Late Saturday night, in the temporary Saint Louis locker room underneath the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center, new Billikens head coach Rick Majerus rubbed his face crosswise and lengthwise, trying to invent things to say about a blowout win over Houston Baptist. Failing that, he diverted reporter questions towards more comfortable topics like food and politically-correct labels for ballplayers, and finally asked how things were going at his most recent employer, ESPN.
"They got you flying first class?"
"No, Coach," I replied. "I sleep in truck stops."
A sideways look. "Who's your agent?"
Whoever my agent is, he's certainly not talking about $350 million floors like Scott Boras. My name is Kyle Whelliston, and I write about mid-major college basketball for a living. That means driving long distances (up to 600 miles per day), continually searching for the fast WiFi necessary to research and file stories and entries, and yes, it means truck stops. Lots and lots of truck stops.
Like this one, a Love's past the halfway point between Pittsburgh and Columbus, on Interstate 70. I've set up shop in the attached Arby's, watching the stream of truckers and families pass through, none of them wanting extra Horsey sauce when asked. They're all between one place and another, and most don't know where they are unless they check their receipt. Zanesville, Ohio... that's where they are.
Most people cringe, or freak out, or offer me the couch for the night, or try to slip a 20-dollar bill in my pocket when I tell them how I travel. I don't know what they're talking about, I'm living the life of Ultimate American Convenience. It's warm here, there's a shower if I need to clean up, and a private wheeled compartment out back if I need to catch up on sleep. Plus, I can have a Jamocha shake any time I feel like it.
Besides, I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it.***
The early morning of day two, headlined by a straight shot from Boston to Pittsburgh for a 4:00 pm tip, and the family car's already a mess. The careful system I'd worked on for weeks leading up to season's start, the one that had been born out of all the mistakes from last season, is already showing deep cracks.
The ArtBin organizer that holds the XM radio wires, the backup cell batteries, the iPod charger and the AA's for the camera is upside down in the passenger seat's floor, cables spilling everywhere. The media guides and game notes are already piling up in the back seat. The laundry basket in the trunk was supposed to be taken care of with a new technique involving dryer sheets, but the people on the internet were wrong, and that was with just a single day's worth of dirty work clothes. I have to stop for a bottle of Febreze, which knocks that problem out.
Some things are working, though. Keeping my ties rolled up in a Ziploc bag is one of those why-haven't-I-thought-of thats. Schedules are running on time, thanks to a streamlined system of two pocket-sized Moleskines and a jailbroken iPod touch.
But none of that is helping fight the weather. The snowflakes on the lower rung of the New York Thruway, the part that doesn't cost money to drive on, are falling fat and fast. At 3:30 a.m. at 70 miles per hour, they're coming at me, towards me, against me. At the first possible opportunity, I pull off the road, do some time/distance calculations, and budget 84 minutes for sleep. I take those minutes, every single one, at a TravelCenters of America near Maybrook.***
Some people who've been following along in previous seasons know this already, but certain larger truck stop chains are wonderful sources of mid-major sports gear. In the clothing section (presumably only there for those cases where truckers accidentally spill their 64-oz. mugs of soda on their shirts), among the Jeff Gordon jackets and Tony Stewart caps, you can usually find a virtual Steve and Barry's.
There have been the major clothing finds that have reverberated through The Mid-Majority's history. The Stony Brook sweatshirt ($9.95) I found in Louisiana gets worn a lot, and a Georgia Southern ballcap ($6) picked up in central Tennessee is in the go-bag I bring to baseball games during the summer. There have been plenty of what-ifs and near-misses, too, I'll always wonder how different my life would be if I'd picked up the puffy reversible SWAC logo jackets from the truck stop near Nashville. I was flying out the next day, and there was no way I'd be able to find the time to ship them back home.
