Jumping In

Jumping In

Ambition, drive and a rock ‘n’ roll vision helped two Auburn graduates build a global outdoor lifestyle brand

Corey Cooper jumping off the roof into the pool below where Magda Cooper lounges on a raft

Corey Cooper ’05 walks to the edge of the roof of his guest house and stares down at the pool below. His wife, Magda Cooper ’05, lounges on an inflatable dock and faces the poolside photographer, who is waiting to see what Corey will do. Will he jump in the pool? Corey looks again and inches closer, his toes touching the edge.

“This is what the company is like” he says.

In one quick move, Corey steps off the roof, into the air below. He jumps in.

Corey and Magda Cooper have always been jumping in. Jumping into their marriage and family. Jumping into solving impossible problems. Jumping into graduating early from Auburn and winning national championships in swimming.

For the last 13 years, they’ve spent every waking moment building BOTE, a global water lifestyle brand that mixes the couple’s rebel spirit with a relentless pursuit of quality and “badass” design.

What started in a storage unit below a Mellow Mushroom in Destin, Fla., has become a company with more than 70 domestic employees, 350 products and $100 million in annual sales.

The Jimmy Page of Paddleboards

It is a hot August day in Destin and Corey and Magda are taking us around their warehouse facilities in an industrial park near the airport.

We walk through a 110,000-square-foot warehouse packed with stand up paddleboards (SUPs), kayaks, coolers, inflatable chairs and other items that make up the BOTE product lines of “paddle,” “leisure,” “gear” and “power.” It is a hulking reminder of BOTE’s reach across the outdoor and watersports market, which is estimated at $14 billion in North America alone.

They empty this huge warehouse almost every week, shipping more than 200 paddleboards daily to consumers and retailers like outdoor company REI. In all, the company keeps about $20 million of inventory in Destin, also filling up old Sears and JCPenney store spaces in a shuttered shopping mall across town.

Next door is the Darkroom, the innovative heart of BOTE. Corey is quick to remind that they didn’t invent the paddleboard, they just improved it, using one of his favorite topics: music.

“I jump into things deep and fast. I can’t passively observe. I haven’t ever gotten what I want that way.”
“You look at Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page,” Corey said. “That band didn’t invent the blues or rock, they just remixed it. That’s what we’re doing here.”

The Darkroom features a 4-Axis CNC Mill that allows a new board design to be quickly cut from a foam blank. Those blanks are taken to shaping rooms where the boards are laminated and finished. BOTE can go from design idea to rideable prototype in about a week. This allows the company to average six new product releases a year.

One area of product innovation for BOTE was building a better inflatable paddleboard. Unlike their fiberglass counterparts, inflatable SUPs can be deflated and carried in a trunk of a car or a backpack, opening up paddleboarding to landlocked customers. In fact, 60% of BOTE buyers are inland, not near a beach or water.

The other was allowing their customers to outfit their kayak or board to fit their lifestyle. If you want to fish, you can buy the board and then all the accessories that help you land the big one. It’s that quality—plus customization—that has fueled BOTE’s growth. The brand is further extended with a full suite of coolers, inflatable furniture, beer, hats and T-shirts, all reflecting the brand’s gritty, sun-filled aesthetic that feels like a cross between a surf shop and a tattoo parlor.

It’s a look that almost everyone at BOTE refers to with a smile as “badass.” William Addison ’11 is a product designer and industrial design graduate. Beyond the look, he says the key to BOTE’s products is they make everything “bomb proof.”

“We’re not trying to shave pennies off every product,” he said, holding up cups they’ve designed for a floating beer pong game. “It’s about quality. When you buy anything from BOTE, you can feel how well it’s made.” According to the company’s internal documents, BOTE’s brand quality perception outpaces legacy outdoor companies like Yeti, Patagonia and Hobie.

BOTE stickers
BOTE boards lined up
Corey and Magda cooper look at eachother in front of BOTE paddleboards

Different Strokes For Different Folks

Talking with the Coopers is an exercise in contrasts. Corey is all positive energy. Even in the most casual of conversations, he is pushing forward, exploring, testing out ideas by speaking them into existence. It’s a style that some employees said takes a while to get used to.

“I jump into things deep and fast,” said Corey. “I’m like a dolphin. I use talking as echolocation. I can’t passively observe. I haven’t ever gotten what I want that way.”

