Bulls fall to Pirates by 48 in Vestavia Bowl
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- I have a score to report: East Carolina 831, USF 783.
That's the score I've been given from Thursday's Barbecue and Bowling festivities at Vestavia Bowl. I missed the actual showdown, but I'm told that USF coach Jim Leavitt not only bowled, but came up with a respectable 165 (respectable, in that I can't imagine he's bowled much since August). His ECU counterpart, Skip Holtz, abstained.
USF's six-man team -- Leavitt, offensive coordinator Rod Smith, assistant strength coach Travis Larimore and players Stephen Nicholas, Will Bleakley and Matt Huners -- still had a decent 130 average. Huners told me he even visited the lanes on 56th this week to tune up for the pre-bowl bowling. I'm already hearing some grumbling about the selection process -- poor Rod Smith can't even bowl without catching some grief. By the way, not that Leavitt's superstitious or anything, but he had the team's regular buses from Tampa brought up to Birmingham to shuttle the team around, even though they're flying up and back to USF.
I'll try to update this in the morning to a front-page story on USF lineman Walt Walker, who read a column on ESPN.com by LZ Granderson, campaigning the idea that athletes, by eliminating all use of the n-word, can encourage the same practice across society. Walker, a sociology major, was really impacted by the column and has started teammates thinking about the same thing. It's heady stuff for college football, but I was really impressed by Walker and his linemates, and found it especially poignant as they prepare to play in a city with a history as rich as Birmingham. The Bulls toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on Thursday, and Walker and Marc Dile were introduced to two gentlemen who once marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., nearly a half-century ago. This week might not have the NASCAR ridealong that last year's bowl had, but don't think it hasn't been meaningful on a very personal level, at least to a few Bulls. I've managed to get USF on the front page three days in a row -- can't remember the last time I was able to do that.
While I'm delving into more serious stuff, I can already say what the most memorable moment of my trip will be: coming off the tram to the main terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield airport this morning. I'd noticed a soldier in uniform when I got on the tram and I gave him a respectful thank-you nod, but when I got to the top of the escalator, there were several hundred people there, cheering, clapping, waving American flags and welcome-home balloons. Just a great moment, so close to Christmas, to see a soldier so warmly received and hugging his kids for the first time in who-knows-how long. There are still a lot of them far away from their families, which is something to remember when you're annoyed at little things like a long line at Wal-Mart or trouble finding a parking spot at the mall this week. And if there's anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan reading this: keep up the good work, stay safe and get home soon. You deserve a reception like I saw this morning.
I've already been to Dreamland for the ribs once. I might go again today, though I feel I should take Robert McCullum's recommendation and try Jim n' Nicks, his personal preference. I've yet to see the sun in my first day in Birmingham, and Friday has a 90 percent chance of rain, but the weather's supposed to be nice on Saturday, with a high in the mid-60s and only a 10 percent chance of rain.
My favorite stat of the day: In the six games Wally Burnham played at Legion Field while at Alabama under Bear Bryant in 1960-61, the Tide gave up a total of nine points. Six wins, four shutouts. How cool is it that Burnham can tell you he liked Alabama football before Bryant coached there? "They were awful," he said of the pre-Bear days on Thursday. I can't link because the higher-ups would probably get upset, but I thought the Trib's Brett McMurphy had an outstanding story Thursday on Burnham's growing up in Pell City, just a half-hour east of Birmingham.
Good-news update on former Bulls star J.R. Reed, who latched on with the Falcons on Thursday, signing a two-year contract. He could be lining up in an Atlanta uniform Sunday against the Panthers, helping their special teams. Don't be surprised if another Jonathan Kline client, running back Andre Hall, joins him in Atlanta in a few weeks. Practice-squad players become free agents at the end of their team's season, and Kline said Atlanta has shown interest in signing Hall as a "street free agent" as soon as their season ends and with it the in-season roster limitations. He's currently on Denver's practice squad, which is also enticing because he could be an emergency call-up during the playoffs ... Speaking of former players, Times writer Molly Moorhead talked to ex-USF receiver Johnny Peyton last week. Asked about his future, he mentioned the possibility of trying out for an Arena Football team.
And lastly, a recommendation, for any of you thinking of launching a new bowl next season: go ahead and line up a title sponsor before November. There's all kinds of signage around the city -- billboards, listings in tourist pamphlets, etc., for the Birmingham Bowl. I'm sure the pizza folks are getting plenty of exposure from this week, but it makes the game seem kinda thrown together at the last minute. That said, I don't think the International or Texas bowls ever got sponsors, so I suppose it's better late than never, for a couple hundred thousand reasons.