Today marks the 15th anniversary of the 2003 Northeast Blackout, when errors made at a power plant in Akron, Ohio triggered a cascade of failures that ultimately brought down the electrical grid for much of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States the Canadian province of Ontario. Over 50 million people were affected by the blackout, which crippled transportation and communication systems just before the evening commute on a sweltering late-summer afternoon. In New York City, hundreds of people were trapped in subway trains or elevators.
“What does this have to do with college football?”, you might ask me, again, despite me never once having a satisfactory answer to that question.
We take you back to that night, back to one of those elevators, for a little-known but pivotal moment in our beloved sport’s history.
[INTERIOR: elevator, New York City, complete darkness]
KIRK FERENTZ: Try pressing the button again.
JIM DELANY: Kirk, I’ve pressed the button plenty of times. It’s pretty clear the power has gone out. We’re stuck.
FERENTZ: Press it again! Just because something hasn’t worked before doesn’t mean you should stop trying it.
DELANY: Listen, Kirk, I know you’re feeling pretty full of yourself right now, being one of the hottest coaches in the conference. You’ve turned the Hawkeyes around, with improved win totals in each of your first four seasons. You’re coming off an Orange Bowl appearance, and it seems like the sky’s the limit for you professionally. But that doesn’t mean you’re always going to be right. You’ve gotta recognize the nature of the sport. You’ve achieved success, but there’s going to be other hotshot coaches hot on your heels. Take this new guy Michigan State just hired.
JOHN L. SMITH: Hi, I’m Michigan State head coach John L. Smith.
FERENTZ: Press the button.
BARRY ALVAREZ: Dammit, Delany, I shouldn’t have let you drag me out here on this wild goose chase. I’m getting too old for this. I’m entering my 14th season as Wisconsin’s head coach, and I want to step back. Relax. Give the reins of the program to someone else.
JIM TRESSEL: [presence is felt in the dark, but he makes no sound]
LLOYD CARR: I agree with Coach Tressel. This was foolish of us to even try, a secret mission like this.
DELANY: Listen, you guys, I’ve got the long-term future of the conference to think of. Sure, we’re riding high now - Ohio State just won a national championship, and their rivalry with Michigan is finally feeling vital again.
GERRY DINARDO [who I otherwise have no use for in this premise, so I’m giving him this line]: That was quite a dark period there for a while, with one team dominating the rivalry for so long.
GLEN MASON [same]: Yes, the Big Ten thrives when Ohio State and Michigan’s rivalry is balanced.
RON TURNER [same]: I don’t think we’ll see that kind of imbalance between those two teams ever develop again.
JOE PATERNO: Sheila! I’m locked in the bathroom again. Tell my 11:30 appointment I’ll be running late.
DELANY: Right. Things are good for the Big Ten.
PATERNO: Sheila’s my secretary.
SMITH: Hi, I’m John L. Smith.
DELANY: But we have to think long-term! The future of the sport is in new frontiers. The ACC has just moved to add Miami and Virginia Tech. The era of conference expansion has begun, and we have to act fast or we’ll be left behind!
TRESSEL: [is sensed as a sudden cold presence moving through Jim Delany]
DELANY: Dammit Jim, why do you have to be so bound by rulebooks? Think outside the box!
PATERNO: SHEILA. SHEILA. This dang newfangled intercom doesn’t even work.
JOE TILLER: Joe, I’m not an intercom. You’re just poking me in the ribcage.
PATERNO: Ah, there she is. BRING ME COFFEE AND THE LATEST SCOUTING REPORTS ON THE CHICAGO MAROONS.
TILLER [sighs]: Right away, coach.
PATERNO: Amos Alonzo Stagg. Kid’s got a future.
DELANY: If we want to keep up with the other conferences, we need to act!
FERENTZ: Keep up with the ACC? Jim, don’t be ridiculous.
ALVAREZ: Sure, Florida State and Miami will continue to dominate over the next decade, but the rest of the conference? Who is the Big Ten supposed to be worried about? Clemson?
[laughter all around]
DELANY: I just think we need to capture the imaginations of the big coastal media markets. There’s millions of cable subscribers in New York City, and someday we might think about launching our very own cable channel.
LLOYD CARR: Our own cable channel! That’ll be the day. Ohh, Jim, I love you, buddy, but that’s nuts. Hey, I tell you what - you launch a cable channel, and I’ll guarantee you the Wolverines will play in your very first game on it. Make it real memorable for you.
DELANY: Boy, this blackout’s really stretching on. Our contacts said they’d meet us in secret at 6pm today, and if we showed up they’d join the conference and we’d have the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, but that if we missed the meeting, it was off. [checks Indiglo watch] Shit, it’s already 5:45pm. We’re going to miss out on adding Notre Dame.
PATERNO: I THINK WE SHOULD ADD RUTGERS. THEY’RE NEAR NEW YORK.
[laughter all around]
PATERNO: THE BIRTHPLACE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL!
JIM DELANY: Ohh, Joe. Can you imagine, Rutgers? No, I don’t think we’ll ever see a day where the Big Ten conference makes a school like Rutgers play the likes of Joe Paterno or Jim Tressel or Lloyd Carr.
ALVAREZ: Joe, we respect your long and storied career, but a terrible idea like that isn’t what you want to be remembered for.
PATERNO: HOW’S THAT COFFEE COMING, SHEILA?