- RSS Channel Showcase 2011993
- RSS Channel Showcase 5240046
- RSS Channel Showcase 6681441
- RSS Channel Showcase 1249251
Articles on this Page
- 11/17/17--07:57: _How to fight your r...
- 11/21/17--05:30: _The Top Whatever: L...
- 11/26/17--06:59: _Auburn’s sideline h...
- 11/29/17--11:10: _Who controls a coll...
- 12/03/17--04:58: _The Top Whatever: A...
- 01/02/18--06:59: _The 2018 SB Nation ...
- 01/09/18--12:00: _Alabama and Georgia...
- 01/15/18--08:16: _6 memories of Keith...
- 02/06/18--09:00: _How New Zealand mad...
- 02/09/18--08:45: _How to watch men’s ...
- 11/17/17--07:57: How to fight your relatives at Thanksgiving dinner
- The unending cycle of defensive dominations, accompanied by just enough offense to get leads;
- the ridiculous prattling about the Process, which just sounds like Nick Saban working too much and hiring consultants to watch his consultants to watch his consultants;
- The roster, an endless crew of four- and five-star recruits, many of whom never really see playing time because they get lost in the machine;
- The fanbase, now so bored with constant winning that they have to invent complaints. (For instance: There are real people who think Jalen Hurts, whose throws are measured out like they cost Alabama real money each, is holding Alabama back. YOU PEOPLE NEED A FOUR-WIN YEAR TO RECALIBRATE YOUR EXPECTATIONS, YOU PAMPERED HOUNDSTOOTH HEELS.)
- 01/02/18--06:59: The 2018 SB Nation Hope Generator for the Despondent Sports Fan
- 01/09/18--12:00: Alabama and Georgia played a flawed classic
- 02/06/18--09:00: How New Zealand made Edmund Hillary, the man who conquered Everest
Other websites will tell you how to talk to your relatives. We will help you fight them and escape your Thanksgiving in mostly one piece.
Grab the right weapon. The kitchen, where all the sharp things are, is the high ground, eh? WRONG. The garage is the mother lode, stocked with all the nastiest implements to survive a prolonged bit of hand-to-hand combat with your family. I like a shovel for the ideal combination of heft, versatility and durability. If you're forced to fight from a young boy's room, salt the floor with Legos to slow down any approaching threat. Home Alone was real; take its lessons seriously.
Humility is survival. No one can fight. Unless you know you can, and have a proven record of hulking out like Stephen Jackson and taking on an entire arena, survive by knowing your limitations. Stick to proven tactics. Aim for sensitive joints and body parts. Ric Flair poked opponents in the eyes and punched nuts and blindsided opponents from unsportsmanlike angles. You know who survived five decades of vicious professional wrestling? That's right: Ric Flair. Make a little "Woo!" as you come off the top of the steps to knock your brother-in-law out with a cheapshot from a Dyson vacuum cleaner if it helps you remember. Play like a rat, survive like a rat.
Your dad. Your dad's tired, he doesn't want this. Point him at the couch upstairs and give him the option of a dignified surrender. He will take it, because Dad's tired, and the best weapon to defeat him is that marathon of MythBusters on SyFy. Your dad's a Jamie man, because he never talks and doesn't like anything, either.
Your brother. With the weed-whacker, again. Or the Blower, the weapon that does no damage but makes everyone want to beat his ass twice as bad. Don't waste effort on your brother. Like Vince Vaughn in a serious drama, he is there to annoy, not to be taken seriously. Keep it moving.
Your uncle. Oh, he got really into CrossFit after his recent divorce? Too bad dodging this heavy-ass casserole dish thrown at your head isn't part of a WOD, eh? A hundred and twenty bucks a month to get knocked the hell out by five pounds of crockery and complex carbohydrates. Elite fitness, my ass.
Your mother. Another target to avoid, as she has more reasons to be mad at you than anyone in the building. Flee any room she enters; parry and stall if possible; do not, I repeat, do NOT engage.
Your aunt. Underestimate her and die. Your aunt is a master of emotional jiu-jitsu, the most lethal martial art. She also stabbed your uncle once after he lost the mortgage in a backroom craps game at the Sleep Inn on Exit 76. Stuff your ears with napkins to blot out the sounds of her telling you how your mother didn't really love your father; apply quick submission hold; pray she doesn't have a dagger concealed in her boot. (She will!)
Your nieces and nephews. It will try your emotions to fight children, but they will turn on you. It's necessary to have a strategy. Contrary to popular opinion, you cannot fight more than five third-graders at a time. A good rule to follow is to divide your own body weight by the average opponent weight. For instance, if you weigh 210 pounds, you can fight three 70-pounders to a draw, or at least beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen from the dining room. Break them psychologically if you can by destroying their tablets. A broken arm will heal; a broken iPad is forever.
EXCEPTION: Your giant nephew Tommy. The one who weighs 285 and is the starting tackle for his high school football team. Pay him money and make an ally of him. Do not attempt to fight him. You are not Red Viper. You are not Red Viper. You are not Red Viper.
Keep it moving. The goal is escape. You can't beat them all, so treat this like a classic Jackie Chan fight scene involving more than one person: run, fight if you have to and then keep running. Were you thinking about making a dramatic stand on the stairs to prove a point for yourself? Well, you go ahead and do that, General Custer. You go ahead and do that.
Forget the turkey. Unless it was fried AND brined, it was going to be dry and kind of subpar anyway.
The Top Whatever is your weekly ranking of the college football things that must be ranked right now.
1. Josh Rosen.
There was so little happening this week in college football that I can do something weird and overdue here: actually pay attention to a player. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen lost a 28-23 rivalry defeat to USC in which he looked good and sometimes amazing while his team won or lost at random rates.
That sums up Rosen’s entire career. Rosen came in a five-star, can’t-miss prospect from a powerhouse in California, St. John Bosco. Rosen never sat on the bench, starting as a freshman and playing well enough to elicit slobber-worthy commentary from scouts. He threw for 3,669 yards and 23 TDs, looked as beautiful as he was supposed to, and got UCLA to an 8-5 record.
Rosen also had a hot tub in his dorm room. That’s important, but only for spiritual reasons.
It seemed like a beginning. It just wasn’t the beginning people might have assumed, one in which UCLA takes advantage of a USC laboring under a coaching change and NCAA sanctions, rides a brilliant young QB to glory, and fulfills the promise of an entire program. In L.A. terms, this is a pretty good pitch.
It is not the one life picked up for option, however. The script Rosen got instead: go through three offensive coordinators in three years, take a beating in year two when the offensive line loses three starters, finish your career throwing beautiful passes in a losing effort to your crosstown rival, and wake up the next day to find out your head coach has been fired on his birthday.
It wasn’t what it could have been, but it will be nice moving forward. The setup for USC-UCLA this year was a comparison between Sam Darnold and Rosen as NFL talents in an already heated rivalry game. Rosen arguably got the better of Darnold in direct competition, throwing for 421 yards, making some jaw-dropping throws, and calmly rolling through progressions and taking easy throws when he had them. Unlike Darnold, Rosen threw touchdowns, didn’t let the clock run out on his offense in the first half with a field-goal attempt in the making, and appeared to make solid decisions.
UCLA could never get most of its parts working at once during his three-year stay. It wasn’t Rosen’s job to get them all working at once. The guy responsible for that lost his job.
Rosen’s job was to play quarterback as well as he could. Despite his pedigree as a super-hyped five-star, Rosen did. Rosen limped through games behind patchy lines and threw TDs to an ever-changing cast of receivers. Only in his freshman year did he have anything like the protection of a run game. Rosen worked the last two years alongside some of the worst rushing in the nation and still managed to produce.
This isn’t a song of woe for Rosen. But it feels necessary to say something before he goes over the lip of the horizon and into the NFL. Where others might have bailed, Rosen stuck it out through a situation he never felt was hopeless.
That might have been madness, from a professional perspective; even in 2017, when Rosen stayed upright for an entire season, he took the most sacks of his career. But fans aren’t rational, and neither is football all the time.
From a UCLA fan’s perspective, Rosen was down for the team even when being down for the team made little sense. That’s something endearing, like being a fan of a program that never won more than eight games even with a first-round pick at quarterback.
If it were his fault, Rosen would have been the one who got fired.
44-28 over Virginia.
You, smartassedly: Oh, Miami isn’t good. They were tight with UVA until the fourth quarter.
Me, wisely: Miami was overdue for a letdown after a massive beating of Notre Dame, Kurt Benkert is actually officially Pretty Good at quarterback, and you probably only watched the Notre Dame game. Miami’s thing all year long has been playing close games and still winning them.
You, owned: I will delete my account now.
Me: [makes U sign and is crowned king of the internet and granted all powers obligated to that title].
Bellied up and butted guts with the Wolverines until they gave in, 24-10. When Wisconsin plays a similarly built team, something fun happens: Both teams do a Wisconsin imitation, and whoever flinches first loses. Michigan found out it’s hard to do a better imitation of Wisconsin than Wisconsin does, especially when running against Wisconsin’s defense becomes impossible.
4. USC kicker/punter Reid Budrovich
Per USC’s depth chart, No. 46 Budrovich is a 185-pound walk-on backup punter. Per this clip, he is a 270-pound, 8’0-tall Viking who can snap a caribou’s neck like a stale candy cane. Watch the large man with a beard on the bench and tell me he’s not seeing an 8’0-tall Viking.
Beat Mercer 56-0.
Being a longtime Georgia resident and expert on the state, these are the things I know definitively about Mercer University. I know that Mercer University is a private university in Macon. I know if you go to Mercer, you can be at least three things: a future member of state government, a Nancy Grace, or a Big James Henderson, the first man in the world to bench over 700 pounds in a drug-tested competition.
If you have a choice, I’d go with being Big James Henderson. Somewhat related: Bench-pressing 700 pounds to the sound of gospel music live on Christian television is absolutely one of the most Georgia things to ever happen anywhere.
Oh, and Mercer is not an FBS program, and no one has to mention this game or Alabama playing it. Did things get so out of hand that the Vultureback got carries? Yes they did, because Alabama’s sixth-string running back, Ronnie Clark, got four carries. RESPECT THE VULTUREBACK.
It’s not just that it misses, it’s that it travels three times as long laterally as it had to vertically and takes four seconds in slow motion to find its final resting place in the stands. If a kicker is going to miss, he might as well make it a masterpiece. And this by Texas Tech? This is a masterpiece.
Beat Kentucky 42-13, avenging a three-point win from 2016. Shut up, a three-point win over Kentucky is still a kind of a loss. It just is, because in a time of turbulence, some things in the SEC simply have to stay the same, and that might as well be “feeling bad about barely beating Kentucky.” Georgia’s fine unless it loses to a 5-5 Georgia Tech team this week, which it won’t do.*
*wiggling eyebrows and nodding and winking as hard as I can while saying this
Let’s talk about Baker Mayfield grabbing his crotch during a 41-3 blowout of the Jayhawks.
Baker Mayfield on his Johnny Manziel bullshit pic.twitter.com/BnTvhCaNiW— 5th Year (@5thYear) November 18, 2017
It should be possible to say watching Mayfield is great — and that he has a tendency to get emotional — without being overly hysterical either way. Because I want to dismiss it. I really do. Mayfield is unreservedly fun, and pointing out that he shouldn’t have done something while also not siding with people who hate fun should be something a fan can do. Someone should be able to move on without making it a capital-T Thing!
Watch us do that right now, then join me after the three seconds of attention this deserves.
Beat The Citadel, 61-3, and no one was seriously harmed, and that’s all that needs to be said about Clemson.
Yes, that includes, “The team Clemson lost to got blown out by Louisville to the tune of 46 points.”
