Nick Florence and Art Briles embrace. The entire Holiday Bowl experience was like one giant love fest. - USA TODAY Sports
I spent an unforgettable twenty four hours in San Diego for the Holiday Bowl. The defense swarmed and the offense pounded their way to a blowout win. Let's break down the things that happened off the field, shall we?
A gift of airline miles-funded plane tickets from my sister and brother-in-law for Christmas enabled my wife and I to make the trip to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl. The game is over and has been examined, but I wanted to give some of my own impressions of being at the game; not so much the game itself, but instead the atmosphere around San Diego, the fans' attitudes, the turnout and the like. Overall, the trip was fantastic, the game was incredibly fun, and San Diego was beautiful. Read on for more impressions.
The feeling that San Diego was Bear Country (not to be confused with Bruin Country) started even before we landed. I counted no less than three Baylor billboards from my window seat on the plane as we were on final approach to land. From the moment we stepped off of the plane in San Diego, there was a sense of camaraderie between all of the Baylor fans that were present… and there were plenty to be found. All throughout the concourses there were people in their green and gold, and we all exchanged Sic 'ems, nods, and high fives as we past. This continued after we got to our hotel and walked to lunch in the Gaslamp District of San Diego. The manager of our hotel is a Baylor alum, so the hotel had a BU flag hanging above the front desk. There were plenty of UCLA fans around, but any time we saw Baylor folks, we smiled, stopped and talked for a few minutes, or gave them a Sic 'em. We even were given a lunch recommendation that turned out fantastic. Perhaps it was being in "enemy territory," or maybe it was because we were far away from home, but there seemed to this shared sense of fellowship between all of the Baylor folks that I encountered. It didn't matter that nobody knew each other's names, we were all family.
I didn't get to experience much of the pre-game atmosphere around the stadium, mainly because I was slow leaving the hotel and the trolley system took longer than expected due to the crowds. They packed us into those trolleys like sardines. Other than a few Baylor fans that I met while waiting for the train, I was mostly surrounded by Bruins fans. They were generally friendly, though some tried to engage in some smack talk with me. They were trying to smack talk the fact that we didn't have RGIII any longer and our offense must have struggled because of that. Clearly they hadn't seen any of our games, and I told them as much. I also happily informed them that Baylor had the #1 offense in the nation, and that Nick Florence, our "no-name" QB was one of the top offensive players in the country. That shut them up pretty fast, but things stayed good natured for the most part. There did seem to be a sense that the UCLA fans thought they were going to steamroll us, but I was fine to let them keep thinking that. We arrived at the stadium about 45 minutes before originally scheduled start time and found our seats.
I've only been to a handful of NFL games so I'm not incredibly familiar with NFL stadiums, but Qualcomm struck me as oddly designed. The lower bowl is rather large and slopes upward gradually, so that seats towards the back of the lower bowl are much farther away from the action but not much higher than those that are close. A few folks remarked about this, but I didn't experience it for myself other than my observation from my seats, but it definitely gave the entire stadium the feel of being fairly far removed from the action. I was in the corner of the end zone painted yellow (more on that in a bit), on the "Press Level." It is a small level directly beneath the upper deck, and each section only had four or five rows. The night was clear and cold, but the small size of the Press Level and the fact that the upper deck gave the section a low ceiling helped trap heat in, making our seats probably some of the warmest in the stadium for the game. The view from the seats were spectacular, giving us an excellent view of the entire field.
Somewhat disappointing was the fact that the stadium end zones had not been painted for the game. The end zones were left blue and gold, with the San Diego lettering painted across each. The colors could have easily matched the two schools - the blue for UCLA and gold for us - but they were left alone. The center of the field had the Holiday Bowl logo on it, of course, but it was still slightly disappointing that they didn't paint the end zones. I suppose that's probably because the Chargers host the Raiders on Sunday.
I was impressed with the turnout for the game. The announced attendance in the stadium was north of 55,000. The entire lower bowl was filled, as were the Loge and Press levels for the most part. There were large gaps in the upper decks, but they were by no means empty. Bruins fans were there in force; they were even peppered throughout the Baylor sections, so it was tough to get an accurate read on the size of the Baylor crowd, but I'd say it was maybe a third Baylor folks. I was actually quite impressed with the turnout. There were full sections of green and gold. The Baylor fans that showed up let themselves be heard, too. My section and those around me were boisterous, cheering loudly when the game called for it, singing along with the fight song, etc. I was curious how the crowd sounded on the television, because from my seat, it sounded pretty loud. The band was already streaming onto the field for halftime when Lache blasted past multiple defenders to score a TD, but the crowd sang Old Fight and cheered loudly anyway. I didn't see a single person I knew, but by the end of the game all those sitting around me felt like old friends.
Once Baylor got to 42 points, a lot of the UCLA people started making for the exits. By the fourth quarter, the UCLA sections had very few people in them at all. When Baylor made it 49-19, a lot of the Baylor fans headed for the exits also. I was mildly disappointed, but I couldn't blame them; it was freaking cold by that point. Plenty stuck around until the end of the game, however, so there were still folks to sing the Baylor Line with the team and to celebrate the hoisting of the trophies. The number of Baylor fans that stayed far outnumbered the remaining UCLA fans, making the return trolley back to the Gaslamp Quarter far more fun. There were multiple "Sic 'em Bears" done while waiting for the trolley, and I saw no bad blood between the two fan groups at all.
Finally, I had the chance to meet some of the players in the airport on the way home. As it turned out, they weren't traveling home as a team but instead were released to go back to their homes and families for the rest of the break. Between 10-15 players were on our flight back to DFW. I congratulated each of them on a fantastic game. They were all appreciative of the fans that made the trip to San Diego, but there was something else that impressed me even more. To a man, they seemed like they'd moved on from the bowl win and were already looking forward. Each and every one of them expressed an excitement and determination about the offseason and the next year. They want to win the Big 12. That didn't stop all of the Baylor fans from congratulating them on a job well done, though. The best part was after we took off, the captain gave the team a shout out and congratulations, and the entire plane erupted into applause. It was an exhilarating end to this trip that felt like one giant family reunion.
UPDATE: Shoutout to @dfank_BU for being a fantastic fan. We were in the same section at the game. I screamed, high fived, joked and laughed with him all evening without realizing that I followed him on Twitter. He and his buddy were a big part of making this game so much fun. Give him a follow on Twitter!