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Severe weather has had a significant impact on college football this year, with several games cancelled or moved in early September due to Hurricane Florence and some on opening weekend affected by lightning.
But nobody went to the lengths of Texas A&M-Commerce and Midwestern State to finish a critical Division II game last weekend that could impact the NCAA playoff picture, spanning two days – and two stadiums – before it ended with A&M-Commerce winning 20-19.
“We wanted to settle it on the field,” A&M-Commerce athletics director Tim McMurray told USA TODAY Sports. “It was like nothing I’ve ever been a part of.”
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Problematic weather had been in the forecast all day Saturday for the area around Wichita Falls, which is on the Texas-Oklahoma border about two hours northwest of Fort Worth. But after an initial 40-minute lightning delay, the game kicked off at around 7:45 p.m. and finished the first half without incident and tied 10-10.
That’s when another lightning strike in the area was detected, forcing a delay. At around 10:45 p.m., after 90 minutes of waiting and talking with the National Weather Service, the schools agreed that there wouldn’t be a window to finish that night.
Because of the importance of the game – Midwestern State was ranked No. 4, A&M-Commerce was the defending national champion and ranked No. 9 – the priority was finding a way to play the second half. Per NCAA rules, games are only official after three quarters, so absent a playing another quarter, the game would be declared no contest.
Plus, given how difficult it is to make the Division II national tournament coming out of the competitive Texas region, both teams needed the game for strength of schedule purposes and there was no open date later in the season to resume it.
“From a ranking perspective, this was the Division II equivalent of Ohio State and Penn State playing the week before, and it was very important for both of us to get games in,” McMurray said. “You don’t want to take away a competitive opportunity in a key regional game like that.”
So it was going to finish Sunday or never. But there was a problem when McMurray and his staffers started calling around to hotels in the area looking to secure 40 rooms: There were hardly any available close to Wichita Falls, largely due to parents weekend and Greek Week events at Midwestern State.
“We called 64 hotel properties within an hour and a half circle,” McMurray said.
Once he hit that dead end, McMurray sent the team buses back to Commerce, which is about a 3-hour, 15-minute trip. Nobody in the A&M-Commerce camp wanted to bring the team all the way back the next day, given how grueling it would be to essentially spend 10 combined hours on a bus in a 20-hour span.
A high school stadium in the region might have been an option, but on such short notice there were logistical issues that couldn’t be worked out. Finally, just before 1 a.m., Midwestern State tweeted that the game was cancelled and wouldn’t be made up.
But McMurray had one more “hail mary” to throw, reaching out to North Texas athletics director Wren Baker to see if their stadium was available for a couple hours on Sunday afternoon, which would allow A&M-Commerce to cut its bus ride in half.
“We were out of options if UNT didn’t come through,” McMurray said.
Baker, who was on the way back from UTEP on a private plane with donors after North Texas’ win Saturday, answered McMurray’s message when he landed in Denton. Both Baker and his top deputy Jared Mosley have been athletics directors in Division 2, so they were well aware both of the challenges at that level and the importance of the game.
“Understanding how it works, we knew it was kind of a desperate situation,” Baker said. “The motivation for us, really, was just wanting to be a good partner to two state institutions, and I think we all have an obligation and duty to help each other out when we can. And you always want to put a little money in the karma bank when you can.”
Once it looked like North Texas could make it work, McMurray jumped in the car with his head coach Colby Carthel and assistant coach Yogi Gallegos and found a room at the Comfort Inn where they worked on setting up all the little things necessary to make the game happen. One by one, though, they went down the game operations checklist: somebody to operate the scoreboard, a chain gang, an officiating crew, food for the players, a public address announcer, security, an ambulance and other game operations. They even got someone to drive cheerleaders over from Commerce.
North Texas also chipped in some available staff and helped get the game off the ground.
The following morning, word spread on social media that the second half would happen in Denton and that admission would be free. Fifteen hours after the game was initially suspended, McMurray estimates 800 to 1,000 people showed up to watch A&M-Commerce win 20-19 with Midwestern State missing a last second field goal.
“It was a fun and cool environment to finish the game,” McMurray said.