Turned back an early challenge from Louisiana-Monroe and cruised to a 42-14 win. Auburn stands at 50 percent BUTTS OUT at the moment, with the most difficult step remaining in the form of Alabama waiting in the Iron Bowl. Make no mistake: A full 100 percent BUTTS OUT rating would be Gus Malzahn’s finest achievement since taking a team to the national title game with a defensive back playing quarterback.
11. Ohio State.
52-14 over Illinois. We thought we were immune to the sadness of Illinois football, but then the box score spells out “Chayce Crouch: 4/14 for 16 yards passing” and the darkness just kind of spreads through your chest all over again. DID YOU KNOW: Every Sufjan Stevens song isn’t about Illinois football, but all the sad ones are.
45-19 over Temple. Now leaning toward UCF creating a special Citronaut alternate uniform for the bowl game, so that when the Knights take out their frustrations of having a perfect season and getting no Playoff bid, they do it wearing this.
Nothing would be more humiliating than losing by 20 to the Citronaut.
66-45 over SMU. Just want to note Memphis came so, so close to the Devil’s Box Score here: 66 points on 663 yards of offense.
The evidence of what happened in the Iron Bowl is all over the lawn.
AUBURN, Alabama — The hedges at Jordan-Hare Stadium sit between the stands and the field on two sides. In the event of an emergency, they can be scaled, jumped, or tumbled through on the way to the field. The first wave always has a few casualties, brave souls, stuck ass over teakettle for a moment before the shrubbery spits them out onto the field. Note to those who might try it some day: You will win, but not before the hedges throw you around a little.
The list of those emergencies worthy of fighting the shrubs at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama includes but is not limited to: fire, earthquake, lightning strike, stampede, and Iron Bowl.
There is no debate about Auburn’s 26-14 win over Alabama being an Iron Bowl. It qualifies categorically for hedge-stomping.
However, exactly when the hedges were doomed is up for debate.
A scientific person would have written the hedges off at the half. After 30 minutes, Auburn had run 42 plays, stymied Alabama’s run game, and had the Crimson Tide in the rare situation of working from behind. When Alabama can’t get off the field on third down, the play count creeps up. (Auburn went nine-of-18 on third down.) When the play count creeps up, the short gains get longer, and even the big, relentless bodies of the Alabama defense fatigue. (Hint: It’s the same thing that happens to everyone, i.e., you give up yards, points, and ultimately a loss.)
The superstitious person might have called it at another point. Trailing 20-14 in the third quarter and in good field position after a 55-yard kickoff return by Trevon Diggs, Alabama sputtered around on offense, though not before Jalen Hurts launched an insane third-down pass into double coverage in the end zone, had it tipped, and sent the entire stadium into a temporary state of delirium when Alabama tight end Hale Hentges nearly caught the tip for a touchdown.
Note: Hale Hentges isn’t even from the state, and his name already sounds like an Alabama governor’s name. If he’d caught that TD, he would have been made governor eventually, if not immediately. It’s bad for the Tide that he did not, but probably good for Hale Hentges personally, given how many Alabama politicians end up indicted.
Then Alabama faced a fourth-and-9 on the Auburn 17 and sent out the kicker.
This should be a normal moment in a football game. It can’t be for Alabama against Auburn, because once upon a time, a kindly mountain sorcerer helped a young Nick Saban out of a jam in West Virginia. In repayment, the sorcerer asked for one thing: that Saban never, ever kick a field goal in a crucial situation on short yardage, because field goals are for cowards. Saban agreed, and the wizard was appeased.
A young Nick Saban forgot his promise, though, and called for a field goal in his first game at Toledo. From that point forward in crucial situations, Nick Saban’s teams would be cursed on field goal attempts.
This is an absurd and completely fictional explanation of what happens to Alabama on crucial field goals, particularly against Auburn. But it works as well as any other theory because nothing else explains why, on a routine attempt, Alabama’s otherwise reliable holder J.K. Scott bobbled a snap, reset, and found himself playing improv quarterback with the entire Auburn defense after him. Holder/placekicker Andy Pappanastos is in the box score officially as a receiver, because Scott did complete a pass to him for a loss of 9 yards.
Maybe all that greenery was doomed before this ever started, though.
It might have started after LSU beat Auburn 27-23 in Death Valley on Oct. 14, when, after some soul-searching, Auburn went on a blind tear through the rest of its schedule. The Tigers topped 40 points in each of their next four games. That run included the outright alarming, 40-17 upset of Georgia that proved Auburn was definitely no longer the same team that lost to Clemson and was maybe even a real threat for the conference championship.
Gus Malzahn said as much himself, post-Alabama: “This time of year, very few teams are playing their best football, and we are doing that.”
What also started well before this game: the sideways slide of injury and attrition for Alabama.
Alabama started out by ruining Florida State’s season in a 24-7 game that looked a lot like every other Alabama game ever under Saban. That similarity, however, faded down the stretch. The defense got injured, particularly at linebacker, something that most observers laughed off because of Alabama’s almost unfair depth at every position. That laughter stopped vs. Mississippi State and became a dead serious issue against Auburn, especially with Jarrett Stidham gaining crucial yardage off zone reads and scrambles.
That’s not all. The offense — don’t laugh — did really lose something with the departure of Lane Kiffin. The plays are still there, including the quick horizontal stretches Alabama used early to spread out Auburn. Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley, and the stable of running backs are still there, too. The rhythm, timing, and ball distribution, though: They’re different, and not for the better. When Alabama gets behind the sticks or on the scoreboard, it’s all on Hurts to bail out the offense with QB runs and long passes.
It works, sometimes. It only worked sporadically against Mississippi State. Against a disciplined Auburn line, it ceased to work altogether. The entire Auburn defense is too young to know what a phone booth is, but that’s what it had Hurts playing in for much of the night.
For the first time in recent memory, Alabama’s offense looked inept. Auburn did that to it.
When the hedges and Alabama and all sense of order were collectively doomed doesn’t even really matter.
With the final seconds ticking away, a mob poured out onto the field. Over the hedges, past former Auburn QB Jason Campbell, past a sheepish but clearly pleased Tim Cook of Apple, past grinning offensive line coach Herb Hand, past boosters and random grandkids gawking for selfies with players, past ESPN’s Marty Smith, diving into the scrum to get a mic in the face of Malzahn, who was was so swarmed with cameras that bystanders could only point at the flashbulbs and yell, “I GUESS THAT’S GUS,” while holding up cellphones.
Auburn was what it is by charter: an engineering and agricultural school. First there was the controlled demolition on the field, done cleanly in 60 minutes. The celebratory vandalism is designed, too. Toilet paper in designated trees (and a few unofficially chosen ones here and there), a rush to the field, and the removal of the hedges that the groundskeepers already know they will have to repair and regrow.
The Kick Six four years earlier was the most glorious robbery in the history of college football. Auburn took away Alabama’s offense, defense, special teams, chance at a national and conference title, undefeated season, and did it all with a single play. That’s a robbery — a swift, effective, and stunning theft accomplished in a single 109-yard swipe of the football across the field.
What remains of the hedges at Jordan Hare Stadium pic.twitter.com/EzahVDzxou— Matt Scalici (@MattScalici) November 26, 2017
This was different.
When you do all that according to plan for four quarters, dominate Alabama at almost every position, accomplish all the same things in 60 minutes of clean work, but then play Alabama’s “Rammer Jammer,” followed up by a just-sarcastic-enough singalong of Alabama’s crowd favorite “Dixieland Delight?” afterwards? When it all happens by the numbers, and then you steal their theme music?
That’s not a theft, Auburn. That’s a heist.
And like any good crew of jewel thieves, Auburn left its calling cards behind so everyone knew who did it. A set of decimated hedges here, a light dusting of toilet paper waving in the trees over there.
Tennessee's attempt to hire Greg Schiano was a bad idea for obvious reasons, and it revealed the real power behind the program.
Trying to hire Greg Schiano to coach Tennessee football wasn’t a bad idea. It was, at minimum, four bad ideas.
First: Schiano is an authoritarian program-builder with no local ties and a tendency to rub those around him the wrong way. That sounds a lot like Butch Jones, the coach Tennessee just fired, only more expensive.
Second: Schiano’s record is good, but not great or inspiring enough to merit instant consideration. The program Schiano rebuilt was Rutgers in the 2000s. It took five years for Schiano to get Rutgers to a seven-win season in a conference weakened by the 2004 departures of Miami and Virginia Tech. In 11 years at the school, Rutgers won just four games over ranked opponents. Again: If Tennessee wanted this, they could just rehire Butch Jones. His keys to the building probably still work.
Third: Schiano was tyrannical at Rutgers, disliked by NFL scouts, and was the cornerstone of a budget-trashing push for football funding at Rutgers. (Rutgers even cut out part of an ecological preserve and gave Schiano an interest-free home loan so he could build a house practically on-campus.) He became a laughing stock in the NFL. His time at Ohio State as an assistant has been mostly fine, provided you write off giving up 55 points to Iowa as recently as this season. Iowa has gone an entire month at a time without scoring 55 points as a program, even though the Hawkeyes probably went 4-0 in that month, because no one stretches groceries like Kirk Ferentz.
Fourth: Schiano was a hard sell to begin with, and then was sold very, very poorly. The connections between Schiano and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State are, by legal standards, hearsay. That can’t be stated enough. What also can’t be stated enough is this: If the public discussion about the coaching search begins with “Now, about his name appearing in a court document involving that child sex scandal,” then that chapter of the discussion is over before it even started. That is a horrendous visual for a university that just paid out a $2.48 million settlement to eight women in a sexual assault suit involving the football program, and whose previous coach got calls from the police about a rape investigation before even the players did.
There are probably more reasons, but the point should be clear. In terms of earning a job or demonstrating an obvious, first-choice level of competence, Schiano was not a clear No. 1 choice for the Tennessee job. It could be argued that in this unusually deep pool of available coaches in 2017, Schiano wasn’t a top five or 10 pick for the Tennessee job — and that’s considering the list of coaches available after Chip Kelly and Dan Mullen were taken off the board.
It should be easy to see who killed the Schiano deal: Everyone outside of the Tennessee athletic department’s offices, and maybe a few people inside it, too.
There are other explanations. Some in the media claim Schiano was railroaded by an internet mob bent on using disinformation to scuttle an instantly despised coaching hire. That explanation feels marginally true, but maximally false, particularly when “social media outrage” can be given as a causal reason for anything. It seems especially inaccurate within a community as small and insular as the Tennessee athletics. To wit: If misinformation painted on a rock on campus is evidence of real, influential opinions, then Peyton Manning is running for president.
The people most disappointed by the suggestion of Greg Schiano included those who know the program best, who were most invested in the program, and who understand the program’s recent history all too well. Yes, there are people in the Tennessee fan base who made bad faith arguments against Schiano. But they’re a margin, a fringe — albeit an ugly one — growing on the edge of a much larger, decade-long discontent within the Tennessee fan base.
The likeliest case — and a way, way better mechanical explanation of what happened with Schiano — is more complex, local, and mundane. Tennessee’s big boosters obviously signed off on athletic director John Currie’s choice. In reaction, the vast upper-middle and middle classes of Tennessee supporters threatened to vote with their feet and their wallets when Schiano emerged without so much as a trial balloon or even a rudimentary PR campaign to test the idea. That included season ticket holders, donors, and Tennessee’s large and influential group of NFL veterans.
Which brings up an important question no one really has a simple answer to: While we’re wondering about curious management decisions, does anyone really know who, on a given day, controls a college football team?
In figuring out how this latest debacle happened, it means considering not a mob, but the actual group of ever-changing stakeholders who have an ever-varying amount of sway over how a college football program works.
