Once of the mixed blessings of being a doctoral student is going to present your research at academic conferences. On the one hand, it's a chance to do some traveling and talk to other scholars about your work. On the other hand, the need to put papers and presentations together for these conferences sucks up a lot of time, and the networking that takes place at academic conferences can often be tedious. Way too much of getting anything accomplished in academia involves knowing the right people in the right places like some kind of medieval guild. But for better or for worse, I was a history Ph.D student and that meant that I needed to attend various different conferences and symposiums to continue building my academic resume. I was starting my fourth year in graduate school in the Fall of 2008, and I was lined up to present a paper at the Rocky Mountain Interdisciplinary History Conference (RMIHC), a history association with a mouthful for a name. For once, I was able to secure funding from my school to present at this conference without needing to cover the cost myself. I would therefore be traveling to the University of Colorado in Boulder for a weekend on an academic trip.
Those of you who read this Travel blog probably know that I'm also a huge sports fan. I looked at the sports calendar to see if this history conference was going to be held on the same day as a home football game for Colorado, and not surprisingly the conference organizers had picked a weekend without a huge sporting event. However, Colorado was instead hosting the nationally-televised Thursday night football game the day before the conference was set to begin, and furthermore they would be playing West Virginia University. My cousin was married to a WVU alum, and since there's always a small ticket allotment set aside for the visiting team's fans, plus West Virginia is a very long distance away from Colorado geographically, I knew that I could get tickets to this game if I wanted to. Instead of arriving on Friday for the history conference, why not arrive on Thursday instead and go see the football game too? It would be most popular event taking place on the Colorado campus for weeks on end, and as a game on national television, it might be the biggest thing taking place all year. This looked like it would be fun, so I went ahead and booked an extra night (for $25 at the hostel in Boulder where I was staying) and purchased the game tickets.
The University of Colorado at Boulder has a beautiful location in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which rear up just a few miles to the west of the campus proper. When visitors walk around on the campus, the mountains are always visible looming off in the distance. They make for a dramatic background to the buildings on campus, which have their own distinctive architectural style. Built out of sandstone and influenced by the Spanish colonial designs of the American southwest, the Colorado campus looked nothing like the University of Maryland campus. I think that this would be an amazing place to go to school for anyone who had a strong interest in the outdoors or was studying a subject related to nature. There are a lot of hiking and biking and even skiing activities that take place in Boulder throughout the year, and Colorado has won the majority of its national championships in competitive skiing. Snow starts falling here in October and it can continue well into April. The city of Boulder is also known for having extremely liberal politics, to the point that it's been sarcastically known as the "People's Republic of Boulder" by the more conservative residents of the surrounding countryside. Some of the clashes between the City of Boulder and Boulder County are supposed to have been legendary.
On this particular day though, everyone in the area was united together in their fandom for the University of Colorado's football team, the Buffalos, more commonly known as the "Buffs" for short. I had arrived in Boulder in the afternoon after taking a morning flight from Baltimore, and the whole campus was already buzzing with excitement about the upcoming football game. As in most college football towns, the pregaming and the tailgating had started hours before the game itself was set to tip off, and there were fans arriving by the busload sporting the gold and black colors of the university. I even spotted the Colorado marching band getting ready for the game several hours ahead of time. I always have an affinity for collegiate marching bands since I was part of the University of Maryland band when I was an undergraduate. The Colorado band even had a design for their uniforms similar to what Maryland had worn when I was in school. They were eating pizza prior to getting lined up - I wish that we had eaten pizza on gamedays! Lucky kids.
The focal point of this night's festivities was Fulsom Field, the football stadium on the campus. This is an old venue for a football game, first constructed all the way back in 1924 and expanded many times over the succeeding years until reaching its current capacity of roughly 50,000 people. The stadium was named after Fred Fulsom, the head coach of the university's football team in the early 20th century who led them to a 78–24–2 (.760) overall record, although college football in those days was a very different environment than it is today. The stadium sits at an elevation of 5300 feet (1600 meters) and provides some amazing views of the surrounding mountains off in the distance. I arrived at the game very early and spent some time wandering around to take pictures and drink in the spectacular mountainous scenery. What a cool setting to watch a game!
