There and Back Again: A Cyclone's Tale

I have yet to find anyone who has the Shreveport/Bossier City metroplex on their vacation "A" list. As far as bowl game host cities go, the towns lack many of the amenities that other host cities have, like hot weather and proximity to the Grand Canyon (Phoenix), Sea World and Disney World (Orlando), or even skiing (Boise).

The Independence Bowl isn't held in an architectural showpiece like Reliant Stadium or Bank One Ballpark, and doesn't even have a gimmick like blue Astroturf. The "Ark-La-Tex" region of the country isn't a recruiting hotbed like Houston, Dallas or Miami. With all these drawbacks in mind, why does the Independence Bowl have a long and storied history? It's the people who live in these towns that make the difference.

I'm an "I-Bowl" repeat customer. My father and I flew from Des Moines to Little Rock back in 2001, and then drove down to Shreveport with my cousin and his wife to watch the heartbreaker against the Crimson Tide. For this year's game, I got together with three of my old friends from the ISU dorms to plan a trip "on the cheap". We rented a minivan and drove down Sunday night, leaving the Kum & Go station in Bevington, Iowa at 11:23 Sunday night. While I was waiting for the other guys to load their bags in the back of the van, I spotted a gold wedding band lying in the parking lot. I considered this to be a portent of our eventual success; but I decided against putting the ring on my finger, lest I fall under the spell of Sauron and become a Hawkeye fan.

The first leg of our trip was fairly uneventful. Since we missed heavy traffic in Kansas City, Fayetteville and Fort Smith, we made it to Shreveport in less than 13 hours. The receptionist at the Boomtown Casino in Bossier City informed us that our room wouldn't be ready until after 4, so we decided to grab lunch. I suggested that we try The Blind Tiger, on Texas Street in Shreveport, so we lined up outside the casino to wait for the shuttle bus. Bob McDonald was our driver for the All American Shuttle Service, and he turned out to be a former Iowan.

On the drive across the river, he told us about growing up in Clinton and playing Bettendorf in the State Football championship game. "I moved down here because the cold weather in Iowa was Hell on the knee I injured in that game". Bob gave us his business card as we left the bus – we were about to learn that EVERYONE in Shreveport has business cards – and we had a great lunch at the Blind Tiger. The food was good, the beer was cold, and our waitress had a remarkable resemblance to Rebecca Gayheart (the actress). The bar was filled with ISU fans. Miami fans? They were like KSU football starters on the Big 12 All-Academic team: few and far between.

After lunch, we wandered around Shreveport for another hour or so until we stumbled into the ISU pep rally on Market Street. During that walk we had several locals walk up to us and thank us for coming down for the game. At the rally, we tried to convince ISU Alumni Association representative Scott Dahl that he should let his old dorm mates in for free, but he's a company man to the bone. I guess we'll just consider that $5 to be a free-will contribution to the old alma mater.

The pep rally was really well done. "Voice of the Cyclones" John Walters and the ISU cheer squad kicked off the evening with a bang. John got a big cheer with his first line "So much for a pathetic turnout." He may never fill Pete Taylor's shoes, but he's on his way to having his own pair of shoes next to Pete's in the ISU gallery of favorites. John handed the ball off to Jeff Johnson, the Director of the ISU Alumni Association, and Jeff worked the crowd into a frenzy.

After his dance number with Cy and the cheerleaders, Bruce Van De Velde hit the mike. There was a smattering of boos amid the cheers, but if Bruce heard them, he did a good job of ignoring them. His speech was a real stemwinder – the only thing missing was the Howard Dean squeal at the climax – and the crowd response after his speech was uniformly positive. President Geoffroy was next, and he kept the ball in play for the cleanup hitter – Coach Dan McCarney.

Mac and the team got up on stage and captains Cale Stubbe, Luke VanderSanden, Erik Andersen, and Ellis Hobbs III spoke to the crowd. Mac was his usual self, and I was ready to buy into a time-share condo on Mars by the end of his speech. Erik Andersen delivered the laugh line of the night by boasting about being up $350 dollars at the casino, then informing us that Nik Moser was already flat busted.

I was surprised at the number of Winterset residents at the rally. I ran into one of my bankers, two veterinarians, and a former employee of my company who's currently enrolled at UNI. I also ran into Cyclone Nation Grand Poobah Steve Deace, who was on his way to schmooze at the media reception and dinner.

After checking into our rooms, I lobbied hard to have dinner at the Pete Harris Café, and finally won the argument. Pete Harris was a pillar of Shreveport's black community, and his restaurant still serves the best stuffed shrimp I've ever had. Three years ago, we stumbled across this restaurant by luck, and the food was as good this time as it was before.

After dinner our interests diverged. We called a cab from the café, and met Wayne, who would become our regular cabbie for the remainder of the trip. I went back to the room and received a call from Deacer inviting me to an informal poker game at the Horseshoe. Bill Seals likes to pretend that he doesn't know how to play poker, but don't believe a word of it: he's a predator.

