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I've had a lot of questions come my way since the PSU game yesterday. One person asked if I just waited for Bret Bielema in the parking lot. So I figured I'd just go through the day start to finish. A peek behind the curtain, if you will.
With the game schedule for 5:30 EST, I decided to just drive it all in one day. That way I could spend Friday night with my wife. I won't see her again until Christmas Eve - I'm staying out here until the Penn State basketball game and I couldn't convince her to come with me (she has to "work at her job" or some lame excuse) - so Friday night we did what we've been doing a lot of recent Friday nights: we watched a 4-episode true crime documentary. This one: The Ted Bundy Tapes. That's one messed-up dude.
I decided to not write a Stream Of Consciousness post because this was barely a football game. I still wanted to be there to watch it and cover it, but come on - it was scheduled on Sunday, we were missing 20 players, our coach was fired, a first-year P5 assistant was calling his first-ever defensive game, our defensive staff had more GA's than actual coaches - this was not a real game. So I saw no need to be all "here's what I'm expecting tomorrow".
And it gave me a little extra sleep. I got up at 5:15, showered, and hit the road by 5:45. I'm listening to a podcast somewhere around Greenfield, Indiana when I see the email from the school saying that Illinois had hired Bret Bielema. As I mentioned yesterday, I stopped to get a Diet Mountain Dew but also to flip through my phone to get details. The best details came from (I believe) Bruce Feldman's tweet saying that Bielema would be at the Penn State game. Wait - I'M going to be at the Penn State game.
Then I probably did more voice-to-texting than I've ever done in my life. I also recorded a phone call with my friends Brian and Carmen and then stopped for gas and posted it to the podcast feed (I honestly almost ran out of gas there - went WAYY below empty). I also texted Kent Brown asking for an opportunity to interview Coach Bielema. He gave me a maybe. Not bad!
Being me, I then pressed further. I asked to watch some of the game with Coach Bielema and write about the experience. What he watches when watching a game, whether he's a "why would they be in Cover 2 there?" guy when watching live - pick his football brain a little bit. With Covid, I knew that there was a 0.29% chance of getting that opportunity. But I had to ask.
(It was a no.)
Knowing there was still a chance for a one-on-one interview, though, I figured I might need a microphone. And not thinking I'd need any recording equipment, I left it all at home. So when I got to State College I went to Best Buy and purchase the only mic they had which would work with my iPhone - some kind of lavalier mic that has this receiver you plug into your phone. If I had to (like, if he didn't have a mask or something), I'd be able to record from a distance.
I then headed to the stadium and did some of the pregame show on WCIA. Then I headed in to go up to the pressbox. Let me pause for a quick shoutout:
Big thanks to Rose, the Penn State football SID. I told her that I'd have an opportunity to interview the new Illini coach but that it might be down on the field when he's being interviewed on the TV broadcast. Did my press credential give me access to that spot? No, it did not. (Meaning, if I walked to that area and showed the security guard my credential, they would not let me through.) BUT, Rose walked me over to the security guard near the elevator. She told him that I might have the interview opportunity, and if I came down from the pressbox and off the elevator, to walk me to the field. Had she not done this, when I did get the call to come down, it would have been a whole bunch of "sir you don't understand I have the opportunity to interview the new coach and he's right over there and all I have to do is walk 35 steps PLEASE let me through". So thanks, Rose.
I go up to the pressbox, I start watching/tweeting about the game, we go up 21-14, and then I get the text that the interview is on and to come down to the tunnel where the Illini players enter the field. And I Robert the hell out of the next moment.
I take the elevator down to the ground level. When I walk off, I see who I think is the security guard I talked to earlier. It wasn't that security guard (I blame masks). It's a different security guard escorting Josh Whitman and a few other people up to the AD box. I don't notice any of this at first - I think I've found my guy and I'm all "IT'S HAPPENING NOW YOU'RE MY GUY RIGHT PLEASE WALK ME TO THAT SPOT". He has no idea what I'm talking about. Whitman says "hi Robert" and I realize I'm embarrassing myself so I mumble something about needing to get to the field and I walk off. I always picture myself as someone who will be Fonzie cool at moments like that but I'm really freakin' POTSIE. (Shoutout to my age 50+ readers.)
