SAN DIEGO The big activity Wednesday for the Poinsettia Bowl was the luncheon aboard the huge USS Midway Aircraft Carrier.
Approximately 1,500 players, coaches, administrators, boosters, bowl representatives and media were on hand for a luncheon on the famous aircraft carrier that is now a museum on the water.
Both coaches, Kyle Whittingham and Ken Niumatatolo spoke, along with former college and pro coach Lou Holtz, who now works for ESPN and bowl representatives. Holtz entertained the crowd with football stories and also offered some inspirational words for the two teams.
Two players were awarded the "Wishes Come True Most Inspirational Award" at the end of the luncheon. The awards were voted by their teammates for their "sportsmanship, scholarship and leadership" skills.
Utah quarterback Brian Johnson was selected by his teammates for the way he has come back from a knee injury as well as from a shoulder injury this year.
Navy running back Zerbin Singleton was selected as Navy's recipient for overcoming several obstacles in his life to become a top student and key player for the Midshipmen.
ATTENDANCE UP: Poinsettia Bowl officials said Wednesday that close to 47,000 tickets have been sold for tonight's game, which will set a bowl record.
That includes Utah's allotment of 10,000 seats, of which approximately 5,000 have been sold to Ute boosters. The Utes expect to sell a few more, but those that aren't sold will be donated to local charities.
Navy expects to have approximately 35,000 fans on their side, according to spokesman Scott Strasmeier.
Last year's attendance was 40,303, and the year before, when Navy defeated Colorado State, it was 43,629.
ON TV: Most Ute fans will be able to see tonight's game since it will be on EPSN-TV, which is on most cable and satellite systems.
According to USA Today, ESPN gets its highest ratings from bowl games. ESPN televises 23 of the 32 bowl games, and last year five games drew more than 4 percent of U.S. cable households, which tops nearly everything on the network except NFL games and a few other events.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Poinsettia Bowl was the lowest-ranked bowl game in 2005 and the fifth-lowest last year.
BOWL STREAK: Utah has the second-longest bowl winning streak in the nation with six straight wins going back to the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State.
The only team with a longer bowl winning streak is Boston College, which ironically beat Navy last year in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in North Carolina on a last-second field goal.
Whittingham said the Utes don't make a big deal out of their bowl streak to their players.
"We're not doing any focusing on that," he said. "Every year is a new year and a new challenge. People always ask me what the secret is to our bowl success. I just think it's the way we prepare for games and take it very seriously. It's a reward and it should be, but it's also a competitive situation and our guys understand that."
HAVING FUN: During the morning press conference featuring the two coaches, both Whittingham and Niumatatolo, who have known each other for a long time, had fun with each other.
"I understand he put in the shotgun offense the past two weeks with all that time he has on his hands. He's sandbagging me," said Whittingham.
"Being from Hawaii, I've been talking to June Jones, and we're going to go with the run and shoot tomorrow," said Niumatatolo.
Whittingham talked about former Ute Eric Weddle hanging out with the Utes all week
"We're sneaking him in at No. 7. If you see No. 7 out there, that's Eric Weddle. We're trading jerseys with someone on our team," Whittingham said.
When Navy's Niumatatolo had the podium, he said the Utes could use Weddle if they wanted.
"You guys can have him if we can have L.T.," he said, referring to Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
NAVY EXPERIENCE: While this is Utah's first-ever game against Navy, it isn't the first for Ute coach Whittingham, who played against Navy in the first-ever Holiday Bowl in 1978 when he played for BYU.
He said he mostly remembers a Navy receiver named Phil McConkey, whom the Cougars had a hard time stopping, that it was a low-scoring game (23-16 Navy) and all the pageantry surrounding the bowl, similar to this year. He also remembers one particular play.
"I remember I had a fake punt that got stuffed," he said. "I think it's the last time Brigham Young has run a fake punt. I had to get six inches and couldn't do it. That was my claim to fame in that game."
INTEREST IN ANDERSEN: Whittingham isn't surprised that defensive coordinator Gary Andersen's name is popping up for job openings at other programs.
"It should. He's an excellent football coach. We've been lucky to hang on to him," Whittingham said. "He's going to have some opportunities, and he's had some opportunities in the past. But there's a lot of reasons for Gary to be here."
Family and Utah being his alma mater, he noted, are two primary factors that have kept Andersen in Salt Lake City.
"I think it's just a matter of time before Gary becomes a head football coach. But he's on his own timetable, and he's going to make that decision, obviously," Whittingham said. "We're elated he's on our staff right now, and we hope to keep him as long as possible. But he's certainly a coach that's going to go a long ways in this profession."
Andersen, who has been mentioned in recent reports concerning defensive coordinator openings at Washington and Louisville, said he's had no "face-to-face contact" with any other program and is focused on Utah's Poinsettia Bowl game against Navy.
HEADED TO THE HULA BOWL: Safety Steve Tate has accepted an invitation to the Hula Bowl, Jan. 12 in Hawaii. The senior has led the Utes in tackles the past two seasons making 102 stops in 2006 and 98 this season. Tate was recently named first-team all-conference by the Mountain West.
"He has just been tremendous in his efficiency for us,"
Whittingham said. "You couldn't ask for a better senior year out of a player than what we got out of Steve Tate this year."
Tate will be joined in Hawaii by teammates Martail Burnett and Gabe Long. The defensive linemen were invited to the all-star game earlier this month.GAME NOTES: After clear weather early in the week, a rainstorm hit San Diego Tuesday night and continued into Wednesday morning before clearing. The forecast, according to the Weather Channel, is for 55 degrees and showers at game time today ... The payout for each team is $750,000, the minimum for bowl teams ... Qualcomm Stadium holds 66,000 fans ... Utah will occupy the north sideline and Navy the south ... The beneficiary for the game is the Make-A-Wish Foundation of San Diego.
CONTRIBUTING: Dirk Facer E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]