Some of the members of my group also ran into Coach Skladany's daughter Monday night at one of the bars on Texas Street, and they said that she was positively delightful to talk with. Apparently, her lips are sealed about her dad's future plans.

Tuesday morning dawned WAY too early for some of our group, but we finally got our stuff together and caught a cab to the Louisiana State Fairgrounds where the I-Bowl stadium is located. While waiting for a cab in front of the casino, we had a nice discussion with a local woman who informed us that "we enjoy having y'all down for the game, but there's really no local excitement about this matchup". I managed to have the closest thing to a negative experience on the whole trip during that conversation. When one of our group asked why the Louisiana State Fairgrounds is located in the extreme Northwest corner of the State, I jokingly said, "Is it because everything South of here is just a godforsaken swamp?" Wow, some people just can't take a joke.

Iowa State's pregame rally was held at Hirsch Coliseum, located just East of the stadium. It wasn't exactly as well attended as the pregame rally at the 2000 bowl, but there were plenty of ISU fans there, along with plenty of cold beer and southern style food. One of the women serving beer at the rally was an employee of a local "gentleman's club", and she wasn't shy about handing out "free admission" cards to anyone who was interested. One of my friends observed "I had a few beers, but I KNOW I would have noticed her if she had been working last night".

The ISU band took the stage, and Jeff Johnson led the crowd in another round of cheers. He also mentioned that the Alumni Association is looking into taking a tour group to West Point for next fall's game with Army. A couple of my friends and I have been talking about hopping on our motorcycles and driving to that game, but if we chicken out, that tour is a definite possibility.

After the pep rally, we ran into Lee Owens, the sports director at WJTV in Jackson, Mississippi. Mr. Owens grew up in Des Moines and attended ISU, and he mentioned that he'd just been back in Des Moines to have Christmas with his family. "I really enjoy going back to Iowa in the winter, just to experience a couple of days of single-digit temps." We had a great talk about football in the state of Mississippi, the state of ISU's program, and the new basketball coach at Mississippi State. "What can you guys tell me about Larry Eustachy?" After nervous laughter, our answer was "Well, how long do we have until game time." I was really tempted to give him Steve Deace's cell phone number, but I decided to let Lee get to know Larry on his own.

The game kicked off to rousing cheers from the Iowa State fans in attendance. The announced ticket sales for the game were about 42,000, but the announced attendance was only about 32,000. By my estimation the crowd was evenly split between ISU fans, LSU fans, and locals who came to cheer for Miami because they felt bad for the two or three thousand Miami fans that made the trip.

The ESPN broadcast crew seemed to favor Miami, but that's probably because of the phenomenal success of "Big Ben" Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh with the Steelers. If Seneca Wallace or Sage Rosenfels were starting for their NFL teams, the crew would have had more to talk about in regards to ISU. The "Big Ben" frenzy in the media even extended to the employees of Cyclone Nation. We ran into Bill Seals at the pregame rally and were shocked to find him dressed in a black & gold shirt. But we gave him a pass on this surprising fashion faux pas since he said that rumors were flying that Big Ben would be on the sidelines for the game and this was just his way of getting an autograph or a picture with his team's QB.

Bret Meyer came out throwing – unfortunately there is a difference between throwing passes and completing passes. Miami threw everything but the kitchen sink at our young quarterback, and he was really scrambling during the first couple of series. Early in the game, our running game consisted of Meyer turning upfield with the ball, but the Cyclones eventually settled down into a balanced attack.

Iowa State's assistant coaches are a little like N'SYNC or New Kids On the Block: Everyone has their favorite, and they're not shy about singing their guy's praises. One guy sitting in front of us proceeded to tell me how Tony Alford would be a GREAT replacement for Coach McCarney "when Mac finally moves upstairs into the AD position". This man was from the Dallas area, and had apparently gotten to know Coach Alford during his recruiting trips.

I had another discussion with a middle-aged woman in the row behind us about how Coach Cotton has really given ISU a shot in the arm on the offensive side of the ball, and she said that "ISU's coaching staff is made up of quality people who make me proud to be a Cyclone fan". I heard another guy in the line for the bathrooms singing the praises of Terry Allen. Who's my favorite? That's like asking which flavor of ice cream is my favorite, or which victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes is the most memorable. They're all great.

Iowa State jumped out to a 10-0 lead over Miami, but then the gremlins started their work. The Big 10 officiating crew who worked the game has taken a beating from the Cyclone fan base, and I have to say that I now understand why the Big 10 instituted instant replay last year.

I agreed with their call on the Miami quarterback's arm moving forward on the incomplete pass/fumble controversy; however they really "penetrated the pooch" on their roughing call against Dobbins and the pass play defended by Hobbs where the receiver landed on his back and dropped the ball right in front of the official. Yeah, the calls went against us, but it wasn't exactly a basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse: we still had the upper hand in the game. A 10-7 lead at halftime was pretty good, considering that ISU has been a fourth-quarter team this year.

