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Big Game planners sweat the small stuff
Cal and Stanford athletics staffs orchestrate details, in effort to keep the gridiron classic fun and safe

| 20 November 2003

 




Jean Smith graphic

Athletic competition, at its best, includes the element of surprise. If the outcome is preordained before the kickoff or the first pitch, why bother watching? If “it’s not over till it’s over,” emotions in the stands will rise and fall like tech stocks and spectators will get an adrenaline high, regardless of who wins.

But for all that a great game involves the unexpected, a great event — which, after all, is what every Big Game promises — depends, in large part, on predictability: the fans find the stadium and their seats in time, the bands know their notes and their halftime routines, mascots survive the fourth quarter unscathed, and no one gets beaten up in the parking lot.

This weekend’s 106th Big Game, on its face, holds elements of excitement — as the Bears travel into enemy territory to defend the Axe, with a bowl berth on the line. The rest depends on the big guys in the padded uniforms and the athletics staffs on either side — the former, who thrive on shock and awe, the latter whose business it is to orchestrate logistics and prevent disruptions.

Fans, of course, play a role as well. For a time in the 1990s, students lost their cool and the Big Game turned “really nasty,” says Gordon Bayne, events manager for Cal Athletics. “For the last six games, the tone has taken a turn for the better — which is what we want,” he notes. “Fans and teams should be able to enjoy the contest without having to worry about what is going to happen before, during, or after the game.”

When asked to imagine a bad scenario, Baynes says he worries most about the players, the goal posts, and team mascots. At one contest, he recalls, Cal fans surrounded the Stanford Tree at the end of the game and got hold of its topmost branches (which were attached to the Stanford booster’s head with a chin strap). “The fellow nearly choked to death,” he says. Because of that incident, Oski and The Tree are now required to “get decostumed” off the field during the last five minutes of the game.

Behind-the-scenes planning for the Big Game traditionally starts shortly after New Year’s and gains momentum through summer and fall. By late October, plans have gelled enough to hold the Big Game Joint Meeting — a suit-and-tie affair, on neutral territory, for more than 30 athletics staff and spirit-group leaders from the two campuses.

At the 2003 meeting, held at a private club in San Francisco, each attendee got a copy of a two-page printed agenda with 11 attachments — from #1 (a summary of measures taken to educate fans on appropriate behavior) to #11, titled “Axe Exchange/Non Exchange.” The latter detailed protocol for handling the coveted trophy “if Stanford wins” or “if Cal wins,” in language reminiscent of a lease agreement. (“The Axe will be allowed into the stadium during the game, but is restricted to the area assigned by DAPER and SUDPS. The Axe will not be used to taunt the opposing team’s fans….”)

Issues covered at the confab vary little from year to year. But significant changes do get highlighted. (This Saturday, for instance, the Cal Train that in past years delivered thousands of fans to Stanford Stadium is not running, due to construction on the line, and there will be no bag-check service provided for oversized bags or other prohi-bited items.) The meeting also serves to bring new band and spirit-group leaders up to speed on small but important particulars. These in-clude the precise number of Axe and Rally Committee members allowed on the field at one time (13 each, plus 11 Axe Committee members in front of the Stanford student section: five for the inflatable helmet, three for the horn, and three for the cannon).

Pre-game, half-time, and post-game timelines are planned down to the second. This year the Axe will be presented to the fans at 12:36 p.m. and 30 seconds. Kickoff is at 12:38:00, three minutes earlier than for last year’s contest at Memorial Stadium. (Pac-10 officials had to sign off on this innovation.)

Contraband materials are carefully scrutinized. Items prohibited at Stanford Stadium — listed alphabetically on Attachment 7a — include, of course, weapons and alcoholic beverages, but also coolers larger than 12x12x12 inches, baby strollers, and uncut fruit. When the latter was mentioned at the recent meeting, a Cal student chimed up to inquire about the permissible size of any cut-up pieces. “Are quarters OK? Or halves?”

“Applesauce!” someone said, before it was affirmed that quarter-size pieces would make the, er, cut.

Attendees were also reminded that before entering the stadium, Oski, The Tree, and their escorts must each pass a Breathalyzer test — a rule added after past incidents of mascot inebriation — while the bands and any lunches to be delivered to their members will be searched at their designated entry point, Gate 1.

“Will the spirit groups be searched?” a student wanted to know.

The answer was yes, though perhaps not so aggressively — for in light of yell and dance teams’ distinctive attire, said one official, “there’s not too much to search.”

For information on transportation to the Big Game at Stanford Stadium, and details on parking and other visitor logistics, see gostanford.ocsn.com/ and select “Gameday Central.”