NEW ORLEANS -- Stephen Toups, kitchen supervisor at this city's downtown Marriott, has emerged during a break, to assess the rush crowd.
Just not tonight. This is the calm before the swarm. On this evening, weeks before the BCS title game, the bar maid chatting with Toups even has time to field a call from some woman who wants to sell four tickets. In the current market, that's as likely as Adam and Eve opening a designer clothes outlet.
But the rush is coming as sure as the crack-of-dawn hoses that wash down Bourbon Street each morning. A rush that has driven average secondary-market ticket prices for Monday's game past $1,800. A rush that has caused otherwise rational folks to drown their family budget near the mighty Mississippi.
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"I've heard stories," said Ronnie Burns, in his 28th year on the Sugar Bowl committee, "Fans are not going to take family vacations. The husband and wife didn't get Christmas gifts. This is stark-raving mad."
It is a rush that basically begins today when Alabama checks into the Marriott. The Tide will be encamped as one half of what some are calling the biggest sporting event in the history of this city that knows a little something about big events.
"Voodoo," says Toups, considering the obvious.
That would be one way to explain how it got to this point: Two SEC powers facing off in the SEC's ancestral postseason home for what is already guaranteed to be a sixth consecutive national title for the SEC. How the BCS process has unwittingly given rise to LSU as a national power with the Tigers playing their third "home" national title game here in nine years. How the conference's power is so consolidated, the game so regional that the participating coaches own championship rings -- from the same school.
"If I see him, I want to go up and shake his hand," Toups said of Alabama's coach, "and thank him for making LSU the team he has to deal with."
Nick Saban to Les Miles to New Orleans. Intertwined forever. Or at least this week. Don't explain it. Embrace it. Voodoo.
A combination of events, occurrences, happenstances and football have made it this way. Everyone knew the Tigers and Tide were going to be contenders this season. A lot of us spotted a potential November Game of the Century last summer. But few could have foreseen a rematch for all the insurance money (Allstate is the title sponsor) here in Nawlins. Even fewer could have seen a rolling party here that began with New Year's, continued with Tuesday's Sugar Bowl and includes a Saturday home Saints playoff game before the BCS title matchup two days later. That's all prior to Mardi Gras, the Final Four, the Jazz Fest and the Essence Festival.
That gets us to the second week of July.
"This is going to be comparable to a Super Bowl, or even bigger," said Burns, former Sugar Bowl president whose brother Burton is Alabama's running backs coach. "You have all the ingredients here: Louisiana-based school No. 1 in the nation. Their archival, Nick Saban. They recruit the same kids."
And share the same devotional DNA. What makes this BCS title game so over the top is its drivability for both fan bases. Many will make the easy road without tickets, which seems to be a shared trait. Both sides will show up -- intentionally, without admission -- just to be part of the event.
There are some projections of 100,000 folks descending upon this city without tickets. That's not a game. That's Mardi Gras.
"Both of those groups capable of driving in? This is an airlift," said Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan. "This is people driving into what might be the single biggest sporting event in the history of this state."
Numerous Final Fours and Super Bowls have been played here. But those out-of-town teams were imported to play at a neutral site. LSU and Alabama have made it to the Sugar Bowl or BCS title game in New Orleans more than 20 times, combined. It is a destination city for more than the casinos, the French Quarter and beads.
The closest thing to local fervor may be the NFC title game here a couple of years ago that launched the Saints into the Super Bowl. The city's devotion to its NFL franchise is intensely emotional, cultural and financial. But even Who Dat Nation may have to take a back seat this week in the city's sports pecking order.
"Everything here goes: LSU, God, the Saints and everything else," said Dave Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu's coach at New Orleans' St. Augustine High. Word has it that Alabama has a bit of a following itself. That has obviously raised the demand in the 76,500-seat Superdome. SeatGeek.com listed a suite for 45 going for $217,000.
Just wait until the two factions meet on the street to discuss the implications. 'Bama is trying to win its second championship in three years. LSU might feel a bit entitled itself. The Tigers already have done what the system is asking it to do again -- beat the Tide.
"Alabama, they've got some sick people over there, you can quote me on that," said local restaurateur Mike Serio. "I'm as passionate as anybody but sometimes you have to draw the line." "I went to the game in Tuscaloosa," Burns said. "You just got the impression it was unfinished business. You got the impression one of those chapters that wasn't exactly closed yet."
How does NOLA cope? Like a family reunion, there always seems to enough to go around in this town. The Hyatt Regency, a downtown symbol of Katrina's damage, is back on line. The hotel is snug up against Champions Square, a 120,000-square foot outdoor party venue complete with a private club. The economic impact of hosting two BCS games in seven days is expected to be $400 million.
New Orleans lost population after Katrina. It hasn't lost its soul.
The city's 37,000 hotel rooms are only 70 percent occupied perhaps because of the fans' ability to commute. But they're going to have to sleep somewhere. Or maybe they won't. Part of LSU's home-bar advantage rests within walking distance of the Superdome. Walk-On's, an LSU campus bar, opened another outpost here in September. Try to find another place this size with beer taps at the tables.
As you have read, there is no doubt about Serio's leanings. The BCS title game will be his 347th game in a row watching the Tigers. The demand at Serio's Po-Boys & Deli on Saint Charles Street may force him to keep the place open past its usual 3 p.m. closing time.
"It's not white linen table cloths, fine dining," Serio said, "This is a college crowd. I don't get the doctors and lawyers and big expense account. I get the guys on food stamps."
OK, maybe it's not that basic.
"We'll be packed," the owner qualified, "We'll be packed with LSU fans. It's fabulous."
Serio bought his tickets through LSU, for the comparatively modest face-value price of $350 per. Once again, the business model trumps the amateur ideal when it comes to college football. If we're suckers enough to pay the going price, it's hard to argue about college athletics' profit motive.
"[There are] people outside the stadium without the vaguest idea that they may get a ticket," Hoolahan said. "Then you're going to have everybody coming to town hoping to get a ticket on the secondary market. If they don't, the heck with it."
Translation: Let the good times roll.
The Sugar Bowl committee has the smallest volunteer staff among BCS bowls, about 125. This makes the Sugar folks nervous. The Fiesta has enough volunteers to spare (approximately 3,000). For only the second time, the understaffed Sugar is "double-hosting" two BCS games.
While the football overload is great for fans, some of it is a pain in the you-know-what for the staffers. That's part of the reason Virginia Tech was picked for Tuesday's Sugar. The committee was familiar with the Hokies, who have been here four times since 1995. They know what they're getting. Familiarity. Comfort.
Now it gets tricky and jealous and snarky. Alabama and LSU officials are looking for any sign of favoritism by a bowl that is paying them each multi-millions. They will measure everything from the size of entrees at team dinners to practice time allowed inside the Dome.
Alabama doesn't want to be treated like the "visitor" in the midst of all this purple and gold.
LSU doesn't want to lose the voodoo that got it here, all of 70 miles down the road to win possibly a third national championship since 2003.
Meanwhile, Nawlins can't lose.
"It's huge," said Toups, retreating back to the kitchen for the inevitable rush, "for the hotels, the bars, the restaurants. If you can afford a ticket to this game, you can afford to go out and spend more money."