Friday, November 5, 2004

Night 'Hawks? Not at Miami

Crowded out: Afternoon games vs. national TV in remote Oxford

Paul Daugherty

OXFORD - It's 7 o'clock on a drippy Tuesday night in November. Are you going to the football game?

You're a Miami grad, Class of '79, loyal to the school, a donor to the alumni fund. You met your wife on campus. You have one kid at Miami now and possibly another on the way. You never

missed a home game as an undergrad. Your parents are alums. They've never missed a home game, period.

But it's Tuesday night. Immediately followed by Wednesday morning. The calendar doesn't adapt to the whims of a football schedule. Nor does your office. Tuesday night football? Probably not.

"They want me to drive down (Route) 27 at 11 or 12 o'clock at night. I was thinking about going, but night games just wipe me out. I'm getting too old for it." This is my pal Mark Shawver, Miami '79, 48 years old, talking. Does he sound a little like you?

The RedHawks have an attendance problem, at least according to the NCAA.

If you want to play Division I-A football, you have to average 15,000 fans a game at home.

If you miss that mark two years in a row, the NCAA looks at you funny. Or puts you on double-secret probation. Or something. No one really knows.

After 13,940 showed up at 30,012-seat Yager Stadium Tuesday night for Miami's home finale, the average attendance was 14,348. If MU doesn't do better next year, something might happen, anything from a repeal of the legislation to Miami being dumped to I-AA.

You can look at this as another money-and-power grab by the bully schools of I-A, who want more of everything for themselves. Or you can see it as Miami athletic director Brad Bates does: An opportunity to erase some apathy by marketing your product more aggressively.

"For us to shift a significant

amount of focus on creating atmosphere and engaging our students, that's not a bad thing," Bates said.

You aren't going to wow anyone by playing games on Tuesday nights. If you want to sell your soul to ESPN for the national exposure, OK. But don't expect otherwise loyal alums to tool up Route 27 on a work night to see you.

That goes for Saturday night games as well. Some people have other things to do. Others don't want to be out at midnight, driving 27 - the erstwhile Highway to Heaven - after having had a few tailgate refreshments.

As Shawver put it, "College football is Saturday afternoon."

The students have different issues.

"It's not a real sports-oriented place," says Mark's son Nick, a Miami sophomore. "When (Ben) Roethlisberger was here, (football) was big. I guess you could say we're fair-weather fans."

On Tuesday night, Nick Shawver claims he was studying.

Miami is in a tough spot. It's on the edge of a big metro area, and it's not easy to get to. Oxford isn't Starkville, Miss., or College Station, Texas, or Stillwater, Okla. Unlike those places, there is life beyond Oxford. Miami is a big asset to this area; it doesn't define it.

Yet, it still takes lots of two-lane driving to get there. Try going to a Miami-Marshall game. Your usual, hour-long drive will last longer than Gone With the Wind.

That said, no place says COLLEGE like Oxford. In October, when the leaves are ripe, Oxford is a postcard of grace. "Fantasyland," Bates says. Why the NCAA would slap an arbitrary attendance requirement on a school that produced Parseghian, Schembechler, Roethlisberger and autumn leaves is beyond me.

Last December, Miami went to the GMAC Bowl and smoked cigars over Louisville, a program that aspires to I-A greatness. Louisville isn't on any NCAA hit list.

Regardless, Bates hopes to change the culture of football at Miami.

"We have to get to a point where people don't want to do anything else but be at those five home football games a year," he says. "We have to create a buzz."

Good luck. For Mark Shawver, night games, especially during the week, aren't a buzz. They're just a zzzzz. You have to think he's not alone.


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