In Tennessee’s case, as a state university, it turns out a lot of people own the football program. As a state university, the number of stakeholders directly include bodies like the Board of Regents, or even something as distant as the Tennessee legislature. In a moment of good judgment so rare it has to be considered both coincidental and accidental, members of the Tennessee legislature roundly condemned the hire and applauded its collapse. To put that in context, consider that one of the only other things that has ever united the Tennessee legislature is a hatred of sagging pants.
University administration is involved, particularly the director of the athletic department. One factor in the case of Tennessee to consider here miiiiight just be the unique and shaky position of their athletic director. An athletic director has power, sure — but that power can vary wildly from school to school, and depends greatly on their track record and connections. Unfortunately for him, Currie was hired in February of 2017. If all of this seems like the actions of someone still feeling out the terrain less than a year into the job, well: It might have been just that.
There are big boosters like Jimmy Haslam, the Pilot Flying J gas station baron and owner of the Cleveland Browns. At Tennessee, they’re rich enough that they and their friends get $20 million yachts stuck on the river on the way to party at the Alabama/Tennessee game.
Their influence is not exact or systematic, but it is powerful. Big-money boosters throw enough money around to get names on buildings, push hirings and firings at every level of the athletic department, and most importantly hold the ear of everyone powerful who matters in the program and beyond. In Haslam’s case, this is especially true: He’s close with former Vols coach Phil Fulmer, was a college roommate of Senator Bob Corker, and is definitely the brother of Bill Haslam, the current governor of Tennessee and former mayor of Knoxville. (When we said before that Tennessee was insular and small, we meant it.)
That’s a lot of power, but eventually the middle matters. Football programs need actual butts in seats a lot less than they used to thanks to television money, but they still need the steady cash flow of season tickets and home-game revenue. Tennessee, in particular, with 102,455 seats to fill in Neyland Stadium, needs all the butts it can get.
More than that, programs need proof of life to translate into revenue, something to take back to the administration while pointing to increased applications and cash given back to the university while saying, “We still matter, and are worth all the trouble and conflicts of interest a large football program can bring.”
The answer to who controls college athletics is an extremely familiar one for anyone talking the SEC: A college football program, operationally, runs a lot like a church. Realistically, a few people pay for everything, but don’t really own it. The reverends set the table organizationally; the deacons run everything with help from volunteers. The financing can be mostly above board, or not at all; a good chunk of the labor is often of the unpaid variety.
When deacons pick a preacher no one likes without even consulting, the collection plate dries up. To keep that from happening at any college program, the deacons might want to at least consider what the congregation is thinking before making a move. When they don’t, you get a Sunday as bad as the one Tennessee had before rescinding the offer to Schiano.
Metaphorically speaking: They may not write the checks for the new chapel, but the congregation’s attendance is what makes it a church. If the congregation doesn’t see something like salvation in the service, they’re going to stop showing up altogether. And after a decade of bad-to-indifferent leadership at the pulpit, Tennessee football wants something, anything that feels like at least a peek at the promised land. If they get it with a new hire, that will be one piece of good news for Tennessee. The other good news will be that the congregation saw something it didn’t like, and still cared enough to yell about it.
The Top Whatever is a weekly ranking of only the college football teams that must be ranked. This week, noted lifelong Alabama hater Spencer Hall argues for the Tide in your top four.
Beat TCU again, 41-17, like that’s a thing a team can do routinely. Note: This is not a thing a team can do routinely, unless that team has Baker Mayfield. Y’all remember how this happened, right, and how we even got here?
That the long path to Oklahoma getting an undisputed spot in the final four of the 2017 Playoff begins with Mayfield walking on at Texas Tech, not because he didn’t have scholarship offers, but because he wanted to“play somewhere big?” That after a bright start at Tech, a bad relationship with the management there ended up with a transfer to Oklahoma, where his first championship came in ... intramural softball?
That he appeared in a video for the women’s gymnastics team? And did NOT phone it in, not even a little?
That he has Oklahoma in the Playoff with a chance for a national title? And that as good as Mayfield and the Sooners offense have been all by themselves, the part of the team that Gary Patterson praised after losing the Big 12 title game was the defense?
Gary Patterson on Oklahoma's defense: "Just wait. They'll be as physical as a lot of the teams they'll play against. To whoever's going to play them: Have fun."— David Ubben (@davidubben) December 2, 2017
We don’t think Patterson means you’ll actually have fun! Oklahoma is in as the Big 12 champion with one loss, and it has a former Texas Tech walk-on who gets so competitive, he grabs his junk during blowout games against lowly Kansas and is probably planting an Oklahoma flag in your front yard right now because, to be honest, your yard disrespected Mayfield by not already having an OU flag spiked into it.
At no point has Clemson looked like the 100 percent most terrifying team in the nation. Generally, they preferred to handle teams with ease on defense and bring along first-year starting QB Kelly Bryant slowly. For a second, consider what that means. Clemson is so deep throughout the defense, and so menacing along the line, that the offense could comfortably do some on-the-job training. The Tigers could do it not only without damaging their chances at an ACC title, but without damaging their chances at a national title.
That’s a sick level of luxury, but that’s where Clemson is at right now. Their one loss came on the road at Syracuse after Bryant was knocked out with a head injury. The rest has been according to plan, a steady build through the season capping with what this team is capable of as a fully developed whole: 38-3 over a good Miami, featuring a tidy 23-of-29 from an relaxed Bryant.
Clemson might even be a year ahead of schedule, if everyone’s being really honest. But if this is what ahead of schedule is, then dear reader, the schedule was wrong. They’re here, possibly the deepest squad in the Playoff field. Fear them, or wind up another data point on their growth curve.
28-7 over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. Georgia got to even things up neatly, nullifying their only loss with a win and doing it the way Georgia’s won most of its games: brutal defense with a relentless work rate, and a run game that would, at one point, break open the entire game.
Work rate, by the way, is a soccer term for all the running and chasing a player does while not in possession of the ball. It is usually rated in terms of the distance a player travels during a match. In Roquan Smith’s case for Georgia, that felt like somewhere around five miles. Smith was everywhere and missed nothing Auburn threw at him. The defense is best measured in statements like “damn it felt like there were 12 defenders on the field most of the time” and “Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham looked like a man playing in a powerful hailstorm only he could see.”
As for the resume: Georgia are SEC Champions with one loss, and that’s good enough, but for added spice, look at the swath of destruction they wrought through the bulk of their schedule. The SEC East might be mostly made of only the most expensive trash, but Georgia reminded put up large numbers on its side of the board, and keeping the numbers on the other side very small.
P.S. Do not imagine the chaos right now if Georgia had not beaten Notre Dame 20-19 back on September 9th. Again: Do not consider, college football, how only one point kept you from complete chaos.
I don’t want to do this. Believe me. Nothing bores me more than Alabama football, and all the boring things about Alabama football:
Short of being an Auburn fan, I am the last person in the world who wants to watch anything remotely like more Alabama football, especially when the Tide didn’t win their own division, much less their own conference.
But: The other real option here is Ohio State, a team with two losses, including a 31-point loss to Iowa, and a strength of record that, prior to the championship game, was rated well below Alabama’s. The playoff’s stated goal is putting the four best teams in, not the four best conference champions.
Alabama had one bad moment on the road against a hated rival. (Injuries contributed, showing that even Alabama can be affected by injury eventually.). Its key component in the out-of-conference schedule was Florida State, a team whose season collapsed when starting QB Deondre Francois was injured by the Alabama defense. The departure of Lane Kiffin was supposed to take something vital out of an Alabama offense; instead, the Crimson Tide are actually up a few tenths of a point per game.
If it gets too hectic in terms of advanced stats and strength of schedule: Ohio State lost by 31 points to Iowa and coughed up another game before that to Oklahoma. The four best teams should include Alabama, a team that did not lose by 31 points to Iowa.
Either I’m right, or I get to watch Alabama lose in embarrassing fashion. Either way, we win.
Yes, 2017 was trash, but we’ve got some sports hope for you in the new year.
Christian Pulisic is only 19 years old and, barring disaster, will have at least two more shots at a World Cup team as an American soccer player. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png
ATL United drew 886,000 people to watch soccer in Atlanta in its first season.
Weston McKinnie is only 19 years old and, barring disaster, he’ll have at least two more shots at a World Cup team as an American soccer player. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png
Lionel Messi is still one of the best soccer players in the world at the age of 30.
^ Cristiano Ronaldo is still one of the best soccer players in the world at the age of 32.
^ If either, or both, of these things makes you sad or angry: Neither one of these things can stay true for long.
The failure of the United States to make the World Cup hopefully means a complete demolition of everything wrong with American soccer. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png
We will all get to watch Fox hilariously work overtime on selling a World Cup to an American audience without the United States Men’s National Team in it. #https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png
Everyone will get to root for the team of their choice on their merits alone in this World Cup. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png
^ This should be Nigeria, of course, because Nigeria is the most entertaining soccer team, and deserves your love above all others.
A rabid, gluttonous soccer fan may now stream nearly every league’s games on the planet directly into their faces. (Legally, of course.) # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930127/computer.0.png
^ You’d never stream illegally, we know that, we just want to clarify that. We’re not the police as far as you know.
Sports gambling will be legal everywhere, and you will be able to wager on anything from the comfort of your phone.
^ Sports gambling will be legal everywhere, and you will be able to make fun of your friends for being stupid enough to gamble on sports live from the social media accounts on your phone.
^ Sports gambling will be legal everywhere, meaning you can gamble on sports from jail with your contraband cell phone after you commit crimes to feed your sports gambling addiction.
Baseball is actually a very healthy sport with strong local followings. It’ll be fine. Nothing else sells 162 games worth of ads per team. Nothing.
This is the part where we tell you to be very excited about a young baseball player—someone like Ronald Acuña, baby! (Grant Brisbee told me who he was, but he seems very exciting!) Baseball is fun.
College baseball is growing even if Mississippi State abandoned their glorious fire trap of a tailgating situation.
The best, most passionate, and underrated college sports playoff is the Women’s College World Series.
Auto racing is suffering, but it’s also the sport most likely to put you into a VR helmet, showing you exactly what a driver is seeing during a race in real time.
^ Did you just think about what this might look like during a rally car race? Get nauseated but excited thinking about what this would look like for an F1 race at Monaco? Auto racing might not be dead-dead yet.
Less money coming into NASCAR might mean a designed return to lawless racing and on-track brawling for ratings. This might be desperate. It might also be very entertaining.
^ A desperate need for viewers might also get NASCAR to do something serious about hiring diversity in the sport—and not just behind the wheel.
A car can still run at 200 miles per hour flat out at Talladega without touching the brake once.
The NBA is in a golden age and it’s so obvious that even saying this is already a cliche.
A 6’11” point guard who plays in Milwaukee can dunk from the three-point line in two steps—and does this pretty frequently.
Boogie Cousins and Anthony Davis play on the same team—and they might be the three spot on the menu on any given night on League Pass.
LeBron James is only 32 and still playing the best basketball of his life.
^ He also called the President “you bum” on Twitter, which made him the new President. LeBron James is now the first man to be President and also an MVP candidate.
The 76ers and Knicks are stocked with astonishing talents for years to come. No, really, that’s an accurate sentence.
James Harden is allowed to do whatever he wants on any night of the week in the city of Houston and it is a delight to watch.
Russell Westbrook exists, and sometimes that alone is enough to keep going.
The NBA has MVP-grade talent from Greece, Los Angeles, Cameroon, Akron, Latvia, and Washington, D.C.
Someday someone will love you like John Wall loves Washington, D.C., and the Wizards. And like D.C. and the Wizards, you won’t deserve it. (But you’ll take it.) # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930137/walljersey.0.png
Doris Burke is calling NBA games.
