Imagine a scenario where two top 10 teams – say Ohio State vs. Penn State in Week Five – had played the first half of the game before severe weather hit, preventing the game from being completed.
NCAA rules require at least three quarters be played for a winner is declared. Having that showdown, with its Big Ten Conference and College Football Playoff implications, declared a “no contest” would have flooded the news cycle and had the sport’s pundits pontificating on what ifs and why nots.
There was no imaginary scenario Saturday night in Wichita Falls, Texas, home of No. 4 Midwestern State. Division II defending national champion and Lone Star Conference rival Texas A&M-Commerce, ranked ninth, was in town. The atmosphere was electric – literally.
First, lightning delayed the 7 p.m. kickoff by 45 minutes. Then, after the teams were tied at 10-all leaving the field for halftime, more lightning flashed and it didn’t stop. Early Sunday morning – and by “early” we’re talking not long after “Saturday Night Live” had signed off – it was likely that a showdown of top 10 Division II rivals would wind up as a weather-delayed no contest.
It was parents’ weekend at Midwestern State, so hotels were at full capacity. Commerce athletic director Tim McMurray and his Midwestern State counterpart Kyle Williams were draining their cell phone batteries calling hotels within an hour’s drive with the idea of finishing the game Sunday in Wichita Falls.
On an hour’s notice, regardless of the circumstances, how many hotels do you think have a minimum of 40 vacancies on a weekend? And four hotels with 10 rooms each wasn’t an option.
“We both wanted to play the game,” McMurray said in a telephone interview Sunday night. “Both schools had everybody they knew calling any hotels we could think of. I had third cousins making calls. I stopped counting at 65 hotels.”
Like a team facing a last chance for a miracle victory, McMurray dialed up a hail Mary. He contacted friend and colleague Jared Mosley, the Associate Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the University of North Texas in Denton (located north of Dallas and midway between Wichita Falls and Commerce).
The Mean Green had just finished holding on for a 27-24 Conference USA victory at winless UTEP and Mosley was boarding the plane for the team’s flight home.
“I got his text just as the doors were closing for the flight,” Mosley said. “When we landed back in Dallas, we started talking on the phone. I cleared it with coach (Seth Littrell) because we needed to make sure it wasn’t going to be disruptive on a day our team was practicing. They understood it was gonna be bare bones as far as the stadium and that we’d need all the help we could get.”
Sunday afternoon at Apogee Stadium in Denton, A&M-Commerce held on for a 20-19 victory over Midwestern State, reversing the outcome of last year’s Lone Star Conference game that didn’t deter the Lions from winning out and taking Division II national championship.
The game is thought to be the only NCAA contest at any level that was played on two different artificial turf (Desso iDNA at Memorial Stadium, PowerBlade HP at Apogee) playing surfaces and had an intermission (16 hours between the second and third quarters) slightly longer than a Super Bowl halftime.
Late Friday afternoon, A&M-Commerce departed campus in two charter busses. The team would spend the night in Denton before completing the road trip to Wichita Falls for the 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
During the week, McMurray and Williams talked every day. Weather in Texas is as unpredictable as college football outcomes and the two athletic directors were speculating about the possibility of severe weather impacting the game.
There was some spit balling about moving the kickoff to 4 p.m. but even at the D-II level, changing a game time is far more complicated than making an announcement. Both agreed that trying to out-game plan Mother Nature was a losing proposition.
Saturday morning, the Lions did their walk-through in the hotel parking lot and then boarded their charter busses to drive to the game. The first sign of what would become a wacky weekend came when the bus carrying the offensive unit broke down about halfway between Denton and Wichita Falls just before 3 p.m. Saturday.
“It wasn’t the athletic director’s best moment,” said McMurray, who was driving Saturday because the school’s nationally ranked volleyball team had a match Friday night. “I was about ready to leave Commerce, we had our operations people working the phones.”
With nearly 100,000 fans in nearby Dallas for Saturday’s Oklahoma-Texas game, finding an available charter bus proved impossible. Fortunately, connections with Bowie ISD produced two school busses – “yellow dogs” – to help get A&M-Commerce’s team delivered to Wichita Falls about 30 minutes behind schedule.
Then, two minutes before kickoff, lightning within 10 miles of the stadium caused the by-rule 30-minute delay. The game started at 7:46. When the first half – “a typical Lone Star Conference battle,” said McMurray – ended with the teams tied at 10-all and just seconds after the clock went to 0:00 another lightning delay was announced. With no more weather issues, the possibility of just an extended halftime loomed with a 9:50 p.m. second half kickoff.
This time, though, the electrical bolts wouldn’t stop – . The weather radar made it evident that it was unlikely there would be a break in the storms long enough to finish the second half.
In situations such as these, the athletic directors and the coaches from both schools along with the “white hat” from the officiating crew decide what to do in case of a weather delay. To be counted as a game, three quarters must be played. With this game at halftime, the option emerged that a “no contest” could be declared. Lone Star Conference commissioner Jay Poerner called in and encouraged every avenue be pursued to figure out a way to play the game.
