Jeff Hammer: A tale of two teams

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I remember when not every college football team with an even record or better over the course of a fall season went to a bowl game. During the 1996 fall season, not that long ago for someone my age, Joe Tiller’s Wyoming Cowboys went 10-2, and were invited to nary a postseason bowl game. What a tragedy that was for anyone associated with that team.

Compare that statistic with last year’s Cowboy season record of 6-6, after which the Pokes went to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on the blue turf of Albertsons Stadium and this year’s team with a regular season record of 7-5, where they subsequently suffering an overtime loss in the Arizona Bowl a little over a week ago, and you can understand how the post-season bowl offerings have changed over the course of not too many years. 

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As the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, once wrote in a book that no longer exists, “Change is the only constant in life.”

I would curmudgeonly agree with that sentiment, as I mostly prefer things to stay the way they are, while the world moves on to more advanced practices and technology.

But this year, my wife and I did something after Christmas that we had never done before (I guess one could call that change)…two things actually, which produced some memories that will last forever: we attended two bowl games in a span of less than a week 113 miles apart.

As a bonus, we were able to spend precious time with both of our daughters.

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The seeds of this post holiday pilgrimage began last fall, when older daughter, Erin, informed us that she would most likely not be coming home for Christmas, as her responsibilities as a member of the Wisconsin Badger football team medical staff would most likely preclude her from having the time to come to Wyoming. Given that the Badgers had been invited to a bowl game each year for more than 20 years, the likelihood of that team staying home in the postseason seemed pretty slim.

However, she mentioned the possibility of us traveling to whatever city Wisconsin would be invited to a bowl game to visit Jon and her there. As the season progressed, bowl possibilities included the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City and the Music City Bowl in Nashville. As it turned out, Wisconsin went 6-6 during their unexpectedly disappointing season, but were offered the Guaranteed Rate Bowl Game in Phoenix to be played on December 27.

Coincidentally, the 7-5 Wyoming Cowboys were offered the Arizona Bowl in Tucson on December 30. 

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Those two random events put into motion a short, nearly week long vacation to the Grand Canyon State during which we were able to attend two bowl games, spend some quality time with both of our daughters, and visit a national monument.

We left the Riverton airport on Christmas Day at just before 6:00 in the morning, (Am I the only person who thinks that getting up before 4:00 a.m. to catch an airplane borders on uncivilized?), and eventually arrived in Phoenix on the same day in the early afternoon. 

Because our plans included traveling between Phoenix and Tucson and to the small town of Willcox, near Chiricahua National Monument, we decided to rent a car, an SUV more precisely. We had briefly been to Chiricahua a few years before, and since then we had expressed the desire to return for more exploration. This trip would be the perfect opportunity.

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Like many large airports, Phoenix’s Sky Harbour offers a tram from the airport to the car rental facility. After giving the young lady our names at the Sixt Car Rental Company booth, we were informed that the Toyota Rav4 my wife had reserved for our driving pleasure was not available, but “we can offer you an upgrade to a BMW SUV at no extra charge.”

Figuratively, my heart sank to my stomach at that news. I approach renting a car with trepidation anyway, just because I dislike being responsible for a vehicle that doesn’t belong to me; but being responsible for someone else’s luxury vehicle was not good news indeed. 

When no other options are available, one must persevere, though, and in about 30 minutes, thanks to Siri, we arrived at the hotel in Scottsdale where the Wisconsin football team and all its associated personnel were staying. Thanks to Erin, she made arrangements for our younger daughter, Paige and her boyfriend, Scott, and Gayla and I to stay there, as well.

Erin and Jon were out riding mountain bikes at the time, so after checking in, we went out for a stroll into the surrounding neighborhood where the temperature was nearly 80 degrees warmer than the brutal cold of a few days previous in Fremont County. A little exercise felt refreshing after sitting on our kiesters in a variety of different seats for most of the day.

Over the next very enjoyable three days our time spent with one or both of our daughters and their significant others, or just by ourselves, was just what we were hoping for. Having never been to a bowl game before, I didn’t know quite what to expect. As it turned out, it was just like any other college football game, except with more (and extended, it seemed) television timeouts.

