Archdeacon: The Quest -- all basketball and no Billiken

They were still in college — he at Bowling Green, she at Tiffin — and during winter break they went on their first big trip together.

“It was the first winter we dated and for break he asked me if I wanted to go on a road trip,” Jaclyn Meyer remembered. “He gave me three choices and I picked the Outer Banks because I’d never been.

“He planned it all and we did a lot of cool stuff. We did the whole Wright Brothers thing. We went to the Virginia Aquarium — I love aquariums — and we did the lighthouses and walked on the beach.”

Craig Caswell admitted “it really kindled my love.”

But he wasn’t talking about Jaclyn when he said that.

“On the way there, we stopped at the University of Richmond and VMI and the University of Virginia,” he said. “We saw games at each place. Doing that, it really kindled my love for college basketball as a whole.”

The Sugarcreek Township couple — now husband and wife — have made quite a few road trips like that in the 11 years since.

And Craig is now on the verge of completing an unparalleled basketball odyssey.

After two final trips over the next three weeks — to Abilene Christian in Texas on Feb. 11 and American University in Washington D.C. seven days later — he will have seen, in person, all 363 teams playing NCAA Division I college basketball this season.

Jaclyn has been with him for most of “The Quest” as her 32-year-old husband called it.

It began in 2008 when — as a BGSU freshman out of Dayton Christian High School — he went to his first Falcons’ game at Anderson Arena and ended up sitting courtside, center court.

“I couldn’t believe it, it was the coolest thing ever,” he said. “I called it my Spike Lee moment. I ended up sitting courtside most of that season and I credit that as initially opening my love of college basketball.”

To date — counting Saturday night at the Nutter Center, where he and Jaclyn, who have Wright State season tickets, watched the Raiders play Green Bay — he’s seen 532 games.

“I love Division I basketball and the huge, shambling, mismatched, glorious, lovable mess that it is,” he said. “The NCAA Transformation Committee recently described D-I as a ‘Big Tent’ and I think that’s a really accurate description of it.

“It has so much variance among its members. You’ve got Texas A&M, Ohio State and UCF at 65,000 to 70,000 students all the way down to Presbyterian College with an enrollment of under 1,000.

“But if any of those teams wins the right number of games in March, they can be the Division I champion. It’s not like college football. Basketball doesn’t matter how someone votes in a poll. It’s about the product on the court.”

And he’s seen to a lot of those courts.

At last count, he’s been to 129 different college gyms and arenas.

With a smile, he added: “As the Grateful Dead said ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been.’”

And that brought to mind the time he and Jaclyn went to Niagara Falls to see Saint Peter’s play Niagara.

“We were still in college and left Bowling Green at like 1 p.m. for a 9 p.m. tip,” he remembered. “It’s maybe a five-hour drive, but when we got to the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, right there on Lake Erie, it was an instant white out.

“I’ve never driven in snow like that. Jacklyn was sitting in the passenger seat basically like a NASCAR spotter. She’d give me a call out: ‘OK, I see car lights ahead, maybe 10 car lengths. Now nine, eight…’

“She looked at the reflectors on the side of the road to make sure we kept it on the road. It was insane.

“It was the most harrowing driving experience of my life and all the time I’m thinking, ‘We’re not going to make the game!’

“But we arrived maybe 12 minutes before the start. The whole thing had been mentally taxing and we were exhausted, but just as we were going to the ticket window, this woman comes out of nowhere and hands us two tickets and says, ‘You look like you could use these.’”

Someone reached out to them when they went to a game at the University of Tennessee at Martin a few years back, as well.

“That’s Pat Summitt’s alma mater,” Craig said. “It was a cold December night and they were playing Samford and there were maybe 200 people in the building.

“On one side of the arena there was no one but me — being a princess who likes his sight lines — said: ‘Let’s go sit over there.’ We were center court, eye level with the rim. That’s my favorite seat anyplace.

“And two minutes before the tip, a woman comes over and says ‘Y’all aren’t from Samford are you?’

“I explained, ‘No, we’re rooting for the Skyhawks!’

And I told her about The Quest and how, at the time, we’d seen about 100 teams.

“She got all excited and said she’d be back. And at the under 16-minute mark (of the first half), they announced us as the winners of the ‘Best Seats in the House’ contest.

“They had a promotion with a local furniture company and brought us to two La-Z-Boys on the baseline. They announced us over the PA and explained how I was trying to see every team in Division I.

“After the game they gave us all kinds of swag and several people came up and asked about The Quest. That was the first time I realized somebody else might think it was as cool as I did.”

The NCAA was impressed once it saw a video Craig made about his love of all Division I basketball.

He was chosen as one of the winners of the Super 10 Fan Selection Committee and brought to Turner Studios in Atlanta, where he and nine other fans were sequestered and picked their own NCAA Tournament bracket.

During the process, they even got to talk to the official NCAA Selection Committee which was holed up in Indianapolis making its picks.

“If I remember correctly, we had 62 of the 68 teams within one seed line of what the selection committee had,” he said. “I think we only had two teams in the field that they did not.”

The ‘nerd’ and the ‘saint’

Using Craig’s words, this is the story of the “nerd” and “a saint.”

Although the descriptor is an exaggeration, he referred to “the nerd in me” the other day when we met at The Pub in The Greene after he got off work as a data analyst at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

From a folder, he took out three sets of spreads sheets, one of them color-coded, all of them comprehensive.