The NBA on TNT is still the best wraparound sports TV show even if Charles Barkley has been phoning it in hard for like 10 years now.
The NBA playoffs are still incredible.
The good news for college basketball is that the FBI should be done with things in three to four years, tops.
^ That’s it, there’s really not a whole lot else to be optimistic about here.
The Chiefs offense under Andy Reid uses every cool play from college football and makes it work at the pro level, which is fun.
^ Andy Reid is also using Alex Smith to run it because Andy Reid understands comedy and football.
Tom Brady operating the Patriots’ offense is a marvel to behold, and Brady is the most graceful quarterback of all time.
^ No one has to admit that Tom Brady The Football Player is good publicly but we can all share this here on the internet where no one can see it.
^ He’s starting a second career as a new age fitness grifter, true, but none of that should interfere too much with watching him instantly recognize the weak point in a defense and putting a ball on a receiver with jaw-dropping accuracy.
Von Miller comes off the edge every Sunday like he’s speed skating in hell and racing one inch ahead of the devil.
Julio Jones is healthy, magnificent, and in 2017 was evidently saving up touchdowns for your future entertainment.
Aaron Rodgers is infinitely more fun to watch than Tom Brady, just as good, actually has a sense of humor, and will never try to sell you a two hundred dollar cookbook.
Aaron Donald could be the United States’ representative for every Olympic sport—all of them, winter or summer—and we would win just as many medals, if not more.
^ Yes, including rhythmic gymnastics.
^ Maybe especially rhythmic gymnastics.
NFL cities appear less susceptible to giving cities taxpayer-subsidized stadiums than ever before.
Russell Wilson is a joy to watch work even if he is the NFL’s most Fanny Pack-ass Player. Maybe because he is the NFL’s Most Fanny Pack-ass Player.
^ He’d be even more incredible if he had more than three offensive lineman protecting him at any time.
The Bills will continue exist to validate your feelings about management being incompetent.
^ The Browns will continue to exist to validate your feelings about life being unfair, and also about management being incompetent.
^ The Patriots will continue to exist to prove your suspicion that only four people ever really own anything, and that you definitely aren’t one of them.
^ The Saints will continue to exist in order to remind you that other people are always having more fun somewhere without you.
Randy Moss is working as a paid football commentator.
Steve Young recently bit the head off a fish on air. It’s not all hopeless on the TV side. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930131/headlessfish.0.png
At least Jerry Jones has the generosity to be a properly insane New Gilded Age billionaire for entertainment purposes.
Players are retiring earlier and earlier, which is a very, very good thing if the NFL is not going to fix itself for the long haul.
The NFL’s ratings falling might get the NFL to try and rebuild the sport for the long haul. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930107/nflstatgraph.0.png
^ They probably won’t do this. But it’s nice to hope for the best from people, isn’t it? Delusional, but nice.
The NHL still has the most epic playoff in all of sport, even if it does destroy sleep schedules, productivity at work, and occasionally downtown Vancouver.
Doc Emrick could make a cockroach race sound like the Kentucky Derby’s last 30 furlongs. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930111/mic.0.png
Theoretically speaking, Gary Bettman can’t be commissioner forever.
^ Until then, booing Gary Bettman remains one of sports’ most reliable and respected traditions.
If an Alabama fan: Nick Saban shows no signs of retiring.
^ If you are anyone else: Eventually, one day, Nick Saban will have to retire and stop coaching Alabama football.
No one in the sport has gotten smaller, slower, or less talented—except for you, the viewer.
There is more college football on that one human being could possibly watch and that’s before you even get to the Pac-12 playing four games at 3 a.m. on a Sunday.
Several court cases could destroy amateurism as we know it, and get players a piece of the very large and unshared college sports revenue pie.
More and more people are recognizing Big Red, the greatest mascot in college athletics, and becoming aware of the good work he’s done. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930123/bigred.0.png
The passing of time means everyone gets a day closer to the return of the NCAA Football video game franchise.
^ We’re not saying it’s going to happen. But if it does, well buddy you’re getting closer to it whether you like it or not.
Justice Hill at Oklahoma State is just a sophomore.
Khalil Tate at Arizona is just a sophomore.
Chip Kelly is coming back! At UCLA!
RB J.K. Dobbins at Ohio State is just a freshman and already has a 1,000-yard season.
No matter what happens—fall of society, collapse of civilization, flooding of the land by the rising sea—the Iron Bowl will happen in the final week of the regular season.
^ We’re very serious about this. They’ll grow gills. #RollDamnMerpeople
The sport of grappling will become an entire growth industry all by itself—mostly because it already is.
The World Tag Championships is the real sport of the future and that’s fine because watching two people play tag in an obstacle course is way, way more entertaining than it has any right to be.
There are more women’s sports on broadcast television than ever, and with higher ratings and better funding than ever before, too.
Serena Williams will come back to tennis after giving birth to a child and taking a full year off at minimum and still beat the brakes off Maria Sharapova in straight sets. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930105/racket.0.png
E-sports will gradually become more comprehensible to the general viewer. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930115/gamecontroller.0.png
^ Even if it doesn’t become more comprehensible, it will become louder and more frequently broadcast, and sometimes that’s enough to get everyone adequately addicted.
Lavar Ball’s Senate campaign will be wild.
There will be actual competition for ESPN in the sports sphere. (It won’t be in the major sports, but still.)
Golf will continue to enable our nation’s most luxurious and sometimes dramatic couch naps.
With peer-to-peer economy, guess who the next AirBnB of the San Diego Chargers is? Well, it’s you.
^ This may not be an exaggeration. The Chargers might need to spend a few nights at your place.
Drones! There are just gonna be drones everywhere with cameras, and the best part will be watching them run out of juice and crash into the middle of live games. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930119/drone.0.png
You and your friends might be able to crowdfund that competitive MarioKart league you’ve been talking about for years. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930115/gamecontroller.0.png
^ You and your friends will probably not do too much jail time for encroaching on the copyright territory of the Nintendo corporation.
With a GoPro, anyone can become an extreme athlete! Except for you, you’re probably just going to hurt yourself, stop that.
Roger Federer has all the money he will ever need and is past his athletic prime, thus allowing others to flourish in his prestigious wake. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930105/racket.0.png
^ That said, Roger Federer will probably win a Grand Slam this year at the age of 36.
Nick Saban’s machine broke and forced the Tide to win unforgettably.
Remember this: Rodrigo Blankenship almost saved Georgia singlefootedly. The kicker with the rec specs and the name straight out of an indie rock witness protection program kept rescuing the Bulldogs in a national championship game against Alabama with three field goals, including a bomb of a 51-yarder in overtime. It is really not often someone gets to describe a field goal this way, but Rodrigo was on fire so here goes: It was a scorching kick bordering on the erotic, even for those without a field goal fetish.
Georgia would lose just a few plays later, a result that seems almost irrelevant to anyone watching the game because for so long this was just that: A game, an actual competition. It was a surprising comeback win from an Alabama dynasty that never has to come back, all done against a team that has so rarely put it all together to get here in the first place, Georgia. It started with a surprise, ended with a walkoff shocker, and in between had moments of unstaged brilliance for almost everyone — even the normally forgotten kicker.
Georgia’s kicker only stepped into the overtime spotlight because Alabama kickers remained the best running gag in college football. If there is one relief for people tired of Alabama winning everything, it can be that Andy Pappanastos — who missed a 36 yarder to win the game at the end of regulation — did not wake up in Tuscaloosa this morning as a pariah with Georgia as national champions. All the greasy breakfast food and strong coffee in the world wouldn’t burn off that emotional hangover.
But fortunately for Alabama, the breakdown of Saban’s machine designed to digest opponents over 60 minutes of grinding football sparked a confusion that produced something much more captivating and memorable: A team of outrageously good individual players playing catch-up on offense, desperate, intense effort on defense, and a sideline so emotional that Mekhi Brown took his on-field tussling with Georgia to his teammates and coaches. Brown would retake the field and immediately tear Mecole Hardman down by the shoulder pads on a kickoff return. He did this with one arm, and arrested an accelerating Hardman to a full, spinning halt in about three-tenths of a second.
Those little one-on-one reversals were happening all over the field, for both teams, all the time and at every single matchup. To continue the thread: Hardman got caught like a toddler running into traffic by Brown. Hardman also incinerated his man on an 80-yard TD catch in the third quarter. Alabama DB Tony Brown got beat on that play, but opened the game for Alabama by absolutely bullying Javon Wims out of the ball on a strip following a long completion from Georgia QB Jake Fromm. Wims would go on to make a contortionist’s catch around Anthony Averett, hooking his leg around the Alabama DB to stay in bounds.
A turn for one, then another, and another. I can’t remember a game where so many little individual plays and players could be named offhand and with such ease. I just can’t, and that’s before even getting to Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne’s night demolishing the middle of Georgia’s offensive line. Payne was a one-man gravitational distortion field — and even he had plays where the Bulldogs line stymied him. (Especially in the first half, when Alabama’s vaunted line stunts got nowhere against the Bulldog offensive front.)
Tua Tagovailoa got the last word, but the phrasing matters here. Tagovailoa came in for a faltering Jalen Hurts, threw three TDs, and in between extremely freshman-type moments jolted Alabama’s offense back into the game. He also eclipsed what would have been the story of the game had Georgia won: Freshman Jake Fromm’s fearless night against the Bama defense. Fromm hit five third-down conversions longer than third and six against Alabama, including the 80-yard bomb to Hardman in the third quarter.
A freshman did that against an Alabama defense that knew what was coming. Facing him for the next two or three years in the SEC will ... hold on, let us find just the right word ... it will suck. It will absolutely, positively suck.
It will also, for lack of that better word out there, suck to face Tua Tagovailoa. It will suck because as a freshman Tagovailoa made the kind of play freshmen make to lose games. He took a 16-yard sack on first down in his first possession of overtime, a bad play for any team, and a nearly disastrous play for one with a badly malfunctioning kicker.
Then a freshman quarterback somehow diagnosed cover-2, looked off a safety like only a few seniors can, and dropped a gift-wrapped, perfectly accurate, and beautifully thrown touchdown into the hands of another freshman, DeVonta Smith.
There are a lot of ways to look at Alabama winning a 26-23 game. I wanted to start by saying that I had been right in saying that Alabama would win, because being right is a cheap way of feeling good about yourself. But being right by betting on Alabama is the cheapest way of feeling good about yourself. It’s almost cheating, because betting on Alabama in college football is betting on the house in a casino. Over time and with enough games, they always win. Nick Saban is the Saturn of the sport, turning his children loose into the world only to eat them later when they come for the crown. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart came real close, and in this story he ended up on the dinner table with an apple in his mouth like the rest of Saban’s former assistants.
That’s not where this game ended up. The adults in the room, if they had their druthers, wanted control, processes, a game decided by kickers and sacks and field position. They got some of that, sure. But once a game broke out, a bunch of recent children had to play sometimes erratic, sometimes brilliant football at the very limit of their capabilities live on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. Their mistakes were huge, but so were their recoveries, and their counter-mistakes and counter-recoveries, until in the end someone had to accept the formality of a victory.
In the end, the last play came off the hand of an 18-year-old and landed in the hands of a 19-year-old. According to the plan, that wasn’t supposed to happen, but youth has always been the first and best hope for redeeming the dull, faulty plans of old men.
That’s why you watch otherwise structurally rotten college football, after all. If there are the fumes of exhilaration still lingering from watching what should have been a sluggish, extremely professional exchange of football propositions, it is because of the players. The teams may be good or bad or indifferent, but the kids are, and always have been, absolutely brilliant.
