Poor Robert’s Ruminations with Rob Whittle: Travels through the Big 10

Poor Robert’s Ruminations with Rob Whittle: Travels through the Big 10
Rob Whittle (Courtesy Photo)

A few years ago, I had the idea of designing a fan avatar for the Washington Capitals. My company developed an online way to superimpose a fan’s face onto an image of a Caps player, customizing it with choices of scars, facial hair, mullet/ no mullet and, finally, a mouth that would move with the spoken word.

The idea was to use the avatar on social media. So, a fan could choose his or her favorite player’s jersey – or sweater, as I learned to call it – record a message and post it to Facebook. I named it Slapstick.

The Caps loved it and began promoting it to their fans. Ever the entrepreneur, I thought that Slapstick could scale up to virtually any sport, including college football where opportunities would abound. This led to my excellent road trip to the Big 10.

I called my acquaintance from Tennessee, Larry, who is basically an insurance salesman with many connections in the football world. Larry is a rotund, merry dreamer with an outrageous southern drawl and a million corny jokes and adages, most of which involve football or “foot-bawl.”

Keeping in mind that Facebook and all social media was still a relatively new phenomenon, and that Larry had probably never heard of it, let alone understood its power, I nevertheless knew that he was the perfect sales guy for Slapstick, precisely because he was an uber entrepreneur and a dreamer. I also knew that he was close with Gary Moeller.

The important thing about Gary was that he’d been head coach of the University of Michigan football team for five years. Never mind that he’d resigned under murky circumstances involving alcohol. All he would say on the subject was that “it was a bad night.” He, like any winning coach in the Big 10, was a god. In other words, the perfect “door buster.”

The three of us converged on Ann Arbor and proceeded to the Michigan football facility, which is about the size of Rhode Island. There, Gary, Larry and I were feted. Everyone knew “Coach” and bowed and scraped; even the current players knew of him, though he hadn’t coached there in more than a decade.

It was then on to Ohio State where Gary had captained a national championship team under legendary former Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes. More bowing and scraping and touring of their uber-impressive facility, led by the athletic director himself.

Various showcases featured multiple Heisman trophies along with a huge digital clock that counted down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the next Michigan game. Seems that’s a pretty strong rivalry.

The most fun part of the trip was the time on the road. I was situated in the back seat like the kid with the parents up front. Larry got Coach to loosen up and tell some war stories.

Coach talked about Woody Hayes – not his coaching or his strategies, but rather his recruiting style. Woody would sit down in a recruit’s home and barely acknowledge the recruit himself. He would address the mom, and only the mom, promising her that her boy would be in good hands and would call home every Sunday. He rarely left without a commitment. And, you can be sure, the boy did call home every Sunday.

Coach looked like a kid on Christmas morning when he told the story of calling a pass play on fourth down to Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard against Ohio State. The play was successful and Coach beamed as though it had happened that morning.

On the road to our final stop, Indiana University, we pulled into a diner for lunch. Larry polished off his meatloaf and mashed potatoes with a helping of cherry pie. When the server delivered the check, Larry drawled with a twinkle in his eye that he’d like his money back because he didn’t like the meal. I was as embarrassed as any teenager would be over a parent’s bad joke.

Oh, and Slapstick? I remember nothing about the meetings except that nobody wrote a check. It was all about the road trip.

The writer is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.”