After halftime, ISU seemed to stall on offense while Miami came out of the locker room hitting on all cylinders. Before you know it, our 10-7 lead turned into a 13-10 deficit. I think the extra point block kept the fans from going negative, but there was a definite unease in the crowd going into the next offensive possession. ISU was moving the ball well, but all of a sudden there was a great cry of joy from the crowd. Bret Meyer had just released a perfect spiral to an open Jon Davis, who was streaking down the center of the field. Unless you missed the play live on ESPN, the many replays on Sportscenter, and the endless hashing out of the play on central Iowa sports talk radio, you know what happened next –so I'll skip my reaction.

This play was a heartbreaker, but the team's reaction to the play confirmed my thoughts that Iowa State's future is bright. As Jon Davis ran off the field with his head in his hands, the first people to run to him were Bret Meyer and Todd Blythe. They huddled up with him and eventually walked him back to the sidelines where they stayed with him and apparently encouraged him. I was also impressed with Coach Cotton's encouragement to Davis on the next series. In the fourth quarter, Stevie Hicks entered the zone. Hicks and Meyer gobbled up yardage on that drive; Stevie's 40-yard run ignited the crowd, and Brett's dash to the end zone set up Kock's one-yard touchdown dive. At this point, I was convinced that we had the game in hand, but the highlight was yet to come.

My wife's brother-in-law started predicting that "Ellis will grab a pick and take it to the house" at halftime. Just when Miami looked like they had a chance to get back in the game with less than two minutes left to go, his prediction came true (at least halfway). All the memories of the "wide right" kick in 2001 melted away as the estimated 9,000 ISU fans in attendance went absolutely nuts.

On our way out of the game, we ran into a group of locals decked out in LSU gear tailgating in front of the giant slide just Northeast of the Hirsch Coliseum. We were welcomed with open arms, and more importantly, open access to the grill. Their grillmeister doled out heaping helpings of smoked brisket, beans and potato salad while explaining the intricacies of beef brisket as only a true carnivore would.

Our extended conversation with these people was one of the high points of the trip. We talked about potential new coaches for LSU (shockingly, half of the people asked this question answered "Well, we'd be happy to get Kirk Ferentz"), deer hunting in Iowa, agriculture in Louisiana, and the performance of ISU's football team. One of our hosts even went as far as to say "…I see a little bit of Vick in your quarterback."

Two-thirds of our host group were retired or inactive military personnel, so they had a lot to talk about with the member of our party who just came back from seven months in the "big sandbox". When Wayne, our personal cabbie, finally showed up, he almost had to pry us away from this delightful group of people. I've seen a few people on the Cyclone Nation message boards complaining about the presence of LSU fans at "our" game, but our hosts explained that Shreveport residents don't get to see major college football played locally, so many of them get tickets to the I-Bowl out of love for the game. They're not as concerned about cheering for a particular team as they are about seeing a game in person, and most of them were very complimentary about ISU and it's fan base.

Based on a recommendation from our tailgate hosts, we headed across the Red River to Rockin' Rodeo, a nightclub in Bossier City. Rockin' Rodeo turned out to be a bar split into three parts: a country music dance floor right inside the door, a karaoke bar on a portion of the main floor, and a Rock/Top 40 club upstairs. Since this was a Tuesday night, the action was confined to the main dance floor. We camped out on the pool table and watched the dance floor spectacle. You just haven't lived until you've seen the same group of dancers work their mojo to a Tim McGraw song and go right into AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" without missing a beat.

After a few drinks there, we decided to call it a night at about 12:30 in order to get an early start on our trip back. We called Wayne for a ride home, but he said he'd be awhile so we started up a conversation with Tim, the doorman. After about 20 minutes of talking to him, he said "Hey, why don't I just take you back to your hotel?" When we said that his manager might not like him just taking off, he laughed. It turns out that he WAS the manager, and he had some interesting things to say about this year's game.

Tim said that he's been managing bars in Shreveport/Bossier City for 12 years, and 2004 is the first time that he hasn't hosted a pre-game rally for one of the I-Bowl teams. He said that Miami wasn't interested at all due to their lukewarm fan following, but that his calls to ISU had gone unreturned. I don't know if the Alumni Association didn't want to have the pregame event at a bar for publicity reasons, but it's a shame that Tim didn't get an explanation.

When Wednesday morning came around, our good intentions went by the wayside and our early departure quickly became an 11 A.M. getaway. We caught up with the Sheribon Auto Body firetruck North of Texarkana, and the two guys driving the truck were braving the weather in the open cab. I always figured that they trailered the firetruck to the game on a flatbed, but I guess that the wind doesn't seem quite so cold after a win. Since the highway North of Texarkana is a divided four-lane, we pulled up alongside the firetruck and exchanged greetings for a few minutes.

Our trip ended at midnight on Wednesday when I returned the rental van. Murphy's Law then kicked in and gave me a nasty cold, causing me to spend the last week coughing up "lung cookies". What's my overall impression of the trip? Despite the original misgivings about going back to Shreveport, I think this bowl game experience was completely positive for Iowa State. The senior class went out with a bang, the underclassmen got to show their moves in front of a national audience, and the fans got to see the second bowl game victory in Iowa State history.

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