The sport’s greatest voice passed away at the age of 89.
Keith Jackson created the map of college football for the rest of us.
by Spencer Hall
Keith Jackson could wander. It was more fun when he did. He did it more frequently as he got older. He would note a lineman’s big ass or pause in the middle of an otherwise flawless, minimalist broadcast to say, “My, oh my, have airplanes changed the way we lived.” Sometimes the judge, in the middle of an otherwise perfectly overseen trial, would stop and ask the plaintiff about their hydrangeas.
The wanderings were rare. He was, more than anything, intensely focused. At his best, he felt like a medium. An experience came through him, not around him or in spite of him, and always, always in perfect rhythm. Listen to Desmond Howard’s punt return against Ohio State.
Do you hear how innately rhythmic his voice is, both in the lilting lulls during the kick, and then when he quickens the pace and — instead of narrating — punctuates the moment with single notes? How he works with the crowd exploding around him, not against it? Jackson’s delivery came in triplets when he got excited, always falling downhill off a big first syllable, the perfect blend of two gifts he received early in his life: a burly accent straight out of Roopville, Georgia, and a polish added by years as a broadcaster in radio and television.
That training meant calling everything ABC threw at him, but college football was different. One of Jackson’s gifts that made him so, so good at college football games was to make the viewer feel at home wherever the game might be. Ann Arbor became the Big House, Nebraska became the friendliest town in the world, and even beneath “the broad shoulders of the San Gabriel Mountains” you could feel at home, because ... well Keith did, didn’t he? Nowhere wasn’t home on a Saturday if Keith was calling it, because he had a map with a single line connecting everything.
This was all part of a whole to him. The things with names had definite pronunciations only Keith could nail; the things without names would be given them in time. The language of this sport — right down to the love for the great, the ugly, the undersized, the local, and the brutal — is his.
I can’t drive that point home enough. The words that come out of our mouths and onto a screen or the page about this sport aren’t bad imitations of Grantland Rice or Dan Jenkins. For a half century, the lexicographer of the sport was Keith Jackson, and everyone else came in at a distant second at best. Everything I have ever written about the sport contains a deranged, badly degraded permutation of his diction and cadence. It is base DNA, and for at least two generations, the rest is just mutation after mutation.
One more gift: he never lost his accent. I swear it came out 3 percent harder when he called college games. It made him a welcoming, unintimidating guest from a definite somewhere, but never so much of a somewhere as to overwhelm or exclude.
Looking back, it should have come out a little bit harder when Keith Jackson called a college football game. Accents always come out harder at home.
He made every college town sound like his college town.
by Brian Floyd
My favorite clip of Keith Jackson isn’t a call or a moment, but a monologue.
Jackson, nearing the end of his career, waxes poetically about Pullman, home of Washington State University. This was 2002, my senior year of high school. I grew up in a family of Cougs, rooting for the team, but had never seen Pullman.
It didn’t fully make sense until years later, but the feelings of nostalgia in Jackson’s voice could just as easily be my own, years after graduating. It’s the best description of Pullman I’ve heard.
Jackson made his way to study broadcasting in the middle of wheat fields in Washington. He took a path many from Washington State hope to take: local radio, then local news in Seattle, then toward the pinnacle of college football broadcasting at ABC.
He called plenty of iconic moments, but above that was his ability to set a scene, stakes, and surroundings. He was describing Pullman in the clip above, but could just as easily rip off a soliloquy about part of Nebraska, California, Iowa, or Louisiana. He was great at setting up the moment, then letting it unfold for you without too much of him — maybe with a “Whoa, Nellie.”
A kid from a dirt farm who went to college at a land-grant school in Washington was a perfect voice for his era. He was an alumni of my school, and someone we continue to hold up with pride. But he could just as easily have been one of yours.
All his little references to places and nicknames were his way of telling you that you belonged.
by Bill Connelly
In 1998, when I was a Mizzou sophomore, the Tigers had their best team in almost 20 years. They went to play top-ranked Ohio State in mid-September, and nearly 20 years later, I only remember a few things about the game. I remember current Mizzou head coach Barry Odom forcing a Joe Germaine fumble in the first half, that it was returned for a touchdown, that the Tigers led by one at halftime, and that Ohio State had the Mizzou option swallowed up in the second half and pulled away for an easy win.
Most of all, I remember “a burly bunch from Boone County.”
That’s what Keith Jackson called Mizzou in the pregame, and I not only remember the phrase nearly 20 years later, I remember how it made me feel. I was absolutely giddy. My team was not only in a game important enough to get KEITH JACKSON on the call, but he had a nickname for us. He knew where we lived!
He was the best at the little wink. Keith always gave you an extra piece of information to let you know that he was paying attention, that your team mattered. Maybe it was the county in which your school resides, the river that runs by your campus or stadium, or the home town of your left guard.
He was always intent on letting the game be the star, preferring to let the action unfold. But when he set the table, he made sure you knew you were welcome at it.
For most of us, the legend begins and ends with the Rose Bowl.
by Richard Johnson
The last time I saw Keith on television, it was in the most fitting setting: the Rose Bowl broadcast booth, alongside Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. It was inside the press box that bears his name at the venue he’d dubbed The Grandaddy of Them All, the same place where he called Peyton Manning’s first game ...
RIP Keith Jackson -- one of college football's most iconic voices.— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) January 13, 2018
Here's Keith describing Peyton Manning's collegiate debut at UCLA in 1994. pic.twitter.com/VvYXb8N1gO
... and Bo Schembechler’s last.
That place which was the backdrop to the first time I saw him, on the night he delivered the soundtrack to the greatest game I’ve ever seen: Texas over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl (I interviewed his colleagues from that night for this story). I was too young to appreciate the history behind the mic. All I knew was his voice was cool and the game was awesome.
Jackson was the voice of the sport for so many. His speech was folksy and colloquial, yet authoritative. That twangy baritone rumbled until the pitch had to change to announce a “fuuuuuuumble” or to tell Desmond Howard “goodbye” before saying “hello, Heisman.”
How is it that the voice of God could sound just like a lovable country bumpkin?
I remember being at my parents’ house, cruising their omnibus cable package earlier this summer. An old regular season game was playing. It was Ohio State and someone else from the 1970s. The teams didn’t matter. What mattered was Jackson on the call. I’ve fallen into Jackson YouTube holes time and time again. I wasn’t able to appreciate him much live, but I was able to view him as a piece of college football history.
His last Rose Bowl in attendance — Penn State and Southern California, as he would have called the Trojans, did battle in an epic game — wasn’t enough, clearly. The Grandaddy raised the stakes in 2018 for Georgia and Oklahoma’s epic Playoff bout. It is a use of poetic license by me, a writer, to say this, and I don’t care: the Rose Bowl saved its best for Jackson’s last.
We don’t know whether he was able to watch the game. But as Sony Michel crossed the goal line and the team from Jackson’s home state won in dramatic fashion, I hope he gave a private “Whoa, Nellie” for old time’s sake.
He helped make a regional game irresistible to the rest of the country, whether he wanted to or not.
by Jason Kirk
“Kids growing up in the Midwest, playing football in the street, in the snow and the mud, dream of someday being good enough to play in the Rose Bowl. That’s the ultimate in college football for the Midwestern kid.”
That’s Bo Schembechler, who’d announced the 1990 Rose would be his last. His 194–47–5 record as Michigan’s coach had included seven losses in the Rose, each by 10 or fewer points. The Wolverines entered Pasadena with an outside shot at his only national title, if Colorado and Miami lost and voters overlooked Notre Dame’s head-to-head edge to give him a lifetime-achievement No. 1.
But USC won, thanks to a young man with a different lifelong attachment to the Rose.
After scoring the winning touchdown, celebrating with teammates and packing up his hardware, Ricky Ervins did something that probably no other Rose Bowl player of the game has ever done.
He walked home.
Unique among Rose Bowl most valuable players, Ervins grew up less than a mile from the famous stadium, parked cars there on New Year’s Day, and was a star at Pasadena Muir High.
Jackson followed his call of the winning score in the “old-fashioned donnybrook” with a characteristic 53 seconds of silence. The game no longer had national stakes by that point, yet it still meant everything.
The Rose would spend much of the ‘90s delaying the BCS’ institution, preferring to preserve its ties to only two conferences. Jackson’s career would end in a Rose won by a team from neither of the game’s traditional regions (with some people inferring that he hoped for “Southe’n California” to beat the intruders). The last game he attended would be a traditional Midwest vs. West Coast classic, momentarily untainted by the Playoff. And the final Rose of his lifetime would be won in its first-ever overtime by a team from his distant birth state against another interloper whose name you can’t say without hearing him: “OAK-lahomaaa.”
It took us decades to decide Pasadena sometimes belongs to all of America. Jackson didn’t square with the idea, saying the 2003 game missing out on the top three Big Ten/Pac-10 teams “aggravates the hell out of us on the West Coast.”
But of course he was part of the venue’s national legend all along:
“I remember when Alabama came to the Rose Bowl [Stadium] to play UCLA [in 2000], and several of the Alabama players came and had their sit-down with Keith Jackson,” [Todd] Harris said. “And I remember distinctly, one of the tailbacks, I remember he walked out of the interview with Keith, and he said to a bunch of his buddies that were waiting in the hall, ‘I just spoke with the voice of God.’”
That Michigan-USC Rose is the first non-Tecmo football game I remember actually paying attention to, including the ACC games I’d attended and Pop Warner games I’d played in.
“There’s something great about a cool TV grandpa who wanted nothing more than for me to like a fun thing.”
by Dan Rubenstein
My parents didn’t raise me with any sort of college football allegiances, but my dad loves the sport, and we watched a ton on Saturdays. Growing up in LA, that meant a lot of Pac-10, every Rose Bowl, and whatever huge game was on that week. That meant Keith Jackson, who was so essential, I just assumed he was the broadcaster for every college football game. In my mind, the guy who called games was folksy and said, “WHOOAAAAA, NELLIE,” every so often, and no other sport had that.
My favorite two games in the mid-to-late ‘90s were Florida-Florida State (alternated between CBS and ABC because of TV deals) and the Rose Bowl. I loved Florida State’s speed, always had my FSU gear on (3,000 miles away from Tallahassee with zero connection to the school), and needed Keith Jackson to get way more excited about Warrick Dunn than he did Danny Wuerffel.
The Rose Bowl meant going to a neighbor’s house for a New Year’s Day party, where the kids ran around or played video games, some of the adults hung out around the kitchen, and the rest of them (plus me) planted in the living room with the game on one of those thick, projector-type square screens. I don’t have one specific favorite call or moment in those Rose Bowls. My happy place was watching a huge game being played under a warm sky on green grass, with Keith welcoming us into the new year chuckling about the pure size of an enormous lineman or enjoying a big catch in a way that made it feel like he’d never seen one like that, even though he had.
These are all things that, unfortunately, I haven’t really thought about until this weekend. The sport changes quickly enough that we’re all just trying to keep up, and it’s pretty terrific that a more deliberate, warmer voice retired RIGHT before social media began parsing every moment, quote, tweet, whatever.
So with a second to think about him, there’s something especially great about a cool TV grandpa who wanted nothing more than for me to like a fun thing for being fun. That includes chuckling about an enormous lineman.
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND: WHERE THE WRITER FINDS A LOVELY CITY BUILT ON VOLCANOES, PUBLICLY LISTED PHONE NUMBERS, AND MANY SIGNS TELLING HIM WHERE NOT TO LOOK FOR A LEGENDARY MOUNTAINEER’S HOME
New Zealand’s largest city is all built on a huge volcanic field that was active as recently as 550 years ago or so and could theoretically blow up one day and be buried in a hellstorm of magma and rock.
