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On the Holiday Bowl Road: Part 1 – The team luncheon on the U.S.S. Essex

By Greg Katz: 

 After seeing the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld, things got serious with Friday morning’s much ballyhooed National University Holiday Bowl luncheon aboard the U.S.S. Essex. It’s Part 1 of On the Holiday Bowl Road with the Cardinal and Gold, and you’ve been given security clearance to attend.

 Friday – Dec. 26

7:30 a.m.: Having decided to drive down to San Diego on Christmas night to avoid any possible Friday morning commuter stress from Orange County, I receive a much too early early Omni Hotel wake-up call. The Omni, a wonderful hotel, is the Holiday Bowl media headquarters and is the facility that connects to Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.

7:45: The sounds of the famed San Diego trolleys are clearly audible outside my 6th floor room, as well as some screaming kids. Much too early for that noise. Looking outside, it must be in the high 50s, and I can see a number of Nebraska fans in shorts, no less, walking the streets. I guess high 50s to a Nebraska fan from Lincoln must be heaven on earth right about right now.

8:00: Head down one floor for media check-in. The press conference with Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian and Nebraska coach Barney Cotton is scheduled for 10:00. The media room is located in Balboa 1. I am afraid it’s going to be cutting it close between attending the morning press conference of the coaches and getting to the USS Essex in time for the team(s) luncheon. Because of strict security, there are two times (10:15 and 11:00) that the media will be escorted into the Naval base.

8:30: There is confusion as to where the media is supposed to check-in. Apparently the check-in will take place across the street in a place called “Gallery 3.” Nobody seems to be quite sure what is going on. There are a number of Nebraska fans in the Omni lobby all dressed in, of course, red. With my traditional oat bran breakfast not an option and with some extra time to spare, I decide on a small box of purchased Cheerios and head back to my room.

9:00: As mentioned, the Omni is located directly across the street from Petco Park, and each floor of the hotel has baseball memorabilia. There is the uniform top of all-time Padres relief ace Trevor Hoffman and Pete Rose and Brooks Robinson bats. During the baseball season, there is actually a bridge that connects from the Omni to Petco Park, and a guest of the hotel with a game ticket can avoid the street crowds getting into the game.

9:15: Return back to Gallery 3 across the street for the media check-in and coaches press conference. I am told the Navy base is about ten minutes away. Of course, isn’t everything always ten minutes away? The media is again forewarned that the United States Navy is very punctual and if you don’ get there by the allotted time, you won’t gain entrance to the team(s) luncheon aboard the USS Essex.

9:45: Get my credentials but decide that there won’t be nearly enough time to view the coaches press conference, so I quickly get my car and head for the 32nd St. Naval Base, which is along Harbor Blvd. It’s another beautiful day in San Diego and you can really feel the warmth of sunny beating down.

10:15: Well, so much for organization…again. Nobody at the Navy base entrance is quite sure of what is going on in terms of the luncheon. I am directed to a facility outside the base called the Pass & Decal Office. A number of media arrive at the Pass & Decal Office, but there is no one in the parking lot to give directions. The plan was a car caravan into the base, but a Holiday Bowl rep has yet to arrive.

10:30: After some fear that maybe there has been a giant mix-up, a friendly Holiday Bowl representative finally arrives and says to follow him to the “Gate 7 entrance.” We are told to stay in our car in a nearby parking lot for security purposes and until given further direction.

10:45: Finally a Navy security station wagon arrives and it’s follow-the-leader for a short trip along the water and past a row of Naval battle vessels. Parking is not a problem, and I can now see the enormous, intimidating presence of the USS Essex. In the background, you can hear the Trojans and Nebraska Marching Bands playing music alternately. The band performances are being called “The Battle of the Bands.”

10:55: After a healthy walk to the Essex, the Trojans Marching Band is performing “Heartbreaker,” and the Trojans Song Girls are really putting on a show, as Nebraska fans seem to be awed by the “Hollywood” image of the USC Song Girls. Even the Nebraska Song Girls seem to have a look of intimidation on their faces, although they are pretty good themselves, both physically and performance wise. Receive a nice greeting from past president of the San Diego Trojans Club Dan Orr.

11:00: The Nebraska team shows up and must walk through a large group of fans and the performing TMB. The Cornhuskers have that big Midwest farm boy look. This is not meant as a knock, but they just look different from that neck of the country. They’ve got plenty of size, too, and one linemen looked as big as Trojans starting right tackle Zach Banner, who stands 6-foot-9 and weighs around 330 pounds.

11:10: You know Steve Sarkisian’s Trojans is approaching the ship, as the Trojans Marching Band immediately transitions into “Tribute to Troy.” Leading the Trojans through the masses is senior linebacker Hayes Pullard and All-America defensive tackle Leonard Williams. “The Big Cat” immediately gets the attention of the Nebraska faithful and the Holiday Bowl dignitaries.

11:20: After both teams have been escorted onto the Essex, the media and the rest of the mob scene are allowed on board, walking up a rather steep ramp. The whole ship is a series of steep ramps to be honest. It’s like being on one continuous Hoag Hospital treadmill.

