Game 061:at Austin Peay 73, Jacksonville State 65 Tuesday, February 15, 2005 Dunn Center - Clarksville, TN
When halftime comes, the "Gov" mascot strides onto the floor accompanied by his attendants, a phalanx of black-dressed cheerleaders. The red-coated, top-hatted old gent with a monocle, a character loosely based on former Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, waves to the kids in the stands with four twinkling white-gloved fingers. Then he flashes a sturdy double thumbs-up.
But a large portion of the crowd doesn't stick around for the local Clarksville dance troupes who will be providing the halftime entertainment. Several hundred fans gather up their families and belongings, move in single file up the side bleachers and across the upper concourse. They all seem to be heading to the same place.
Increased attentiveness reveals that they're disappearing behind a series of large black tarpaulins, which are chained together by plastic loops. Draw closer still, a peek between the hanging barriers reveals a makeshift mess hall, circular wooden tables surrounded by institutional stacking-chairs. On one end of the room, there is a white-tablecloth food spread and a beverage station.
And it's quite the spread. Ham and turkey sandwiches sit arranged in spirals on black plates, sprigs of parsley providing a splash of decoration. There are also piles of plate-sized cookies - looks like chocolate chip, maybe a few oatmeal ones too. The Lady Govs volleyball team in their matching t-shirts serves all the Pepsi products that can reasonably be consumed. A large easeled sign in the corner insists that thanks be given to the local auto parts store responsible for providing the food.
"Can I help you?" the woman guarding the gate asks. "You need a button to get in. Can I see your button?"
Indeed, all the adults inside are each wearing a small white lapel button, a sweeping red "AP" logo on a white field, "Governor's Club" printed in block letters below. There are several people wearing two buttons - the second version features a color-field reversal, white on red. These appear to be the rare and special ones.
When the second-half clock begins its countdown from 20:00, most of the members of the Governor's Club linger in the Goveteria high above the field of play, socializing and enjoying a few last nibbles of sandwich. They aren't missing much action of consequence - the visiting Jacksonville State squad is leading by eight, and the Govs are settling into a system of screens to free up shooters against a bunch of eager red-shirted Lilliputians. The Gamecocks run a four-guard lineup and only carry a three-man bench, so it's only a matter of time before the tide turns. Eleven of the JSU's first 13 Ohio Valley Conference opponents this season have worn them down, so should the Austin Peay Governors.
There are some white-pinned ladies and gentlemen seated in the row behind me - I ask an open question about the enrollment procedures. "You get a pin for giving $100," one man says - he's suspicious when I ask his name later, so we'll call him Bob. "Or you can give as much as you want. They're not gonna stop you if you have a few million to spare, it's a booster club after all."
Booster clubs. They get a bad rap nowadays, what with the ugly series of incidents involving overzealous boosters illegally lining players' pockets. The NCAA's zero-tolerance policy has led to sad cases such as those of Chris Webber and Marcus Camby, scandals which left schools with thousands of dollars in fines, lost scholarships, vacated Tournament results, and irreparably broken pride.
Because schools are fully responsible for the actions of their boosters, they like to keep an eye on their contributors. And once you're a booster, you're a booster for life in the eyes of the NCAA. Peay, like many schools, keeps a list of the rules on their website.
But Bob says staying in compliance isn't a problem at AP. "We're a small school," he says. "We mostly just sit around and chat. There's a halftime spread at every basketball game, and between games for doubleheaders."
"So it's more of a social club?" I ask.
"It's a booster club," he corrects me.
But there's something egalitarian and friendly about the Governor's Club. There's a lot of chatting, hand-gesturing and shaking hands. There are dusty old-timer AP diehards slumped at tables next to young go-getter car dealers in their crisp white shirts. There are rigid queen bees on the cusp of old age with their tight sweaters and teacup glasses; they rub elbows with the most common male creature in the South, the jolly balding men with beery bellies that are barely contained by polo shirts. Kids are allowed inside too - they don't wear pins, but they're eating most of the cookies.
"It's getting pretty big," Bob's friend Jim chimes in, directing my attention to a small passageway leading from the mezzanine. There's a faded "Governor's Club" sign. "A couple of years ago, we all went into that little room over there underneath the stands. After we outgrew that, we're up behind the bleachers. Now there's talk that there are too many folks again, and we'll have to move a second time."
But to where? The Dunn Center doesn't appear to have any more room to hold another growth spurt. The boxy sports sandcastle doesn't feature any skyboxes, and I imagine that AP might be the first school to move into a 21st Century facility that includes a huge ballroom to house a 5,000-person booster club. And where was the exclusivity that seems to be such a part of college sports money these days - don't the richest of the rich want to separate themselves from the pack somehow?
I ask my new friends about the special white-on-red pins, what it takes to get one of those. "There's only one color pin," Bob says with a slight hint of disdain. "That red one was from a few years ago. Some people just like to wear them to show off they've been in the Club for a while."
"Do you think they'll ever raise the minimum contribution?" I query. "A hundred dollars seems a little low."
"There are higher giving levels," Bob says. "But all you really get are a few extra tickets and a plaque. Most folks join just to get in the group."
My guess is that the Club fills an important civic function in Clarksville: while football or basketball is in session, it's where the elite meet, greet and eat. And it serves both basic human needs of exclusivity and belonging. The shiny white pin gives its bearer the small thrill of specialness, allows them to hold their head high in a teeming throng of "Let's Go Peay"-chanting hoi-polloi. But the organization's large size and low entry fee keeps the snobbiness at bay. Even though there are some folks who just want a little extra better-than-you edge with their throwback pins, the Club appears to be one big happy Gov-lovin' family.
"Here, son, I'm gonna give you the number to join," yet another gent says despite my repeated insistence that I'm just a Pennsylvania Yankee in Governor Peay's Court. "Here's my card."
The seven-digit number is scrawled on the back of a thick white business card. I flip it over to find the direct-line of a Ford salesman with award-winning customer service. Ahhh, networking.