Sunday, December 18, 2005

Is a Playoff the Way to Go?

The smorgasbord of bowl games is about to begin, with 28 games in 16 days. Excessive? To some, yes. But others say this is the perfect way to end the season. The topic even sparked the interest of Congress, which held a hearing to ask gridiron movers and shakers whether the NCAA should stage a Division I-A playoff. It's already done on all other levels, including I-AA, where Friday night's finale was an example of what a true title game means to players and fans (story is in comments).

1 comment:

dawizofodds said...

Panthers’ run brings purple people together

Mike Hlas
Cedar Rapids Gazette

The jet carrying Northern Iowa’s football team home didn’t get airborne until 2:30 a.m. Saturday (Eastern time).

The Panthers’ 21-16 NCAA I-AA championship game loss to Appalachian State ended about 11:40 p.m. The team buses to the Chattanooga, Tenn., airport left Max Finley Stadium about an hour later. It takes time for a plane-full of people to get screened at the airport and for all that equipment and luggage to get screened and loaded onto an aircraft.

Waiting in the plane for the team were bags containing cold meat sandwiches, a bag of chips and a candy bar. A middle-of-the-night snack.

The plane landed at Waterloo’s airport about 90 minutes later. There, you deplane the old-fashioned way, down a staircase and directly into the teeth of the elements. Everyone scrambled to locate luggage on the runway after it was taken off the plane. It was 7 degrees. It seemed cruelly ironic that the airline the Panthers used was called Sun Country.

The team’s final few miles to the UNI campus were spent on school buses. Such is the I-AA life.

A few hundred fans formed a pep rally at that airport to send the team off Tuesday evening, but virtually no one was there in the middle of the night to welcome them back. However, the appreciation for a season well-played will come the team’s way for a long time. Perhaps forever.

Playing in a national championship game was a big darn deal for both teams involved. Appalachian State had 10,000 fans who made the 270-mile trip from North Carolina. They flooded the field after the game and are probably still partying.

UNI had, I’m guessing, about 4,000 supporters. It was a lot of purple people.

‘‘It was outstanding to go to the reception (held in a pavilion just outside the stadium) before this football game, to see the number of UNI people that this brought together,’’ UNI Coach Mark Farley said. ‘‘Through football, we had the chance to bring together thousands of UNI people from years past, put a little hop in their step because of the pride.’’

Jodie Wilhelm of Cedar Rapids and her son, Noah, left Cedar Rapids at 4:30 a.m., Friday to drive to Waterloo (‘‘in that crazy, stupid snow,’’ she said) to catch one of two 141-seat chartered flights that left Waterloo for Chattanooga on Friday morning, then returned everyone to Iowa after the game. Wilhelm’s daughter, Briana Rickertsen, is a UNI student and the girlfriend of standout Panther linebacker John Hermann.

All sorts of Panthers fans had similar stories. As soon as UNI won its I-AA semifinal at Texas State, Marty Kerr and Randy Witte of Cedar Rapids snapped up reasonably priced airline tickets from Cedar Rapids to Nashville. They drove the rest of the way to Chattanooga. That was after enduring a seven-hour, weather-induced delay in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

They were excited Friday afternoon, all the same. It wasn’t because they were in Chattanooga in mid-December. It was because they were at a place where their team was playing for a national title. The game was the thing. It meant something.

Thousands of Hawkeye fans will be in Tampa, Fla., Jan. 2 to see Iowa play Florida in the Outback Bowl. The destination obviously overrides the importance of the game as a selling point.

That bowl will match a team that finished in a fourway tie for third place in the Big Ten against a team that tied for second in one of the Southeastern Conference’s two divisions. It will determine which of the two is better. That’s all.

That’s fine. Teams and their fans enjoy bowl trips. They don’t all need to be events of great significance.

But if the Outback Bowl were to be played in cold Chattanooga instead of comfy Tampa? The 20,668-seat Finley Stadium might be plenty big enough to hold everyone who wanted to be there.

mike.hlas@gazettecommunications.com