For the moment it’s beyond fine. The harbor is dotted with green islands and tour boats and is crossed by a wide-arched bridge tourists may bungee jump off for a fee. There is a bar district around the water where, on an extremely long and unusually perfect summer night, people sit on enormous white pillows lined up along the waterfront drinking wine and talking to each other. It seems like an insane luxury that no one seems to be looking at their phones, but it’s happening nonetheless.
I ended up in boat-drunk summery Auckland because I wanted to figure out, 10 years after Sir Edmund Hillary’s death, how the first person to climb Mount Everest ever happened. I promise that is not as insane a question as it sounds, particularly when you put him in context.
For instance, there are sports people whose astronomical talents justified everything ever written about them who ended up in the right place at the right time: Pele bubbling up from soccer-mad Brazil; Michael Jordan being born in basketball-mad North Carolina; Usain Bolt coming from Jamaica at a time when the island’s track program is dominating the world and was a perfect vehicle for his nearly perfect talent.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi both landed in soccer hotbeds and fell into the cradle of moneyed, highly organized talent development programs; Tiger Woods came from modest means, but his talent was nurtured ruthlessly by a father bent on forging him into golf greatness.
In other words, sports gods are usually born gods, but it helps if they land in the right place, with the right parents and mentors, all at the right time.
Sir Edmund Hillary, though — nothing about him outwardly makes sense. He came from Auckland, as far away as a person could come, geographically speaking. Unlike a lot of adventurers and gentleman sportspeople of his time, he was not wealthy. He became a passable athlete eventually, but he started out in school described by his gym teachers as scrawny and weak. He had no obvious and immediate gift for self-promotion. His default mode was shyness — so much so that his future mother-in-law proposed to his first wife, Louise, for him.
Yet there Hillary is, grinning from the pages of my 1961 edition of the World Book that, as a child, I read cover to cover instead of paying attention to my teachers. For my entire childhood, that was the image of adventure, daring, and what today would be considered a deranged level of self-deprecation and humility.
That picture of Tenzing Norgay — the second man atop Everest and Hillary’s Nepali climbing partner — with one leg in a huge snow boot cocked up on the ice, being captured by someone behind the camera who somehow did not care about taking a selfie at the top. Hillary left the summit without getting a photo of himself.
Hillary also doubled down on what would be an easy meal ticket all by itself — being the man who climbed Everest — and became much more than a mountaineer. He became an Antarctic explorer, a Yeti hunter (briefly and unsuccessfully), a humanitarian who built schools and hospitals for the Sherpas who got him to the top of Everest, an explorer-for-hire, a filmmaker and author, and a diplomat.
Someone could argue there were more important figures in sport, but then again, how can someone argue with a mountain climber whose face ended up on his country’s money while he was still alive and who has a mountain range on Pluto named for him?
I wanted to see what Hillary’s seriously large legacy was in New Zealand and figure out if he was something beyond exceptional, or if the place itself had a lot to do with a humble beekeeper becoming a giant figure in mountaineering and beyond.
I started in Auckland because Peter Hillary suggested I start there. I found his number with one internet search, and Edmund Hillary’s son — an accomplished mountaineer, adventurer, and philanthropist himself — answered the phone after his wife handed it to him.
This level of accessibility is a real thing in New Zealand. Rugby legend Sonny Bill Williams walks down the street mostly unbothered in Auckland. A quick question from an Australian radio reporter in October 2017 regarding the pronunciation of the new prime minister’s name found its way to a Jacinda Ardern. She informed the reporter that yes, the accent on the PM’s name fell on the first syllable, as in AH-dern. The new prime minister, who picked up the call when it came through at her desk, was happy to answer the question herself.
It is, at all times, a relentlessly down-to-earth place. And before the relentlessly down-to-earth Edmund Hillary became famous, he was born, raised, and went to school in Auckland. He was a good, but not spectacular, student, and he tramped around the hills to the west of the city as a young man who didn’t really know what he was going to do with himself. After he became famous, he bought a house overlooking the harbor with some of the money he got from books and lectures about summiting Everest.
He decided to put a pool in because, according to Peter Hillary, putting in a pool meant having a project.
“He loved anyone who had any sort of project. One of my enduring memories is his study with a foolscap pen and pencil, whether it was business, the Ganges expedition, or a trip he was planning to take us on.
“He decided to build this massive extended veranda area out over the harbor areas of Auckland with these high-density supports and struts himself. It was the most gorgeous location.”
Hillary did the design himself. He did much of the construction, too, with help from friends until an outsized cantilevered deck stretched out from the house. Then, because he was Edmund Hillary, he decided to put an aluminum-sided above-ground pool on top of it and fill it with water for his children and their friends.
There was one oversight.
“There was no guard rail. It was one of the most dangerous swimming pools ever built because the land sloped down and away from the deck. It was about 25 feet above the edge of the property.”
I paused when he was telling this story to ask: Did anyone ever fall off it?
“We occasionally lost a kid over the side, but they tend to bounce.”
That is a theme here. Most of Hillary’s projects involved intense planning — to a point. But in the moment, improvisation ruled when it had to. On Everest, Hillary had to thaw out his boots over open flame when they froze up. On the Antarctic expedition in 1957-58, Hillary and his team of New Zealanders were originally told to lay supplies for British scientist Vivian Fuchs’ expedition and then head back. Hillary headed for the South Pole anyway, because:
I continued as though the exchange of messages had never occurred ... It was becoming clear to me that a supporting role was not my particular strength. Once we had done all that was asked of us — and a good bit more — I could see no reason why we shouldn’t be organising a few interesting challenges for ourselves.
They made it to the South Pole driving four tractors, and then they met the expedition leader later.
His base for all that adventure was Auckland, a city on the edge of the world. The Hillary family — with three young children, no less — would take early jet-age planes on multiple trips around the world, traveling from New Zealand to Chicago to Nepal to London.
They would inevitably come back to Auckland, a sprawling city that can feel like a British suburb until you notice the Maori and other Polynesian residents, the odd vegetation, or that Santa Claus in the Christmas displays in the windows of Smith and Caughey department stores hanging out with pirates and wearing shorts and jandals for the holiday.
Auckland by location, more than anything else, begs people to get outside. One of the thousand things Hillary’s name is on is a lung-busting, four-day trek along the West Coast. It sits in the hills where he trained for expeditions and tramped as a member of local tramping clubs (still accepting members, btw) and gradually started to find his purpose in life when he noticed that, more than almost anyone else, Edmund Hillary did not seem to get tired no matter how bad the terrain might be.
The Hillary Trail runs right along the front of another Hillary house — or, more properly, his “bach” — one of New Zealand’s beach houses often built with whatever happened to be laying around at the moment. I wanted to see the house for selfish reasons. Because it was his, because it represented so much of what was cool about New Zealand in general, because it sat in the middle of the most stunning slice of Pacific Rim scenery, all green hills running to the sea and waves breaking on black volcanic basalt. There are cows in the green hills over the Tasman Sea on the west coast of New Zealand that live rent-free in a nicer place than I ever will, and there is nothing I can do about it.
The entrance to the Hillary Trail on the segment by Hillary’s beach house was blocked off with tape. Across it, there was a sign explaining that the area was closed for preservation of the native Kauri trees along the path.
Not being a native, I obeyed it. That wasn’t the only sign, though. New Zealand is covered in extremely explicit and abundant signage. Driving down the road there might be a sign warning drivers to pull over and take a break if they are even the least bit tired. Then, half a mile later, there will be another reminder: Did you see that last sign, the one where we warned you about being tired? You might want to think about that a bit, if you would, please.
Radio PSAs warn against the dangers of frying drunk. Don’t laugh. Apparently, in a country with no danger of gun violence, it’s a priority to warn against getting hammered, putting on an entire greasy pan full of sausages, and then passing out on the couch while they burn an apartment block to the ground. Mention this to a Kiwi, and they will get a thoughtful and concerned look on their face like someone who isn’t from a hellworld where people eat Tide pods and toddlers kill people with poorly kept firearms. No, it’s a real problem.
There are signs posted with detail — so, so much explanatory detail. Someone decided early in the history of the country that an entire country needed citations, footnotes, and expandable hyperlinked comments. That is why every statue has a note on it detailing the sculptor, every tree in sanctioned arboretums (noted by, yes, more properly denoted signs) has a sign with its species on it, and every possible warning that can be given about an outdoor situation is given on signs in parks and beaches.
It can feel like developing a slow-creeping form of schizophrenia. See: The sign on the ancient elevator in my hotel in Auckland that reads, PLEASE CLOSE BOTH DOORS AND TREAT ME GENTLY I AM OVER 70, makes me, for a span of two days, develop a caring emotional relationship with a creaking, erratic old Otis elevator. I was proud of it for making it up three stories; I got the tiniest bit angry when I saw a tenant slam the old mesh door shut with a bang. She’s 70, you bastard, no one treats Ilsa like that.
Ilsa wasn’t the only non-human thing I gave a name. I named a seagull the size of a pitbull Dave at Karekare Beach — a wide, misty volcanic beach on the coast west of Auckland not far from where I wanted to go. Dave needed a name in case he decided to interrogate me because figures of authority like being addressed by their proper names.
Dave the giant seagull let me pass. Karekare Beach looks familiar for one reason and one reason only: It is the beach from the opening of Jane Campion’s The Piano. The rest is completely alien. There are massive ferns, more ferns, backup ferns for the backup ferns, odd conifers and clusters of the pohutukawa, aka the vermillion-bloomed New Zealand Christmas Tree, cabbage trees, and the occasional wide-windowed house spotted between plants on sloping hillsides diving right into blackish volcanic sand beaches.
There is another sign here: “POWERFUL CURRENTS: SWIMMING ALONE HERE IS DANGEROUS!!! DO NOT SWIM HERE ALONE!!!” And right past that sign, on the far, far edge of a city built on a ring of volcanoes, walks a lone morning swimmer in a bikini, toweling off and heading to the parking lot.
It all seems very safe and also sort of not safe at all.
OHAKUNE/RUAPEHU, OR WHERE THERE IS A PERFECTLY GOOD STARTER MOUNTAIN FOR ASPIRING MOUNTAINEERING LEGENDS WITHIN DRIVING DISTANCE OF HOME
I drive south out of Auckland toward Tongariro National Park. The highway south runs past volcanic cones and down through the steaming earth and geysers at Rotorua. The town has public gardens with roses the size of a human head and a Tudor-style spa built next to the dead geothermal lake with a bowling green straight out of a British period piece.
The New York Times just added Rotorua as one of 2018’s “Places to Visit.” It didn’t mention the sulfurous fartstink surrounding anything within shouting distance of the lake once. It also didn’t mention the signs reading, “WARNING: THERMAL POOLS AND ACTIVITY!”, usually right next to where pioneering and evidently very, very cold New Zealanders used to climb right into the bubbling, murky water.
There’s more steaming ground past that, and farmland, and then the road runs right to Mordor.
The first mountain Edmund Hillary really fell in love with is not Mount Doom, aka Mount Ngauruhoe, the spot Peter Jackson chose as the home of Sauron in the TheLord of the Rings trilogy. That is next door, relatively speaking, and is part of a three-peak circuit called the Tongariro Alpine Circuit, which includes Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Hillary’s first mountain, Ruapehu.*
*The record for running between all three belongs to Kiwi mountain runner and “self-employed builder” James Coubrough. He ran the mountainous 20km trek with 3,500 feet in vertical gain in a lung-busting 1:48 in 2011. Lately Coubrough also competes in something called the “Crazyman,” a 56K race featuring a kayak run, a mountain bike segment, and run. No, there is no one in New Zealand who is not secretly an expert in an arcane sport or outdoor activity.
