By Jerry Byrd
It’s been 28 years since I have traveled with the Louisiana Tech football team. In November of 1995, I went to Nashville, Tennessee with the Bulldogs as their right tackle. We had a forgettable date, 29-6, with the Vanderbilt Commodores.
It was the penultimate game and fifth straight loss for a team which began the season with much promise. A 4-1 start for the 1995 Bulldogs with the only loss coming to South Carolina, 68-21.
Not sure if it was that year or the year before the support staff, meaning to trade the special team video, sent the Gamecocks the film of our Sunday practice. If the Gamecocks played like they knew what we were running, it’s because they did.
I loved playing in Columbia, South Carolina. Little boys would be lined up flipping off the Tech team bus as we arrived two hours before the game. Their fathers would be nearby patting them on the head if they were standing close enough or smiling with approval if they weren’t. Atta boy. Go Cocks!
Last weekend, as the sideline reporter for the LA Tech Football Radio Network, I traveled with the team to Lincoln as the Bulldogs faced Nebraska on Saturday.
In some ways it seems like a hundred years ago since I’ve traveled with the team. In other ways it seems like it was yesterday.
From 1991 through the 1995 season, home games in Joe Aillet Stadium were great–especially NLU and NSU. But I saw the stadium almost every day… and late one night on my 21st birthday when I thought it would be a good idea to jump the fence and ring the bell.
Bright side. I did get to have a pleasant conversation with Dr. Jack Thigpen, Dean of Students, who eloquently explained the error of my ways by reminding me that nothing good happens after midnight and I would be well served to be in my dorm room at that late hour.
He also told me what a great man and sportswriter my father was and gave me a look that seemed to suggest there may have been a mix up at the old Highland Hospital on the day I was born.
But, I digress.
Something about packing in the old Tech charter bus with my brothers and heading east on I-20 to the airport in Monroe. Going to battle!
The bus would pull up on the tarmac–about 40 yards from the plane– and “the race” would be on.
The race was between the taller offensive linemen who coveted those seats on the wing with the extra leg room. The defensive linemen were not in play. They didn’t have a chance. They were on Bus No. 2.
To get those seats, you had to have your bag with you when you got off the bus–not under the bus, like most. The undercarriage of the charter bus was for those skill players, who didn’t have to worry about leg room and could walk to the plane like a normal person.
By my senior year, I had it down to science. It’s a good thing, too, as playing in the Big West Conference we often made trips out West. It’s a long flight to Stockton, California – where we played Pacific – to have your knees lodged into the seat in front of you.
I remember getting settled in and basking in the glow of my extra leg room while watching my defensive line teammates get on the plane and walk by me with a look of disgust on their face as they wondered why the offense always got Bus No.1.
Back then, the last people to get on the plane would be the administrators, coaches and wives, and supporters.
The late Dr. Guthrie Jarrell was always with us on those trips. Always. He sat in first class where – being a tall man himself – I’m sure appreciated the extra leg room too.
“It must be nice.” If I didn’t say it back then, I thought it. It must be nice to be able to take in a college football game and root, root, root, for ole red and blue. It must be nice to not have to worry about your blocking assignments and taking the proper first step before trying to knock the block off a guy who is a 6-3, 245-pound, five-star SEC defensive end who runs like a deer.
Don’t get me wrong.
There is nothing like the rush of trotting out on the field in some of the sport’s biggest and best venues in front of thousands of people and playing the greatest game God ever created. Williams Bryce. Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama. Been there. In the trenches. Hand-to-shoulder pad combat. Hat on a hat. At the bottom of the pile. There is nothing like it.
Even back then, I said I always wanted to take a trip with the team and experience it … without the pressure. Thanks to LA Tech Sports Properties and the Tech administration, I was able to do that last Friday.
The trips are a little different now. There were no security checks back then. Now, you get your snacks before getting on the plane. Assigned seats. A little thank you note from LA Tech Head Coach Sonny Cumbie.
It was nice…even with knees jammed into the back of an airplane seat and praying to God a sixth grader sitting in front of me doesn’t want to see how far his seat back can go.
Before we take off, the father and son sitting in front of me take a selfie. And suddenly I wish cell phones had been around in 1980 when my father took me to Haynesville to watch the Golden Tornado take on the Homer Pelicans in North Louisiana’s longest rivalry. He was writing a story about the rivalry for Louisiana Life.
Legendary Haynesville Coach “Red” Franklin calls me into the coaching office. He had not said a word to me all afternoon. I thought he was going to tell me I broke something or spilled something and needed to clean it up. Instead, he gave me the game ball.
That moment was the moment I fell in love with football.
And it was special to share it with my father, and I know the father and son sitting in front of me are going to enjoy this trip–and many more like it.
Father and sons sharing their love for football. That hasn’t changed.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the sights, sounds, smells, and pageantry of college football.
The University of Nebraska is known for their storied tradition, 100-year old Memorial Stadium, the fumblerooski, and their loyal fan base…among other things. 391 consecutive sellouts! Are you kidding me, Cornhuskers? Wow.
When the Louisiana Tech entourage arrived in Lincoln, everyone went straight to the stadium and walked out on Tom Osborne Field. Red “There is no place like Nebraska” signs were lit up all over the stadium.
Back in the day, we would get in our shorts and T-shirts and have a walk-through practice. The walk-through for the LA Tech team on this trip happened in the parking lot of the Marriott in Omaha, Nebraska early Saturday morning.
Out on the field, I took some pictures and videos and also spoke to Mrs. Shannon Boyer, who I sat by on the plane. Mrs. Boyer and her husband, Chuck, are Tech supporters who travel with the football team one time every season.
Beautiful people who, by the end of the trip, invited me to join them for a Louisiana Tech basketball game.