I then find the actual security guard, and he walks me down to the field (and past the guys who had "you can't come down here" loaded up as I approached). Bielema is doing the FS1 interview at this time, so I stand on that corner of the field. I even took a few photos of Bielema doing the interview but I must have had the meat sweats again because the picture up there at the top is all fuzzy from a greased-up camera lens.
When he's finished with the TV interview, Kent introduces me to our new coach. I tell him it's too loud on the field for our interview (Penn State's piped-in crowd noise was just the dumbest imaginable crowd noise - more on that in a different post), so we head up the tunnel to find a spot without all that noise. I settle on "halfway between these cars here (why are there cars here?) and that elevator over there" and we begin the interview. Kent gives me the high sign, I wrap it up, I thank him for doing the interview, and that's that. But then we're walking to the elevator together and I wasn't ready for questions. Nor was Coach Bielema ready for Robert answers.
What are Robert answers? I think I've told this story before, but there's this phrase that all of my friends use: "I'm a college student...". I'll explain:
When I was in college I lived at the Lake of the Ozarks during the summers. Waited tables at a restaurant, took the boat out with friends during the day - fantastic college summers. The first summer it was just me and one other buddy - we talked my parents into letting us use the family lake house all summer. The final two summers, there were four of us living there. My parents were saints for letting us do this.
One of those summers (1993) we planned a weekend where all of our dads came down for Father's Day. We saw a commercial for Baskin Robbins "shirt cakes" where they'd make the ice cream cake look like your dad's work shirt with maybe the company name on one side and his name on the other. We decided we'd get four of these cakes for our four dads. I was in charge of ordering them. I call Baskin Robbins.
"It's a great day at Baskin Robbins how can I help you?"
"Yes, I'm a college student and I live down here at the Lake of the Ozarks over the summer. I go to school in Illinois - so do my other three friends - but we live down here for three months every summer. On Father's Day weekend, all four of our fathers are coming down to the lake for the weekend. So we thought it would be a great idea if we got them some ice cream cakes as presents. I saw the television ad for the cakes you have with the little shirt design and we figured that would be perfect for....."
All I needed to say was "I'd like four ice cream cakes please". But I gave a Robert answer. I overshared (I'm doing it now). There's absolutely no reason this Baskin Robbins employee needed to know that I was a college student from Illinois living at the lake over the summer, yet there I was, sharing that information.
When I got off the phone that day, my friend Jason mimicked my voice and said "I'm a college student..." and it stuck. 25+ years later, we'll be sitting around playing poker, I'll start being me, and someone at the table will say "I'm a college student...."
So what did I do last night when Bret Bielema asked me where I was from? I told him my life story. OK, not my life story, but I overshared. Told him I grew up in St. Louis but now live in Champaign. Said things like "I spent five years in Champaign as a student and then 24 years in St. Louis and now back to Champaign". He asked about the move, and I launched into the entire blog story. Started it in 2009, it grew and grew, I quit my day job and moved to Champaign. I think I was mid-way through my wife's former manager asking her if she would consider a job in Champaign when we reached their floor and he got off the elevator. I got off the elevator too. It was not my floor.
Then it's basically a slapstick routine. They head off to the AD Suite to find Josh Whitman, I'm wandering around trying to figure out where I am. I find an usher and we do a Laurel & Hardy routine:
"I'm looking for the pressbox"
"You're in the pressbox"
"No, like, the real pressbox"
"This is the only pressbox - there's not one on the other side of the stadium"
"No I mean like the actual media area."
Turns out it was one floor down. He told me to just hop back on the elevator. I said thanks and ran down the stairs, realizing halfway down that he had told me to take the elevator.
So now I'm back in the pressbox but I really have to use the restroom. I ask the guy there where the restroom was. He tried to explain it to me but when I'm in million-miles-a-minute mode, I'm not sure I'm even listening. I went searching for the restroom. I did not find the restroom.
BUT, I had passed a restroom up on the fourth floor before heading down the stairs. So I went back to find the stairs, climbed up one flight, and ducked into the restroom. This wasn't really a "restroom" as much as it was a half-bath. Sink and a toilet, maybe 3'x5'.
After I, uh, completed my task the pressbox swayed a little bit in the wind. Like, you could feel the whole tower move. I wish I was joking but this was my next thought:
"This Bielema interview only exists on my phone right now. If this tower were to crumble to the ground, the world would never receive this interview. I must, before I leave this restroom, upload the interview to the cloud so that after this horrific tragedy where the Penn State pressbox collapsed (actually the talking points would probably be "so glad it wasn't an actual game with a full crowd"), this interview will be found by my family and distributed to the world."
