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Archive for Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Big Eight Conference Skywriters Tour was a rocky ride

August 16, 2000

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If this were long ago, I'd be far away " somewhere on the road as a member of a dinosaur known as the Big Eight Conference Skywriters Tour.

For nearly 30 years in late August, sports writers and sportcasters from around the Big Eight area boarded airplanes (mostly antiquated) and buses (mostly modern) and made a daily visit to a league city.

I made about two decades worth of these junkets so, as you can imagine, I have accumulated quite a store of lore.

There was the time back in the early '70s when we boarded a charter outfit's Martin 404 in Oklahoma City with a Denver destination. Some of us knew it was a Martin 404 that had crashed and killed half the Wichita State football team a few years earlier so we were wondering how much it would cost if we split cab fare to the Mile High City.

I'm no white-knuckle flier, yet I remember wide-eyed moments when the pilot made a refueling stop in Liberal and I noticed the wing behind one of the engines was coated with oil.

When I asked what the problem was, the pilot smiled and said: "That engine uses oil." Minutes later, I saw him lugging 10 or so cans of oil across the ramp to the aircraft. Then he climbed a ladder onto the wing, and patiently poured each one of those can's contents into the oil-guzzling power plant.

Why did I reboard that aircraft? Probably because I was young and still thought I was immortal.

Most of our trips were on Convair 440s owned by Aspen Airways, a defunct airline that flew only between Denver and Aspen, except when they lured charters like ours, of course.

A couple of times, we flew in a pair of Missouri University-owned DC-3s. During the '40s and early '50s, the DC-3 was known as the "Workhorse of the Airways." By the time we flew those MU buckets, they were the "Swaybacks of the Skies."

Thank goodness, none of those Skywriters planes ever stopping running. A couple of buses did, though -- one in Ames, Iowa, and the other in Lincoln, Neb. In Ames, embarrassed bus officials were able to come up with a quick replacement.

Not in Lincoln. We were rescued from a junker of a city bus by a Lincoln police department paddy wagon driven, we were told, by a former Nebraska football player. We weren't told he had a lead foot. Ever been on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland?

In later years, except for commercial flights to and from Denver, we followed the white lines on comfortable motor coaches.

One year, we departed Big Eight Conference headquarters in downtown Kansas City with Ames as our scheduled first stop. After about an hour on the highway, I noticed an I-29 sign on the road, so I asked conference official Tim Allen if Nebraska-Omaha had been added to the league and I'd somehow missed it.

For those of you unfamiliar with Nebraska-Iowa geography, going to Ames through Omaha is sort of like driving from Lawrence to Manhattan through Wichita.

As soon as possible, the bus driver, a distant relative of Wrong Way Corrigan, pulled off I-29 and began to wind his way through a series of Missouri backroads that eventually brought us to Maryville, home of Northwest Missouri State University.

"Boy, I sure hope the Northwest Missouri coaches and players are ready for us," one of the Skywriters deadpanned. "This is a lot earlier than we usually show up here."

Yes, we did make it to Ames, only about an hour late, as I recall.

When the Big Eight merged with the four Texas schools and became the Big 12, a Skywriters Tour was no longer feasible. Today, instead of writers and broadcasters visiting each camp, the coach and a couple of players from each of the dozen schools converge on a single site -- Dallas or Kansas City -- and fill our notebooks and tape recorders with plums and platitudes, mostly the latter.

Now, of course, it's the coaches and players who get to spin the travel tales. So far I haven't heard any involving a paddy wagon.

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