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Road Trip: New Mexico State/Michigan State – From the Bird’s Nest

For the most part, I like road trips.

On road trips with the Cajuns, especially non-football trips, I get a chance to get to know the players some, visit and perhaps have a meal with coaches, and have a little alone time.  I’ve got website responsibilities, even on the road, as well as game prep, so there’s no time to be lazy, but road trips are, games excluded of course, pretty cool.

Unless its a road trip that takes you to Las Cruces, NM and East Lansing, MI.

Not that those are bad places, mind you.

Just not on the same trip.

This was as physically rugged a trip as I can remember.

THURSDAY

Happy Thanksgiving.

The team and I were on the same (early) flight, but would return home on different flights so I just drove myself to the New Orleans Airport to catch the 10:30 flight to Houston, which would be the first leg of our trip.  Keep in mind, the trip started at 6:30am.

The flight to Houston was uneventful.  They offered a first-class upgrade for $29 and I jumped on it.  Of course, I got some grief from just about everyone I knew on the flight, but hey, at least I got $29 worth.  The flight to Houston took just over an hour.  From there, it was about a 90 minute layover before our flight to El Paso.  I took that opportunity to get a sandwich from Schlotsky’s in Terminal B before leaving.

I got the turkey.  After all, it was Thanksgiving.

Then, it was a two hour flight to El Paso.  By the time we arrived there it was 2:20, Mountain time.  There was a bus there to pick us up for the one hour bus ride to Las Cruces and the Springhill Suites, where we were staying.  That hotel is actually located near Old Mesilla, a old wild west town adjacent to Las Cruces.  Its claim to fame is their town square, which includes an old building that used to be a courthouse.  Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang in that courthouse.  Normally, that area would be a good place to have dinner (La Posta if you want Mexican, Double Eagle for a good steak), but this was Thanksgiving.  And, nothing was open.

Wait.  There was a Cracker Barrel withing walking distance (if you like walking distances) from the hotel, but it was totally packed.  When the bus pulled up, it was about 4pm.  The trip had taken 10 1/2 hours.

After that, the team had to practice (I’m sure they were thrilled.)  I went to my room.  I had stayed their two years previously.  It was a suite with a microwave and refrigerator, a good sized desk and large sleeper sofa.  There was also a bedroom adjacent, and one television kind of in the middle that would swivel right if you wanted to watch in the living room, left for the bedroom.

At 7:00 we all got together in the lobby.  We weren’t with our families for Thanksgiving, but we were with our basketball family.

And it was time to eat.

Cajuns’ Sports Information Director Brian McCann used to be at New Mexico State and was very helpful in setting up a Thanksgiving meal for the team at the Hotel Encanto, which used to be a Hilton property.  They had a long table set up for all of us and a Thanksgiving buffet.  All of us got together and joined hands as Coach Shawn Forrest led us in prayer.

The buffet was pretty impressive.

Turkey, gravy, cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, green beans and salad were all available as well as pumpkin and sweet potato pie.  We ate until we didn’t want any more.

You know, Thanksgiving at my house is so much a family affair.  It was good to be surrounded by people while being so far away from home.

It was back to the hotel afterward.  It had been a really long day.

FRIDAY

I’ve never been an exercise guy (and I paid the price for that) but now I actually look forward to going to the fitness center.  After a light breakfast (did I say I had a light breakfast?  That’s new too) I did about 45 minutes on the treadmill and stationary bike.  Then it was back upstairs for a shower and some time on the web.

There was an Applebees right next door to the hotel and I had lunch there.  We weren’t leaving until 5:30 for the arena.  This was the biggest amount of down time we had on the whole trip.

At the arena, I set up for the broadcast and made sure everything was in order.  The locker rooms were on a totally different level from the court and it would have been quite a trek if I had walked.  Fortunately there was an elevator.  I recorded pre game with coach Marlin and had a quick bite in the press room.  Then it was time to work.

The band wasn’t there, but they had a recording of the fight song, just as they do at the Cajundome this time of year.  The Aggies’ fight song is somewhat controversial since the words in the bridge say

“And when we win this game, we’ll buy a keg of booze

And we’ll drink to the Aggies ’til we wobble in our shoes.”

Now that’s pretty cool.  We’re gonna whip your butt and then we’re gonna get drunk.  My kind of folks.

After the game, I visited with long time NMSU play by play man Jack Nixon.  As most of you know, the Aggies were in the Sun Belt for several years and I got to know Jack.  And, as you may also know, the Aggies’ home, the Western Athletic Conference is falling apart.  They are discontinuing offering FBS football after this year and their basketball is in question as well.  NMSU didn’t get an invite anywhere during the last round of conference realignment.  Jack asked me if I thought there was a chance to get back into the Sun Belt.  I told him there would be a lot of resistance, especially from the schools in the eastern segment of the league.  He’s concerned about the athletic survival of that school.  I think it’s with good reason.

It takes a while to leave once the game is over.  It may be an hour or more after the end of the game before it’s time to go.  In this case, go was back to El Paso, another hour on the bus.  The team had a fairly early flight the next morning.  Mine was even earlier.  We got checked into the Airport Marriott around midnight.  By the time I took a late shower and finally settled in for the night and tossed and turned for awhile, it was 1:30.

My wake up call was at 4am.

SATURDAY

The phone rang.  I tried to ignore it.  But hey, it was right on time.  Four in the morning.

It didn’t take me long to get ready.  I had never really unpacked.  I just took out the clothes I would be wearing.  I went downstairs and the shuttle took me to the airport, which took less than five minutes.  My flight was at 5:45.  I was there in plenty of time.  Then the announcement was made that the plane was ready for boarding and the only problem was there was no potable water available so there would be no coffee.