Saturday morning at a Love's in DuBois, PA, the racks were loaded. A Portland State Vikings sweatshirt, resplendent in verdant green... but two sizes too small. A Cal State Bakersfield sewn-on tee, to celebrate their first Division I schedule... if it weren't in a "husky" size. I didn't leave empty-handed, though. A sweet maroon-colored Loyola (Ill.) Ramblers hoodie in size L, manufactured by Champion, for a cool ten bucks. It's warm, it's comfortable, it's roomy, and it's already one of my absolute favorite clothing items ever.***
There was at least one person who's more enthusiastic about the Houston Baptist win than Coach Majerus. There he was in a halfcourt 200-level seat, holding a series of hand-made posterboards featuring the Billiken logo, plays on player names, and an inspiring Latin phrase about the team's new coach ("Ad Majerus Dei Gloriam") that he'd later describe as "a Jesuit thing."
SLUSignGuy turns out to be Steve Rogers. He lives in D.C. but gets out to SLU (pronounced "sloo") games often. He's a Saint Louis University legend, even appearing at the groundbreaking of the school's new gym this summer to hold a special sign ("Home Sweet Home"). He runs a rotation of about 20 signs on 10 foam-filled posterboards. One for each upperclassman, a few for special occasions, and he carries them all around in an artist's portfolio.
"There are a lot of sign guys in Missouri," Steve explained. "Everyone knows about the Cardinals sign guy from being on TV all the time during the playoffs. He's a Missouri State guy, and he gives them signs too. But those are professionally printed, so that's kinda like cheating. I make these myself, 100 percent."
In addition to his SignGuy duties, Steve also runs billikens.com
, one of the more successful fan-run one-team forum/blog/info sources out there. He's even pushed the The athletic website is SLUBillikens.com
, which might be your third or fourth guess if all you had was a browser's address bar.
"I've had the domain since 5th grade," he said. "They contacted me years ago, but they haven't asked for the domain... yet. They just wanted a disclaimer on every page saying that we were unofficial and didn't. "
The next day, I sat with SLUSignGuy in the last row of the lower bowl, directly behind the basket, and watched the second half of the Billikens' tourney-closing contest against the hosts from Pitt. As the Panthers slowly, steadily and surely wear the blue-clads down to a nub (despite Majerus' frantic guard rotation), Steve recounted the recent history of SLU hoops: a 1998 first-round win over future A-10 foe Massachusetts under Charlie Spoonhour, a 2000 bid with Lorenzo Romar before he left for Washington, and the excruciatingly slow-paced and decidedly "unsexy" style of Brad Soderberg.
"Yeah, we're a mid-major," Steve said. "SLU basketball is the little engine that could."
I asked him about some of the rumors circulating this decade about the school applying for membership in America's top mid-major league, the Missouri Valley, a conference that has its headquarters virtually right down the street from SLU's campus.
"If we did join the Valley, that would lock us in," he replied. "We'd be a mid-major forever, we'd never be able to get out of it. It'd never happen."
Barry Eberhardt, the Billikens' new power forward, drives the baseline and throws it down. "Yes!" Steve yelled out suddenly in the momentarily hushed arena, pumping his fist wildly, then reaching for his "How Scary Is Barry" sign.
"Sorry about that," he said after composing himself. "But sometimes I can't control myself when it comes to the Billikens. I mean, c'mon, this is college basketball... gotta love it."***
The road -- or rather, The Road -- is a weird world. It's full of green signs, bumperstickers, saturated fats, country music and giant corporate logos on 200-foot poles.
And then there's this, seen outside Scranton the other day on Interstate 81.
Anybody who's stuck behind this truck for any length of time, including myself now, is going to have nightmares for weeks. But, as always, I'm most worried about the kids. Raining seafood is a sign that means the world is ending and it's time to repent. This woman certainly doesn't seem happy about it, captured here in the exact split-second between disbelieving laughter and sheer unchecked terror.
If you haven't made it to the Price Chopper for your bunker supplies by the time the shrimp starts falling from the sky... well, then it's too simply late for you, my friend. See you in hell.Games: 5Miles: 905