The University of North Dakota football team will play at Nicholls State in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs this weekend, giving the Fighting Hawks a chance to get a taste of the Louisiana bayou. Nicholls is located in Thibodaux, about an hour west of New Orleans.
That taste will include heat and humidity. The weather forecast for Saturday calls for a high temperature of 80 degrees with 79 percent humidity.
As we say here on the tundra, "Laissez les bons temps rouler."
As we also say Up North, "Aw jeez. Eighty degrees ain't nothing."
What I'm about to tell you is probably mostly true. Some of it has been memorialized in Jeff Kolpack's book about Bison football, "Horns Up: Inside the Greatest College Football Dynasty." Some quotes might be generalizations. Some details might be enhanced. But nothing is made up. This all happened in some way, shape and form.
Back in the day, when North Dakota State made its lone trip to Nicholls State in 2004, temperature at kickoff for the Oct. 2 game at Guidry Stadium was 90 degrees with the humidity hovering above 70 percent. The Bison and the poor sportswriters from Fargo who covered the game — Kolpack and myself — were drenched in sweat after the 24-14 NDSU victory.
Although given the fine physical condition of said scribes, there's a pretty good chance the perspiration had more to do with getting from Fargo to Thibodaux than it did the heat and humidity.
You've seen "Planes, Trains and Automobiles?" Yeah, that was a pleasure cruise compared to what the Forum Communications Co. crew went through that day. This was back when WDAY had the NDSU broadcast rights, so it wasn't just Kolpack and me sweating bullets. Ask Phil Hansen, Jack Michaels, Steve Hallstrom, Stacey Anderson (WDAY-TV) or Darren Gibbins (Forum photographer). They'll tell you. As the late Scott Miller would've, too.
Michaels, now the play-by-play voice of UND football, recalls, "I turned to Phil Hansen and said, 'Is this how it ends?'"
A cracked windshield at 29,000 feet in a small plane will have you asking those types of questions.
The day began like every other Saturday road game began, and still begins, for The Forum Communications gang. We got on the corporate Beechcraft King Air at the Fargo Jet Center in the morning, planning to arrive in Louisiana a few hours before the 4 p.m. kickoff. All was good until 45 minutes or so into the flight when, in the vicinity of Sioux Falls, S.D., lead pilot Keith Corliss slid open the cockpit door and showed us the windshield.
Cracked. Spiderwebbed. Shattered. It looked like a road map of the Eastern seaboard between Boston and Philadelphia.
Kolpack wrote about the trip in his book.
He quoted Corliss: "A loud snap, it gets your attention in a hurry. I can't see anything through the window and you say to yourself, 'This is going to get interesting.' The Beechcraft manual will tell you it's not a dire emergency, but who wants to fly around with pieces of glass falling into your lap? We had the option to continue but we thought it was just wise to turn around and not drag it into something worse."
Couple things, just to be clear: What cracked was the inner of the double-paned cockpit windshield, so it wasn't like there were things being sucked out of the plane like in the movie "Airport;" and we never lost cabin pressure, which would not have been a good scenario.
But if you want to act like having a windshield spiderweb at 29,000 feet isn't a big deal, go ahead. Corliss said his biggest concern was chunks of glass falling into the instruments and gumming them up and giving us problems landing.
So that started the fun.
The pilots turned the plane back toward Fargo, slowed our airspeed and dropped altitude to 10,000 feet. It took forever to get back home.
Once there, we still needed to find a way to get to Louisiana. Pronto. Remember, WDAY had the broadcast contract so Scotty, Jack and Hallstrom had to do the radio broadcast and Anderson had to shoot highlights for the TV coach's show. Frankly, the newspaper guys didn't figure much into the scenario.
Co-pilot Craig Holly was also the top pilot for Black Gold Farms out of Grand Forks, which owned a jet. So arrangements were made between the honchos at Forum Communications and Black Gold. Good deal: We could still get to Louisiana. Bad deal: Black Gold's jet was in Grand Forks, an hour from Fargo.
As Kolpack recalled in his book, the speed limit on I-29 between Fargo and Grand Forks that Saturday (now afternoon) might've been a touch higher than the posted 75 miles per hour. Might've even been 90 or more, if the statute of limitations has run out. If not, it was 80.
But we were soon enough in the air on the way to southern Louisiana. There's not an airport in Thibodaux large enough to handle a private jet so we landed in Houma, about 18 miles (a half-hour drive) from Nicholls State. It was, by this time, almost 4 p.m. The game was kicking off and we weren't yet at the stadium. Or even particularly close.