Just a few yards away on the field, Sonny Cumbie is asked if he ever played in Lincoln. He goes on to tell them that he played Nebraska in Lubbock and was the starting quarterback when the Red Raiders rolled the Cornhuskers giving them their worst loss in program history. 70-10.
Cumbie then goes on to tell them he came to Lincoln the following year as part of the radio team. “Right, coach!,” and nodded over to where I was standing.
I haven’t coached in anything in 10 years, but coaches always call former coaches coach and I love it. Even LA Tech AD Dr. Eric Wood, who much prefers the sideline and cheering on the Bulldogs on the sideline than sitting in the Visitor’s AD Suite, calls me coach.
You gotta love it!
Impressive was the adjective for Friday when Memorial Stadium was empty. Incredible would be the word for Saturday at 2:30pm when Big Red took the field against my Bulldogs with 85,000 Cornhusker fans in the stands.
When the announcer says “and that will bring up TTTTHHHHHIIIIIRRRRRDDD DDOOOOWWWNNNNN!!!.” Most in the sea of red stand on their feet and scream their heads off. On third down, I’ve never heard a louder stadium … ever!
The score was 7-7 at halftime and I could not have been more proud of how the Bulldogs competed.
Things got away from LA Tech as the first half started. The big offensive line from Nebraska with the smallest lineman being 6-3, 315-pounds leaned on the Tech defense, pulling the left guard and running off tack to the right side all the way down the field.
Penalties. Personal fouls. And one flag – a pass interference call – which was thrown and then picked up, hurt the Bulldogs. 28-14 was the final.
Unless you are a player who is talking to your parents or girlfriend after the game, the worst part of a road trip is the wait to leave the stadium after a game and head to the airport.
On the flight home, the captain comes over the intercom to let the passengers know about the overhead light. But even as he says it, he admits that it will not be used by many. And he is correct. The front half of the plane where the players are seated is total darkness.
Then lights sporadically pop up throughout the middle portion of the plane. The source of the lights are the IPads the coaches are using to watch game film. Co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Jake Brown sits across the aisle from my seat and watches game film on his device, which is propped up on the seat-back in front of him.
Brown watches the wide copy of the play and then the endzone shot. He watches the release of his receivers and how they make the slightest adjustments to the defenders covering them or how his receivers try to find the soft spots in zone coverages.
For each play, he will jot notes in a notebook which sits on his tray table.
For me, it’s another personal reminder in an 18-year coaching career, but as a high school coach, I never flew to a game. I also never had the film that fast after a game. We always had to wait to get back to the school to make DVDs of the game for the coaching staff.
While technology has been a killer to the journalism industry, it has been a God-send for coaches, who squeeze every second out of every day–including a two hour flight from Lincoln, Nebraska to Monroe.
Brown doesn’t stop watching film until the wheels are down at Monroe Regional Airport.
It makes perfect sense. The clock is ticking until the next kickoff and time is of the essence. The coaching staff has one fewer day than normal to prepare the Bulldogs for a tough Conference USA road game against the University of Texas El Paso on Friday night.
There is no down time for the Division I college football coach. Even after a hard-fought game against a power five opponent like Nebraska, you cannot take your foot off the gas…not even for a late-night flight home.
It’s a grind. They know what they signed up for. Some don’t have the guts for it and leave the profession.
I’m impressed by this coaching staff. It’s not just that they are breaking down film in the middle of the night on the flight home. I’m impressed with the job they did to get the Bulldogs ready to play Nebraska in a hostile environment after a heart-breaking loss to the University of North Texas the week before.
My truck is in the shop. I’m at the mercy of my color analyst Teddy Allen. Mercy!
Allen coached me up on my bags before we left.
“Don’t put them under the bus.”
He didn’t want to have to wait around in Monroe.
While I’m waiting on Allen to get off the plane, Dr. Wood comes by and gives me a fist bump.
Imagine that, a Division-I Athletic Director fist bumping and thanking a sideline reporter on the tarmac at Monroe Regional Airport at 11:30 p.m. I would run through a brick wall for Dr. Wood, but at 50 years old, I’d ask him if I could get on my tractor first.
Teddy turns down my fourth offer to drive. He is too nice.
He is also too nice to decide where to stop on the way home. He wants to take me to “Mrs. Jan’s”. Said the restrooms were awesome. But I told him I’m a Waffle House guy. He concedes.
I got a large coffee. I told him I’d pick up the tab on his small coffee. I also reminded him to use the little boy’s room. He was discombobulated since he wasn’t at Mrs. Jan’s.
As the waitress is handing me the coffee, I see the Tech buses drive past the Waffle House on Tech Drive.
On the ride home, we talked about Lewis Grizzard, our favorite sportswriters. Dan Jenkins for him. I offer up Rick Telander. Hunting. And country music.
He tells me about the time Don Williams was in line behind him at a hotel in Beaumont, Texas and asked the cashier for change for cigarettes. I told him about the time I had seats on the second row at Horseshoe to see Merle Haggard…sitting right behind the owner of the Horseshoe, Jack Binyon.
The conversation turned to Clint Black, and the song “Nothing’s News” starts playing in my head. “Talking about the good ole times. Bragging ‘bout the way things used to be. But I’ve worn out the same old lines. Now it seems nothing’s news to me.”
I didn’t start singing it. I had already given my best stuff earlier that day in the Memorial Stadium press box when we were in a weather delay. I put on the headphones before heading back down to the field and heard Brooks and Dunn’s “Brand New Man” playing on KXKZ 107.5 back in Ruston.
While the outcome was not what Louisiana Tech wanted, it was a memorable time–at least for one old Dawg, as he was able to take the trip of a lifetime with the Louisiana Tech Football team.