Here's one more belated travel recap: our trip to Greenville, North Carolina early last December to watch the University of Houston Cougars face off against the East Carolina Pirates in the 2009 Conference USA Championship Game.
This trip was made possible thanks to some remarkably cheap airfares on Continental Airlines as well as some good hotel and car rental deals through Orbitz. Originally, it was just going to be myself and Kirby making the trip, but my parents, my brother-in-law Danny and my brother David were so enticed by the available travel deals that they decided to come along and support the Coogs as well.
The trip didn't start out so great due to the freak snowfall that occurred on December 4th. My parents took an earlier flight and were able to get out of Houston before the snow began to fall, but by the time Danny, Kirby and I reached Bush Intercontinental Airport early Friday afternoon the wintry weather had moved in and aircraft de-icing procedures had been put into place, causing considerable delay. (Because wintry weather conditions are so rare in Houston, Continental only had three de-icing trucks at its disposal.) We spent over an hour waiting at the gate, and then another hour in the de-icing queue on the tarmac, before our plane was hosed down with hot water and propylene glycol and allowed to take off. We then endured a bumpy ride but eventually made it to Raleigh-Durham. David arrived from Denver later that evening.
The following morning, the six of us got together for breakfast and then made the two-hour drive from Raleigh-Durham to Greenville, where the University of East Carolina University (sorry, Pirate fans...) is located. Before the game we spent some time at the Houston Alumni Organization's hospitality tent:
Among those in attendance for this game were University of Houston Chancellor and President Dr. Renu Khator:
Like everyone else who was delayed by Friday's snowfall, the Spirit of Houston didn't make it to North Carolina until the wee hours of Saturday morning and really didn't get much in the way of sleep before gametime. When they appeared at the hospitality tent before kickoff, Band Director David Bertman explained that they were operating on "pure adrenaline." Nevertheless, they were still enthusiastic and loud. Perhaps too loud for Kirby, as a matter of fact:
The "Purple Pirates," as Kirby calls them, are along with the Rice Owls his favorite Conference USA team besides the Cougars. Something about five-year-old kids and pirates, I guess. Here Kirby poses in front of the Pirate statue outside of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium:
Dowdy-Ficklen turned out to be a nice place to watch a football game; even from the corner of the stadium we had a good view of the action. And, although clearly outnumbered in what was basically a road game, a sizable contingent of Cougar faithful had made the trip to Greenville to cheer for the Coogs:
Every school has its good and bad fans, and East Carolina is no exception. I was surprised by how polarized the two sets of fans were, however. The "good" fans were exceptionally polite and hospitable and did their part to make us feel welcome. The "bad" fans were exceedingly classless, rude and belligerent. In fairness to East Carolina University, the majority of the "bad" fans clearly had no formal connection to the school but were simply folks from the eastern Carolina backwoods who had come out to support their regional team.
With that said, and whether they're formally associated with the university or not, East Carolina enjoys great fan support. The Pirates lead Conference USA in average attendance and fans showed up in force to support their team:
The winner of this game would go on to win the Conference USA title and play the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Liberty Bowl. The game turned out to be an exciting one, with 970 yards in combined offense and multiple lead changes. Here, Case Keenum finds an open James Cleveland for a short gain. Cleveland was one of the few UH players that the Pirates really didn't have an answer for; he ended the day with 19 receptions for 241 yards and 3 touchdowns:
Keenum completed 56 of 75 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions and was sacked twice. The Cougars were forced to throw the ball because the Pirates shut down Houston's running game, allowing a paltry 30 yards on 19 carries. In addition to the lack of anything resembling a balanced offence, the Cougars also made other costly errors: they fumbled the ball once for a total of four turnovers (as opposed to ECU's single turnover) and kicker Matt Hogan missed three extra point attempts. The Cougar defense continued to struggle as well, allowing East Carolina to amass 262 yards through the air - the defense could not sack ECU QB Patrick Pinkey or pick off any of his passes - and another 151 on the ground.
In spite of their miscues, the Cougars did have a chance to win or tie late in the game. They got the ball back with 1:47 left to play and methodically drove down the field to the point that the East Carolina faithful in the section next to ours were clearly becoming anxious. Unfortunately, a Case Keenum pass to LJ Castile in the corner of the endzone (which in restrospect should probably not have been thrown, as there was still plenty of time left on the clock) was tipped by one East Carolina defender and landed in the arms of another defender, ending the Cougars' scoring threat and securing the conference title for the Pirates. Final score: UH 32, ECU 38. East Carolina fans rejoiced and UH fans dejectedly filed out of the stadium. Fortunately, the mean-spirited taunting we received from the "bad" fans was more than counterblanced by the classy ECU fans who congratulated us on a good game and wished us well in our bowl as we rode the bus back to our parking area.
(Funny story: shortly before halftime, after I had taken him to the restroom, Kirby and I watched the Cougars score one of their touchdowns from an area on the ground next to the endzone. When Hogan missed the extra point attempt, an East Carolina fan standing next to us gleefully yelled "Hay mi-yussed it! Hay mi-yussed it!" in an accent that I found rather amusing. I couldn't help but think about this fan a few weeks later, when ECU kicker Ben Hartman "mi-yussed" four field goals - any of the final three of which would have won the game for the Pirates - in ECU's 17-20 loss to Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl.)
Needless to say, we were disappointed that, after such an amazing season, the Cougars had fallen short in their quest to capture the conference title. So the six of us did what any visitor to eastern North Carolina would do in order to soothe their sorrows: we drove back to downtown Raleigh and enjoyed some fabulous barbecue at The Pit. I can now say that I am definitely a fan of pulled pork barbecue marinated in vinegar sauce. It was delicious! Later that evening, dad, David, Danny and I made our way to downtown Durham to listen to some decent live music and watch Texas play Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game.
The following day, we all met for lunch at a restaurant near our respective hotels. Afterwards, we made our separate ways home - Kirby and me on an earlier flight to Houston, mom, dad and Danny on a later flight, and David to Denver. Thus ended our weekend trip to North Carolina.
In spite of the loss, as well as the delay in getting there, I think we all had a good time. It's always fun to support your team wherever they play, to experience the atmosphere at another team's stadium, to visit another part of the country, and to sample the local cuisine. I'm already thinking about roadtrips for the upcoming season; the Cougars' trip to Los Angeles to play UCLA looks intriguing...
UPDATE: A big welcome to the folks from Boneyard Banter who have discovered this post. I think Ruffin McNeill was a solid hire for ECU head coach and I hope to see the Pirates do well again this fall. Except if they meet the Coogs in the C-USA Championship again, of course!