Monday, November 10, 2008
Reporting From ... Tiger Stadium
"The sun has found its home in the western sky, and it is now Saturday night in Death Valley."
You can read the author's piece on Nick Saban in the current issue of ESPN The Magazine right here.
In another life, I was the LSU beat writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune. Sports writers will tell you that covering a beat is the biggest grind in the business, an endless cycle of being stonewalled by coaches and making 32 phone calls just to find out if some 18-year-old sprained his ankle. But there was a moment that made it all worth it: walking into Tiger Stadium. It was electric. When Death Valley is rocking, it seems as if it might actually take flight.
On Saturday, I went back to Baton Rouge to see Alabama barely beat LSU, and was, once again, reminded that Tiger Stadium is the best place in the world to watch a sporting event. Since we love lists, here are 10 reasons why: 10. The Tiger Bait Walk
Hundreds of fans line barricades, waiting on the Alabama busses. Immediately visible are five state troopers, eight sheriff's deputies and a crowd of prison guards. Two more cops are undercover, dressed as LSU fans. There are about 40 nine-millimeters around gate 12. One marshal has an earpiece, and he gets the word: Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have left the hotel, with two Alabama troopers and three Louisiana troopers leading them in, lights shining and sirens blaring. A police helicopter circles above. Last night, LSU fans burned Saban in effigy at a pep rally. Nobody with a badge is taking any chances.
Finally, the busses pull up and cops rush Saban into the bowels of Tiger Stadium. LSU fans yell, "Tiger Bait." Alabama fans yell, "Roll Tide."
I'm not sure what it was like to walk into the Coliseum, but I bet it was something like this.
I wrote about him in the latest issue of The Magazine. He's Cajun, bald, usually dressed in purple and gold and is the preeminent LSU tailgater. Once upon a time, he ran the Krewe of Ragoo, a group of Tiger fans wilder than the occupants of a hair band tour bus. Almost 60, he's decided to chill, disbanding the Krewe and forming a smaller group known as Ragoo Remains.
And they get after it.
Saturday, they had brisket and all the beer you could handle. If you're ever at an LSU game, stop by Ragoo's tent, over by the track. Tell him you read about him in The Mag and that you'd sure love a little piece of boudin.
8. The Pre-Game RitualThe band marches onto the field, dressed like mariachis but keeping time like soldiers. They begin playing "Pregame (Hold that Tiger)," turning to salute each corner of Tiger Stadium. Each corner tries to be louder than the one before.
Then Dan Borne' comes on and goes through the temperature and weather. "Chance of rain?" he asks the crowd. "Never!" they respond in unison.
(This is where John Ed Bradley got the name for his wonderful book, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. It's one of the most amazing pieces of writing I've ever read.)
7. The Speakers
Some schools have wimpy speakers, not loud enough to allow the pump-you-up songs serve their purpose. But in Tiger Stadium, it's like they hijacked the Rolling Stones sound system. There's enough treble to hear the words, enough bass to rattle Death Valley's metaphorical rear view mirror. When they play AC/DC's "Hell's Bells," usually during a media time out before a big play, they let it go long enough for the guitar to kick in. I am pretty damn sure they can hear it out on the barges pushing cargo down the Mississippi River.
6. The Press Box Coffee
As Mag writer Seth Wickersham, pointed out in this awesome story about the Manning brothers, people in Louisiana are serious about their coffee. At Tiger stadium, they serve Community Coffee, a local staple. By the end of the game on Saturday, the press box was littered with small, red Styrofoam cups. Four of them were mine.
The third quarter ends with LSU down seven, but hanging in. Borne' makes an announcement.
"The sun has found its home in the western sky, and it is now Saturday night in Death Valley," he says.
The crowd goes ape s—. The band plays the first few notes of "Hold that Tiger," but the crowd quickly overpowers their sound. Fifteen minutes to go, and the place is about to lift off.
4. "Living on a Prayer"
The game is tied with just under three minutes left, and LSU is about to get the ball with a chance to win. The band knows just the song.
Tommy used to work on the docks.
The student section explodes.
When the band gets to the chorus, they are singing along—and it is loud. They are part of the largest crowd ever at this place, and their Tigers are hanging in against the top ranked team in the country, maybe about to send Nicky-Nicky Bling-Bling home a loser.
We gotta hold on
To what we got
It doesn't make a difference
If we make it or not
We got each other
And that's a lot
We'll give it a shot
Ooooooh, we're halfway there
Ooooooh, living on a prayer …
It is one of my favorite moments in sports.
Saban now treads in dangerous territory when he makes the trip with Bama to Tiger Stadium.
3. The Noise
I know this is a bit redundant, but it is really hard to explain just how loud Tiger Stadium is when you're standing on the field. Georgia coach Mark Richt told reporters a story not long ago about the reaction of the crowd after the Bulldogs scored a touchdown to tie a game several years back. Normally, something like this quiets a crowd. Not this time. The TD just seemed to make the 93,000 more angry.
"All I began to hear was a chant: L-S-U. L-S-U," Richt said. "It got louder and louder and louder, and it was the loudest I'd ever heard a stadium."
On Saturday, when LSU blocks what would have been an Alabama game-winning field goal, the place is as loud as I've ever heard it. The crowd is moving and swaying so much, and in so many directions, it makes the stands look blurry, like a pointillist painting.
2. The Belly of the Beast
Down below the stadium, it feels old. The walls are painted white, and the unpainted concrete is battleship gray. The ceilings are low.
After the game, with a phalanx of state troopers leading the way, Saban makes the short walk from the visitor's locker room to the press conference room. Only problem, he has to pass through a throng of exiting LSU fans, who have talked among themselves for two years about what they'd say to him if they had the chance. They've plotted, schemed and dreamed. Well, let me tell you, the hundred or so who were there when Saban crossed in front of them totally chickened out. There was a little rumbling, but nobody said anything. Until he was inside, that is, then one guy starts screaming at the door, "Garbage! You're garbage!" A nearby state trooper laughs. Dude sure got some courage once Saban was gone.
1. The Silence
Right now, I'm looking out of the press box at the stadium and it's quiet. The lights are off on one side. The aisles are covered in trash. Up here, people are finishing up game stories and columns, ready to crack one of the beers that's been icing down.
I've always loved empty stadiums, none more than this one. It feels alive when it's packed, and now it looks like it's resting, waiting for next week. This building has seen a lot of things. Billy Cannon's punt return; a crowd so loud it registered on the Richter Scale up the street at the geology department; the night when Nick Saban returned to town with his top ranked Crimson Tide. It's as if all that history leaves Tiger Stadium tired and so it needs to recharge until it's time to wake and do it again.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.