“Both schools were very committed to playing the game even though the logistics of playing the game looked to be about 99.9 percent impossible,” said McWilliams, who wasn’t sure about the venue move until 3 a.m. “You’d always rather be lucky than good, and we were lucky.”
When North Texas landed in Dallas, McMurray and Mosley reconnected. North Texas athletic director Wren Baker and Mosely agreed that Apogee Stadium was available Sunday afternoon. They wanted the resumed game to start at 1 p.m.; the Division II schools preferred 3 p.m. They compromised for a 2 p.m. start. A&M-Commerce’s two busses – both charters – left Wichita Falls around midnight and returned to campus about 3 a.m. They left Commerce around 9 a.m., stopped at Golden Corral in Rowlett for the pre-game meal and arrived in Denton, sans travel issues.
In addition to matching two top 10 teams, the game featured one of college football’s best unknown quarterbacks and a historic rivalry.
Midwestern State senior Layton Rabb came into the game as the active career passing efficiency leader in all of NCAA scholarship football at 169.48. In Division II, he’s second in passing efficiency and passing yards and third in touchdowns.
A&M-Commerce had a 12-11 edge heading into the 24th meeting of the series but the Mustangs had won 10 of the last 12, many of them thanks to dramatic comebacks. The last five Midwestern State victories in the series had come by six points or less.
The Lions’ defense limited Midwestern State’s offense, which was averaging nearly 45 points a game. Rabb finished 22-of-47 for 234 yards and ran for a touchdown in Saturday night’s first quarter.
After taking a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter, a bad snap through the end zone gave the Mustangs a safety and a one-point deficit.
Twice Rabb led Midwestern State on drives into scoring territory, but one field goal was blocked and a final potential game-winning kick from 30 yards was wide right.
“If you want to compare things, Commerce lost in the regular season last year and then ran the table,” Rabb told the Wichita Falls Times Record News. “It’s something we can’t get too down about. Every game is a playoff game from here on out. It’s not the end of our season, but losing this one hurts, it hurts real bad.”
The pain felt by Rabb and his teammates at a loss in a showdown game might be tempered once they consider that instead of a wasted half of football, they and the Lions were able to play a complete game and post another classic in the series.
Weekends at Division I athletic departments are just part of a seven-day work week. On Sunday, UNT was hosting soccer and volleyball matches plus a golf tournament in a North Dallas suburb. Plus, Baker and Mosley were flying to Philadelphia for meetings that started Monday. Plus, the game operations staff typically has at least a week to prepare the stadium for a game. The check mark list to get ready was long.
Starting at 5 a.m., UNT’s operations crew started preparing Apogee. It made sure both locker rooms were ready and that each team had plenty of water and ice. Admission was free and there were no concessions so there was no need to secure any money exchanges. An ambulance and medical crew were on hand as was off-duty police to provide security.
Both schools provided staffers to run the scoreboard. A&M-Commerce public address announcer Roger Emrich, a veteran Dallas radio sports voice, handled the public address duties. He was cautioned to keep his voice inflections neutral.
The officiating crew from Saturday’s game was available and the schools were able to find the refs hotel rooms. Two of the crew members are from Phoenix so their flights had to be changed to Sunday night.
The last piece of the puzzle was finding a chain gang; that was solved around 10:30 a.m. McMurray called in a chain gang and most of the game operations folks from Commerce.
“We kept Kyle and the Midwestern State people informed every time a decision was made,” McMurray said. “I wanted to make sure they knew we weren’t trying to stack anything in our favor. And Midwestern State was scrambling to go from playing a home game on Saturday to getting its team on the road for the second half.”
UNT planned to hold practice in the stadium at 5 p.m. so the agreement was that the game had to finish by 4:30 p.m. The biggest concern was another – gasp – weather delay. 21 hours after the scheduled start time, the off again, on again game had a final score. Even with the loss, Midwestern State boosted its strength of schedule. Not playing the game would have possibly impacted the Mustangs’ chances of earning a spot in the 28-team Division II playoff bracket.
Baker and Mosley are both former Division II athletic directors and they’re well aware of the history and competitiveness of the Lone Star Conference. They understood the need for the game to be played. Baker, when he was athletic director at Rogers State in Claremore, Okla., he remembers the school’s softball team was stranded by a bus breakdown about an hour Lubbock and the help he received from school officials in West Texas. Lending a stadium to two schools in need was simply stocking the karma bank.
“It was a no brainer for us once we figured out we could make it work,” Baker said. “That game needed to be played. And in this business, as an athletic director, it’s Murphy’s Law; if it can go wrong, it will. You never know when you might be the one needing help or a favor. It just makes sense to help other schools out if you get the chance.”
“This weekend was about the players on both teams,” McMurray said. “The players wanted to play a big game and a Division I school opened up its marquee football stadium to two Division I teams that 12 hours earlier didn’t think they’d be finishing what they started.”