My tickets were officially located in the West Virginia section of the stadium, since my cousin's husband had purchased them through the WVU alumni association. I had no intention of sitting with the visiting fans, however, and instead went and sat in the Colorado student section where there was no official assigned seating. I had seen signs on campus indicating that Colorado was going be doing a "Black Out" for the game, in which everyone would be wearing black clothing to present a uniform appearance for the national TV audience. I wore a black jacket of mine with a University of Maryland "Terps" logo in the corner, but no one was looking too closely during a night football game and I was still young enough at age 25 to blend into a college crowd without attracting attention. The Colorado band came out onto the field about 20 minutes before kickoff and performed their pregame show, spelling out "CU" in big letters on the field above. Shortly before kickoff, the university's live mascot came out and ran in a circle around the field. That's Ralphie, a real live buffalo (technically an American bison) which is part of the university's tradition dating back to the 1930s. I love the fact that a live buffalo weighing several thousand pounds leads the Colorado football team out onto the field before each home games. Ralphie had five trainers on hand to keep him from endangering anyone, but this is still pretty crazy. I've always wanted the University of Maryland to have a live mascot as well; why can't we get a giant tortoise of some kind for our games?
The view of the field just a few seconds before kickoff. I love capturing these moments when you can feel the anticipation in the air, tens of thousands of people holding their breath and waiting for the action to begin.
As for the game itself, here's the box score from College Football Reference for the curious. West Virginia was coming into this game as a nationally ranked team, something like #20 in the country overall, while Colorado had won its first two games against weak competition. This was an ESPN Thursday Night Football game that the whole country could watch, and it was the most high profile game of the season for the Colorado fans. The home fans were delighted when Colorado scored a touchdown on their first drive of the game, then even happier when that was followed up with a touchdown on the second drive to take a 14-0 lead. WVU answered back with their own touchdown in the first quarter, and the game sat at 14-7 for a long time. Night descended on the stadium, and that second picture above comes from halftime when the Colorado band did their second performance. (They had a drum major on a ladder in the end zone? Interesting staging there.)
West Virginia would score another touchdown in the second half to tie the game at 14-14, and neither team managed to score in the whole fourth quarter, sending the contest into overtime. This was a close and tense game, but I distinctly remember it not being a particularly exciting game to watch. There were several fumbles, a bunch of penalties, and a LOT of punting back and forth between the teams. Seriously, seven punts per team?! Yeesh. My feeling was that neither of these teams was especially good, and the rest of the college football season would later bear that out. Anyway, this game did end up going into overtime between the two teams. West Virginia had the ball first, and missed a field goal after Colorado made a defensive stop. That meant that all Colorado had to do was kick a field goal to win, and they did exactly that, winning 17-14 in the first overtime period. This prompted a wild celebration from the Colorado students:
Naturally the students rushed the field after the dramatic victory. This is another college sports tradition with a long history, although in more recent years universities have been trying to stamp it out because of the safety risks of having students pour out onto a football field or basketball court. When I was an undergraduate student, I could never rush the field at Maryland games because I was always in the marching band or the pep band. This was my one chance to experience this event for myself, and I enjoyed the opportunity to join the throng of Colorado students pouring out onto the football turf. "Buffs Win! Buffs Win!" Uh, yeah, that's great, don't mind the guy with the Maryland jacket celebrating along with everyone else. It made for quite the spectacle though, and I was glad to see the home fans go home happy.
The irony is that this was the high point for the Colorado football team's season, even though it was only September and this was the third game out of twelve total. Colorado started out 3-0 with this win, teasing the fans that this would be a strong season. Then Colorado went 2-7 for the rest of the year, two wins against seven losses, finishing 5-7 and missing a bowl game yet again. Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins would cling to life for two more seasons before getting fired, and there were more long seasons of losing ahead for the Colorado faithful. It wasn't until 2016 that Colorado would have a winning season again and make another bowl game. As for West Virginia, they had started the season with high expectations, a preseason ranking of #8 and potential national title hopes in the minds of their fans. Instead, West Virginia stumbled out of the gate, losing two of its first three games, eventually finishing 8-4 on the season and ending up in the unheralded Meineke Car Care Bowl (which they did win). This was one of those scenarios where everyone ended up losing in the end, both football teams falling far short of what they hoped to achieve.
Oh yeah, and there was also that history conference thing, the whole reason why I had traveled to Boulder in the first place. That's me presenting my paper at the Rocky Mountain Interdisciplinary History Conference, titled “A Monster Unfitted to Live”: The Changing Representations of Tipu Sultan in 19th Century British Fictional Literature. I was investigating different ways that the Indian prince Tipu Sultan had been portrayed in various different British sources in the decades following his death, part of my larger project on how the historical memory of Tipu could tell us a lot about how the British viewed their empire, and how those attitudes had shifted over time. The presentation went well, and I had a good time at the conference with the two other students from my history program at Maryland that had also come to the conference. Overall, it was a memorable weekend trip and probably the best academic conference that I attended as a graduate student. As always, thanks for reading.