Magda has the quiet confidence of a former athlete and the poise of someone used to playing the long game. Someone who can swim six hours a day for an entire year to try to win a national championship in four days in March. She often pauses before speaking, looking for the right word.

“There’s a yin and yang with the two of us for sure,” she said. Their 18-year relationship reveals itself in the easy way they finish each other’s sentences and the occasional furtive looks they give one another.

But they are united in their passion for their work, for their family, for their employees and for Auburn. Their love of the school is the reason they won’t relocate the company because it would be too far away from the Plains. And why they come back on the weekends to games and hire Auburn graduates whenever they can.

“Auburn has a soul,” Corey said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Corey grew up in Jackson, Miss. an inquisitive and energetic kid. His mom taught school and his father ran a small car dealership. They both started several unsuccessful small businesses and provided Corey with the basics, but nothing more.

By the time Corey is five, he is tearing apart radios and toy tractors to see how they work. At six, wanting a guitar, he makes a working one—out of a cereal box. Already sure he is going to be an engineer, Corey makes his own fishing rod at eight. He tinkers. He analyzes. He begins to construct a life he wants with his own hands.

His parents divorce and he moves with his mom to Texas, then Alabama and then to Woodstock, Ga. for high school, where he excels in math (“it was like my second language”), physics and calculus. He graduates with a 4.2 GPA and picks Auburn engineering over Georgia Tech. He enrolls in fall 2001 with 31 college credits.

“There’s a yin and yang with the two of us for sure.”

Magda Dyszkiewicz never sat still, even before she was born. In 1981, her parents fled Communist Poland for Germany while her mom was pregnant with her. When Magda was two, the family moved to Salisbury, N.C., where she said she became an “explorer.” Their house sat on six acres and was next to a hunting preserve. Magda spent her days climbing trees, lighting bonfires and “messing around in the woods.”

But the water soon called. Magda’s father was an accomplished swimmer in Poland and founded a club team in Salisbury. Along with her two older brothers, Magda began swimming when she was four. At 15, she decided to get serious about it. And she was good.

In 1999, Auburn came calling. Coach Dave Marsh and Women’s Coach Kim Brackin recruited Magda. While the men’s team had recently won multiple national championships, the women’s team had not. That didn’t discourage Magda; it was what attracted her to the program.

“What sold me on Auburn was the idea of being able to go somewhere and help build something,” she said. Little did she know how much that would help her after she left Auburn.

But first she must swim four hours every day under Brackin’s stern command, hoping all the work will pay off in the NCAAs at the end of the year. The women’s team wins their first national championship in 2002, and then follows it up with two more in 2003 and 2004. Magda earns All-American honors and graduates with a degree in business. On her graduation night, she meets a mechanical engineering major and fellow graduate named Corey.

Building A Better Mouse Trap
Like all things BOTE, the origin story of the company is part sun-drenched day and part insane idea.

In 2009, Corey and Magda are hanging out at Crab Island, a shallow water inlet in Destin where people gather to swim, sunbathe and party. A guy comes around with something new called a “paddleboard.” It is bulky and slow and hard to stay on. They watch 10 people try it and 10 fall off.

“It’s a bad mouse trap. It’s a poor design,” said Corey, who was already working as an industrial engineer for the military. “It’s something that people were attracted to. The simplicity, the elegance, the visual concept of being able to stand up to paddle,
but nobody could do it.”

Right there, they have the vision. Of a better paddleboard. One that was cool looking, easy to ride and, most importantly, a platform that the user could customize to go anywhere and do anything on the water, from yoga to fishing. The “unicorn,” Magda calls it, that they would chase for the next decade.

“I’m looking at this as a simple platform, basically like, ‘Dude, this could be your boat, your vessel to go places,’” Corey said. And so, they name it BOTE. A play on words, sure, but also a guiding principle. Anything you can do on a boat, you should be able to do on their paddleboards.

Revenge Of The Beach Bums
Sometimes, the place where a vision becomes a reality smells like oil and spaghetti sauce. For BOTE, that place was a dingy storage unit below a Destin Mellow Mushroom. There, Corey works every night until 2 or 3 in the morning, shaping the first BOTE paddleboards, smoke and fiberglass billowing out into the parking lot. They test them on the beach on weekends, iterating one ride at a time.

In 2010, they sell the first 50 to friends and family, Corey making them all by hand. They max out their credit cards and borrow money from family. “The whole idea is how do we turn one dollar into two dollars,” Magda said.

