Monday, January 17, 2011

One of the most enjoyable things I do—Patriot League basketball games, a Sunday trip to Bucknell

I know most of the sports world is talking football today and I get that. I’m still recovering from The Baltimore Ravens collapse in Pittsburgh on Saturday and from the shock of seeing the New York Jets put their money and their talent where their mouths were on Sunday. (No foot jokes here).

Let me say one thing as a fan NOT as a neutral observer: the holding call on the Ravens fourth quarter punt return for a touchdown was a joke. The call was, at best, borderline, but in fact it was worse than that because a good official looks at a borderline block and says to himself, ‘did it affect the play?’ If so, MAYBE you throw the flag. If not, you don’t throw it and there’s no way that block affected the play.

Okay, enough whining. The Ravens blew the game with the three turnovers in the third quarter and giving up the 58-yard-pass late in the fourth. I thought the officiating was lousy. It is not the reason the Ravens lost.

Now, onto what I really want to talk about today: my trip Sunday to Bucknell.

I know there are dozens of you—maybe—who want to hear all about it.

Here’s what you need to understand: there’s really nothing I enjoy doing more at this point in my professional life than Navy football games on the radio and Patriot League basketball games on TV. I mean that in this sense: I still LOVE to write much more than I like doing radio or TV even though I think I’ve become reasonably good at the radio and TV stuff through the years. Writing is what I do and I love writing for The Washington Post and The Sporting News and, for that matter, this blog. I make most of my living from writing books but I also LIKE writing books, which makes me very lucky.

All that said, I really enjoy the niche that I have at Navy and in the Patriot League. I’ve done Navy football for 14 seasons now and this is my ninth season doing Patriot League games on TV. What makes it so much fun, quite simply, are the people. I’ve written before about my respect for the people at Navy—and at Army, I just don’t spend as much time up there—and how I’ve enjoyed watching the football team play so well the past eight seasons under head coaches I like for entirely different reasons: Paul Johnson won games and made you laugh; Kenny Niumatalolo wins games and makes you cry because he’s so sincere and dedicated to the kids he’s coaching.

The Patriot League is different. I’ve had an association with the schools in the league for 12 years now, dating to ‘The Last Amateurs.’ The TV package actually came about in 2002 when a (then) independent producer named Billy Stone approached me and asked if I’d be willing to do color on a package of Patriot League games he was thinking of trying to sell to DirecTV. Billy had already sold an Ivy League package and, after reading ‘Last Amateurs,’ thought a similar package might work for The Patriot League. His one caveat was that he wanted me involved.

Which was, to say the least, flattering. So we launched the package in January of 2003. I did the first two games with Jack Corrigan who then left to become the voice of The Colorado Rockies. He was replaced by Bob Socci, who has been my partner on Navy football for 14 years now. Working with Bob is a delight because he’s always prepared, he’s good at what he does and because he puts up with my humor and wisecracks with good humor of his own about 99 percent of the time.

The one-time we had a true on-air dispute—we argue often but almost always in good humor—was when I angrily said that I didn’t think President Bush should be at the Army-Navy game in 2004 when he was un-necessarily putting the young men he was glad-handing in harm’s way in Iraq. Bob didn’t see the issue as political: The President was the commander-in-chief and he had a perfect right to be there. I understand his point-of-view (I even understood it then) but the war made me SO angry at that point I just couldn’t see it that way. When The President returned to the game a couple of years later Bob and I made a deal: he wouldn’t bring up the president if I didn’t and vice-versa. So, we left it to our sideline reporter Pete Medhurst to talk about The President tossing the coin and I kept my big mouth shut.

I digress. Working with Bob is just one of the things I enjoy about The Patriot League package. Believe it or not, I look forward to the drives to the games—okay maybe not to Colgate when it is snowing but if it isn’t Hamilton is a pretty little town and I like the old-style warmth of The Colgate Inn. When I drive to Bucknell on a clear Sunday morning like yesterday, it’s a pleasure. I am an absolute creature of habit: I make two-stops each way: on the way up for gas in Thurmont (not far from Camp David) on Rte. 15 and at the Dunkin’ Donuts just outside Harrisburg for coffee and (now) one donut (powdered). On the way back I stop at the McDonald’s that’s right next to Dunkin’ Donuts (no French fries anymore, sigh) and then at a Rutter’s gas station just below Harrisburg—the door tweets like a bird when you walk inside.

It is almost exactly three hours to the minute each way. It’s actually a very pretty drive—first through the mountains going from Maryland to Pennsylvania. Then, say what you want about Harrisburg, but when you get to the T where you turn left to follow Rte. 15 and look across the Susquehanna River at the capitol building and downtown Harrisburg it’s quite pretty. The drive the rest of the way with the river on your right almost the entire way is about as scenic as any this side of The Pacific Highway.

I roll in the front gate at Bucknell, drive to the stop sign and circle to the back entrance, parking my car right next to the TV truck. These days the package is on CBS College Sports. There have been times when the 15 steps to the back door can be treacherous.

After all these years I feel as if I know about half the people who come to The Sojka Pavilion by name. Pat Flannery’s not the coach anymore, but he’s still around and I get to spend time with him while I’m up there. Most of the people who worked at Bucknell when I did the book still work at Bucknell. The same is true at all of the league’s schools. Whenever I go to do a game it feels a little bit like homecoming for me.

We had a terrific game on Sunday. Bucknell was up 14 in the second half but Holy Cross rallied to tie before Mike Muscala (who is a big-time player) hit a shot with 1.4 seconds to play to win the game for Bucknell. The funny thing about that play was that the shot was clearly a three and the officials, who had a very good game, called it a two. If Holy Cross’s last shot—a squared-up 30-footer had gone in there would have been quite a brou-ha-ha. The officials might still be looking at a replay.

