This game was a business trip. No extended stay, no spa holiday, no trips to Sedona or Scottsdale to satisfy the demands of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. This was a trip about football and everything I did was built around that. The Fiesta Bowl is uniquely structured to facilitate that clarity of purpose.
Landing in Phoenix is like plopping down in a dusty isolation tank: desert mountain landscapes interspersed with small oases of green; each sliver of golfing botanical connected by narrow asphalt ribbons with each of those covered by an interminable termite's procession of cars. The place is as pretty as ugly gets - the Sara Jessica Parker of the Southwest. However, I didn't see any of that out of my plane window on this trip - I landed on Sunday night in a torrential downpour that relented only at the city limits of Glendale.
After that the weather was flawless: bright sunny days with chill in the shade, brisk evenings that dipped down into the low 30s. I'm a big fan of high desert country, but most of the city - and certainly the Fiesta slice of Glendale - is as barren as a botox smile. You need to head to the suburbs north of Phoenix, or better yet Sedona/Flagstaff, for the really good stuff.
The Fiesta Bowl itself is played in a bio-dome set on the surface of the moon. Or, at the very least, the set from The Hills Have Eyes. The lunar gridiron facility - University of Phoenix stadium - is orbited by parking lots, buried nuclear warheads, jawas, a retail strip of theme bars and restaraunts staffed by tattooed multi-pierced orphans just arrived from LA or making plans to move to LA, and two hotels: a Hampton Inn & a Marriott Renaissance. I went for the Hampton Inn because that's the cost effective way I roll when I just need a place to sleep and shower and because it gives you more of the freebies I value on the road: free wireless, free parking, free breakfast. It was shockingly well kept and probably the nicest Hampton Inn I've ever seen.
Here's a truth about bowl game hotels: I've stayed in amazing hotels, I've stayed modestly - none of it ever made a difference in my enjoyment. All hail parsimony.
The entertainment area is called Westgate City Center and it's a little slice of off-strip Vegas. There's an obligatory piano bar, a draft house with hundreds of beer options, a large outdoor Time Square style television screen, and some decent grills featuring mechanical bulls, get-drunk-fast-drink-specials, and good bar food. If you can forget that you're in the middle of Tunisia, it's actually a serviceable little piece of entertainment glitz. The managers of these places also understand that they're in a contest with Scottsdale to keep fans local so comped desserts, drinks, and invitations to special happy hours were not in short supply. They cater to you hard because if you don't spend money there they won't have enough jack for their Affliction t-shirts.
That's the set-up: hotel, Fiesta Bowl, two block entertainment strip. Nothing else there. If it sounds inorganic, charmless, and corporate, you're right. It was also the perfect set-up for two days focused on drinking, eating, and football. If you're someone with a game first focus and value walking to your needs rather than dealing with shuttles, cabs, DUIs, and irradiated deformed desert folk burning your camper to distract you while absconding with your women to breed with them, I recommend it.
There seems to be three points of curiousity for Texas fans:
1. How well did the teams travel?
Both teams traveled well. Ticket brokers may have taken a bath on this game, but it was not evident in crowd numbers. The only empty seats I saw were a smattering on the Ohio State upper deck. Considering that Ohio State was coming off of back-to-back spirit-crushing BCS losses, suffered from an unrelenting national media hate campaign, and had losses to both of their legitimate regular season opponents, their turn out was actually quite impressive. Say what you will about Buckeye Fan, but he is rabid and supportive through thick and thin. If I had to break it down, I'd say it was 45% Texas, 42% Ohio St, 13% randoms. Do not debate this breakdown - my sampling methods are science.
2. Do Ohio State fans act like relentless polesmokers outside of Columbus as well?
Buckeye Road Fan is a different creature from Home Fan. I say this despite meeting Ohio State fans at the Rose Bowl in '05 who showed up in full Buckeye regalia and spent three hours walking around outside the stadium before the game abusing Michigan fans and throwing ice at women. Okaaay.
The Fiesta Ohioans featured a lot of dudes wearing eyeblack and starter jerseys stylishly paired with an array of Wanstaches, but you're also attracting a better element of Buckeye that can actually afford tickets, a flight, and a hotel. The unemployed industrial town white trash hangers-on towny folk who don't have a degree and are living a Springsteen song that show up at games in Columbus to throw things at people from states who participate in a 21st century economy are basically absent. There were some trash-talking buffoons, but Columbus '05 it was not.
Unlike Amsterdam, you can take this grass outside
University of Phoenix stadium is a great venue. Excellent sight lines, the best field conditions I've ever seen in any stadium, and NFL style seating. It's so open and airy that you feel like you're in a major league baseball stadium when you're walking in from the concourse. A transparent dome that allows natural lighting and a field that can slide out into the parking lot for grooming are complete genius. The Cardinals played on Thursday and you'd swear that no one had ever set foot on the field.
It does all have a certain soulless quality, but this is Phoenix, not Budapest. What the hell do you want?
Onward to Part II.