To increase production, Corey travels to China and strikes a deal with a manufacturer to make the shells. Even as they sell their first 1,000 paddleboards, it is just the two of them, making, shipping and selling the products. Corey is still working a daytime engineering job and Magda is hitting all the outdoor shows in the Southeast.

Friends and family tell them they’re crazy. Why would two people with degrees from Auburn want to build paddleboards? Want to be beach bums?

And for a brief moment they contemplate quitting. But that’s when Magda remembers those hours training in the pool, keeping her eye on a unicorn that’s always on the horizon.

“We had to have complete tunnel vision,” Magda said. “We just knew we had no option but to go forward.”

And so they did what they always do: they jumped in.

Corey leaves his engineering job in 2012 to focus full time on BOTE. In July 2012, they open their first store in Destin and hire their first employee. They can’t keep the product on the shelves.

Their vision was starting to take shape. What the haters didn’t understand was Corey and Magda weren’t building paddleboards. They were building a brand. And that brand was about to take off.

Corey and Magda stand on paddleboards and splash each other
Cooper family on the couch
I don't think I would change anything. You can't do it any differently.

The Family Business

What happens when you build a company, a family and a life at the same time? For the Coopers, it means the line between BOTE and their family, between their professional and personal lives, doesn’t exist.

“Not at all,” Corey said. “We call BOTE our second baby because it was ‘born’ right after our first child, Tristan.”

Look at a BOTE catalog and the photogenic family are the models for many of the products. Their modern home in Destin (which they knocked down to the studs and rebuilt themselves), Magda calls their product testing lab. It’s full of discarded demos, forgotten ideas and paddleboard prototypes.

“We don’t sell a product that our family hasn’t used, is using or will use in the future,” said Magda.

Carol Zorn ’07 is a BOTE graphic designer and loves working for a company that encourages you to be yourself and occasionally allows you to wear your swimsuit to work. “You can really see Corey and Magda in the look and feel of the brand and the culture here,” said Zorn. “They understand what it’s like to be a parent.”

After more than a decade of charging ahead, there are signs the couple is starting to step back, at least a little. Now with three young children, Magda stepped away from the day-to-day operations last year to spend more time with them.

“I’d rather have regrets about the company, than our children,” she said. The company has hired a full executive team and plans to bring on a president, giving Corey the flexibility to step away from the daily operations.

Magda says she misses the days when she knew every employee by name and their families. Growth is what they want for BOTE, but both acknowledge it just feels a bit different than it did a few years ago.

Not that BOTE is going anywhere but up. They are doubling their retail stores and planning an aggressive expansion into Europe and Australia. But the Coopers realize that the company is bigger than them and there is a life after BOTE.

Magda drops a paddleboard into the shallows from the dock behind their house and steps down on it. She is perfectly balanced as she starts paddling. “Not my first time doing that.” she says laughing.

“We failed so much, but we failed fast,” says Corey, thinking about the early days. He says he could launch BOTE again in 24 months, knowing what they know now.

“I don’t think I would change anything. You can’t do it any differently,” Magda says.

She catches up to Corey, who has jumped in ahead of her, and they playfully splash each other. For a moment there are no deadlines. No employees to hire or products to test. Just the two of them gliding toward an orange and blue horizon, the sun melting into the bay.

Sean Murphy leaning against a wall of photographs at BOTE

Man Behind The Brand

Sean Murphy’s images helps BOTE’s brand “stand apart.”

In 2012, when Sean Murphy was asked by BOTE’s new art director to shoot their first-ever catalog, he asked for one thing as payment: a paddleboard. Since then, the prolific photographer has done hundreds of photo shoots for the company in places like Belize and the Everglades.

When pressed to describe BOTE’s brand style, Murphy says it’s a cross between Apple and a hard rock video, something he knows well. Murphy grew up in Fort Walton, Fla. and worked in San Francisco and Hawaii, but his big break came in 1995 when he went to L.A. to shoot the band Tears for Fears. Murphy spent the next 25 years in L.A. shooting musicians like The Beastie Boys, Christina Aguilera, Greenday and Weezer. He also did advertising work for many of the major brands like Adidas, 47Brand and Hard Rock. But now he’s returned home and is happy to be one of BOTE’s visual storytellers.

“I’m super loyal and I just decided at 50 years old that I’ve worked my whole career for this. And now I found the people that I really love and admire, and I feel a part of a family and I’m going to give all of me to them and ride it out. That’s going to be my thing.”

