‘Beating the rush’ took on a whole new meeting late Monday night into early Tuesday morning in Tampa.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m the last guy that wants to get stuck in a parking lot for two hours after a ballgame or event. It’s one of my three recurring nightmares along side failing my New York State Math Regents (who knew about Common Core in 1970?) and not being allowed to graduate high school. The third is having to do a two-man improv set with John Kasich, which might be the most chilling of all.
But I met my match with Mat Whatley, a business colleague and friend, who hosted our trip to Tampa on Monday to see Alabama win back-to-back national football championships. Mat, a ‘Bama alum, is so neurotic about getting caught in the rush that he never knew ‘Home of the Brave’ was the last line of the national anthem. He’s normally out the door by ‘Land of the Free.’
So, I just knew between myself and the other three guys along for the ride– Wally Nall, David Davis and Hale Smith– the chances of being at Raymond James Stadium to watch ‘Bama hoist the trophy once again were pretty remote.
Even though we flew privately, in Mat Whatley’s world, there has to be an exit plan. Same as getting jammed into a parking lot crunch after the game, Mat was fearful of sitting on the airport tarmac for hours waiting for our takeoff slot. Those are Forbes 500 problems and nothing I know in my neighborhood.
So the strategy was to leave the stadium with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter if the Tide was up by more than one score; leave with five to go with a one score lead or less.
Somehow we hit it in the middle and left with seven minutes on the clock and Alabama up 24-21. The private hanger was two miles away- we had to walk half of it and meet our courtesy van to go the rest of the way.
When Clemson took the lead 28-24 with four minutes remaining we were still on the stadium grounds and could here it over the PA and from the raucous Clemson side. When Jalen Hurts scampered thirty yards to put the Tide back on top 31-28 with two minutes left, we were still somewhere in the city limits, and walking past the legion of Clemson backers who didn’t have game tickets but that didn’t stop them from tailgating and alcohol. Our ‘Roll Tide’ taunt was fortunately ignored.
By the time we got to the private terminal we figured nobody else could be as ridiculous as we were. You spend big bucks for game tickets, hospitality passes and a private aircraft, the least you want to do is see your school capture the trophy. Well, that wasn’t really the case.
When we got into the hanger it was packed with a couple of hundred other people doing what we were — beating the rush. And as it turns out nobody was in that much of a hurry instead gathered around the one small television in the lounge area watching Clemson’s final drive of the night. That same scene was repeated in a half dozen other private hangers at TPA. The only one that enjoyed the ultimate outcome more than the Clemson backers was Lane Kiffin.
Our shuttle driver told us there was far more private aviation for this game than he’s ever seen for a Super Bowl. Both campuses are exactly 572 miles from Tampa which made the appeal so great. There were more jets double and tripled parked on the tarmac than Trump got electoral votes.
And once Clemson scored with a second remaining, the doors to the hanger flew open and everyone scattered for their planes. Our’s became a little more complicated as for some inexplicable reason the ground crew moved our aircraft and we couldn’t find it. Come on, how hard can it be to find an airplane painted in the colors of Alabama’s bitterest rival, Auburn? Five or six minutes passed and just seconds before filing a claim for grand-theft airplane and minutes before I was worried that Mat was headed for intensive care with chest pains, the blue and orange colored jet was spotted.
Clemson’s 35-31 win means in the last two national championship games Alabama has outscored the Tigers 76-75, the exact one point margin by which I passed my Math Regents test in 1970. And even with the missing plane snafu, we were still among the first three or four airplanes off the runway at 12:45 am. I know Mat wanted to be number one last night but so did Nick Saban. Gaining an hour back into central time, we landed at 1:15 am right about the time the trophy was being boxed up and shipped to Clemson, South Carolina.
Tonight, I look forward to watching the last seven minutes of the game.
But the end of the story was a note I got this morning from a friend who also flew privately to the game. His group decided to stay until the end. He wanted to tell me what a great decision we made. Their plane was number 85 in line for take-off, a number not ever seen even in LaGuardia’s worst day or even worst two combined. That’s a lot of traffic in front of you. They finally got wheels up at 4 am and even with the gained central time hour, they landed in Birmingham at 5 am just in time for the fresh batch of glazed at Krispy Kreme. If you win the championship 4 am may become rational and even enjoyable. If you lose, it’s godforsaken.
Mat Whatley is a genius.