Wisconsin won the game over Oklahoma State Cowboys by a slim margin, but the aspect of the game that I will remember most is the amount of support that the Wisconsin fans show toward their football team, particularly during a season of much dismay. The support base for the OSU Cowboys was disappointingly low, especially for a university that produced such NFL greats as Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas.

Wisconsin’s head coach was fired midway through the season, whereupon defensive coordinator JIm Leonhard was tasked with the interim head coach position. However, after the end of the regular season, Luke Fickell was named head coach, which created an awkward situation during which both men were on the sidelines during the bowl game, and as fans, we weren’t totally sure who was making critical game decisions.

Both men showed a lot of class during the postgame ceremony, as they complimented each other, and I came away from the experience with an understanding that both men, however much they enjoy winning, place their number one priority on the well-being of their players. I hope my faith in their goodwill is not misplaced.

The next day, we all went our separate ways. I white-knuckled it in our rented BMW through Phoenix traffic, and then through Tucson traffic, which wasn’t bad, and then we continued further east on Interstate 10 to Willcox, where I finally breathed a little easier after checking in to the Oyo Hotel in a town that appears to be slowly dying as a casualty of the Interstate Highway System.

Chiricahua National Monument, southeast of Willcox is a small gem of the National Park System that offers multiple hikes through rough and challenging terrain where we spent a good portion of the next day completing a nine-mile circular hike with an elevation gain and loss of somewhere around 3,000 feet. Once we were away from the trailhead, we encountered few fellow hikers, which is our preference on any hike. 

The next day, we reversed course and traveled west back to Tucson. Our room at the McCoy Hotel (an old but nicely refurbished place, with the friendliest of employees) wasn’t ready yet, so we made our way to the University of Arizona campus, wasted some time at the tailgate party, and eventually found our seats in the stadium about thirty minutes before game time.

The game turned out to be a heartbreaker as Wyoming lost in overtime to the Ohio University Bobcats. When the game ended, I was disappointed, but I was also proud of the spirited play of Wyoming’s players. I was also just as impressed by their loyalty. I’m not a fan of the transfer portal, to say the least, but it’s heartening to see players stick around to finish what they started back in August.

Like the Wisconsin game, where the UW Badger fans turned out in droves, the UW Cowboy fans also showed in large numbers to support their team whose starting lineups had been largely decimated by injuries and the transfer portal. The green clad Ohio fans were vocal, but their numbers just couldn’t compete with fans wearing Brown and Yellow.

From my limited perspective, I would venture a guess that there were just as many Wyoming fans in Tucson as there were Badger fans in Phoenix; and considering the size of the fan base of each school, the amount of support shown by Cowboy fans is nothing short of outstanding. They simply show up, and they are loud.

I don’t have any statistics to reinforce this assertion, but many of Wyoming’s fans seemed to be snowbirds who spend the warm months of the year in Wyoming, but venture south to warmer climes during the winter. During the game, the folks sitting to my wife’s left winter in Lake Havasu, Arizona while spending the summers in Star Valley. 

After the game, we encountered a couple at the bar of our hotel who also attended the game. Both were raised in Glenrock, and in turn, raised two of their kids in Casper, but eventually had enough of the cold weather, and when an opportunity presented itself, relocated to Las Vegas.

Which provides a little evidence that once one is a Wyoming fan, such loyalty cannot easily be shrugged off.

It’s my hope someday to enjoy a bowl game during which Wisconsin plays Wyoming, but for that to happen the Pokes will have to improve the quality of their product on the football field in order to be more competitive. If that scenario were to occur, the designated stadium would be swaying on its foundation with thousands of rowdy and boisterous fans in red and white and just as many in brown and yellow. It would be college football at its best.

Given what I know about both fan bases, after the game, the following scenario could happen: no matter who comes out on top, the fans of both teams would choose to meet at a predetermined location, share a hotdog and a beer or two, and become steadfast friends.

Except for me. I had to give up hotdogs over seven years ago, but I could easily share a margarita pizza.

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