SMU Does Game Day.
Gerard does beer, barbecue and boulevarding.
Somewhere along the way there was a game of (American) football.
So to get started, there is no such thing as “college sports” in Australia. You might think that is odd for a country that considers sport its official religion, where elections have to be scheduled to avoid finals season, and a bunch of horses can cause 25 million people to stop whatever they’re doing and find a television set. And yet, at a university level there is virtually no interest in competitive sport*. I’m not even sure my alma mater even had a mascot. I’m not sure any Australian university has a mascot for that matter.
By contrast, college sports is a way of life in the US, and in Texas, the dominant sport is college football. In fact, it rivals the NFL in terms of fans and interest, with games being broadcast on television on multiple channels, and with stadia that make the hallowed fields of Australia’s rugby league teams look like disused paddocks.
But there’s an even greater phenomenon attached to college football, and that’s the “tailgate” party. These parties grew up around the concept of taking your truck to the game, firing up a barbecue, and knocking back a few beers before heading into the stadium to cheer on your team. However, Southern Methodist University has decided to take it to a completely different level. They term it “boulevarding” in honour of Bishop Boulevard, the half-mile long stretch of road where the party takes place.
And they take it seriously too. Setup started a week before the game; we would arrive on campus for classes to see trucks (yes, trucks) unloading equipment, and teams of workers putting up tents and tables. By Thursday, the biggest tents had been erected, and signs dotted the grass, marking out the spaces for people who had booked plots of turf to set up their own private parties. Roads were closed, and parking garages emptied ahead of the Friday kickoff (much to the dismay of any students who drove to class). Police took over intersections around the university, hand-directing traffic coming from the freeway.
You’d think that the lecturers and academics would not pay it much mind, or even be dismissive of the whole thing. Certainly they would be in Australia, but not here. Every lecturer we had actively encouraged us to attend the game, almost as if our grades depended on attendance.
That said, the weather was conspiring against everyone. The week had seen day after day of 40ºC temperatures, and Friday was no different. Barely a cloud in the sky, the hot Texas sun grilling the city.
Not that that stopped the party.
Honestly, in all my years of going to sports across the world, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The normally quiet and leafy boulevard was packed with people. The smell of woodsmoke and meat filled the air. On some plots, giant sound systems blasted out party music. On others, portable satellite dishes had been erected, connected to big screen televisions showing the game. A golf cart darted up and down the boulevard, hauling a trailer loaded with bags of “emergency” ice to refill beer coolers.
Sponsors and other commercial well-wishers had set up tents, with free food and giveaways. TV crews from national sports networks were interviewing party-goers and fans. Even supporters of the opposing team, Texas Tech, had staked out a few plots and joined in the festivities.
It’s also worth noting at this point that boulevarding has a dress code, with men wearing smart casual (a definition which can extend to bowties in these parts), although t-shirts are forgiven if they’re football shirts. For women, a white sundress and cowgirl boots was almost compulsory.
I managed to make my way through the crowd to the Cox Business School, the forecourt of which had been filled with tents and tables. The Dean of the school hosts a massive, fully catered event for the staff, alumni and students. Hundreds were in attendance just at this one subset of the grander party. The business school takes pride in their boulevarding event; it’s seen as a huge networking opportunity, and a chance for everyone to take some time out after the first busy weeks of the academic year. The queue for the buffet (yes, buffet) was huge, but worth it.
The only downside of boulevarding is that apparently it works too well. Nobody wants to leave, and the biggest challenge has been getting the thousands of people from the boulevard to the stadium (a distance all of 500m). There have been games where the stadium has been nearly empty despite the boulevard being packed. Even having the full SMU marching band, led by SMU’s mascot (Peruna the Shetland Pony) doesn’t seem to be enough to get people to move. The fact that the stadium itself is “dry” (i.e. no beer whatsoever) may also be a contributing factor, but that’s purely speculative of course…
That said, this particular game was sold out well ahead of time, being the season opener against Texas Tech. Whilst Texas Tech is physically located across the state in Lubbock, many of their alumni are based in Dallas, meaning that they get along to whatever games they can. They almost outnumbered the SMU fans, who were still streaming in (myself included) after the kickoff. Only later would I find out that former president George W. Bush had been in attendance to do the coin toss.
The stadium itself is bigger than some of the bigger stadia in Australia, seating 32000. By comparison Canberra Stadium, home of the ACT Brumbies rugby team, holds a mere 25000. And SMU’s stadium is considered small by college football standards.
My friends and I managed to find the student section, where sitting is all but forbidden, and the marching band is to be obeyed at all times. Not long after that we made a horrible faux pas. You see, in all the pre-game publicity we were told to wear white. We though this a bit odd since SMU colours are normally red, but we went with it. That meant that when we arrived late we naturally assumed that the team in white on the ground was SMU, and started cheering them during a play. Not long after we were kindly informed that in fact the team in white was Texas Tech, and that SMU were in red. In a stadium with all the SMU fans wearing white. Somebody really stuffed up there.
Jordan explains (American) football to Giulia
Not that I really knew what to cheer for anyway. Despite having prepared for (American) football, and despite my friends Adam and Jordan on hand helpfully explaining the rules, I still couldn’t get my head around the stop-start nature of the game or the rules, and coming from a rugby fan that means a lot.
But it was still entertaining. By half time, SMU were only down by a couple of points, but still in with a good chance. And that’s where I have to make a confession. I left the game at half time, due to the need to get home via public transport (which virtually shuts down after 10pm). However, apparently I didn’t miss much, only SMU getting beaten rather soundly in the final quarter.
Not that anyone seems too bothered. It seems that at SMU, football is the sideshow, a decent excuse to put on a big party and have a great time. And with a full season to come, there’s plenty more chances to win, but more importantly there’s plenty more opportunities to go boulevarding...
*The great exception to this rule being the University of Canberra, who is a naming rights sponsor of the ACT Brumbies. However the Brumbies are not the University of Canberra's team per se.
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