Ruapehu was a plot point for Hillary in more than one sense. As a young, relatively aimless college student and later dropout, Hillary didn’t appear to have any gift for self-promotion. He developed one, though, and ended up being an excellent promoter of his own work, charities, and books, TV, and films.
Particularly in his autobiographies and stories about Everest, he told his stories consistently and with an eye for giving the readers what they wanted early, and often. He usually led with the hits — the Everest trip, right up front. If that’s what you wanted to read, well, you got it.
But if someone wanted an origin story, well, he had that, too. His first trip to the mountains came at the age of 16 on a school trip to Ruapehu:
As our bus carried us steadily upwards... its headlights sparked into life a fairyland of glistening snow and stunted pines and frozen streams....I was in a strange and exciting new world...for ten glorious days we skied and played...
He didn’t talk much about other, later trips to Ruapehu, on long weekends away from Auckland with his friends after he started getting a reputation as a mountaineer, and before Everest. Those trips usually included appearances by Louise Mary Rose, a member of Auckland’s tramping club, and a viola player good enough to get a scholarship offer from the University of Sydney.
She was at Ruapehu in 1951 when Ed Hillary and fellow Kiwi climbing legend George Lowe made an appearance, speaking “Hindustani” to each other at dinner and told her they would take her climbing. In 1952, she, Hillary, and Lowe were at Ruapehu again, this time with Hillary and Lowe fresh off a thrilling expedition to the still-unclimbed Himalayan peak of Cho Oyu.
Lowe and Hillary risked an attempt on the huge mountain even though much of it sat in Chinese territory. They did this partially because they wanted to prove themselves for a future attempt on Everest, but also because — in their own thinking — as New Zealanders they wouldn’t be as much of a trophy for Chinese soldiers patrolling the area.
Hillary also believed that at altitude he could outrun any Chinese soldier on Cho Oyu. This carried over to other expeditions, too. On a recon trip around Everest, Hillary scrambled around the Tibetan side of the mountain without fear because he did not believe Chinese soldiers went above 16,000 feet or so. This is all to say this: that marauding Chinese soldiers with guns were considered a minor threat in the calculus of mountaineering. That alone should tell you how dangerous the rest of it was.
The two rock stars had a bad climb that weekend on Ruapehu in 1952. Lowe hurt his hands showing off for tourists up on the mountain, while Hillary dislocated his knee. Louise Mary Rose writes in one of her letters from the period about Ed being in considerable pain but going straight to bed that night. He did something first though: Ed loaned Louise his down jacket.
Three months after Hillary climbed Everest, Louise and Ed got married. They had three kids, 22 years of marriage, and a partnership that started the Hillary Foundation’s work in Nepal building schools and hospitals.
Ruapehu isn’t huge. At just over 9,000 feet, it looks more like a Scottish peak, broad and low, rising up from the patchy earth tones and forest surrounding it like a sagging meringue on a pie. That’s what it looks like in photos, at least. Walking out both mornings in the resort town of Ohakune, there’s nothing to see but a broad earthy brown base, ending in a thick gauze of gray clouds that didn’t move for two days.
There is a volcanic crater lake up there — one that until pretty recently people used as a giant natural hot tub, at least until seismic activity intensified and folks realized that swimming in a volcano’s simmering crater lake might not be the best idea. The natural dam containing the lake can break. In 1953, the same year Hillary summited Everest, a mudslide from the lake destroyed a rail bridge. A train rode right off the tracks and into the mud below, killing 151 people in what to that date was the worst disaster in the country’s history.
There is an elaborate system of sensors and alarms now to give those down the mountain a heads up. When a siren goes off midday in Ohakune — a long, keening wail of an old school air raid siren, the kind you hear in films about the Battle of Britain, to be exact — I walk into a hotel and ask a clerk if that’s something I should be worried about.
“Nah, that’s fine.”
There is a pause.
“What is it? The siren.”
“Oh, that! That’s just the volunteer fire department.”
“I thought it was the volcano warning or something.”
“Oh no that’s different. I think? I think that’s different.”
It’s a fierce little starter mountain, really, one situated four hours south of Auckland. Even a future legend needs a starter mountain, an incubator just big enough to inspire ambition, but small enough to handle. Someplace free and close enough to start big things on a little scale, if someone were looking to do that. Someplace that’s still got enough real danger, whether you like it or not.
Or maybe someplace that, in the summer, is small enough to run down the street in a Borat mankini at 11 in the morning, unharried by the authorities. That is what a college-aged man chose to do while I was there, running past me with a skimboard tied to his ankle and clattering behind him, his blond hair floating in the warm breeze. Like seemingly everyone else in New Zealand, he was outside.
CHRISTCHURCH, THE PLACE TO THINK ABOUT DISASTERS BOTH RECENT AND LONG GONE, AND ALSO TO PURCHASE A HAT
I flew to Christchurch and bought a hat. I had to buy one: Not only was it unusually sunny, but there still isn’t a whole lot of shade downtown. Christchurch is a city where it feels like all of the places someone might seek shelter from a summer sun disappeared all at once, replaced by stacks of shipping containers, construction sites, and — yes — very thorough signage explaining how all this will be upright again one day.
Hillary was from Auckland, but his legacy is scattered through the second-largest city in New Zealand, too. Christchurch is the gateway to Mount Cook, where Hillary learned alpine mountaineering and made his name as a climber. The Hillary Institute for Leadership is headquartered here. So is the International Antarctic Centre, the hub for the New Zealand, Italian, and American programs — programs Hillary helped establish and worked with during his stint as an arctic explorer. Seeing the sign at the airport reading, “ANTARCTIC CENTER” is beyond jarring because in Christchurch, Antarctica isn’t something abstract from a map. It is, from there, an almost local stop.
A good bit of the heart of Christchurch disappeared on Feb. 22, 2011, when an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit 6 miles outside the city center. This followed a 7.1 the previous year outside of Christchurch, a quake that loosened up a lot of the stone buildings put up by Christchurch’s Anglican founders. The 2011 quake finished the job, bringing down the Canterbury Television building, collapsing the spire on Christchurch Cathedral, and killing 185 people in all. In the aftermath, almost a fifth of its population left the city.
By the most optimistic estimates, it will take Christchurch 50 years to recover. That recovery is happening, and recovery also remains an agonizingly slow process. Almost seven years later, there are gaping holes in the city — city blocks that exist only in theory demarcated by chain link fences and orange construction markers. The first to leave Christchurch — the young and the Maori, mostly — have seemingly come back for the construction and service jobs here. It feels young and still as half-built as the old building facades held up by ziggurats made of shipping containers.
Christchurch is a place to think about being lucky and then not being lucky. Sir Edmund Hillary ended up lucky in a lot of ways. He was born at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place, and ended up in a lot of other right places at the right time as a result. He knew it, too. In his own words: “Nothing can replace courage, a resounding motivation and that little bit of luck.”
The only inaccurate bit in that statement might be the word “little.”
Before he ever became a mountaineer, Hillary survived a boat accident in Fiji during World War II that threw him back-first onto a hot engine, resulting in extensive second-degree burns across his back and face. He led some of the first climbs through unscouted Himalayan ranges at high altitude without suffering major injury, and that’s just as well. If hurt, there was no hospital to treat him for 100 miles in any direction. The first one in the Khumbu region around Everest would be the one he helped build.
Hillary survived a serious attack of altitude sickness on Makalu in 1954. (Ironically, after summiting Everest, Hillary would have trouble with altitude for the rest of his life, effectively ending his career as a serious mountaineer.) The incident was so serious The Times of London panicked when news of Hillary’s sickness got to the newsroom. They had no obituary ready in case he died.
On Friday, Dec. 16, 1960, Hillary was late to O’Hare Airport in Chicago and missed his connecting flight to New York. TWA 266 left on time without him, flew to New York City, and collided with an off-course United Airlines DC-8 midair before crashing into Park Slope. One hundred thirty-four people, including every passenger on both flights and six people on the ground, died.
There’s one more. In 1979, Hillary and his radio man and close friend, Peter Mulgrew, had a side gig narrating Air New Zealand aerial tours of Mount Erebus on Antarctica. Hillary was booked to narrate the Nov. 28 flight, but he had another commitment and had to cancel. Mulgrew subbed in for Hillary on Flight 901 and died when the plane crashed into Erebus at cruising speed, killing Mulgrew and everyone on board.
Edmund Hillary missed two flights that would have killed him. A third — a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla in 1975 — took two people he could never replace. Heading to join Edmund in the construction of a school in the town of Phaphlu, Hillary’s wife Louise and his youngest daughter, 15-year-old Belinda, were killed when their plane crashed shortly after takeoff.
The pilot was a New Zealander named Peter Shand. Louise Hillary knew him: She and Ed had dinner with him nine days before the crash, and in her letters she describes him as disorganized. He worked for Nepal Airways despite having a long record of inattention to detail and sloppy performance. On the day he died, along with 40 percent of the Hillary family, he had taken off in a plane with a control rod still locked in an aileron — effectively rendering the plane incapable of banking.
Hillary arrived shortly after the crash in a helicopter and saw the bodies himself. For the next four years, Hillary retreated into drinking, benzodiazepines, and silence to deal with the dark depression that followed the crash. He kept going as well as he could, but according to family, friends, and those who knew him, when he lost his wife and younger daughter in a single blow, Hillary would never be the same person he was before 1975.
MOUNT COOK, THE PERFECT INCUBATOR FOR MOUNTAINEERS, WHERE THE WRITER DECIDES AN ENTIRE COUNTRY IS FULL OF ACCIDENTAL ASTRONAUTS
Leaving Christchurch and heading up toward the tallest mountain in New Zealand is simple: Go west until Pocket England ends and Pocket Montana begins. If the scenery turns into Pocket Norway, then the car has gone too far south; if everything starts looking like Mini-Oregon, turn around and head west until big mountains reappear. If there are vast, Big Sky-looking valleys, a slew of blue lakes that get bluer the closer they get to their source glaciers, and brown plateaus perfectly suited for a downhill Orc charge pop up, stop.
The weather said it would be clear and fine at Mount Cook, so it was not. The weather turns without warning around Mount Cook, mostly because it is a mountain, but also because it is a mountain on an island with a maximum width of 250 miles. The weather can run right off the water and turn a clear day into blizzard conditions with what is often frightening speed.
On this day the top is obscured by clouds. A spitting, sporadic rain hits on the drive up to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, the museum and education center tucked away into Mount Cook Village. I buy a poncho at the gift shop — because I will not be prepared for anything, ever — and some coffee at the cafeteria. The window panes there are dotted with a line of chevrons; on further inspection, each is a little, long-jawed Edmund Hillary head in profile.
In the museum dedicated to Hillary and the history of Mount Cook, there are a few things worth noting. There is a tractor from the Antarctic expedition, some of Hillary’s mountaineering gear, and a lot of photos of his expeditions. Some early newspaper ads for Mount Cook on the wall deliver an underwhelming but honest pitch for a vacation destination: “MOUNT COOK: IT’S FINE.”
Mount Cook sits in a national park about the size of the city limits of Durham, N.C. In that postage stamp-sized chunk of land, there are 20 peaks over 3,000 meters. Forty percent of the park is covered by glaciers — real, gnarly glaciers, the kind of ice a lot of mountaineers don’t get many chances to navigate. Someone looking to learn to climb big mountains with snow, ice, and mixed terrain has a custom-built sandbox just waiting here.
Edmund Hillary does not discover the mountains without visiting Ruapehu, but he doesn’t learn how to survive in them without Mount Cook and the surrounding area. On weekends off during his Air Force training during World War II, he hiked miles in both directions to get to climbing peaks — usually alone, and often with very little understanding of what he was doing.