To know Scott Miller, the late radio play-by-play man for NDSU, was to know that Scott Miller was first and foremost a professional who took great pride in his work and whose life was his work. The kindest, gentlest, funniest, sweetest man. But when it was time to work, it was time to work. You'd rather have kept a rabid pit bull from a fresh T-bone than keep Scotty Miller from calling a game. And circumstances were keeping him from calling a game.
Scott was at once apoplectic, enraged and crushed. If the seven stages of grief are shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction and working through and acceptance and hope ... Miller was ravaging through the first four all at once with no hope of ever reaching the last three.
Scott was a faithful man. Didn't make a big public deal out of it. But his relationship with God was perhaps the most important thing in his life. Know that, and then think of the scene in "Caddyshack" after the bishop misses a putt that would've set the course record. Scott might've been close to that point, and looked every bit as bedraggled as the bishop.
Everyone was doing the best they could. We knew we were getting close to everything being OK, but everybody was tense, everybody was short-tempered, everybody knew the day was already a total cluster and couldn't get any worse.
- UND makes FCS playoffs, will face Nicholls State in Louisiana
- Bison will take No. 1 seed into FCS playoffs, host winner of UND at Nicholls
- Entz plans on following same postseason routine as previous Bison teams
- UND's locker room at Nicholls State will be temporary tents
And then it got worse.
Houma, Louisiana's airport being Houma, Louisiana's airport, the rental car situation was limited. So when Michaels grabbed the keys from the kid behind the counter and ran to get the van we'd been promised, imagine our surprise when he pulled on the tarmac in a van that might've been from the 1980s, but probably wasn't.
Imagine our surprise, too, when he just about overshot where we were waiting.
Imagine our surprise when Jack unfolded his 6-foot-5 frame out of the van that probably wasn't even from the 1980s and announced: "The brakes don't work."
"This thing doesn't have any brakes. They don't work."
Most days, this would be enough to march back to the airport counter and demand something better. Two problems with that: 1) We didn't have time because Scott would've killed with his bare hands anybody who suggested we delay our drive to Thibodaux for even one more minute and 2) we knew there was nothing better, this being a tiny airport in Houma, Louisiana.
So we piled in. All of us, the equipment, our already pitted out polo shirts (it was 90 freaking degrees with thick freaking humidity), Scotty's frazzled nerves and tension heavy enough to cut with a plastic spoon.
Next challenge: Getting the 18 miles from Houma to Thibodaux. Seems easy enough now, except that this was prior to the advent of smartphone GPS. The van didn't even have a paper map in the glove box. The best we could do was one of the gentlemen at the airport, in a fine Cajun accent as I recall, giving us the old, "Take a left out of the airport onto Johnson's Road, go four miles until you come to a four-way intersection, then take a right onto the old Creek Highway, go eight miles until you see a barn on the left ...."
Michaels got to the airport exit and blew through the stop sign, taking a hard left. "I can't stop this thing so I'm just going," he said. "I'll try not to get T-boned."
And we were off.
If you've ever driven the backroads of southern Louisiana, and this was my one and only time in life, the roads are raised out of the swamps and so the shoulders are narrow and the ditch embankments steep. Combine that with woods, swamp, blind intersections, unfamiliarity, stress and a sense of urgency — oh, and no brakes — and the trip was one to remember. Or perhaps best forgotten.
"Michaels from WDAY started to figure out that pumping the brakes seemed to work better, or perhaps he just let off the gas 100 feet before a stop sign just to make us feel better," Kolpack wrote in his book.
We only had to stop once for directions, at a Dollar General-type store. The worst part of the drive was when somebody dug on the van radio and found the Nicholls State broadcast of the game. We'd been told WDAY back in Fargo had arranged to have that feed go over the air until Miller, Michaels and Hallstrom could get on. The noise Scotty made when he heard somebody else calling the game he was supposed to be calling for the listeners back home can only be described as guttural, pained and extended. Hallstrom deserved some kind of medal for talking him back from the edge, about six times.
We got to the game just before halftime, the radio guys got on the air, the newspaper guys got settled into the pressbox and the Bison shrugged off cramps and dehydration to beat the Colonels for the program's first road win against a I-AA team as a I-AA team. Kolpack and I cranked out our stories, radio wrapped up and TV got what it needed. A long day was nearing an end.
Except that, it wasn't.
Holly, the Black Gold pilot, said he didn't feel comfortable leaving his bosses' jet at the Houma airport, because it wasn't secure. He suggested taking the short flight to New Orleans, bunking there for the night and then flying back home early in the morning. The stressed, frazzled, tired media crew didn't particularly care what we did.