They weren’t though and we got off the air exactly on time at 4 o’clock. I said my goodbyes—we may very well be back at Sojka for a flex game late in the season or for a conference tournament game—changed into sweats to drive home (another habit) and wheeled out of the parking lot at exactly 4:30—a little more than five hours after I pulled in.

I had three hours to drive and a smile on my face.

This weekend I’ll make the equally-familiar drive to Army. I could tell you where I’ll stop on that trip too but enough is enough. I’ll stay in one of my favorite hotels, The Thayer, and eat dinner with some of my Army pals on Friday night at Loughran’s in Newberg which has sawdust on the floor and prime rib that’s so good I don’t eat red meat all week so I can eat it without guilt. On Saturday Christl Arena will be packed for Army-Navy.

The atmosphere will be great. The game will be fun. And then I’ll be back in the car going back down The Palisades Parkway. Honestly, I can’t stand cold weather anymore. But going to Patriot League basketball games, seeing all the people I see and making those familiar trips to places filled with warmth makes it a little more bearable. Actually a LOT more bearable.


steveM said...

Guess I'm one of the dozens who enjoyed your article. Sometimes the smaller NCAA events are more enjoyable then the larger events which are more centered around $ & advertising dollars...thank goodness for the small gifts of life..& sports

Anonymous said...

Count me as one of the "dozens" who wanted to read this post.

And glad to see that you are still writing on this blog! I was starting to wonder.

Thomas said...

Count me among the dozen or so too...I absolutely love these types of stories from you. There are 1,000 writers to write about the NFL playoffs, but virtually none about these types of games. I'm sure there are others to read in this realm, but I have no clue where to find them. Keep them rolling. Please.

Gunnar said...

Very enjoyable blog post. I also really liked the Washington Post articles about Seattle University and the GW-Harvard father and son.

Paul said...


Don't ever stop writing these types of stories.

John from Indiana said...

I'm with Gunnar. Really enjoyed BOTH this article and the read on the Webster boys, God love 'em. Gonna wind that clock back just a bit further to about 25 years ago when you were fortunate enough to get to drive the backroads of Indiana, probably sitting in HIGH SCHOOL gyms with as many fans as show up for the Patriot League games. Who plays is not the important thing, whether it be in a Patriot League gym,or in an Indiana High School gymnasium. That the game matters is what makes it special. The intensity level and the strategy are every bit as good as in a Big East or Big Ten game. The tickets are infinitely cheaper, the players are usually ones that you can encourage your kids to emulate, and the seats are usually right on top of the court. What's not to like? Anyone can tell you what you just saw on TV the night before. Reading Feinsten is about going to places off the beaten path and meeting people that you remember for a lifetime. Having said that, I'm still getting anxious to find out who we get to read about again after all these years. Not even a teaser???

Anonymous said...

I also like articles in this vein. You glossed over the bits about the restaurants you stop in and the roads you take. I find that stuff enjoyable. I often drive the Pennsylvania Turnpike and some of the towns through that area. Keep the reminiscences coming.

bevo said...

I like these stories about the Patriot League because I get a story I would not find elsewhere.

Bo Smolka said...

John -- I agree with all of it. But one question: Is it ever NOT snowing in Hamilton?? I can't ever remember a trip up there -- for basketball, football, lacrosse -- that wasn't freezing. One time the snowbanks had to be 8 feet high in front of the Colgate Inn.

Chris Courogen said...

Wish I had a nickel for every time I have echoed those thoughts in the 20 years I have covered Patriot League hoops.

The guys who think the BCS leagues are the be all and end all have no idea what they are missing.

In those 20 years, I have met just one kid I would not want my daughters to bring home. The coaches are all genuine good guys and as you point out, the athletic department staffers are, too.

And we get to watch some pretty good basketball from time to time, too.

Also agree with Bo re snow in Hamilton. I remember one trip there that the sidewalks were like a tunnel, with snow piled to the top of the first floor windows on both sides.

GerryO said...

John, Excellent piece. Would love another Patriot League book or Ivy book (like Kathy Orton's). What is Pat Flannery doing now?

jj said...

John, Thank you for a wonderfully written piece. It felt like I was with you on that drive.


case said...

i almost make it a dozen
thanks for the patriot league article--as a holy cross alum, i truly appreciate the work you do in supporting the p l--we'll almost ignore the few errors you made on the telecast

Steve Rudnicki said...

John, I'm certainly in your dozen of loyal followers as well. When I was at Canisius, we made the trip to Bucknell often. My favorite was the Country Cupboard a few minutes up the road in Lewisburg. Nothing better than mid-major hoops in those small towns in NY and PA!

Chuck B '92 said...

Great to read about our (mutual) passion for Patriot League sports. If you're writing them, I'll always read 'em.

Anonymous said...

Count me in the 'dirty dozen' too! Not only on enjoying this blog entry, but I did catch quite a bit of you doing that game! Even your 'habitual stops' along the road made me smile as I tend to do the same thing!

Anonymous said...

Count me in the 'dirty dozen' too! Not only on enjoying this blog entry, but I did catch quite a bit of you doing that game! Even your 'habitual stops' along the road made me smile as I tend to do the same thing!

pulmcrit1 said...

I agree with all the comments, especially the one from Bevo about getting a story from you that can't be found annywhere else. Really enjoyable to hear about your experiences, and to know that there are still sporting events that aren't just about which athletic department makes the most $, or which kids are one and done.