I pull my phone out of my pocket, scroll to the interview, go to upload it to the cloud, and nearly drop my phone. I catch it, but when I do, I have the most frightening thought in the world: what if the place where I caught my phone is the delete button for the Bielema interview?". This is my brain.
I upload the interview right there in that restroom (surprisingly solid wifi signal for a restroom swaying in the wind). Then I go to leave and I look like an idiot because this is a tiny bathroom. The door opens in, swings past the sink, and nearly hits the far wall when open. So I open it but I have to basically stand pressed against the sink and the wall to get it to swing past me. I knew this when I entered the first time and shut it behind me, but I didn't plan very well when trying to open the door. I had to kind of awkwardly step to the right and slide it past me. At least no one saw me, though. Wait, no, there's Josh Whitman.
So picture this. The first time Whitman sees me, I'm getting off the elevator, thinking the security guard is the guy who I talked to earlier, picking up WAY too late that it's not the guy I talked to earlier. The second time Whitman sees me, I'm trying to negotiate a common door. And that door is to the restroom on the 4th level when I'm supposed to be on the 3rd level. The 4th level is reserved for, you know, Athletic Directors.
I actually don't think he saw me struggling to swing the door open. He was just arriving when I emerged. He was very kind (always is), greeting me by name (which always takes the edge off), and so I said "busy couple days, huh?". He said yes, it's been a whirlwind. I was a few stairs down at this point so I congratulated him on the hire and disappeared to the 3rd level and the pressbox.
You know, thinking about it, I'm pretty glad my "what if I sat with Coach Bielema in the AD suite?" request was denied. Can you IMAGINE the things I would have done?
Things like this: after the game, there's a press conference on Zoom. Well, there's two press conferences on Zoom. So it's difficult for visiting media. You're going to be on one Zoom call, and you're going to randomly start talking when it's your turn to ask a question, and everyone else seated there is on another Zoom call, and they're also going to randomly start talking. The poor guy from the Minneapolis paper on Tuesday had to go find a quiet spot for his Zoom because the Illini media was talking about the game all around him and he needed to hop on the Minnesota Zoom.
I didn't want to disturb the Penn State media on the Zoom call, so I found a spot in the back corner as far away from them as I could be. This way I could ask questions of Rod Smith and Jake Hansen and not disturb everyone else (nor would they disturb me once their James Franklin Zoom began). So I got up with my laptop to head to that back corner. But I forgot that this was there:
That's my chair on the other side of that hump. I really wish they would have covered that hump with something other than matching carpet. Actually, it would be really nice if that wasn't there at all.
No, I didn't fall, but when I got up and headed towards where I'm standing taking that picture, my right foot caught on the hump like Devon Witherspoon had a grip on my toe. And I'm holding my laptop. No, I didn't fall, I did the really embarrassing thing where you're trying to regain your footing and prevent yourself from falling so you end up stomping very loudly three times as you regain your balance. To the Penn State media, the one Illini guy at the very end of the pressbox got up right after the final whistle and literally stomped off.
The way things were going for me yesterday, I absolutely believe I would have tripped over a hump in the AD box the level above me and spilled a drink on an assistant AD. "Hey Kent what if I sat in the box with Whitman and Bielema and wrote a story about it... and also lit Bret Bielema's mask on fire by knocking over two sternos that were warming a chafing dish."
But you know what? I think he would have laughed. Maybe that's my whole point here. Let me try to put a bow on this.
What's my impression of Bret Bielema? My impression comes from that walk to the elevator and our elevator ride to the top. I may go on and on when asked a question, but I don't think it bothered him. I think he genuinely wanted to know. When he said "that's really great, Robert" after my rambling "so after 11 years of doing this as a hobby I finally quit my day job and made the leap to covering the Illini becoming my career" story, I think he genuinely meant it.
I think he's a guy who appreciates a good story. I think he's the curious type. I think he starts up "so where are you from originally?" conversations because he's really interested in knowing. Maybe it leads to a "I knew a guy from Highland" story, maybe he just likes to file things away, but I was Roberting and he didn't seem put-off.
So if I tripped over something and lit the AD suite on fire? I think he would have loved it.
Great story for the next elevator ride.