Peak eerie will arrive as the Big Ten joins pandemic football this week after its notable deliberations and as Illinois visits the novel coronavirus hot-state of Wisconsin on Friday night before six more conference games Saturday and as the third quarter ends in Madison, presuming it does. That’s when the stadium speakers will keep their tradition and play “Jump Around,” whereupon the empty seats will not jump around.
“Jump Around,” House of Pain’s enduring contribution from 1992 to the global bloodstream of ever since, plays in many other stadiums, too. It shouldn’t. It always feels plagiarized anywhere other than Camp Randall Stadium in the great Madison. When Wisconsin plays it and the heaving crowd of Badgers jumps to it, it provides the single greatest spectacle in a sport chockablock with them.
On Friday night, Wisconsin will play it nobly, dutifully and emptily; while the SEC and ACC opted for scattered fractions of spectators, the Big Ten decreed its games fan-less. Friday night at Camp Randall won’t be the most wrenching part of 2020 or even the one-millionth-most, but it will be some snapshot.
It will be a glaring oddity tucked amid the new-normal oddities, such as when the giant stadium screens at Alabama show the band marching, coaxing the eyes to glimpse down onto the field, where there’s no band. (It’s a clip from the underappreciated past.) If this kind of thing leaves us in need of fresh football wrinkles, well, here: Arkansas looks like the early story of the year, Florida State looks giddy after beating North Carolina at home, and Kentucky fans look exuberant over the UFO (unidentified football object) they just saw.
Arkansas? Yep. The sudden improvement of the Razorbacks (2-2 and very close to 3-1) helps a sport that gets better when Arkansas gets better, not least because it grants more sights of a logo of a red feral pig. There’s even one slapped gloriously upon the microphone from which the coach speaks after games, and the identity of that coach might end up doubling as an old lesson.
The head coach Arkansas hired after spending two long seasons at a sullen 0-16 in the SEC might end up teaching us something salient about coaching hires. Surely 58-year-old wanderer Sam Pittman did not qualify as some splashy hire, but he did qualify as a hell of a coach. Here we go through his CV, and hang on to your suitcase: Princeton (Mo.) High, Trenton (Mo.) High, Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, Northern Illinois, Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Western Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Northern Illinois again, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia (where he was associate head coach, maestro recruiter and offensive line coach).
When he made his opening statement after the 33-21 win over Mississippi on Saturday, which followed upon the near-upset at Auburn with a controversial finish, Pittman spoke a couple of paragraphs before learning something funky happened with the sound. “Am I on or off?” he said gently at one point. He got asked to restart. He dutifully did so, with the manner of a non-diva.
“We have a talented group,” he said of his defense, with its six interceptions and two pick-sixes against Lane Kiffin’s hyper-celebrated offense. “We have a resilient group. And we have a group that can catch passes on defense and return ’em for touchdowns. I told the team that if I’m a running back, I might be a little bit worried about [Grant Morgan, who returned the clinching touchdown], because he took that one back to the house.”
Glory be, and if the glory continues at least somewhat, remember the deathless foolhardiness of those fans always in search of splashy hires. They’re even nuttier than some others.
Had you told Florida State fans even six years ago that their not-even-close-to-ranked team’s win over No. 5 North Carolina would serve as a major upset, you might have suffered an ensuing wave of snobbery. Had you told them that a Florida State quarterback (Jordan Travis) would call the closing stop of the Tar Heels by the defense, which preserved the 31-28 hang-on, “the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in my life,” you would have been told some variation of, “Shut the front door.” But in Travis’s words lay another ancient football truth, and keep it quiet: There’s always a smidgen of value hidden in descent, and Florida State has had itself a descent (20-23 since 2017).
Kentucky fans know something of the value of struggle, and for years upon years they spent three-hour swatches of life watching defeats to Tennessee, the details sometimes so excruciating that a good old rout might have seemed preferable (and often did come, too). Their side went 7-49 in the past 56 against the neighbors, 0-26 from 1985 to 2010, 2-33 in the past 35 before Saturday.
Well, on Saturday, a rout did come, and some rout it was. From down in Knoxville, where the home fans had found their latest team reinvigorating after their own descent (75-75 across the previous 12 years), Kentucky’s hardened fans got untold gifts through their TV screens. They got a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown from their Kelvin Joseph, an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown from their Jamin Davis and a closing seven minutes spent watching a team ahead 34-7 go mercilessly up the field draining clock.
“It really is special,” quarterback Terry Wilson said, “and I know it means a lot to this state and to the University of Kentucky.” He had just become only the second Kentucky quarterback to win games on the harrowing fields of Florida (2018) and Tennessee (2020), all of it a shooting-star sight, unforgettable amid the eccentric.
It’s the least the young players can do and deserve for themselves amid this wooziness. It’s a season with lonely tailgaters in parking lots and garages, often just a sole couple on two lawn chairs, desolate enough that you hope they actually like one another. It has had that Miami fan in a Sean Taylor jersey at Clemson after getting routed, seated with a hush and a 12-pack. It has oblivious crowds looking like all 2019 in bars and yards in Athens and Tuscaloosa. It has had rearranged schedules and repurposed band videos. Come Friday night in Madison, it will have something really strange.