You can pick your favorite cliche to describe Larry Blakeney's last game.
All good things must come to an end, turning the page, the end of an era, curtains drawing closed. They're all true. We've all seen the movie before, or something like it. But they never happen the same way twice, the words never can describe the emotions. Time only marches in one direction.
If you're reading this you probably know most of the story. Blakeney spent his entire life in Alabama. He played at Auburn and later coached there for 13 seasons. Run out of town in the wake of the Eric Ramsey scandal, he became Troy University's head coach in 1990.
Blakeney stayed long enough to lead the team from Division II to the FBS, long enough to coach on a field named for him, long enough to slay a host of major conference teams, and didn't leave until too many losses led to his retirement. His last game comes against ULL Saturday and he'll stay on campus as a university ambassador for the foreseeable future.
Two jobs since 1977. In his retirement press conference, Blakeney described himself as "not much of a job looker." Understatement of the year.
It's hard to visualize 24 seasons. Let's try:
(Photos courtesy of Troy University Athletics)
Blakeney is the second-longest serving coach in the FBS. The only man man ahead of him (Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech has a four-year lead) could be out pretty soon too. Blakeney might have grabbed the number one spot in a couple more seasons.
I have to admit I'm not a lifelong Troy fan or a graduate of the university. I started writing for this site and was basically told "you're the Troy guy." I knew about Troy though, as do most football fans. I watched the 2004 Missouri game with some college friends. Heading home before the final whistle, a friend told me the next morning, "they beat 'em." As a Georgia Southern student, the hope was our school could pull off something like that one day.
Later, another friend and I were looking through NFL rosters (I know, the life of a college kid) and were amazed how many teams featured Troy players. Again, I wished my school could do that.
I've of course come to respect the man and the program more through this little assignment. A ridiculous rate of success for so many years, made perhaps more ridiculous by the fact Blakeney never left.
To put it in perspective, Blakeney entered this season with 175 wins at Troy. The other 10 Sun Belt coaches had a combined 99 wins at their current job.
I'll say it again, I wish my school could do that.
The biggest takeaway for me comes on a personal level. I was born in Columbus, Georgia, and most of my extended family still lives there or right across the river in Phenix City, Alabama (close to Troy in other words.)
Listening to Blakeney hold court in press conferences feels like listening to one of my uncles pontificate over Thanksgiving dinner. Some of the Dothan Eagle's excellent coverage of the game this week includes a piece detailing Blakeney's perfect fit for the local community. That's another understatement.
All kinds of numbers describe what a great coach Blakeney is. Seven playoff appearances in eight tries as an FCS coach. A perfect regular season in 1995. Wins over Mississippi State (2001) and Oklahoma State (2007) in addition to Missouri. A 178-112-1 overall record. Blakeney passed his own college coach, Ralph "Shug" Jordan, in career victories earlier this year.
The story doesn't exactly have a happy ending though. Troy surged to five straight Sun Belt titles from '06 to '10, then fell off a cliff starting with the 2011 season. There hasn't been a winning season at Troy since that last championship. The retirement was announced when the Trojans were 0-5.
The all-too obvious parallel is with Bobby Bowden. Two program builders, remarkably similar in growing a squad that hadn't been considered a traditional power. Unfortunately, in recent years Blakeney began trailing the end of Bowden's tenure as well.
Unlike the man so famous for his dad-gums, the end went quietly at Troy, at least in public. Larry Blakeney goes out with a smile on his face, recounting old war stories without a cross word to anyone. It's widely known Blakeney may have moved on long ago if not for the scandal back at Auburn. If it bothers Blakeney, you sure can't see it on his face.
Known for his humor, Blakeney goes into what it means to be a man in a recent TV interview. He says being a man sometimes means changing a diaper or being understanding. He also talks often about his three daughters who graduated from Troy, and about his grandchildren. But he couldn't resist making a crack about marriage.
"When you're married, you're not necessarily in charge," he said. "You're not necessarily the majority stock holder."
I think my uncle said that at a family reunion once.
So the era comes to an end this weekend. A host of former players should be on hand for the ULL contest, maybe including some of the dozen former Trojans playing in the NFL right now.
It's hard to know what to say, or how to say it. I guess you have to watch the game like any other, and appreciate the moment, the memories and the meaning of a legend. Larry Blakeney walks away Saturday, but will never be gone down in Troy, Alabama.