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September 3, 2008

‘We Scored!’: A Virginia Trip Diary

To steal an old line from Brent Musberger: You are looking live at Charlottesville, Va., home of the Virginia Cavaliers!

As the 2008 college football season got underway, your intrepid reporter just happened to schedule a business trip to the Washington, D.C., area that timed out perfectly with the USC Trojans' opening battle against Virginia.

I mean, it's not every day that I can interview a lawyer, a lobbyist and a federal regulator for a magazine piece that's two months from deadline - and be able to do so just a day before my alma mater plays a game less than 120 miles from the locations of those interviews! What luck!

Mix in a couple of USC Alumni Association events, two flights on a new airline and a 52-7 pasting of the Wahoos, and you had a recipe for an eventful trip diary (my first since the 2005 Orange Bowl trip.) So, with no further ado, let's hit the road:

Thursday, Aug. 28
My first trip on Virgin America Airlines starts auspiciously, as the number of VA staffers at the counter outstrips the number of passengers checking in for the 8:05 a.m. flight at LAX. "Hello, American Airlines? I think we need to talk about what I am getting as a platinum flyer." …

At the gate, it becomes clear that about 1/3 of the passengers are going out for the SC game. Could there be more than the expected 5,000 USC fans on hand in Charlottesville? …

DirecTV? A choice of 30 movies? Direct to seat food and beverage ordering all flight long? A 90-second wait for delivery after the order? VA is quickly earning more of my business …

A question for anyone who has ever been to Dulles International Airport: Who designed those inter-terminal transport shuttles? The effects guys for 1984's "The Terminator"? The effects guys for Disneyland's Star Tours? I mean, these things look exactly like someone's version of the future - but from about 25 years ago …

Someone might want to let my cabdriver know that his scent + no air conditioning in muggy Virginia isn't the best customer service possible …

I get dropped off outside my buddy Rick's part-time office in Arlington, Va., at the corner of 14th and Troy. Nice …

Quick change and we hit the Metro to brand new Nationals Park for the Dodgers-Nationals game. Tickets courtesy of the USC D.C.-Area Alumni Association …

Nice, centerfield box seats with food service - and Manny goes deep in the first …

Not so nice, only basic American bottles come with the food service, and the Nationals respond with five in the bottom of the first …

Ugly game, so it's time to tour the new park: lots of food and beverage options, (including better beer) great angles to the action from everywhere, and, in what's become a very popular feature of all these newer ballparks, a concourse that allows you to circle the entire field - from the bleachers to behind the plate and back - with a view of the field …

Apparently, D.C. has an odd proportion of Ohio State fans, because we keep hearing about how the Bucks are coming to beat USC in two weeks. Either that, or they just happen to dislike Ohio State less than the West Coast …

Up to the Red Loft, a bar high above the centerfield seats, with a bird's-eye view of the field and - off the rear side - the U.S. Capitol. It's like a singles scene up here, with 20-somethings flirting everywhere and flatscreens over the bar playing college football and NBC coverage of the Democratic Convention. This will not be a rarity. D.C. is very much a company town …

A couple of current Virginia students decide to chat us up about the game Saturday. Neither dude is going to the game (a series of lame excuses follow). However, they are stunned that I came all the way from California and Rick from Oregon for the game …

They do, however, suggest a place to stop for food in Charlottesville on Saturday - a burger joint called The White Spot. "Get the Gus Burger," they concur, convincingly …

Back to Arlington, we stop into a bar at a BBQ restaurant, grab a beer and settle in for the Obama speech. About a half-dozen folks are crowded around the screen at the closed restaurant for the historic event, on the 45th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech. No matter your political leanings, it was a symbolic moment for race relations in the country …

Onward, but not necessarily upward, to Ragtime, a divey singles bar, for some late night munchies and the second half of Oregon State-Stanford. Potatoskinadillas, anyone? And, no, I'm not making that menu item up …

Friday, Aug. 29
Up-and-at-em for my morning interviews, but this rain could be a damper on getting around …

After the regulator interview (which government agency needs to remain off the record), it's on to a big-time D.C. law firm. When I arrive, it feels a bit too much like Grisham's "The Firm." However, upon the arrival of my interviewee, a long-time industry friend, the feeling abates … a little …

Back over to Arlington for the last interview with an industry lobbyist. He chooses a solid Lebanese restaurant I'd gladly recommend to anyone visiting Arlington …

Now, it's pouring and that half-mile walk back to the office with no umbrella doesn't look so good. The answer? A cocktail! After all, even if it's 2 p.m., my workday is over …

