From the standpoint of raw pagan omens, Saturday got off to a bad start, dark clouds and rain. They’d been predicting rain at Bedlam for days, but this was worse, one of those Oklahoma skies that looks like a cup of water a black paintbrush is being dipped in. Bad tidings, I thought, having recently become the sort of person who thinks in terms of tidings. Hard times ahead.
On the other hand, my wife called to tell me that I’d been sent, by overnight FedEx, a box of DEATH TO SQUINKY T-shirts. The source was mysterious, but apparently the same shirts were going to be handed out before the game. I found this comforting. Grim prophecies might be swirling overhead, but whatever might come, at least my fellow Oklahoma State fans were prepared to face it with defiance.
For the rest of the day, I kept an informal scorecard of forebodings, setting ominous portents against slender reasons for hope. The stadium had misplaced my press pass — 7-0 Squinky — but the OSU media guys found a blank one and magic-markered my name onto it. The stadium had also lost my parking pass, but the guy in the kiosk — who name-checked Squinky when it turned out my pass was missing — remembered a local radio team who never used the media garage and slipped me their pass on the sly. Finally, I was able to stash the Chrysler someplace where not even the Freemasons could get it. 14-14. Your move, demon.
Maybe because I did most of my preliminary campus-exploring on Thursday instead of Friday, I’d been disappointed in the lack of visible signs of OSU school spirit. I figured I just didn’t have the right kind of Nixon-era cunning for getting under the surface of a place. Hunter S. Thompson rolls into town and three hours later he’s licked a toad, started a brawl in a hospital, and impregnated a Hell’s Angel; I went to see The Muppets with my mom. But apart from a roughly 30-second stretch beside the bonfire, Stillwater had felt like business as usual, just coeds texting on paths.
By the time the tailgate started going up on Saturday, things had changed. The rain had stopped. There was a charge in the atmosphere, the buzz of grown men in shiny orange windbreakers erecting a micro-civilization out of tents. The modern tailgate is a thing of fantastic ingenuity and sophistication. Probably a quarter of the tents I walked past were broadcasting other games — first Baylor-Texas, then LSU-Georgia — on HDTV. At first there were only a few people, the builders, the hosts, small clutches of fans holding plastic cups, scalpers gliding through the scenery like spies who wanted to be caught. “You buyin’ or sellin’?” one of them hissed at me.
“Neither,” I said.
“Man, what have you got?” he said.
“I’ve got nothing,” I said, not for the first time in my life.
“I’ll give you nothin’ for your nothin’,” he said, then burst out cackling when I told him he had a deal.
By the time the sun started going down, the crowd had swelled. There were people everywhere, beer-bellied dudes in cowboy hats, kids heaving little plastic footballs. College kids taking pictures of college kids taking pictures. You forget just how massive a big-time sporting event is, what a lunatic crush. They say the real numbers are on TV, but in person these things feel all-encompassing, the final humans gathering for one last bratwurst at the end.
I was supposed to meet up with an OSU-blogger friend of mine for a quick pregame beer, but I missed him in the crowd, so I spent a while watching the band warm up and then tagged along on their march to the stadium. They played the state song, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oooooooklahoma,” while a few hundred band remoras trailed alongside them. The wind might have been sweeping down the plain, but at least the rain hadn’t come back. It was dark now, or the sort of baffled gray that exists around a lit-up sports starship. I ducked away from the band and made my way inside the hull via the South Pass Gate, past two security cordons, past the bag check, to the corridor that led to the elevator that led to the press box. Not long before, I’d DM’d my OSU-blogger buddy to ask if he was nervous yet. Probably hit me when I walk in the stadium, he wrote. Yeah, that was when it hit me, too.
