Monday, January 13th at the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans, college football fans got the national champion they deserved— even if it wasn’t the one they necessarily wanted. That last part is true for Clemson fans. Or Alabama fans. Or just fans of good officiating.
But LSU's 42-25 dominating win over Clemson in the 2020 National Championship Game was the fitting end to a spotless season for Joe Burrow & Co. And after a weekend and season of LSU head coach Ed Orgeron fielding questions about his past both as a former player and as a coach – West Coast wonderings and homecoming headlines, the Cajun coach summed it all up with one succinct statement after the game:
“I remember getting the job at USC and I thought that I was ready to be a head coach,” said Orgeron. “I thought that I had learned from my mistakes at Ole Miss. At that point in time, I wasn't. I remember sitting on the sofa at my house, I had a year to reflect. I remember watching SEC games, going, 'I know I can compete with these guys given the right place'. I mean, you've got to be at a place like LSU and have great coaches and great players to win it. I don't think I could have been somewhere else and had the success that we had so fast. So I think it's a combination of being in the right place at the right time. I think it's perseverance, too.”
Orgeron’s summation of his coaching odyssey hit me hard. It reminded me of the quote often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson that my grandfather said to me once: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
When my grandfather said it to me, he was speaking about the New Mexico Lobos, circa 1994, during the David Bliss era. They were his favorite team. But even at a young age, I realized its deeper meaning – my grandfather, Francis Hall Van Buskirk, was a Bataan Death March survivor. At age 19, he joined the predecessor of the National Guard and was sent to the Philippines with the 200th Coast Artillery. When Japanese airplanes attacked Clark Field near Manila on Dec. 7, 1941, he was among the soldiers who retreated into the jungles of the Bataan Peninsula where food eventually ran short, and 64,000 Filipino and 12,000 U.S. soldiers surrendered.
His journey, though awful and dire, led him to the beautiful family and life he enjoyed in later years. Not to say that hardship is the only thing that brings about greater appreciation but it does breed a different kind of person.
“You don't know until you go through it,” mirrored Orgeron at Media Day prior to the game. “But adversity makes you stronger. You may wonder what has happened; it don't feel good. But when you look at, you figure it out, you know what, through that adversity, I grew. I changed I got better here. I got better there. I think the competitive fire that you see in Joe, although he doesn't say it, that has a lot to do with it. I think the competitive fire you see in me, past experiences, internal motivation, it makes you better, it makes you hungry.”
Coach O’s words after LSU’s victory hit home for me. And in that makeshift press conference room at midnight surrounded by media, merriment and cigar smoke, I let a few tears fall as I remembered my grandpa and his journey. I watched coaches and players celebrate the culmination of their hard work and took a few moments to reflect on my own campaign through this crazy season of college football.
My journey started much like LSU’s – with a triumphant end to the 2018 season. I brought Joey Chestnut to National Championship media day, where he interviewed Clemson and Alabama players and coaches. Meanwhile, the Tigers took down mighty UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, ending the undefeated streak and conceiving the legend of Joe Burrow.
“Joe is like a linebacker out there,” explained Orgeron. “I think it all started last year, he took some hits against Georgia – I mean, two seasons ago, but the time that he got hit against UCF and he got back up, and we were down 14-3, I think that kind of sent a message to our football team who he is.”
Heading into the 2019 season, LSU had a plan – to win every game and achieve complete college football domination. So I followed suit and came up with a plan of my own: enter the Great American College Football Road Trip. I decided to travel across the country showcasing different environments, conferences and programs from the game I love.
It started in Dallas with the Oregon-Auburn game. Though the Ducks lost, the Pac-12 Playoff party line kicked off in formidable fashion. I also checked out a possible contender in Notre Dame as they took on a revamped Louisville squad. Cardinal Stadium is the birthplace of my "Confessions of a College Football DJ" series that swept the nation this season.
I headed to Death Valley for the hottest game of the season against Texas A&M and Swag Surfed with DJ Sha. I was able to tour the Tigers football facility and finally realized what makes Clemson such a special place. I returned to Spectrum Stadium for the Stanford game and chatted with golf's GOAT Tiger Woods before heading to Tallahassee to stay on an actual goat farm.
New Orleans called, so I stopped to take in a Thursday night game for the books between Tulane and Houston where I got my first glimpse of Justin McMillan and Jalen McClesky and watched Willie Fritz dial up two back-to-back epic plays to win the game and set Yulman Stadium on fire.
Just when I thought the craziness was done, Cal upset Ole Miss in Oxford and I captured it all with a goal line video that showed the Rebels were in fact short. (Side note: the Grove is as phenomenal as college football fans would have you believe. Also, Cal linebacker Evan Weaver had a special message for Ole Miss after the game.)
The last stop before home was a straightforward Utah victory over Washington State. There is truly nothing like a night game at RES. Plus DJ Bangarang schooled me on the underground hop-hip scene in Salt Lake City.
I took in the disastrous UCLA at Stanford game as a fan, commiserating with the various disgruntled alumnus in my section. Then, I hopped across the Bay to watch Oregon State defeat Cal to Bears fans dismay but continued my DJ series with the talented DJ Shanego. The soft spot in my heart for Hyphy music made this a fun one to write.
At the behest of one of my favorite radio shows, I travelled to Chicago to check out Iowa at Northwestern and the Hawkeyes did not disappoint. After taking a week off, I scheduled a very special trip to Huntington, West Virginia to watch Marshall play Louisiana Tech on the anniversary of the tragic plane crash. It was a truly incredible experience. I also caught Rice’s first win of the season at Middle Tennessee, which was also the Owl’s first road win of the Mike Bloomgren era.
I finished the regular season out with back-to-back Stanford games – the first against Cal where the Bears took back the Axe and the second against Notre Dame where we were all really just keeping our eye on the Alabama-Auburn game.
Then Utah forgot to show up at the Pac-12 Championship game, crowning Oregon king of the Conference of Champions. The Ducks may have won the day but the Pac-12 was left out in the playoff cold. Again.
I headed to Atlanta for the College Football Awards where I asked the tough questions and got to know several of the finalists on another level. Then I jetted to New York to watch Burrow claim the Heisman and talked a lot of fashion with Ohio State’s Chase Young.
Took it easy this year during Bowl SZN, covering Air Force’s Cheez-It win, Cal’s Red Box victory and Tulane’s bell-tolling triumph over Southern Miss. I wrote about my favorite part of the Fiesta Bowl and had some Ohio State studs takeover my phone to confront Young about his fashion faux pas. And I indulged in all things Nola for the National Championship.
It wasn’t all pretty – there were missed flights and lost luggage and arguments with prominent media members over the quality of Pac-12 play but at the end of it all, it was worth it. I wouldn’t have done it differently because then I wouldn’t be here, sitting at my desk writing this recap about one of the greatest seasons of college football ever.
Burrow said it best after his historic 463-yard, five passing touchdown (and one rushing) performance.
“You know, I think what we did tonight can't be taken away from us,” said Burrow. “I don't know about the whole hero thing, but I know this national championship will be remembered for a long time in Louisiana. To do it in New Orleans is even more special. This is going to be remembered for a long time.”
So maybe my grandpa, Emmerson and Coach O were only partially right. Maybe it’s about the journey and the destination. Because if Joe Burrow showed us anything, it’s that you can absolutely have it all.
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.