Fresno banker Norm Clark worked a lifetime behind a desk to get his seat at college football’s big-shot table.
Looking relaxed in Fresno State red, blue and gray, Clark and his wife, Lee, enjoyed a third-row view from the 35-yard line of Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide were about to apply the woodshed treatment to the well-meaning Fresno State Bulldogs on Saturday.
“Beautiful,” Lee Clark said as she took in the panoramic view under the wind-kissed skies.
The prime real-estate seats – so close, you almost can’t see over the players’ heads on the sideline – were a retirement gift from Rabobank, where Clark followed his Bulldogs locally but longed to see them on a grander stage. Thus, the hurricane-season vacation to ’Bama, where they joined more than 1,300 other Fresno State fans who came to be happy to be here.
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“I’ve been to lots of games at Bulldog Stadium, but it’s always been on my bucket list to go to a big-time college football game with a hundred thousand people,” said Clark, 77, after he took a few phone pictures of this 101,821-seat monument to brick and aluminum.
“This is as big time as it gets.”
It’s even bigger in person. Fresno State hosts college football games. Alabama puts on a state fair, kettle corn and all.
This place is football heaven.
Spencer Christensen, a recent graduate of Memorial High, on his visit to Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium
The tailgate parties rolled out at breakfast in every direction, from the open pits by the Black Warrior River at the stadium’s north flank to the crimson canopies at strip malls by fast-food chains on 15th Street on the southern reach. Same goes for every manicured lawn in front of aged brick buildings on campus, many with landmark markers that read “Founded in 1880-something-or-other.”
Lots of college boys wore half-buzzed faces with their blue blazers, red ties and wrinkled khakis. The college girls wore black or white jumpers and crimson hair ties. Everyone is all made up as if there’s a school dance after the game.
They don’t wear body paint. They were tucked-in polos, because this Saturday stuff is serious business around here.
Did you know that Crimson Red comes in camouflage? Because, of course it does, on two entire streets of boutique booths across from the stadium.
If it has the No. 16 (as in national football titles won), an elephant (scary jungle version, not loveable circus type), the phrase “Roll Tide” or the letter A in the local font – it sells, usually for less than $15.
Southern hospitality, man. Then again, they all know they’re going to kick our butts, so they don’t seem too worried about it.
Frank Roque, another Memorial graduate, on the reception given to the visiting Bulldogs on Saturday in Tuscaloosa
“This place is football heaven,” said Spencer Christensen, a recent graduate of Memorial High who came hoping his high school buddy Frank Dalena would get in the game as a Bulldogs’ wide receiver.
He just came from a tailgating party where everyone he met from Alabama wished him well and offered him something cold to drink. USC fans used to say Fresno State is where their maids went to school. Alabama fans here act like they’re the hired help, eager to wait on guests with a sweet drawl and an easy smile.
“Everyone’s been great,” said Frank Roque, another Memorial graduate. “Southern hospitality, man. Then again, they all know they’re going to kick our butts, so they don’t seem too worried about it.”
“It’d be different,” Christensen said, “if we were LSU Tigers.”
They’re both right. That Southern hospitality does not extend to the football field. Alabama, the 2015 national champion and runner-up last season, grabbed the lead by the throat on the game’s second play from scrimmage, and letting go wasn’t in their afternoon plans.
A hundred thousand fans waved their towels after every Alabama first down or tackle, and again during the playing of “Sweet Home Alabama” – the part where Birmingham loves the governor always gets an enthusiastic pom-pom response.
Christensen and Roque made their way to one of the entry gates for the 2:30 p.m. kickoff, ’Bama time. It was kitty-corner from Evergreen Cemetery, which sits exactly across the street from one of the world’s largest sporting arenas.
Subtle or not, Alabama’s point is made. Thanks for coming by; now, prepare to be buried.
“I just hope we keep it close,” Christensen said.
FRESNO STATE AT NO. 7 WASHINGTON
- Saturday: 6:30 p.m. in Seattle
- Records: Bulldogs 1-1, Huskies 2-0
- TV/radio: Pac-12 Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: After the Bulldogs lost 41-10 at No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, the Huskies routed FCS school Montana 63-7 in their home opener.