After the war, he learned alpine technique from Harry Ayres in the mountains of the South Island, and he made the first climb of the South Ridge of Mount Cook in 1948. He prepped for the 1953 Everest expedition with fellow Kiwi George Lowe here and used the nearby Tasman glacier to test the tractors for the 1955 Antarctic expedition.
Mount Cook/Aoraki trained Hillary but also helped make mountaineers like Freda Du Faur, George Lowe, Graeme Dingle, Peter Mulgrew, Russell Brice, and Peter Hillary. It’s another little perfect incubator nestled into New Zealand, a place where if someone wanted to, say, become an alpine badass — or at least a competent weekend warrior — they could, all within striking distance of home and a decent cup of coffee bought with a Hillary fiver.
Or failing that and not wanting to become unstoppable, glacier-hopping alpinists, they can hike with their kids up to the glacier overlooks and yell at them when they peer over the edge of the overlooks. They are not sheer cliffs, but steep piles of glacial moraine, rock and dirt. The kid I’m thinking about had his head way out over the edge despite his mother yelling at him, “YOU ARE SCARING ME” from down the trail. A small part of me wanted to turn and tell her that it would probably be fine if he fell and rolled down the slope. Kids bounce.
If he’s not the guy on the $5 bill, then Hillary is to younger New Zealanders a kind of standard bearer for Kiwi-ness: humble, down-to-earth, and dedicated to serving others. Some, but not all, know Hillary for a bit more than that — i.e., for enduring two of the worst things that can happen and pushing on despite disaster.
That he pushed on is accurate in a lot of ways. He took one last adventure with the Ocean-To-Sky expedition in 1977, taking Kiwi-built jet boats as far as they could go up the Ganges River before heading to the mountain source of the river on foot. He served as New Zealand’s high commissioner to India and Bangladesh in 1980s, adding diplomat to his resume despite having no formal training. (Hillary also formally served as the ambassador to Nepal, though informally he’d already had the job for years.)
Hillary continued with his Himalayan Foundation work, making his last visit to Nepal when he was 87 years old. When he arrived at the airport, he could check in as a returning citizen or as a New Zealander — the country had already given him honorary citizenship in 2003.
The widower eventually remarried, too. June Mulgrew lost her husband, Peter, on that Air New Zealand flight to Mount Erebus that Hillary was originally booked on. June and Edmund married in 1989 and stayed together until Hillary’s death a decade ago.
He read adventure books. He worked at home on the Hillary Foundation, his nonprofit devoted to giving young people in New Zealand the same outdoor experiences that had changed his entire life. He traveled, gave lectures, and went to the North Pole in a plane with Neil Armstrong just to say he’d done it. He never stopped trying new things, even after he’d become someone with an entire encyclopedia entry’s worth of things named after him.
Peter Hillary considers that his father’s ultimate talent. “My father’s real gift was one of reinvention. He never stopped, even when he was doing something he wasn’t familiar with.”
Hillary could do that in part because he had to: His entire professional life was one of hustling from one expedition to the next, from one project to the next. He had to figure out how to get a department store in Chicago to pay for a Himalayan expedition (answer: turn it into a Yeti hunt, which it did), or get funding for schools in Nepal, or how to keep all of this afloat while still doing the things he loved.
Hillary could also reinvent himself because being from New Zealand made it a necessity. Without the weight of budgets, established institutions to completely sponsor what he wanted to do, he often had to make do with what he had and improvise the rest.
The “number 8 wire” mentality was named after the standard fencing wire used by New Zealand farmers for years. It originally meant getting things done with scrap parts, with recyclables, with whatever is on hand. The tractor or boat might be held together with wire — like, literally so — but it got everyone where they needed to go.
The number 8 wire mentality is both a necessity and a tradition across the board for New Zealand and for a lot of its most recognizable figures and teams.
Before he ever made a Lord of the Rings movie, Peter Jackson shot Bad Taste over four years on weekends and nights, played two roles himself, and spent only $25,000 total to make the film. Bruce McLaren learned to build and drive cars by hanging out in his dad’s garage in Auckland. When he didn’t like how a particular piece of bodywork on a car worked at speed, he sometimes used a pair of garden shears to cut the offending piece off before taking the car back on the track to see how it worked. Peter Blake mortgaged his own house to help finance New Zealand’s entry in the 1995 America’s Cup — the Cup where in a shocking upset New Zealand beat the United States 5-0.
The All Blacks rugby team might be the greatest sporting instance of the number 8 wire mentality. New Zealand is outclassed in population and budget by its major competition in rugby. (The budget for the English national rugby team alone might be 10 times what New Zealand can claim for its squad.)
The team’s travel load just to make its games in international competition is mind bending. The All Blacks’ trainer, Nic Gill, estimated that in 2016 alone the All Blacks covered 155,000 miles through the air and crossed something like 75 time zones on the way.
Despite those obstacles, the All Blacks thrive. Since the creation of the IRB International Rugby Rankings in 2003, New Zealand’s most prized sports team has held the No. 1 ranking 85 percent of the time and is the current No. 1 team in the world.
Over a crackling connection by phone, hunkered over a phone/laptop/car battery arrangement in a Mount Cook parking lot that reeked of some serious number 8 wire engineering on my part, I asked Gill: how? How did they consistently punch above their weight, with fewer resources?
Gill summarized it as this: “We might not have the money, we might not have the resources, but tell you what, we’re gonna bloody put our best effort into it and take that as a challenge. You’re going to have a crack. And if you don’t win or you don’t make it, well, that’s all right, at you least you had a crack.”
Gill, by the way, has a crack at an Ironman at least once a year.
It’s been 10 years since Hillary, after a lifetime of near-misses, somehow managed to die of old age. After his body was cremated, most of his ashes were scattered in a private ceremony at sea in Auckland. Some of the ashes were kept for an attempt to scatter them atop Everest, but local lamas in the Khumbu region opposed it as “inauspicious.” A part of Hillary is presumably still sitting in Tengboche Monastery, waiting to be scattered at a park to be built in his honor in Nepal.
There are other bits of Hillary scattered all over the place. There is a rugby championship, The Hillary Shield, named after him; a mountain range on Pluto, the Hillary Montes, matching a complementary and equal Plutonian range named after Tenzing Norgay; and the Hillary Trail outside Auckland. There is a 25,000-foot unclimbed peak in Nepal named Hillary Peak, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, the Hillary Hut in Antarctica, the Hillary Foundation, and what was the Hillary Step on Everest.*
*The Hillary Step, a 40-foot cliff marking the last real obstacle to the summit of Everest, was affected or possibly collapsed by the massive 7.8 Gorkha earthquake of 2015. How affected is still a matter of some debate. The 10,000-foot drop to the right of the Hillary Step if a climber completely falls from it during the ascent of Everest, however, is still there.
At the center named for him, the statue of Hillary stares out toward the glaciers around Mount Cook. They used to cover the entire floor of the valleys leading up to the mountain. The Tasman Glacier has receded far up the valley now, leaving a luridly blue-green lake dotted with icebergs in its wake. I can look up from the overlook and see its path almost like the ice in motion: back, up, and away from the earth, in retreat from heat and rising water.
No one can be ready for what comes with that retreat. Even if the wealthy try to use New Zealand like some kind of life raft against the uncertainty of the rest of the world, they can’t buy the inheritance Hillary had. The legacy here isn’t one of ease or certainty — not at all, not even with the most famous New Zealander of all, someone whose legacy is as much of the place as it is of the man, and as much of the culture and his surroundings.
Sir Edmund Hillary was lucky. He grew into being a strong athlete, was inquisitive, and had a giving spirit, but he also wound up in exactly the right place to shape him into what he would be.
The only way people got to New Zealand in the first place was by sailing together, outmatched against the sea in open boats. Humanity may have to take to them again to survive. When they do, New Zealand stands a better chance than most of making it.
There will be no titles, just first names. They will have a crack. When they survive, the secret will be how they were raised on the edge of the shaking, boiling world, born 12 hours away from the rest of the globe and living in the last new world this earth had. Hillary may have gone the furthest of all of them yet, but they are by birth all accidental astronauts.
Illustrations by Tyson Whiting.
What time is men’s cross-country skiing on at the Olympics? Plus all the rules, streaming information, listings, and more you need.
If downhill skiing is the sport of alpine kings, then cross-country skiing is the sport of very cold paupers. Racing across mixed terrain under their own power, competitors on skis race for up to two hours at a time, often collapsing in real, painful exhaustion at the finish.
There are no rifles involved like biathlon, no break for thrilling ski jumping like in the combined event, and no ramps, moguls, or freestyle stunt work. Cross-country skiing is brutality, redlined heart rates, and the long, slow build of a chase across open snow leading up to a desperate finish.
It is impossible to watch without realizing why the snowmobile was invented. The United States has only won one medal in the sport, ever. It probably will not win this year because Scandinavians and other people from really cold places are way better at it than Americans are. You should watch anyway.
What time and how can I watch?
Why should I quit my job and become a lifelong devotee of men’s cross-country skiing?
Because the crowds carry cowbells. Because those crowds treat every lap like it’s a NASCAR race, and not a sweating bunch of athletes in bodysuits trying desperately not to vomit on themselves in freezing temperatures. Because after a while, once the brain gets into the rhythm of cross-country skiing, there is something beyond gripping about a long, slow hunt for the leader across a broad screen of icy white death. Because the last lap is legitimately thrilling, the final stretch absolute madness to watch, and afterward most people celebrate lying on their back after collapsing.
What are the rules of cross-country skiing? Follow up: What is the weirdest rule of cross-country skiing?
The rules are sort of complex for something so repetitive and simple. Racers must ski in the style of the race, either classic (in-line or “striding”) or freestyle (more of a side-to-side motion.) Racers cannot impede or block one another on the course, and tracks must be mostly followed in certain events and at certain times on the course. Using different techniques around corners is a touchy spot, and a potential violation during a race. Competitors may receive one violation without penalty, but two gets the racer a disqualification.
The weirdest rule: A 2016 ruling dictates that poles in “Classic” cross-country ski races must be only 83 percent of body length. This is a point of contention because some in the cross-country community were lobbying hard for 84 percent. Sports are so, so stupid sometimes.
What can I talk about to impress the cross-country enthusiast in my life?
How cross-country skiers have VO2 maxes exceeding that of marathoners, including for a long time the world record holder in Norwegian legend Bjorn Daehlie. For bonus points, mention that Finland’s greatest champion, Eero Mäntyranta, had to be an actual mutant to be the greatest in the sport. (His body generated 50 percent more oxygen-carrying capacity than a normal person’s due to a genetic condition.)
Explain what insiders look for when watching the sport.
The guy who finishes first, mostly. Like any racing sport over distance, it’s about who looks comfortable, who holds back the longest, and who can best time their last rush to the finish line.
Whose jersey should I buy?
Either Johannes Klaebo, this Olympics’ variation of The Unstoppable Norwegian Cross-Country Skiier, or Swiss skier Dario Cologna. Cologna is already one of the sport’s leading figures, but he recently touched Roger Federer. Cologna is now logically more of a champion via exposure and osmosis alone.
What is the sport’s AMERICA RATING?
This is a decidedly un-American sport in that it involves snow, endurance, and patient viewing, but do not let that stop you. It is very American in that it requires a lot of expensive equipment, and also because it looks like someone with a lot of GRIT and HEART would do very well at it. Note: There have been cross-country champions who were 5’8 standing in their skis. DANNY WOODHEAD 2022 OLYMPIAN SKIER, COME ON DOWN.
What’s the best GIF I can watch from men’s cross-country skiing?
Note: This is not a legal technique.