11:25: Inside the Essex, the gathering is ushered into a giant middle portion of the ship where the luncheon is to take place. This middle section is so big and so long that there are video screen far to the left and the right of the original podium.

11:35: Both teams are allowed to go first to the buffet line. The food being served by friendly Navy personnel is beef stroganoff, tasty potatoes, salad, a dinner roll, and assorted desserts, which include small squares of cheese, carrot, and chocolate cake. Oh yeah, there is even a vegetarian option. Oh the military, they don’t miss a beat.

11:50: With both teams now seated along with dignitaries, alumni, Holiday Bowl officials wearing red coats, families, and Navy “hosts,” the program begins. I am sitting at the far right, so the best and only real view is watching the video board just to the left of me. By the way, the great hall has the flags of many countries hanging from the ceiling and a giant flag of the United State residing behind the podium.

11:54: After some very brief introductions, FC3 Jermey Wallace of the Essex sings the National Anthem acapella. That is followed by the invocation by Lieutenant Daniel McGrath. You can hear a pin drop it is so quiet, and there is honesty a great sense of patriotism in the great hall.

12:00 p.m.: There is an opening welcome message from Captain Peter Mantz, Commanding officer of the Essex. He reminds the audience that his ship is “your ship,” paid for by taxpayers’ dollars. Both teams are dressed in respectable team sweat outfits. Mantz tells the players that this is one of the first real ships of the Navy to sail the Pacific Ocean. The Essex is used as defensive ship, but has the ability to launch jets, helicopters, and transport troops. We by a Navy host that this ship has incredible military capabilities. BTW, never call a Navy ship a boat. It’s a no-no.

12:10: Banquet Master of Ceremonies Mark Neville of the Holiday Bowl officially welcomes the teams and their staffs. There is a sense of excitement building as Neville introduces a Nebraska highlight video, which is accompanied by radio calls of the big plays.

12:15: Nebraska interim coach Barney Cotton, who is set to become the new offensive coordinator at UNLV, comes to the podium and gives a very emotional thank you to his team and the university for getting through the Bo Pelini sorry episode, although he doesn’t get specific or mention Pelini by name. I thought for a moment he was going to break down.

12:25: A big cheer comes up with the introduction of the Trojans football highlights, which are a complete contrast to the Nebraska highlights, as the Men of Troy use rap music to underscore the highlights.

12:29: Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian comes to the podium to give the obligatory thank you to the city of San Diego, the Holiday Bowl, and calls Nebraska “the best team we will have faced this season.”

12:35: Trojans athletic director Pat Haden steals the show with his usual dry wit. Haden says that it looks like Sarkisian got his new “military” short haircut compliments of the Navy on-base barber. The Trojans team and fans howl in laughter. On a serious note, Haden informs the gathering that his own father was once a captain in the Navy. He even injects that he honestly once signed a conference letter of intent with Nebraska when you could sign for each conference, and has been friends with legendary Nebraska Hall of Fame coach Dr. Tom Osborne for many years. At the end of his “performance,” Haden makes a plug to read the book and see the movie about the life and times of war hero Lou Zamperini, a true Trojan.

12:45: Haden is presented a ship’s steering wheel for his efforts.

12:50: On a serious note, an individual from both football programs is now recognized with the Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp Trophy for dedication and going beyond the call of duty. Nebraska’s award goes to a walk-on who says it’s a dream to be able to play both the Trojans and the Miami Hurricanes in the same season.

12:53: The Trojans recipient of the Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp Trophy does not go to player but a deserving member of the football program, David Scott, part of equipment operations. Scott is very humble and gracious and thanks his wife and family, as well as USC for the honor.

12:57: As the luncheon draw to a close, Brigadier General James W. Bierman, Jr., a Commanding General of the MCRD/Western Recruiting Region, reminds both teams that the military and sports have much in common. Of course, in the end, he says after football is over, think about a career in the military.

1:00: After the luncheon, a group of media is given a personal tour of the Essex and it’s flight deck. Navy personnel Alex Heidecke from Riverside is our tour guide, and he says he went to Riverside Rubidoux High and knows members of the famous Knight football playing family of the Trojans. Alex confirmed that the runway on the flight deck is about 880 feet long, and that this ship only does traditional takeoffs and vertical landings.

1:20: Both teams are now on the flight deck taking pictures and defensive tackle Leonard Williams is getting the once-over look by the Nebraska team. Leonard is all smiles, as he and his teammates take scores of pictures.

1:35: While heading towards the exit of the Essex, there is a Marine HMMWV on display, and Trojans offensive lineman Damien Mama and safety Leon McQuay lll climb inside and are told that you can play music and watch TV inside. Both have big smiles on their faces like kids in a toy store.

1:45: Departing off the ship, wouldn’t you know there had to be some military souvenir stands selling Navy hats and other items. Hey, even the military knows you need a souvenir stand as fans leave the facility. Okay, I am somewhat surprised the hats weren’t also in cardinal and gold. After all, the military rarely misses a trick.

In Part 2 of the On the Holiday Road, it’s a Friday night on the town with Nebraska and USC fans, who will invade the Gaslamp District and its trendy restaurants to get the pregame party started. You’ve been invited.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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