Bowl games are a lot of fun to attend. I haven’t been to every MSU bowl games during my lifetime, but I’ve been to a few. My all-time personal favorite has to be the 2011 Gator Bowl. It was on New Year’s Day in Florida, the weather was perfect, and we were playing Michigan. Granted, it wasn’t the Michigan of my childhood, but it was Michigan nonetheless. Michigan was, and to my knowledge still is, the winningest football program in NCAA history. The magnitude of that moment hit me the first time the Michigan band struck up “The Victors”. It was a surreal moment. And the game itself? That was pretty surreal too. Yes, it was pretty much a perfect sports day in my world.
But in terms of having an all-out good time, my favorite would have to be the 1980 Sun Bowl, the only MSU bowl game I have attended in which we lost. I was a student at State in 1980, which meant I was broke with limited means of traveling to a far off place like El Paso to attend a bowl game. But fortunately, the MSU Student Association was sponsoring a bus trip to the game, so I eagerly signed up.
The game was played on December 27, which meant our bus had to depart Mississippi on Christmas Day. The bus picked up a load in Starkville around mid-afternoon, then made a second pickup in Jackson a few hours later. We would drive through the night and most of the next day before arriving in El Paso the eve of the game.
The great thing about being a college student is that you are mostly undaunted by things such as a 20+ hour bus trip and having to share a hotel room with three people you hardly know. Since the legal drinking age at that time was 18, there was plenty of beer flowing on the bus and everyone was happy.
Good thing too, because it is a VERY LONG way to El Paso by bus. How long, you ask? Well, consider that when you reach Dallas, you’re not even halfway there. That’s how long. And let me tell you, west Texas is some of the most godforsaken and barren landscape in the world. I can only imagine the boredom endured by our bus driver as he drove over twenty hours straight with a bus load of drunk college students, stopping only for meals, rest room breaks, and of course, more beer.
I can’t remember the bus driver’s name, but I do remember he was a pretty cool fellow. He would occasionally use the bus intercom to point out interesting sites along the way. He also shared a few risqué jokes that everyone seemed to enjoy. And most importantly, he was very accommodating to our need for beer. It may seem strange today, but in those days, Coors was generally unavailable in states east of the Mississippi river (think “Smokey & the Bandit”). That, of course, put it in high demand in places where it could not be purchased. The closest state to Mississippi to which Coors could be found was, you guessed it – TEXAS. And our driver was more than willing to make several stops to allow us to load up on Coors, including on the way back, because some of our more enterprising bus mates had made provisions to supply friends back home with a case or two of the forbidden brew.
After checking into our hotel, a Holiday Inn type place as I recall, we immediately ventured out to find whatever party might be going on. We encountered a group of Nebraska fans staying in the same hotel, but I’m not sure they knew what to make of us. Their approach to the upcoming game was somewhat low-key. After all, the Sun Bowl was slumming for them. They were used to a much bigger stage – like the Orange Bowl. But for us, playing in ANY bowl game was about the biggest thing we could imagine. And we were definitely going to celebrate. Our Nebraska friends, no doubt inspired by us, finally got into the act and the party went well into the early hours of the morning.
The game itself wasn’t all that great. Nebraska won 31-17 in a game where we turned the ball over six times. In spite of that, we still had fun at the game. They sold beer at the concession stand, something most of us had never seen before at a college game. And I got to shake hands with the late, great Marty Robbins, who was the featured entertainer at halftime. Sun Bowl Stadium is small, but it is nestled between two mountain peaks and the scenery is quite breathtaking. Our seats were on the first row and Marty walked right by us on the sideline. He was a very nice fellow, and I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone in our group singing “El Paso” on the way back. It just kind of fit the spirit of the moment, a great song to sing when you are drinking.
After the game, which had started fairly early in the morning (10 am local time, as I recall), we took a trip to across the border to Juarez, Mexico. Such a trip would be impossible today, given the violence and lawlessness of the drug lords that rule the border areas. But in 1980, one could visit the area safely, and without a passport. The shopping in Juarez was great, because the merchants loved to haggle over price, and many items unavailable in the U.S. could be found here. Some of the my more memorable purchases: a pack of horse manure cigarettes (for display purposes only, of course, but apparently they actually smoke manure in some countries), a stiletto that was illegal to possess in the U.S., and high quality but very inexpensive tequila, which could be legally purchased in Mexico by 18 year olds. Of course, we didn’t venture into the more seedy areas of town, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess what might have been lurking there.
We did manage to lose one member of our group in Juarez. When it was time to head back, this guy was nowhere to be found. After a half hour wait, the bus driver said we were leaving without him. Fortunately, the guy somehow made it back the next morning for the trip home. I never found out exactly what happened to him, but apparently he had friends who lived in El Paso.
The trip back wasn’t nearly as fun as going over. I’m sure losing the game didn’t help, but most likely it was the 20+ hour bus trip we had to endure after a three day drinking binge. The bus driver gave us one final hurrah though. There was a Schlitz brewery located somewhere along the way, and he suggested we stop in for a brewery tour. Naturally, our group was all in favor of making the stop. After all, the highlight of any brewery tour is a stop at the hospitality room, where you are given complimentary samples of the different beers.
I’m not sure they even make Schlitz beer anymore, but at one time Schlitz was the #3 beer on the market, behind #1 Budweiser and #2 Miller. And Schlitz was desperately trying to expand its market share. The tour guide, recognizing he had a bus full of young and impressionable consumers, really poured it on. Literally. Most brewery tours allow each person one or two samples, but this guy apparently wanted to score some major brownie points with us. So we were treated to our favorite beer, the kind that is free and in unlimited supply. I don’t remember much about the tour, but I do remember we had a big time in the hospitality room.
We staggered back to the bus to continue our journey home. Frankly I don’t remember much after that, since most folks, including myself, slept the rest of the way home. These days, I travel a little more luxuriously and drink considerably less than I did back in then, but that trip was one I will always remember fondly.