If you’ve never been inside a press box, you should know that it’s a deeply strange, and in many ways actually perverse, way to take in sports. With one important exception, the press-box experience resembles the fan experience in roughly the same way that video-game sports resemble actual sports. Just as Madden or FIFA endow you with superhuman athletic ability without the inconvenience of devoting every waking hour of your life on earth to the annihilating grind of training, the press box smoothes out the roughest edges of fandom. No lines. Free food. A bathroom you’re not sharing with a gang of precontact hunter/gatherers and a circus. The pleasing absence of some angry giant’s knee in the back of your neck. On the other hand, just as Madden or FIFA can only approximate the hormonal intensity of top-level athletic competition at a large and diminishing remove, the press box literally muffles the experience of fandom. It’s hard to hear the crowd through the glass. The bands sound like they’re talking with their mouths closed. You are never invited to hug an angry giant in a moment of transporting communal joy, neck pain forgotten, popcorn flying everywhere.
That last bit is important, because it points to the exception I brought up earlier — the way being in the press box isn’t like fandom at all. There’s no cheering in the press box. That’s the ground rule of the press box. You do not break it. I’ve never actually cheered in a press box, so I don’t know what happens if you lose your mind and try, but I’m picturing four enraged reporters kicking a prone man while a fifth murmurs stuff like, “3-for-4 on head shots … rib-splintering rate a little disappointing so far.”
So. Most important college football game of my life, my heart is fluttering like a hummingbird at the opera, and no matter what happens, I cannot react at all. To try to prepare for this, I started making a list of stuff that isn’t forbidden in the press box.
QUIETLY DISSOLVING INTO ATOMS.
This one wouldn’t disturb the other sportswriters at all. Oklahoma would score on a long touchdown run late in the fourth quarter to take a 35-31 lead, and all that would be left in my place would be a few wisps of smoke and a mysterious scent of cappuccino.
GOUGING OUT MY OWN EYES.
Somewhat tricky, mainly because it would be hard to keep from screaming, but I think it could be done. A 60-yard Sooners field goal would ricochet in off the upright with 10 seconds left for a 45-44 lead, and I would plunge my rolled-up press pass into my eye sockets, remaining utterly mute so as never to bear witness to what I had seen.
LOSING MY GRIP ON SANITY AND SLIPPING INTO AN ALTERNATE DIMENSION.
A real risk, because I couldn’t guarantee silence, but then technically no one ever said, “You can’t shriek hideously in a language not spoken by men in the press box.” A miscue while running out the clock would lead to Brandon Weeden being sacked in the end zone as time expired, the safety giving OU the 88-87 win, and I would simply go somewhere else. Probably somewhere terrible, but whatever.
But then the game started, and it was … not horrible. OSU scored an early touchdown, and I … remained calm. Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith kept breaking through the defensive line like a boxer knocking out teeth, and I … smiled softly to myself. Actually, the no-cheering thing fit in pretty well with my natural consuming paranoia (so that was a plus). When your team always loses, when you’re a perennial also-ran whose rival is a perennial national power, you learn not to trust flimsy positives like a three-touchdown halftime lead. Every demon-octopus master-plan scenario called for OSU to surge out to an early lead before choking the game away late. So even when they started coming in bunches, each Cowboy touchdown felt alarmingly double-edged. Touchdowns are good! I wanted touchdowns. Outside the top of the SEC, people even say you need touchdowns to win. What fewer people point out is that you also need touchdowns to choke. And that’s the trouble with belonging to a traumatized fan base. You start interpreting every good development now as establishing the conditions for your eventual suffering later.
But the clock kept counting down, the press-box ladies brought out sugar cookies with “OSU” written on them in frosting, and the game remained … not unacceptable. The OSU defense, which I’d spent all year comparing to holograms and doormats, swarmed over the OU line, reducing the Sooners’ running game to rubble and then slamming Landry Jones down on top of the rubble. I kept my cool. At halftime, I glanced at the stat sheet and saw that Oklahoma had six yards on 10 rushing plays. I sat there, ferociously not cheering. At one point, I think it was somewhere in the third quarter, after the Richetti Jones touchdown that made it 34-3, the writer next to me leaned over and said, “We are about to find out for certain whether or not Squinky is real.”