We got to our New Orleans hotel near the airport about 10 p.m. and checked in. We all agreed to meet in the lobby afterward to find a bite to eat. When Kolpack and I got down there, we looked at each other and said, "We're in New Orleans for one night. We have to check out Bourbon Street, don't we?"
The rest of the gang was agreeable, unfortunately. If only somebody would've said no. There is, I can tell you now, no need to do as the Romans do.
The pilots stayed at the hotel, of course, to sleep. "We'll meet in the lobby at 7:30 in the morning and try to be in the air on the way back home as quickly as possible after that," were our instructions.
Speaking only for myself, much younger and not nearly as wise then as now, that left way too much time.
Dinner was at 11 p.m. at some shrimp joint in the French Quarter and after that, it was time for the North Dakota rubes to roam Bourbon Street. Nothing illegal, immoral or particularly debaucherous occurred, but what Kolpack, WDAY's Stacey Anderson and I learned was that Bourbon Street is mostly bars. And they do everything they can to get you in them. And they are very successful at it. Who would've known?
Let us report 15 years later that Hallstrom, Hansen, Michaels, Miller and Gibbins (The Forum photographer) were good, mature men who enjoyed just being at Bourbon Street and watching people. They were tourists. Let us also report that the good, mature men didn't have nearly as much fun as the bad, immature ones.
Not that we didn't try to involve the others. I told the following story when I eulogized Scotty at his funeral, and Jeff later used it in his book. Scott's family told me that they loved that I told it, so I don't think I'm speaking out of turn now.
Each of the bars on Bourbon Street had a theme. One was a heavy-metal bar where the female servers dressed in black T-shirts and the music was blaring AC/DC. The next was a country music bar where the female servers dressed in a western theme. And so on.
One of the bars we stopped in, and "we" included Scotty even though he would drink alcohol about once a year and only one drink at that, had the theme of buxom women wearing outfits that showed off their buxomness. The way the servers (and the bar) made the most money, we soon noticed, was to sell test-tube shots, with the test tubes slipped comfortably in a buxomy region of the servers' buxomness.
This didn't interest Kolpack and I, happily married gents that we were (and remain). Nor did it interest Anderson, single at the time but now happily married. But Stacey has a devilish streak in him and he waved over a particularly buxom female, peeled off a couple of bills, pointed at Miller a few feet away and told her to give "that guy" a shot. And to not let him get away with saying no.
Now, Scotty was a great man and a kind man. He was also incredibly respectful to women and just a little shy around them. Remember, too, he was a genuine Christian. The real deal. And so when the buxom server marched over to him and said, "Your friend over there bought you a shot," and then placed a test tube in her buxomy region, the look on Scott's face went from pleasant smile to sheer terror in less than 3 seconds.
He tried to back away, but the server followed orders and kept coming at him. Scotty soon looked like a NFL prospect cornerback, backpeddling as fast as his feet would take him. But it was a small bar on Bourbon Street and soon enough he hit a wall and the buxomy server was there, inches away from him, making sure he took his shot.
In the sweetest Southern accent, she smiled and looked Scotty in the eyes and said, "Sugar, you don't have any place else to go." And with that, she took the back of his head and shoved his face down to the test tube. Scotty took the test tube out of her buxomness with his mouth and slammed the shot. His eyes were big as saucers, his hair askew like Doc Brown in "Back to the Future," his face frozen in shock and awe.
And the great Scott Miller said, I swear, quietly and without the emotion he expressed on the radio after a big Bison touchdown, to nobody in particular, the words by which he was best known by thousands.
"My, oh my."
The night, and morning, continued for Kolpack, Anderson and I. The details are not important because they, again, are not particularly interesting and certainly not illegal, immoral or debaucherous. If you want more details, buy Kolpack's book. There are memories, somewhat blurry, of a sunrise, a streetsweeper going past a bar in which we sat and the question, "What time were we leaving again?"
In his book, Kolpack claimed I asked for a 7:30 wakeup call only to be told it was already 7:45. That is untrue. He has me mixed up with another sportswriter from another market.
All I can tell you is we were able to get back to the hotel in time to walk through the lobby, take the elevator up to our rooms to grab our stuff and immediately take the elevator back down to the lobby to meet our crew for the flight home. Hallstrom might have looked at me with horror and asked, "Are you OK?" I was doing better than fine, thank you very much. Nothing else really matters.
We had survived a cracked windshield on our airplane, a 70-mile drag race from Fargo to Grand Forks, a van with no brakes, 90 humid degrees in the bayou and a week's worth of nighttime activities crammed into several hours on Bourbon Street. Consider the latter a stress reliever.
Good luck topping that this week on your trip to Nicholls State, Grand Forks media. Laissez les bons temps rouler.