Hope and Rain

Spring is a heart full of hope and a shoe full of rain.

Senior Allison Weimer anchors to victory on Senior Day
Photo courtesy BGSU Athletics

Yesterday I was the PA announcer for the Bowling Green versus Toledo women’s track meet. Toledo finished fifth out of the twelve teams at this year’s Mid-American Conference indoor championships while Bowling Green’s goal was simply to avoid last place (a goal accomplished by a scant five points). On paper, Toledo should have won by a lot.

Yet somehow the Falcons hung in there, and when the 4×400 relay came around the winner of that race determined the winner of the meet. It suited Bowling Green just fine, as one of the season’s highlights so far was setting a new indoor school record in that event at the MAC Championships. The ladies walked out on the track and put it away.

The weather was atrocious. It was 39 degrees but felt much colder, what with Bowling Green’s famous wind plus rain that began to fall during the last few events. It helped the home team; like the Green Bay Packers and cold weather, Bowling Green athletes may not like a battering wind but they don’t fear it as the visiting teams do.

This meet between two natural rivals located just 25 miles apart was an annual affair through 2000, and then it stopped. I ran at Bowling Green a long time ago, and I’ve spent a lot of the intervening years bitter and angry about what happened to my team. I had many winters of discontent.

Things are beginning to change, though. This will always happen at universities. People come and go. Students are there for a short time, and faculty, administration and staff see heavy turnover as well. The new group of people I’ve come in contact with in the athletic department seem to agree with me about what universities are for.

That the meet was held at all filled my heart with hope. Winning it was extra. I got a shoe full of rain, too, and didn’t mind a bit.

When all is just a mem’ry of the by-gone days,
Hear our hymn dear Alma Mater as thy name we praise.

–from Bowling Green’s Alma Mater

I really enjoyed my college years at Bowling Green. Like any period in anyone’s life there were good times and bad times, but the university gave me a lot. I learned so much—my coursework was great but I probably learned more from experiences outside the classroom. I made the best friends I’ve ever had. This city kid learned to love small towns. I met the love of my life. And I got to be on a college sports team despite the fact that I had no discernable talent at all.

It’s not like my experiences were unique. A whole lot of people look back at their college years in a positive light. You couldn’t pay most of them to be teenagers in high school again, but they might jump at becoming 21 and in college again. And this is a big reason why college sports has a following.

Last week I linked to a Joe Posnanski article about how college sports are for the athletes but about the colleges. His point is that it’s the connections between the public and the colleges that allow college sports to exist in the way that they do. The fans watch the contests, follow the teams, and buy the sweatshirts and hats and other paraphernalia almost exclusively because of their connection to the universities. It seems rather obvious but is easily forgotten in the sports press.

I’d add that the colleges with big followings get a large part of their fan base as a way for people to self-identify, mostly regionally (such as Ohio State or Nebraska) but sometimes culturally (such as Notre Dame). I mean, there are a lot of die-hard Michigan football fans who didn’t go to Michigan or any college at all. The same goes for Texas and Alabama and fifty or so other colleges. If you got rid of every Indiana basketball fan who actually went to IU, the Hoosiers would still have a big following.

The so-called “mid-majors”, they don’t have that pull. Their fan base comes from alumni and people who live in the immediate area and that’s about it. It puts them in a precarious position, one where community and alumni relations are very important.

Community and alumni relations are not helped by cutting four sports, lying to the alumni and community about the issues involved in those cuts, and blaming the alumni for the cuts by saying that they didn’t contribute enough cash to the athletic department. That’s more or less what happened in 2001 at Bowling Green, and two of the four sports were men’s indoor and outdoor track and field.

I was bitter and angry for a long time. I hated BGSU, detested the direction the entire university was going. Yet it was still the place I loved, in my adopted hometown, my wife’s employer. A college teammate said to me that he didn’t want to be angry at BG any more but would always be disappointed. I agreed and made my peace with it.

I didn’t buy spirit wear. I didn’t go to games. I didn’t recommend the university to my students. I barely went to home track meets, and then only as a disinterested observer.

In the spring of 2011, the contract of BG’s head cross country and women’s track coach was not renewed. (Since I didn’t care much about BG women’s track and didn’t follow it, I didn’t realize just how bad the program had become.) At the time, my only reaction was “there they go again”.

A few months later I met the new coach at a high school cross country meet in which my team was running. Lou Snelling drove two hours from Bowling Green to this meet partly for recruiting but also because it was an annual gathering point for high school coaches who ran at BG.

He was there to try to mend fences with alumni (some were receptive, some won’t ever be). I was surprised that he knew who I was right away. Other alums said Lou asked for their input, whereas some of the previous coaches had barely acknowledged our existence.

The track team was not very good in that first year. A couple of talented athletes transferred out and Snelling redshirted many others, and he didn’t have much to work with. There were encouraging signs of creative thinking, such as a fund-raising road race tied into the spring football game. I’ll admit I still wasn’t won over, but I enjoyed becoming the announcer for home meets. I also realized that every single person involved in cutting the men’s track teams was now gone from the university.

Show our spirit, make them fear it,
Fight for dear Bee Gee.

–from “Forward Falcons”, the official BGSU Fight Song

The 2013 season has been…different. In a good way. First off, I walked in to announce the first home meet in January and had to share table space with the Assistant Athletics Director for Athletic Communications. We’d never before had an SID grad assistant at meets, and now we had an assistant AD.

Even more unexpected at that first meet was a visit by an Associate Athletics Director, who personally thanked me for “everything you do for our program” and gave me a gift. (I still have the card.) She wasn’t just glad-handing me, either; she’s been at all the rest of the home meets too. It’s her job to outreach to the community and alumni and she doesn’t appear to see us only as dollar signs (which, paradoxically, probably makes us more likely to donate).

The team is still struggling with depth, but what’s good is far better than I expected. Hammer thrower Brooke Pleger has suddenly become a legitimate national-level competitor. School records have been broken in the 4×400 and 4×200. The athletes appear optimistic about the future and excited to compete.

That’s the whole point. Winning isn’t nearly as important as fighting to win. Improving. The athletics department caring about winning and improvement and giving the athletes and coaches the resources they need. Making what few fans and supporters there are to feel a part of the program. Moving forward.

Reviving the rivalry meet with Toledo meant that tradition and competition again meant something. There was no mamby-pamby hold back and pretend you don’t care about the team score in this meet—the coaches and the athletes wanted it. That they actually won was secondary, at least to me.

After every Bowling Green football game, the players gather to sing the nonsensical “Ay Ziggy Zoomba“. Brothers Jim and John Harbaugh know it from their childhood, when father Jack was an assistant coach at BG. It’s one of those bizarre traditions that every college campus has.

Traditions are what bind one generation to the next. They help a community continue even when scattered by the wind, as college communities always are. It’s why people care about college sports and the colleges they represent.

Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Zoomba
Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Ze
Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Zoomba
Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Ze
Roll along you BG warriors
Roll along and fight for BGSU!

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