The moment came abruptly Wednesday night when I realized the Missouri Valley was in my rear-view mirror.
Driving back from Normal, Ill., where Creighton's baseball team participated in the school's last event as a conference member, gave me plenty of time to think about the time I've spent covering the league.
I've logged thousands of car miles the past 21 years following Creighton around the outposts that make up the Valley. With six of the other nine schools in the league within relatively easy drive times of Omaha, my preferred mode of travel was by automobile.
I once drove through a blizzard to get to a game in Wichita, Kan., and an ice storm to get back from one in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I've been rained on and hailed on. I recall one trip back from Wichita, with Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen at the wheel, when the fog was so pea-soup thick that sane men would have sought refuge at the first Motel 6 they came across.
Instead, Rasmussen never took his foot off the gas. We somehow made it home unscathed.
My travels have made me an expert on the best truck stop in Iowa (Pilot, mile marker 284) and best coffee stop in Kansas (Short Stop convenience store in Concordia). My waistline can attest that I know the locations of far too many McDonald's around the league.
I've managed to avoid any run-ins with those cute but pesky, four-footed creatures that like to play late-night chicken with moving vehicles on America's highways. I've had a few with the two-footed variety that patrol those same roads but somehow avoided anything more than a warning ticket or a stern lecture.
I regret not once detouring off I-80 in order to take in the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa, or stopping for a spell in the Missouri hamlet of Humansville (Is there also an Animalsville in the state?). I've been lax in not sending thank-you notes to the roads departments in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska for the highway improvements that shaved an hour off trips to Wichita and Springfield, Mo.
I ran out of gas once and energy a couple of times. Nocturnal by nature, I preferred to head for home when work was done. A company guy at heart, it made more cents to catch a few hours of sleep at a rest stop (not recommended) than in some hotel.
Through it all, I've had the pleasure of covering great games in some great places while having the opportunity to meet some even greater people. Sure, there has been a coach or two that I've encountered that I probably wouldn't invite to dinner.
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For the most part, the league is made up of hard-working men and women who often overcome a lack of resources with willpower and ingenuity. Those folks always went out of their way to roll out the welcome mat and make sure a visitor had everything he needed to do his job.
When I broke into the league in 1992, Doug Elgin, Joe Mitch, Patty Viverito and Jack Watkins made up the Valley's senior brain trust. As Creighton prepares to move on to the new Big East, Elgin, Viverito and Watkins still are at their posts, providing the league with stability and solid leadership.
I treasure the time I've spent in press boxes and on press rows with hard-working, talented and, likely, underpaid beat writers such as Paul Suellentrop from Wichita, Dave Reynolds from Peoria, Ill., and Lyndal Scranton from Springfield. I've come to appreciate the innovative thinking of Bob Lutz, the hard-working columnist from Wichita.
It's been a good run, but now it's time to move on. With its move eastward, Creighton is opening a new chapter, both athletically and academically. Unfortunately, almost all of the new league cities are frequent-flier destinations.
I'm excited about having the chance to chronicle the exploits of Creighton's student-athletes and coaches as Georgetown and Marquette replace Wichita State and Drake as the Bluejays' main rivals. At the same time, I'm a tad melancholy that I'll be spending more time in airports than behind the wheel.
I am a child of the '50s and '60s. I grew up at a time when gas was cheap enough that you'd jump in a car and take a ride just to relieve the boredom of life without turning to Xboxes or HD television.
A windows-down drive in the country provided comfort that a house without air conditioning could not.
Most of my trips around the Valley were made solo, and the solitary hours spent behind the wheel provided plenty of time to reflect. On great games that I had witnessed. On storylines that needed to be pursued. On a league I was leaving behind.
When I crossed the Missouri River at 1:20 a.m. Thursday, I knew that my Valley days were behind me. I'm looking forward to the challenges around the next bend, even if I can't get there by car.
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