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Back on Track

Back on Track

An Indycar veteran helps steer Auburn engineering students to the future of autonomous cars

“You’ve never been to a race, have you?”

IT’S A QUESTION POSED WITH HUMOR by Lee Anne Patterson ’85, but she’s quick to forgive. Despite a career in professional racing spanning three decades, encompassing almost every position at a whole range of levels, there was a time when she was the new girl—or, on many occasions, the only girl—at the racetrack.

But after rising through racing’s ranks, Patterson is helping to take a crew of Auburn student engineers to the promised land—Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Auburn students will compete in the Indy Lights Autonomous Challenge this coming October, racing a self-driving Dallara Indy Lights car head-to-head around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s (IMS) 2.5-mile oval, topping speeds of 200 mph for 20 laps.

Testing has gone on throughout the summer, and though it’s a labor of love, Patterson is the only person on Auburn’s team familiar with how quickly race day can arrive.

“We have very, very hard deadlines,” said Patterson from her home in Auburn. “You can’t show up at four o’clock and say ‘I’m ready to race’—the green flag drops at noon. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t get back from the last race until midnight. Your stuff has to be ready and on that truck.”

PATTERSON GOT INVOLVED with motorsports the old fashioned way—through rock n’ roll radio. As the “Continuity chick” for Atlanta’s 96 Rock, she wrote commercials and did voiceover work—a side job she still does—but found her real calling in promotions and sponsorship.

“I fell in love with promotions, because promotions is the art of making somebody’s day. You give them tickets, they win money, you can pull people together to build a Vietnam veteran memorial for Georgia, which we did at 96 Rock, so you can do really great things with it.”

Wanting to work as a Promotions Director, she got her chance at the Sears Point Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) in California. “It could have been pet poodle farming and I would have gone, because it was California,” she said. “My very first job was to introduce NASCAR’s Winston Cup to the San Francisco Bay area, and I had never seen a race.”

She had help from Bob Weeks, an associate of NASCAR founder “Big” Bill France Sr., who geared her up to give her first pit tours. What she lacked in experience she made up for in enthusiasm, while her “exotic” southern accent thrilled out-of-town guests. Patterson had a gift for making friends, too—on her media day, she ran into someone who looked lost.

“I said, ‘Can I help you?’ He goes, ‘I’m Michael Waltrip…I’m a driver.’ I had no clue.  Then when I’m giving the tour, guess who comes out of the hauler? I go, ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is driver Michael Waltrip!’ He looks at me like ‘you’re so full of it,’ but he comes over and gives me this big bear hug, and instant credibility.”

Patterson spent two years at Sears Point, promoting 48 events a year that included not only NASCAR events but other motorsports competitions, giving her a world-class education on racing events and promotions. She was then asked by Carroll Shelby, godfather of the Cobra and Ford Mustang, to be his series director for the Dodge Shelby Pro Series for a season.

Along the way, Patterson got married and went to Indianapolis to build a race team. Her then-husband was in charge of the vehicle’s performance and the crew, while she took over as team manager and handled everything else. For the next 20 years, she guided their team through a variety of open-wheel competitions—INDYCAR, Indy Lights, endurance races, Formula Atlantics and more.

“We built race programs sometimes running under our own name, and other times taking on the persona of others, like driver Sam Schmidt. After he was injured and became a quadriplegic, we helped him launch Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which is now the Arrow McLaren SP team and Conquer Paralysis today. After twenty years of team management, I started just managing the drivers, and some of those drivers are still on the circuit today. It’s been a great ride.”

Eliseo pit tours 1999

PATTERSON’S RISE IN THE SPORT coincided with a pivotal era in racing, where increased visibility contributed to a surge in popularity and a literal wealth of opportunities—if you knew where to look.

While many in the industry viewed the word ‘sponsorship’ as stickers on cars, Patterson understood its potential in crafting a narrative as much as a good photo op. Thinking holistically, she drew a through-line from a product on a shelf to factory workers, investors, fans, drivers, pit crews and, eventually, the winner’s circle. She went into sponsor meetings asking what their goals were, and explained how her team could deliver the all-important return on investment.

A race car is the ultimate promotion vehicle, she says. It’s not just a sticker on a car, it’s about how much press you get, how many distributors increase their sales, or making employees feel better about their company.