Nice - my attorney friend hooks up a late reservation for three to the historic Old Ebbitt Grill, about a block from the White House. Classic place for D.C. insiders, and the food's excellent, too …

Gin drinkers - if you haven't already, switch to Hendrick's Gin. Trust me …

After dinner, Rick takes me to a fantastic cigar lounge about a block away called Shelly's Back Room. We're seated in the lounge, offered two drink and two cigar menus. It's going to be that kind of night …

The lounge offers SMU-Rice football on one TV - and CNN coverage of McCain's VP pick on a half-dozen others. Like I said, company town …

However, it appears that the young women of the district have caught the cigar bug. Women 35-and-under are currently outnumbering guys of the same age range. In fact, two big female friend groups are holding court at tables nearby. Who knew? …

CNN runs footage of Sarah Palin firing a range of automatic weapons followed by an immediate smash-cut to footage of Obama's speech the night before. Without sound, it made for a highly amusing and somewhat disturbing non-sequitir …

Back at the apartment in Arlington, I get a phone call at 1:30 a.m. Eastern. It's my dad, who is heading home from his retirement party after his last day of 40 years delivering your mail. He sounds like a little kid, he's so happy. Congrats, dad …

Saturday, Aug. 30
Who on earth returns pantyhose to CVS at 7:40 on a Saturday morning? The woman in front of me in line as I am trying to buy adult beverages for the bus ride to Charlottesville, that's who …

So, the Alumni Association has booked about 8-10 buses to take fans to Charlottesville. One of those is a "family" bus. This will become pertinent information later …

Apparently loading the buses in front of the hotel doesn't make sense, even though they are parked there. No, they have to come down to a rear entrance to load us, even though it requires each bus to make a 6-point turn to get back into position to leave the hotel …

I think I am one of four people having a beer, and we've been on the road for 35 minutes. Rick's the worse-for-wear after last night, and he's catching a little shut-eye …

Off the highway after about 30 miles - and if I'd known that the next 85 miles was going to include no open highway and plenty of traffic signals, I might have stayed in Charlottesville. Clearly, Virginia needs to put some money into infrastructure here …

After taking almost three hours to travel what would have taken less than two in a state with real highways, we disembark at the UVa basketball arena, which our guides tell us is about as far from the stadium as the Galen Center is from the Coliseum …

It's also about 90 degrees with 80 percent humidity. Looks like this game's going to make it on the list of the hottest USC games ever, with the VaTech game in D.C. in 2004 and the 1998 Purdue game at the Coliseum …

I think I could have walked to the Coliseum and back to the Galen Center, yet I've just now come upon the UVa bookstore …

A very kind and gracious guide outside the bookstore hands me a campus map and sets the record straight by telling me I'm about halfway to the stadium from where I started. The bookstore bathroom and air conditioning sound like a good idea right now …

20 minutes and a UVa t-shirt later, we set out to find the center of campus (a.k.a., the Rotunda and the Lawn). As we head across campus, it becomes clear just how southern the university really is …

A lot of wonder at all the USC fans who made the trip. We've been asked about a half-dozen times if we came all the way across the country for the game. The positive answer never seems to astonish the UVa folks any less than before …

The Rotunda and Lawn is one of the more impressive sights of any university I've visited. The tailgating is good, and the views are enhanced by the co-eds almost uniformly dressed in sundresses and the best make-up they've got …

At the same time, the frat boys are all outfitted in oxford shirts, loose ties, shorts and Top Siders. Yes, that's right, Top Siders …

Locating The White Spot is easy, as EVERYONE knows where it is and is happy to direct us to "The Corner," a stretch of bars and restaurants bordering campus near the Rotunda …

Oh my god! The kid from the Nats game was wrong. Don't get the Gus Burger - get the Double Gus! It's a double cheeseburger with a fried egg and other toppings of your choice. My arteries were clogging as I watched the cook make mine on the griddle. The narrow "restaurant" offers about a dozen seats at a bar facing the stove and another 6-8 seats at a bar attached to the wall about 4 feet behind …

All that, and Gus is the guy working the register! The place's walls are loaded with photos of Gus with a vast selection of UVa's finest co-eds. Nice work, Gus …

Talk about hitting the spot. Now, I can definitely put a nice dent in these remaining beers …

The hospitality continues as we head back to the Lawn to finish off the beers before the game underneath a big shade tree. Photos are taken, sundresses inspected, and more amazement at the travel efforts of USC fans is shared …

As we leave the Lawn to head down to the stadium, I take one final picture of the Rotunda with my cellphone camera. As I do, a young lady shouts across the Lawn at me, in all seriousness, "Isn't it beautiful?" Southern Hospitality - it's a very good thing …