One detailed every college game he has seen. Another broke down the arenas he has been to and a third listed, by conference, every team he’s seen and how many times.

Not only has he been to 56 Bowling Green games and now seen Wright State 51 times, he’s also been to 41 Dayton Flyers games and 17 at the University of Cincinnati.

During The Quest, he’s seen, Duke, Niagara, Incarnate Word, Purdue, Temple and Butler four times. He’s seen Stanford, Texas State, Long Beach State and Kentucky three times each. He’s been to five Austin Peay games, seen Michigan State six times and Ohio State seven.

He’s gone to some games with his half-brother Aaron Caswell.

Mostly though Jaclyn, who works for the city of Xenia, goes with him game after game on weekends and during holiday breaks.

For that he calls her “a saint.”

“She’s probably more well-travelled than most college super fans,” he said.

Initially, he said, she went to take in the “accoutrements” of the game, whether it was the pep bands and dance teams — she played French horn in the Wadsworth High band and took some dance, too — or the concession stand food.

“She’ll pull out all these random things, like ‘Oh, these nachos are pretty good, but not as good as the ones at Colgate or Cal State Fullerton,” he laughed.

He said they have a few “rituals” at each place the visit:

“If we get there early enough, we always walk the campus and go the campus bookstore to pick up some swag.

“When we get to the game, I walk the concourse of the arena and explore the building. I’m a big venue guy. Once we’re at our seats, for about 10 minutes, I’ll look at Ken Pomeroy’s excellent website. That gives me a perfect snapshot of what we’re about to see.”

After the game they try to go to a local hangout to get something to eat or drink and get more of a feel for where they are.

With a growing smile, Craig recounted the time Jaclyn did forget.

At the University of Virginia, she got a UVA hoodie and was wearing it when the Cavaliers played an overmatched Towson State team.

“This was during some very lean years for Towson State,” Craig said. “But with 12 minutes left, they were keeping it close.

“I told Jaclyn, ‘This is a really big deal if Towson would win! They’re such underdogs.’

“And all of a sudden — while wearing her UVA hoodie — she starts cheering for Towson:

“’Go Towson!...C’mon Tigers! …Go Tigers!’

“She got some pretty nasty looks.”

While he served as a smiling, shrugging buffer for her, she’s returned the favor when it comes to mascots.

“Okay, confessional time,” he said quietly. “One of my bizarre, unexplained phobias is mascots. They freak me out. I don’t know why. That’s something to unpack in therapy, I guess.

“I do love the Stanford Tree, which is basically a drunk student running around as a tree. And I like the Xavier Blob, but the rest I avoid whenever possible.”

Jaclyn laughed: “Yeah, when a mascot starts coming up the steps toward us, he’s like, ‘Don’t make eye contact so they don’t stop!’

“So we usually stay away from them though he’s a good sport. I got my picture taken with the Youngstown State penguin because it’s so fun.

“But I know which ones to stay away from. If the Saint Louis Billiken came around or Wichita State Shocker, those would be out of the question!”

What next?

They were at their usual seats in Section 219 of the Nutter Center on Thursday night for WSU’s victory over Milwaukee.

Craig said it was thanks to a connection to the Nutter family — also big donors to the Kentucky Wildcats program — that he got some prime tickets to Rupp Arena:

“I showed up and realized I was sitting in the Nutter’s seats. Feet-on-the-floor courtside seats! How cool is that? I was actually closer than (Cats’ fan) Ashley Judd.”

Over the years there have been some moments that stand out: Watching Kawhi Leonard and his San Diego Aztecs play at a multi-event tournament at Millett Hall in Oxford. He and Jaclyn catching 10 games in five days during Conference Week in Las Vegas.

They were at the 2012 NCAA Tournament in Columbus for the final game of Rick Majerus, the late college Hall of Fame coach whose storied career ended at Saint Louis.

He recalled the electric atmosphere at UD Arena when the Flyers topped Boise State in the First Four and he and Jaclyn were at Princeton for a throwback game that was played at the old Dillon Gym, the Tigers’ home in the late 1940s through the 1960s before Jadwin Gymnasium was built.

His favorite arena is the Peterson Events Center at Pitt, but he also was enamored with the 48-year-old. no frills Davey Whitney Arena of the Alcorn State Braves in Lorman, Miss.

And that leads to what may come next once The Quest ends in three weeks.

Craig thought a second, then nodded: “I kind of want to focus on venues. I’ve been to a number of classic ones, but there are four I’ve never been to that are high on my list:

“Pauley Pavilion, the home of UCLA, and The Phog (Allen Fieldhouse) at Kansas.

“And I’ve never been to the Palestra in Philadelphia or Madison Square Garden.”

Regardless, he won’t be quest-free,

“Oh no,” he laughed. “My twin passion in life is disc golf. Frisbee golf. That’s how I stay sane in the summer. I’ve played about 650 courses around the world — places like Finland, Sweden, Germany, Estonia, England and Canada.

“And Jaclyn is much better than me. She smokes me every time we play. She has a huge arm and outdrives me

“People give me a rash of (crap) on the course. They’re like, ‘Oh man! You gonna let her outdrive you?’ And I’m like, ‘You better believe it. She’s awesome!’”

Jaclyn laughed: “That’s an overstatement. We each have our strengths. We’d be really good doubles partners.”

They already are.

The Quest has been a success because they each handled a task.

He planned the trips.

She kept the Billiken at bay.

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