PATTERSON LOVED SPONSORSHIP strategy so much, she would toss ideas to others. Once, she talked a sponsor for Hemelgarn racing, Tae Bo out of abandoning the team by suggesting they activate the program, host a demonstration at stores and have their driver, Buddy Lazier make an appearance for the fans.

“You could hear the lightbulb go off in his head. They had never done anything to leverage the decal on the car. Two weeks later, they announced they had moved from associate position to the title sponsor for two years.”

Over the years, she’s used race cars to promote Boston Scientific’s life-saving spinal cord stimulator, which relieved phantom-limb pain and helped amputees get off painkillers. She took a “lipstick camera” being promoted by Sony and used it to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of Filipino-American driver Michele Bumgarner. It later was edited into a “sizzle reel” that aired in every theater in the Philippines.

But her favorite day of racing—ever—was one in which she didn’t win a thing.

It was the Pikes Peak race in Colorado Springs, 1999. Patterson organized an adoption party for ‘special needs’ kids—those who were older and, thus, less likely to be matched with forever parents.

“Most adoption parties are usually clowns and face painting and balloons, and a 2-year-old looks fantastic. An 11-year-old sits on the side and says ‘this sucks,’ because he knows he can’t compete with a two year old and a clown, right?”

Working with The Adoption Exchange in Colorado Springs, the team threw a party just for the 9-16 age group on the fabled mountain racetrack. Twelve drivers showed up to hand out autographs and hugs. Sponsors contributed a whole hospitality suite of swag. Once they got to the track, the kids “came alive.”

“Our first priority was to treat them like kings and queens for a day,” recalls Patterson. “The second was that we had a system where no child had a ‘sale tag’ for a name badge. Only those hoping to adopt knew the system to see who was available and who wasn’t. They usually make one match a year in that category; at the end of the day, we made eight.”

“Owning and managing teams was by far the hardest, but it was also the greatest, because you got to compete. The whole team is a part of that, even somebody who isn’t turning wrenches like me.”

IN THE RACING WORLD, most people work for a team, for the sanctioning body or for the track—very few experience “the trifecta,” as Patterson has. All three groups must work in concert for the sport to happen, each with their own unique challenges.

“Out of all the jobs I’ve done, owning and managing teams was by far the hardest, but it was also the greatest, because you got to compete,” said Patterson. “Everybody that’s on the team is a part of that, even somebody who isn’t turning wrenches like me.”

Never a big team with ample resources like Andretti or Penske, Patterson’s responsibilities included everything from FIA paperwork to managing sponsorships, designing the team’s uniforms, handling their paychecks and booking travel, in addition to directing all public relations and good-cause marketing events.

“I took care of pretty much everything except performance of the car—from the media center, to the hospitality suite to the pit box where I monitored raced control. I also dealt with paying for all the parts. I once spent $85 on a single bolt. I assumed it had to be a fantastic bolt, so I went out to the shop just to see it. It was a hand-fabricated, custom-built bolt.”

The Andretti Autosport team had a more cars and a full-time staff of six handling the same responsibilities as her, but looking back, being so involved was part of the fun. Whether it was figuring out if the “talent” (the driver) was gifted or just a cruise and collect or taking care of corporate sponsors, she never shied from doing what needed to be done.

“Ma’am, she’s the boss lady.”

THAT RAN COUNTER to the norms of the time, where women weren’t allowed inside the pits or the garage, let alone managing their own team. Once, during a stop in Las Vegas, Patterson and the crew were sitting in a diner when the waitress, eyeing their uniforms, asked who they were.  They first teased that they were a bowling team. After a laugh, she turned to Patterson.

“She looks at me and goes, ‘Oh, you must be the secretary,’ and the guys busted out laughing.  Our tire man John said, ‘ma’am, she’s the boss lady.”

Some scoffed at a woman leading a race team, but for others, she was an inspiration. She still recalls the grandmother who sought her out after enjoying garage tour at the Phoenix race to tell her how proud she was of Patterson, to see a woman give a tour and be in that position.  For many years there women weren’t allowed in the garages; she never had the opportunity to even peek inside.

“She had tears in her eyes.”

But Patterson is quick to give credit where it’s due. The women pioneers of racing before her, like Janet Guthrie, Anita Millican, Vicki O’Connor, Alexa Leras and more are the shoulders she stands on. Now, thirty years later, the Auburn Indy Lights race team has a higher percentage of women on its roster than anyone else in the competition.

The Dallara AV-21 with a driver cockpit full of computer and sensors

“This is going to push the boundaries. It’s not about creating a driverless race series, this is about advancing autonomous technology and building consumer confidence.”

