|The Super Bowl ... of Sports Trivia|
By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2
You don't know no steenkin' Super Bowl.
I know the Super Bowl
Or, more accurately, I know the Super Bowl of Sports Trivia.
This is a story from the deep recesses of ESPN history.
Back when nobody watched "SportsCenter."
Back when horse shows were considered legitimate prime-time programming.
Back when Pete Axthelm gave you the spread, when Bob Ley gave you a Jim Valvano interview, and when Chris Berman was such a Regular Joe that he drew the unenviable task of spending a week in Haines City, Fla., under the fluorescents of a makeshift TV studio with 32 teams of college kids on a pure boondoggle.
I was reminded of this special time because of a positively Proustian moment at the positively un-Proustian Courtyard by Marriott in Scottsdale, Ariz. this weekend. There, in a drab, faceless hotel room, I flipped the TV on and was catapaulted into a piece of my past.
There, on the screen, was the familiar baby-blue stage set. There, on opposite sides of the stage, were teams of three kids each from Syracuse and Washington State. There, behind the MC podium, was Berman.
The memories were so thick, I had to swat 'em away from my face. Washington State's Super Bowl of Sports Trivia team! Duke, Mark and Casey! The 1988 champions, for the love of Don Ohlmeyer!
Since ESPN Classic decided to re-broadcast these gems, I've received sporadic calls and e-mails whenever an episode featuring one of UCLA's three – count 'em, three – appearances airs.
They call, they e-mail, and they ask, usually in order:
Dude, is that you?
Dude, were you really that much of a geek?
Dude, how could you gag three questions in the Lightning Round to lose to Nebraska?
Yes, yes and ... hey, man, I was tired in that Lightning Round -- after all, I'd been carrying my team the entire show.
I will say this now, and for the record: We, the UCLA Boardwalk and Baseball Super Bowl of Sports Trivia team of 1988-89, at least showed respect for the fledgling cable giant.
While the other schools mostly showed up in mid-'80s Cosby/Carnesecca sweaters or the overly-obvious college sweatshirt, we knotted up. We went coat and tie. We were representing the Pac-10, baby.
Here's the background: Ohlmeyer's production company wanted to do this show. They wanted it to be like the old "College Bowl" from the '50s, minus the smart kids. They called 32 schools across this great land, including the University of California, Los Angeles. They called the Daily Bruin office, told us we were to sponsor a quiz to identify the three best contestants on campus, and send them to Florida for a week over the New Year to tape this show.
Two assistant sports editors, and one sports editor.
Sully coolly handled the return call to Ohlmeyer's company, gave the names and took the itinerary. We were on our way to Haines City, Fla.
Haines City, Fla., never sounded so damn good.
Thirty-two schools, a budding giant of a cable station and a Holiday Inn? It was The Perfect Storm.
Once on the Holiday Inn campus, we immediately found common ground with the boys from Wazzu. They just seemed cool. Hell, almost everybody seemed cool. The guys from San Diego State seemed cool, too. Later, we would mourn with the Aztecs when, as one of them told us, their big taping day was ruined by one player's decision, the night before, to "lock himself in the bathroom and make love to a bottle of Jack Daniel's."
Other legends were born. Milt from Slippery Rock was an instant classic, the Big Fella immediately asserting himself as the Bluto Blutarsky of Boardwalk and Baseball's Super Bowl of Sports Trivia.
Ah, fond is the memory of waking up in a haze, peering out the window and seeing Milt, barefoot, traversing the sawgrass of Florida with his bathroom trash can, off to the morning ice run, for maximum beer chill by 9 a.m.
Ohlmeyer and ESPN had the genius idea of including all-girls school Mount Holyoke. Thirty-one schools of guys; one school of girls. If you're doing the math, that's 93 guys at the Haines City Holiday Inn -- and three ladies. The Holyoke crew, God bless 'em, weren't exactly Charlie's Angels; but the mere smell of estrogen in this setting sent the cavemen into a state of foamy mouths. Our teammate Mike, after an afternoon run to the Boardwalk and Baseball amusement park with the Holyoke chicks, kicked open the hotel room door, bragging of ... well, we were college kids. We bragged.
We had a half-baked day of "rehearsal", and the rest of the time was laughing, scratching, drinking, sleeping and occasionally wondering if, under pressure, we could remember how many times Margaret Court won Wimbledon. Nights blended into hazes of room parties, pranks and visuals of Milt, shirtless, making his way to the shoddily-built hot tub, arms laden with cans of cold nectar.
The amusement park, meanwhile, was rather sad. It was an amusement park for the downtrodden; a Single-A offering to Disneyland's big leagues. Outside of Mike's Log Ride Grope, none of us set foot in the place -- opting instead for dips into the icy oasis of Milt from Slippery Rock's fully-stocked trash can.
Game day came for us; and we were nervous, naturally. Sully took care of the nerves as we sat under the bright, intrusive TV lights, breaking the pre-taping silence by leaning into his mike and saying: "No, Senator, I do not believe there is such a thing as organized crime."
Our first foe was Arizona State. A Pac-10 clash.
They wore sweatshirts. We wore coats and ties.
Yes! On to the round of 16! More important, more beer out of Milt's icy paradise!
The next day, we drew LSU. They wore coats and ties. They were all business.
We got smoked.
Turns out their team doubled as LSU's entry in the real "College Bowl," the non-sports show.
Only days later did we learn that the boys from Wazzu had won it all. God bless 'em. By dint of their cool demeanor and unlikely run to the top, Washington State is, to this day, my second-favorite Pac-10 team.
There is a postscript: We did it again the next year. Ohlmeyer's crew pretended to accept the "fact" that Sully and I -- this time, adding our buddy Gib -- won the campus quiz. Again
In Haines City, the reunion with the boys from the Palouse was emotional. It was in a party in their room that we learned of the unfortunate development of the arrival of the team from Nebraska. A cloying know-it-all named Joe cruised the Holiday Inn, trumpeting his knowledge. When he watched an early-round taping of the Washington State team and saw them miss a question, he hawked them later that night, entering their room and smirking. He couldn't believe they didn't know the answer was, in fact, "Clyde Drexler," as he said in his superior tone. Mark from Wazzu couldn't take it. He snapped and hurled profanities at Joe, while we roared in approval.
The next morning, we drew Nebraska.
Joe was a force of nature.
I'd like to tell you that I saved the day for the gutty little Bruins, but I didn't. Early on, I thought I earned my stripes. Berman had only said, "The category is boxing, and in 1914 this hulking Kansas farmhand ... " at which point I buzzed and, in what is still the greatest moment of my life, blurted: "Jess Willard!"
Berman was blown away. So was I. It was only by luck that my Dad, the day before I left, had told me to read up on the great Jess Willard.
I had never heard of Jess Willard.
I wanted my buddies from Wazzu to jump Joe in the parking lot after the game and give him the Sean Penn "Bad Boys" pillowcase treatment.
But we lost, fair and square. Our run was over.
I swear Berman felt bad. I think he liked us.
As we waited to come out of a commercial break, Sully leaned into his mike and intoned: "The bar is open."
It was 8:30 a.m.
Berman, ever Berman, wondered what we would drink to nurse our wounds.
"A Donahue Daiquiri?" he suggested. "A Pauley Pavilion Punch?"
We flew home with a career 1-2 record and, as it turns out 15 years later, an eternal place on ESPN Classic.
Worth a toast, I'd say.
Speaking of which -- anybody seen Milt from Slippery Rock?
Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes every Monday for Page 2.