Battle of the Piney Woods Spurs Reflections on SHSU

Sam Houston State University offers a quality education in a serene small-town setting. It's certainly been much quieter since Doug Sarant graduated. Photo courtesy of Justen Barber.

Being as how I’m a proud Sam Houston State graduate, on an otherwise uneventful Saturday afternoon I thought I’d mosey on down to Reliant Stadium and see if, maybe, the Sam Houston/SFA Battle of the Piney Woods clash is as big of a draw as my wife was saying.

I could have stayed home and rooted for my old school on Channel 39 from the comfort of my couch, but I was feeling nostalgic so off we went.

As we reached the Reliant parking lot, the place was a sea of orange. Real orange, not any of this burnt orange knockoff stuff. For once, I was at a big time stadium where the color of choice was for my school. Bearkat alumni could be seen tailgating as far as the eye could see drinking water and glomming on barbecue.

Texas A&M, UT and Texas Tech fans get to watch their teams play on TV almost every weekend at any sports bar in the state. It’s not very often we get to see Sam play at a major venue. This was one of the first times since I graduated almost 30 years ago that I’ve been able to do this.

A few years ago I covered the basketball team when they beat SFA to advance to the NCAA Tournament. That was exciting, but since I was at the courtside press table I had to control myself and act unbiased.

This game was different.

The school spirit thing hasn’t changed much. Huntsville is a small town within a quick drive of the Houston area, which is where most of the students come from.

The term “suitcase college” applies now, albeit not quite as much as it did when I attended Sam, back in the dark ages.

Since New England was home, I had nowhere to go on weekends. So, I hung around and lifeguarded empty swimming pools and bartended at The Cowboy (similar to today’s Shenanigan’s).

This is no exaggeration, some weekends in Huntsville I felt like the last man on Earth. I could easily identify with Charlton Heston’s character in “The Omega Man.” Nowadays, as the school has become much larger and their facilities top notch, students stay on campus on the weekends and like it. Back in those days, on Saturday nights the creatures weren’t coming out of the woodwork to kill you. They were coming to fill one side of Bowers Stadium.

If you’re not familiar with Sam, you might think filling half of a 14,000 seat stadium is no big deal. But, when half the student body of a small school went home to “let” mommy do their laundry, that meant the other half, every soul on campus, was at the football game.

Huntsville isn’t Austin or College Station. Generally, the town folk weren’t into supporting the university athletic teams. I guess if you opened the doors to the prison, the convicts might fill the place up, or not.

Personal experience tells me that those 7,000 crazies can make up for a lot of empty seats. Whether it’s the “pit” when I was there, or the end zone couch potatoes some years later, the place has a personality only a Sam alum could appreciate.

Fans are just as knowledgeable in Huntsville as they are in any other part of this football crazy state. Granted, on game night people weren’t bringing clipboards and following Coach Randleman’s strategy by diagramming plays. Us Sam fans were as enthusiastic, if not more, than any school in the country when our boys in orange took the field.

Here’s a personal story about school spirit. Back in the early 80’s we had a really good lacrosse team.

Anyway, depending on how you look at it, late one Friday night or very early Saturday morning, some of us lacrosse guys circuitously made our way  into Johnson Coliseum (basketball stadium) in hopes of borrowing Sammy the Bearkat so we could display him at our game later that day.

Sammy isn’t alive. He’s a tall statue weighing several pounds.

We got in, located Sammy and somehow carried him up a narrow stairway to the main corridor. We were in the process of wheeling Sammy through a glass door when we heard a loud voice. “Hey!! Where are you going with Sammy??” It was none other than assistant basketball coach John Tucker.

I was so surprised, I asked him what the heck he was doing in the coliseum at what was now 3 a.m. “Studying film! What else would I be doing here?” He replied.

At this point, we were all wondering exactly how much trouble we were in. Think about it. We broke into the coliseum and were stealing the school mascot. People have been thrown out of school, or in jail, for lesser crimes.

Coach looked at us and said, “You guys are always at our games in the front row with your faces painted, right? I won’t do a number on you this time. But, do me a favor. Watch your language when you’re yelling at the refs. Now get the @#$%&* out of here!”

I promise, we laughed our backsides off all the way home – without Sammy.

Coach Tucker later became the head coach and won a conference title. Dedication will do that for you sometimes.

We don’t get to brag on Sam very often, so I’m going to continue. Another thing I liked about Sam was the philosophy of the students. When I flew in from New England to go to Sam, I sensed a laid back, level-headedness. Many kids went there for the strong programs and still do. Maybe they weren’t at the top of their class or their parents wouldn’t or couldn’t afford to send them to A&M or UT. Maybe they were like me and wanted to get the heck out of wherever they were from and start over with people they never saw before in their lives. Whatever, snobs were a non-factor in the Sam Houston State student body.

I might point out how things have changed – still no snobs but now you have to be in the upper percentage of your graduating class with an above average SAT score.

When I attended Sam, they would take your pulse, your money and send you to a dorm. If you were lucky, they would send you to a crazy nut hole called White Hall. If you were unlucky you’d get sent to a cave called Departmental. The other dorms were somewhere in between.

I’m not saying my degree from Sam Houston State is worth more than one from a prestigious university. That would be out of character for a humble, non-snob from Sam. But, I will say this, when people walk up to me when I am out and about displaying Sam gear and ask if I am a graduate of Sam Houston State University, I light up like a Christmas tree and exclaim, “Yes I am, thank you!”

So, on that one Saturday afternoon for me and about 15,000 of my orange clad friends, all you people from UT and A&M had nothing on us.

And, just like you usually enjoy, our school won in glorious fashion.

See you at Shenanigans!

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Doug Sarant, Oak Ridge Now

Born and raised in New England, Doug promises he got to Texas as fast as he could. He earned the much needed "piece of paper" from Sam Houston State, proving to himself he could start and finish something. Doug's interests include coaching and playing any sport and still plays lacrosse competitively. He also enjoys going to dinner theaters, though he complains there just aren't enough of them in the area. Doug was brought up in a cultured environment, having suffered through dozens of symphonies and operas with his way too over-educated mother. At the end of the day, Doug is just a dad and husband and claims to be good at both.

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