FOR PATTERSON, the return to competition, especially at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), ‘the World Capital of Racing,’ is like coming home. “I can’t believe I moved to Auburn and Auburn is running a race at Indy.  You can’t make this up.” No one on the team has ever raced, much less at the Speedway. Having Patterson’s knowledge and resources will be a help to the team as they venture into the unknown.

The Indy Lights Autonomous Challenge is a competition where teams race a self-driving Dallara Indy Lights car head-to-head around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval at top speed nearing 200mph for 20 laps—well short of 500 miles, but a daunting stretch for current autonomous technology.

“Autonomous technology is stuck at 35 miles an hour, and it can’t take a left in front of oncoming traffic,” Patterson said. “This is going to push the boundaries.  It’s not about creating a driverless race series, this is about advancing autonomous technology and building consumer confidence.”

The first competition rounds included white papers, passenger vehicle performance and race simulations against other teams, with the focus on software—each Indy Lights car is built to spec and specially equipped with the latest vehicle sensors, computer vision cameras and radar.

The Auburn Autonomous Tiger Racing team, after three rounds of competition, is in the Top 3. Because of visa restrictions on international teams, Auburn was asked to handle the initial testing for all the teams during the first on-track run in early June.

The second official test is scheduled at the Speedway late August—early September, and final qualification runs will be hosted October 19–22 with the official race on October 23, 2021 at the IMS track.

Auburn may even get some unexpected assistance from new head Football Coach Bryan Harsin, an avid racer who personally has his own Alcohol Funny Car competition license.

On the dragstrip, he has reached speeds in excess of 220mph. Harsin’s racing knowledge will benefit the team, Patterson said.

This challenge will be great to showcase the talents of the students as they seek careers, for establishing Auburn University as a leader in autonomous technology, and even for the autonomous driving industry.

“Anytime you get to race a car at Indy it’s special–with or without a driver,” said Patterson. “It’s a thrill for me to introduce my Auburn family to a sport that has been so good to me. Zoom, Zoom…and War Eagle!”

watch The indy autonomous challenge october 23, 2021



Learn more about the challenge

Chairmen of the Boards

Chairmen of the Boards

How TikTok, COVID-19, ESPN and mad bag skills turned two Tigers into cornhole kings

HE’S WATCHED IT, heck, maybe 10 times now? Maybe 100? Who knows? It’s hard to keep track when people keep posting it on Facebook. If he sees it, then he’s watching it. If it’s on, he’s watching it. He’ll keep watching it as long as ESPN keeps showing it, until it sinks in.

Did they seriously go to Myrtle Beach and do the dang thing? Did he seriously take down Draven Sneed in overtime? Are people actually recognizing him, like, in public?

No joke, the other night at his favorite Mexican place back home in Phenix City, Ala., three people walk over: Aren’t you one of the guys who won the cornhole college championship? Same thing happened at the gym. Four guys go up to him and ask if he’s Travis Moore.

Heck yeah, he’s Travis Moore. And now he’s starting to understand how “Cornhole Blaine” feels.

BLAINE ROSIER SMILES AND SHRUGS. He doesn’t understand it, either. “Well, people started calling me Cornhole Blaine and I was
like, maybe I’ll just ride with that,” Rosier said. He’s had to hang on tight.

Cornhole Blaine brought over his custom Cornhole Blaine boards around 2 p.m. When it’s warm, they’re on the green space. On cold afternoons, they take over the fitness center basketball court at Trav’s place on S. College, crank up the country and go at it until Moore has to go study for hydrologic analysis, or until the lady at the front desk kicks them out.

Which today might be sooner rather than later. Blaine’s roommate, Sam, another Phenix City guy, came over to watch the show but opened the wrong door. So, today the best college cornhole doubles team in the country is throwing to a portable speaker soundtrack of as-loud-as-it-goes Morgan Wallen synced with a security alarm siren no one knows how to turn off. It’s deafening.

Blaine Rosier—Cornhole Blaine—and Travis Moore—the Travis Moore—don’t even notice. They’re in the zone. Rosier’s bag drops straight in. He tosses another. Same thing.

“I’m more of a push-and-slide guy, but Blaine’s airmail is really good,” Moore shouts. “I’m working on mine. They’re getting better. But that’s Blaine’s specialty.”

