oklahoma, long enough to watch the end of the Tennessee-Duke women's game over beers at The Mont, which is easily the finest campus hangout I've ever visited (good food, great atmosphere and OU "scoreboards" showing the score of every Sooners game from 1947). I stopped in Oklahoma City and visited the sobering memorial to the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building.
But it was a long, long drive, several hours longer than I figured. The last five hours of the drive were in darkness and particularly monotonous. I grew so tired that at one point I had to pull off the road and nap for 20 minutes.
As I pushed along the final 200 miles, I wondered if it would have cost that much more to have flown instead. I wondered whether it would have made more sense to just fly home to Seattle instead. I wondered how Lawrence could possibly be worth this.
And then I finally came to the exit for Lawrence. I pulled off the freeway and eased up to the toll booth (yes, Kansas has toll roads). The toll worker, Emily Burt, greeted me with a huge smile. Naturally, she was wearing a Jayhawks sweatshirt. I asked if she'll be watching the big game, and she said, no, she has to work the booth again. But she'll be listening on the radio.
Neville and Stuble are juniors at KU, and they complained that the university doesn't plan to cancel classes Tuesday if Kansas beats Syracuse. Not that it matters much. No one will expect students to show up to class anyway. Why, Stuble and Neville have a professor who already pushed back the due date for a term paper because of the Final Four. He distributed a note to the students that read, "Due to Mr. Hinrich's performance, your papers will be due April 10."
That was last week after the Jayhawks won the West Regional and returned to campus at 3 a.m and walked into Allen Fieldhouse where thousands of adoring fans welcomed them home. I figured the school would show tonight's game at the fieldhouse, but I was wrong about that. Instead of Allen Fieldhouse, which holds 16,300 fans, they'll show it (weather permitting) in Memorial Stadium, which holds 50,000.
Unfortunately, Stuble's brother, Mike, won't be at the stadium or the Hawk. He flew here from New York City just so he could see Saturday's game in the proper campus atmosphere. But he had to fly back to Manhattan because his boss wouldn't give him Monday off for work.
It's three in the morning here as I write this. I was on the road for 15 hours today. I drove close to 800 miles. I saw a baseball game, watched a basketball game, toured a haunting memorial and collapsed at a rest stop. I'm exhausted, I haven't had a proper meal since I left home, I have to unplug the lamp in my motel room just to get power for my computer, and I have a couple more stories to finish by tomorrow night.
But the local channel is replaying last week's Allen Fieldhouse welcome, Stuble and Neville promise they'll save me a spot at the Hawk, the toll workers are wearing the school colors, my Rock Chalk Jayhawk shirt is freshly laundered and there isn't a better place to be for this game.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.