Really?

Then to make matters worse, we got on the plane and it was really cold. (A front had come through during the night and temps were in the 40′s.)  The captain came on and apologized for the cold and said the heat wouldn’t come on until the engines were started.  And then he said the engines couldn’t be started the normal way because something was broken.

And then the flight attendant reiterated there would be no coffee.

My connection was in Denver.  I had a layover of almost two hours and then boarded another plane for Grand Rapids, MI.   The decision was made to fly into Grand Rapids rather than Detroit because it was going to be more convenient coming home on Sunday.  The flight was a jump of two time zones.  We landed and I waited for the team to get there.  They were about an hour behind.  The bus that was going to take us to East Lansing was late picking us up.  It got there about 5:10 and the bus ride was a little more than an hour.  Thanks to radioPup I got to listen to the first quarter of the football game on the radio.

You think I’m a radio guy?  We got to the hotel and checked in.  When I got to my room, I immediately hooked up my computer.  You know how the game was available online at ESPN3.com?

I never even thought of that.  I listened to Steve, G and Scott.  And I guarantee you they were better than the guys on the video stream.

It had been such a long day I laid down on the bed at halftime and immediately went to sleep.  I was out during halftime and would have slept longer but I heard a noise that woke me up.

The noise was Steve.  The Cajuns had scored a touchdown.

I listened to the rest of the game and wrote the story for our website.  I also got to hear the invitation to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl be extended.

I don’t know how to spell the “freesons” that Gerald always alludes to.  But I got them.

Again, it was another short night.  I was up early to finish doing some work, since we were leaving for the arena at 10am.  I also had to pack since we weren’t coming back to the hotel.

When I went outside to get on the bus, I realized it had snowed.

Not a lot, mind you but it snowed.  And it was cold.

Welcome to Michigan.  And, it’s not December yet.

As Steve would say, “Caw, cat…how do people live?”

Yeah, we took pictures. We acted like the tourists we were.

The Breslin Center seats just under 15,000.  It’s a little over twenty years old. Michigan State doesn’t lose there a lot.  In fact, they had won something like 68 straight non conference games against unranked opponents.

Before the game, I visited with Wil Tieman, who does the broadcasts for the Spartans.  He wanted to go over pronunciations.  Everyone asks about Mbamalu.  After that, we’re pretty easy to figure out.  Wil and I had quite a conversation.  A very nice guy.  I wouldn’t mind it if our paths crossed again.  In fact, everyone in that arena was awfully nice.  The PA announcer, the stat guy, the SID…everyone.

When the Cajuns came out for their final warmups, Coach Marlin and MSU coach Tom Izzo visited for a minute.  I thought it was ironic both were wearing navy pinstriped suits.

It turned out to be a very interesting two hours.

In my blogs I don’t usually write about the game itself.  And, I won’t in this one, except to say I saw as inspired and inspiring performance against a really good basketball team that I’ve seen in a long time.  On this day, Elfrid Payton was the best player on the court.

And right up until the final shot, I really thought the Cajuns were going to win the game.  It was disappointing they didn’t get rewarded for a great effort.

We had to be on the road by three, as there was a plane to catch and we had a bus ride of over an hour.  When we got to the airport in Grand Rapids, I just went and sat down since I was leaving an hour behind the team.  I would look over to the counter and the players and coaches were still there, which I thought a little strange.

Now, for those of you who don’t know Bob Marlin, he’s a pretty even keel kind of guy.  I have yet to see him raise his voice (except in practice) and his disposition is always the same when we work together.  But I could tell he wasn’t happy.

“We’re going to be delayed.  And, we’re going to miss our connection in Houston.”

Missed connections are the worst nightmare for travelers.  Especially on a holiday weekend when you’re a group of twenty.

Coach sat down next to me and we talked about the game for a while.  He was so very proud of his team for their effort, and equally disappointed there was no reward at the end.  We also talked about how grueling this trip had been for everyone.  Thursday from the time we left Lafayette to the time we got to Las Cruces, it was about 10 1/2 hours.  No one got a lot of sleep Friday night because of an early flight.  The Saturday flight took about six hours.  then, on Sunday, the team had to play about 36 hours after the Friday night game.  And, they had to jump two time zones.  I agreed it was a tough one.  Finally, assistant coach Neil Hardin came over and told us they were going to hold the flight from Houston to New Orleans so the connection would not be missed.  Coach Marlin perked up a little.

They went to their gate and I went and had a bite to eat and watched some of the New Orleans/San Francisco game, until it was time for me to catch my flight.  I was connecting through Chicago.  It would be my first time in that airport.

It’s big.  And, it’s busy.

And, I had to change concourses.  It was about a half mile hike, I would ascertain.  There were some moving sidewalks which helped the cause.  Finally I got to the gate where the flight to New Orleans would take place.  My layover was about 90 minutes, and then we were ready to get underway.

Fortunately, (with exception of no coffee on the El Paso-Denver leg) the flights were pretty much uneventful.

When you’re flying, uneventful is good.

We finally pulled up at the gate at Louis Armstrong Airport.  It was midnight.  I was toward the back of the plane so it was a while before the packed flight allowed me to get out and head toward bag claim.  As always in New Orleans, bags took awhile.  Then it was a long walk to the parking garage where my car was.

Finally, it was time to go home.  My day had started when we left for the arena at 10am Eastern time.  By the time I pulled up at the house, it was Gary U. S. Bonds time.

Quarter to three.

But I was the lucky one.

When the plane landed I got a text from Coach Hardin.  The team had missed the connection in Houston and was going to be stranded for the night.  A bus was going to pick them up in H-town at 8:30 Monday morning.

The team finally pulled into the complex Monday at 1pm.

 

 

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