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Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Elder Statesman

Georgia's appearance at the Capital One Bowl marks its 12th straight trip to a postseason game, but that's nothing compared to the streak of the Bulldogs' strength and conditioning coach, Dave Van Halanger. As an assistant at West Virginia, Florida State and now Georgia, Van Halanger has gone to a bowl game for 28 straight seasons -- something he's fairly certain is a record. While his research on proving that claim is ongoing, there's no doubt Van Halanger knows his bowls. This week, I sat down to talk to the longtime assistant about his favorite bowl experiences and best memories.

David Hale: Twenty-eight years of bowl games is quite a streak. Do you remember your first one?

Dave Van Halanger: As a player, I went to the Peach Bowl, but that wasn't part of the streak. In 1981, I was at West Virginia and we played Florida and Charley Pell was the coach, and West Virginia won 28-6. I think Florida had minus-32 yards rushing in that game, our guys just beat the living dog out of them. It was cold in Atlanta, they weren't ready to play, and our guys jumped all over them. It got Charley Pell to burn the game films for Florida because it was so bad. So that was my first experience as a coach at a bowl game.

DH: That was back when the Peach Bowl was still outdoors.

DVH: Oh, yeah, it was outdoors at Fulton County Stadium. And then the second year, I was still at West Virginia, and we played Florida State. Florida State just sped us to death and beat us. The next year I moved and became the strength coach at Florida State, and from there we went to a bowl every year I was there. In '87, it really started getting good. That's when we started the top four, 10-win seasons for 14 years in a row, so every one of those was the Sugar, the Cotton, the Orange, the Fiesta Bowl. Every year it was a big bowl, and that was good. Then coming to Georgia, the first year we went to the Music City, then right back into the big bowls again, so that's been very fortunate. And for my family, I have five children, and what happens to us is, Christmas day, we open our presents and then about 1 o'clock my wife says, 'OK, get the suitcases,' and we're off packing. Get in the car and get on the plane the next day, fly to the bowl site and have a week in the hotel.

DH: I'm sure over the years your priorities for what constitutes a fun bowl experience has changed a bit, but what's your favorite bowl to go to?

DVH: I really enjoy the Fiesta bowls. When you fly in and see the mountains, it's really different. Then you stay in one of those resorts out there, it's really beautiful. This year's been great for us being at the Capital One Bowl because I've got a daughter at 6 and a son that's 9, and those guys are experiencing Disney World, we went to Universal and Sea World, and they're having a ball. What I do is, as soon as practice is over, I get to go join them at the park, and just to see their faces, it's really a great thing.

DH: Any particularly cool or crazy bowl experiences from your streak?

DVH: I think just staying in a room when you have five kids, and your wife is there while the husbands are at practice all day, that's crazy. It's crazy when you've got five kids in a room for seven days.

DH: I guess you don't get to complain about a rough day out at practice.

DVH: No, I don't say anything. I say, 'Honey, can I take them for you?'

DH: Of the bowls you've never been to, is there one you'd really like to experience?

DVH: The Rose Bowl. I felt last year we had a chance at that, and everybody was talking about it for a couple of days, and that was really something. We had never been there. That was something we never experienced, but it looks like it would have to be a national championship game for us to be able to experience that. But I think that could definitely happen.

DH: Some of the USC players actually said they'd like to go somewhere different from the Rose Bowl for a change. Would you like to see some of the conference affiliations eliminated to give the kids some new experiences?

DVH: There's no doubt about that but that will never happen just because of the economy. They're going to keep people as close as they can so people can get there and fill up those stadiums. So it would be a nice deal, but it will never happen.

DH: A few weeks ago, Mark Richt said he was in favor of a playoff. I'm not sure if that would put an end to your streak, but what do you think about moving away from the bowl system and into a playoff?

DVH: My bowl streak doesn't mean anything, I want to win a national championship. That's the most important thing. Whatever would put us in a position to win a national championship, that's what I'd like to do. I'd like to get ourselves in the fight to be able to say, 'OK, here we are. We're one of the top eight, let's go get it.' Just like the NFL does, just like Division II does. A playoff like that would be awesome.

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