It started as a joke, this Squinky business, just a lighthearted way to describe the torment of OSU fans. Just your average tentacled hell-beast serving its time in a metaphor. But you have to understand, I had seen Oklahoma State lose to Oklahoma in every conceivable and numerous inconceivable ways over the years. I had seen leads eroded, leads obliterated, leads untended and left for dead. I had seen entire teams starve to death on the field. Early in the fourth quarter, with OSU leading 44-3, my head started spinning, and if a giant crack had opened at the 50-yard line and a tentacle had come rolling out Jules Verne-style, I’m not sure I would have blinked. I would have watched it flatten the goal posts and rip out the girders under the stands, and I would have jotted down the headline “OSU Football Plays Game.”
But it didn’t happen. I sat there not cheering as the two-minute mark came and went. I sat there not cheering as OSU took a 34-point lead into the final seconds. “It’s OK to smile, Brian,” the sportscaster to my right, an Oklahoma legend whom I grew up watching on TV, told me, but I sat there, not cheering, as the clock showed 0:00, not cheering for OSU’s first Big 12 championship, not cheering for their first conference title since 1976. Not cheering as the crowd poured onto the field, not cheering as the goalposts came down, not cheering for the whole weird ballet that followed, as the goalposts sort of bent and wrenched apart as they floated on a sea of bouncing humanity. I didn’t cheer the best season in the history of Oklahoma State football.
But in case you ever find yourself in one, here are a few things you’re allowed to do in a press box. Tingle from head to toe. Feel like you’re floating three feet above your seat. Talk to people without knowing what you’re saying. See fireworks whenever you close your eyes.
I made it back to my parents’ house, where I’m crashing on this trip, around 2 a.m. My dad was still up. He hadn’t watched a minute of the game — couldn’t bring himself to face it, classic OSU-fan stuff — but had stayed awake reading about it until the small hours. We warmed up some chicken and sort of quietly exulted for a few minutes. This thing had really happened. One of us brought up the national championship game, which had apparently been all the media talked about since the final whistle. We agreed that it was both way too soon and way too late to worry about it.
Here’s what I’ll say about the BCS. Sure, you can get mad about it. And yes, as the most biased imaginable observer, I think OSU should have gotten the nod over Alabama, instead of falling short by the slimmest margin in history. But being angry at the BCS for producing unfair outcomes is like being angry at the weather for producing rain. A lot of people have asked me if the 0.0086 points by which the Cowboys stuck at no. 3 is the final revenge of Squinky. No chance. The BCS isn’t cursed by dark magic. It’s just stupid. It would have been unfair for Alabama to get knocked out, too, and then a whole different group of people would have been angry.
The BCS is a crippled, arbitrary, desperately inadequate system. It produces bad outcomes almost all the time because it’s designed to produce bad outcomes almost all the time, because there’s no way not to produce bad outcomes as long as college football continues to treat “playing games” as a second-tier method of judging quality. Online, it’s gotten kind of fashionable to argue that really, the BCS is fine, because every means of selecting a champion in sports has one flaw or another. That’s fair enough. But at the risk of muttering the obvious, there’s a reason that a lot of college football fans are clamoring for a playoff, while exactly no college basketball fans are clamoring for a weighted poll aggregator that distributes teams into discrete but hierarchically related single-game postseason pairings. As close as that sounds to the true meaning of sports.
All of which is just to say that I can’t really bring myself to care all that much about the Big Snub. It was going to happen. I’m excited for the Stanford game. This season ended marvelously, beautifully well for Oklahoma State, ended with maybe the best scenes in OSU sports history, and that doesn’t get undone by anybody else’s math. Squinky is not in evidence. If he’s still down there, in his secret rec room in the sub-basement of hell, he’s sad and confused, and probably browsing for a support group on the Internet. And I’m watching him suffer, and not cheering.
Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland. You can find him on Twitter at @runofplay.
Previously from Brian Phillips:
OU vs. OSU: The Search for Squinky in Stillwater
The Commissioner After the Lockout
Justin Blackmon: An Anti-Profile
How Mario Balotelli Became MARIO BALOTELLI!!!
Tim Tebow, Converter of the Passes
Patti Smith, the Curator of Rock ‘N’ Roll
Noooo-klahoma!: The misery of rooting for the Oklahoma State Cowboys
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