Scott Stadium is phenomenal for a mid-sized, on-campus stadium. Newly renovated, there are plenty of entrances, restrooms and concessions on all levels. And once we reach our seats, upstairs in the endzone facing north, the view is immaculate. Thousands of orange-clad Virginia fans have filled the end-zone lawn opposite and the rolling hills behind the columns make for a stunning scene …

These people aren't much for the Cavalier nickname, it seems, outside of having a Cavalier on a horse that pulls a little Traveler-style run and the video board presentation of an animated Cav whipping an animated Trojan …

All the battle cries and band-led efforts seem to refer to the school's unofficial nickname - the Hoos …

Finally, the 2008 season has arrived as USC kicks off to Virginia at 40 minutes past 3 p.m. EDT …

Just 11 real-time minutes later, it's 7-0 USC after a very efficient drive is capped by a Stafon Johnson TD run …

It doesn't get much better for the Hoos and their fans, as USC leads 21-0 just more than 10 minutes into the game …

At least the UVa fans are realistic. No one is complaining about the USC fan cheering in our mixed section and there seems to be a sense of awe at the Trojans' performance, as well as the number of Trojan fans on hand …

USC gift-wraps a UVa touchdown drive with 40 yards worth of penalties. The Virginia crowd goes crazy - they definitely might want to let it all hang out here, because the heat's wearing on all of us, and I don't see the Trojans making those mistakes again …

Good news: UVa concessionaires are ready for the heat, as my second bottle of water in the first half comes partially frozen. They've been freezing the water in order to help cool off the crowd. Um, somebody want to send the managers of this crew out for a chat with the Coliseum folks? …

Halftime means a chance to sneak outside to the concourse and sit in the shade. It also means the phone call to my dad, who's plenty stoked with the 24-7 lead (and still walking on air about his retirement) …

Back inside, Mark Sanchez starts showing off his talents, with two strong passes to Patrick Turner on a TD drive, followed by a perfect long-ball to Ronald Johnson to make it 38-7. If USC can add the long-ball threat to its array of talents, the sky will be the limit for this team …

USC's appearances at road stadiums under Pete Carroll should come with some sort of FDA warning on the tickets for the home fans: "Warning: Ticketholders must be aware that the risk of empty stadium syndrome (ESS) is raised during this event. Please take precautions to prepare for early onset of ESS, including knowing the best way out of the stadium and parking lot well before the final gun." …

The fourth quarter means one thing: time to move down to the field level near the USC band …

The remaining Virginia fans appear to be sticking around for the spectacle and tradition that is a USC road victory. Plenty of UVa folks moving nearer the USC section, taking pics of the band and the song girls, and chatting up USC fans (still) about the traveling group …

From down here, it appears that there are at least 7,500 USC fans on hand …

With less than two minutes to go, a roaring chorus of, "We are … SC!" gives way to a roaring chorus of "Beat the Buckeyes." It's no longer too early to look ahead …

Walking back to the bus (much cooler with the evening air, but not much shorter), the quote of the day comes from a passing car. "Ha, we scored!" shouted the UVa fan in the passenger seat, breaking up Rick and I, as well as some other USC fans walking nearby …

Back on to a bus (we were told we could get on any bus to return), the air conditioning feels great …

Uh oh, we have a freak show in the front of the bus who thinks it's her job to dole out seating assignments - and she now says this is the "family bus." Failing to grasp that the heat has drained all desire from 95% of the USC fans on hand to "party" on the way back, she then contends that this is the one bus that was exempt from the "any bus to return" rule …

Before this turns sour or ugly, four of us bail and get on the next bus back …

As we pull out of the UVa campus, two guys at the front of this bus "mockingly" vote to get beers for the ride back …

Apparently, they weren't mocking as their 2-58 vote victory has gotten the bus driver to pull into the lot at the local Kroger, much to the chagrin of everyone else on board …

Two 18-packs of crappy beer later, they return to the bus to a chorus of boos. Apparently the rest of us wanted to get back to DC to do some actual partying … or sleeping …

Another three hours - and an apparently needless detour into Maryland - later, we're back at the host hotel. The local Alumni Association definitely has some work to do before the next time they host an event this size …

After two nights of drinking, followed by the events of the day, it's time for an early night - especially with that 5:30 wake-up for the flight home calling …

Back at the apartment, it's Ducks-Huskies. The blowout is the perfect drug to knock me out. Heading home in the morning …

Dreaming of Buckeyes and Beavers and Ducks, oh my! Fight On! Beat the Buckeyes.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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