<
>

A primetime phenomenon

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Though it sickens faculty senates across America to read it on the football team's schedule, Thursday Night Football on ESPN is big. What started as an experiment 11 years ago has become a bona fide event.

Players and administrators both refer to it as college's Monday Night Football. That may not be accurate on the business end, but it conveys how the participants feel.

Players love it because they know that not only can Mama see them, but every player in the country is watching, too.

"We always watch the game on Thursday night," says Utah offensive tackle Thomas Herrion, who played on Sept. 11 against California. "That's really the only game I watch."

Like most players, Herrion is busy on Saturday.

Coaches love it because they are the only game on the tube. They get a free shot at the eyeballs of every recruit in the nation.

Administrators love it for the exposure it provides.

"Sportswriters all over the country will be watching our game," Southern Mississippi athletic director Richard Giannini says of the Golden Eagles' Sept. 25 game against Nebraska. "When they're looking for rankings and All-Americans, that will help."

Calling the first of these weeknight affairs experiments may not be exactly accurate, but I-A schools didn't come begging to get on the air, either. They didn't like the upheaval they feared it would cause for fans traveling to their games, or to students on campus.

Thursday Night Football actually started back in 1986 when ESPN began showing the primetime games with I-AA teams. If you are old enough to remember Holy Cross star Gordie Lockbaum's Heisman Trophy campaign, you'll remember that he got a big boost by playing on Thursday night.

Fast forward to today, when the insatiable need for money has convinced many an athletic director to change their mind and play on Thursday night. From the Holy Crosses of yesteryear to the game tonight, plenty has changed on the college football landscape. According to the coaches poll, No. 8 plays No. 20 tonight. A pair of marquee teams -- Texas A&M visits higher-ranked Virginia Tech -- with the favorite being Hurricane Isabel, by a touchdown.

But, some of the most memorable games on Thursday night have been played in torrential downpours, such as Louisville's 26-20 overtime upset of Florida State last year, which became the fourth most-watched game on ESPN a year ago. And, with the way college football has encroached onto television every night of the week, Thursday night has acquired a cachet.

"It's something that you can't pass up," Giannini says. "Thursday night is a lot easier than every other night of the week. Thursday night is really a student party night."

In the tug of war between academics and athletics, the jocks tugged the flag closer to their side on this issue. Next Thursday, when the ESPN circus comes to Hattiesburg, Miss., classes at Southern Mississippi will be suspended at noon. The students have to clear out of the parking lots in order for fans to get on campus and begin tailgating. That noise you hear is the retching of academicians.

As if the Golden Eagles weren't excited enough about mighty Nebraska coming to Hattiesburg, Utah defensive end Marquess Ledbetter says he and his teammates went to the student union a couple of days before the Cal game to make sure that the student body would turn out for the game. The noise they created helped the Utes to beat Cal, 31-24.

"The student section was crazy," Ledbetter says. "After every game, we go over and sing the fight song with the students and the band. It's going to be like that from here on out."

Ledbetter said he had extra incentive to play well against Cal.

"I felt like it was our chance to make a statement to the nation that we are for real, that we aren't a joke," Ledbetter says. "It's not quite a bowl game. It's a lot like Monday Night Football. It's kind of early in the season for a bowl game."

Lane Stadium may not be filled Thursday night. But Lane Stadium, with its high stands, is noisy enough without wind gusts of 35 miles per hour, which may hit Blacksburg before the night is out. If nothing else, the game tonight will be a first for Thursday Night Football. It has been played in many states, but never before in a state of emergency, which Virginia Governor Mark Warner has already declared.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.