A year ago, Cornhole Blaine was just a guy, a junior in wildlife enterprises management stuck at home in Phenix City and going to class on the couch. He was bored. He saw a board. One Gen Z thing led to another.

“Well, I was joking with my sister, saying that I’d have more TikTok followers than her,” Rosier said.

He didn’t have a TikTok account. He’d never played cornhole beyond his backyard. But, hey, families were going viral for fighting COVID cabin fever in the wackiest ways possible. Posting videos of himself tossing one-pound bean bags into a hole? Why not?

His first video went up on April 2, 2020. Shirt off, visor on, tossing a few front-yard trick shots. Nothing special, not in his mind. He hashtagged it #QuarantineLife. He posted some more. Three days later, a clothing company reached out—his first sponsor.

Cornhole Blaine was born.

Nowadays, he just posts clips from practice and people watch. But early on, he’d get fancy. Airmails over the Cam Newton statue. Four-baggers into the bed of a moving pickup. Within a few months, it wasn’t just free T-shirts. Cornhole Blaine wasn’t paying for anything. Not his bags. Not his boards.

Going by followers, he has the second-most popular cornhole account on TikTok. The American Cornhole League (ACL) has 14,000 followers. Cornhole Blaine currently has 240,000. Another smile. Another shrug.

“One video was just us throwing on the green space,” Rosier said. “I posted it that night and woke up and it had, like, 2 million views.”

“Heck, the other day we looked, and it was over 18 million,” Moore shouts. “The caption is ‘College Cornhole Is Where It’s At.’”

Heck, is it ever.

Dazzle your opponent at your next cornhole match with these unofficial terms

When two players or teams cannot agree on the score.

When a cornhole bag lands in front of the hole, blocking the other bags from entering the hole.
When a single player gets four bags in the hole in a single round.
When a player tosses a bag and it goes into the hole without touching the cornhole board.
When a bag is tossed in cornhole and there is no spin or rotation during its flight.

HERE WAS A 19TH CENTURY PARLOR GAME similar to the pregame pastime that’s come to dominate tailgates over the past 20 years, and some websites actually try to trace it to Native Americans. But the best Trey Ryder, media director and color analyst for the ACL, can tell, the game he gave up an engineering career to promote first really bubbled to the surface at fairgrounds and family reunions around Cincinnati in the 1950s. 32 CHAIRMEN OF THE BOARDS Even still, the first actual mention of “cornhole” in the Cincinnati Enquirer didn’t come until a 2001 classified ad for a backyard bean bag game. A year later, there was a full feature on a new Queen City craze. Were bags once just socks filled with corn? Does that explain the name? Who can say?


“People are like, ‘why the hell is cornhole on ESPN?’” Ryder, 27, says.

“Then, 20 minutes later, they realize they’re sucked in.”

What Ryder knows for sure is that 2020 was the year of competitive cornhole. Partly because nothing else was on. But also because, man, it’s kind of addicting. And it’s about time. “People are like, ‘why the hell is cornhole on ESPN?’” Ryder, 27, says. “Then, 20 minutes later, they realize they’re sucked in.” The game had been growing for years, inspiring multiple so-called governing bodies that invoke self-proclaimed sanctioning powers with varying degrees of seriousness. But in 2015, a tailgate culture impresario named Stacey Moore, commissioner of the North Carolina-based ACL, turned competitive cornhole—first professional, then college—into a well-oiled, broadcast-ready machine complete with proprietary stat-tracking software, tournament-organizing apps, broadcast rights, pro contracts, and bratwurst-and-baked-bean sponsors. It was getting big.

Then came COVID. Then, again, came cornhole. Instead of canceling its season, the ACL announced a series of regional qualifiers in a bid to turn 2020’s lemons into lemonade that could—pandemic protocols in place—quench ESPN’s desperate thirst for live competition. It worked. ESPN started showing live cornhole. Not on some digital streaming thing. Not on ESPN3, but on the flagship station.

The Ringer.com recently wrote a piece on the game’s ascendance, crediting it not only to COVID, but to Ryder’s uncanny telestrator talent for turning cornhole into high drama. And, dang, it doesn’t get much higher than what those boys from Auburn did live on ESPN over New Year’s in the finals of the third annual ACL National College Cornhole Championship.

RYDER EASILY PLACES it in the Top 10 finishes he’s called. Maybe Top 5. The context, the characters, the comeback? Awesome. Rosier and Moore were down 12-1 in Round 10, but then the TikTok wunderkind (whom some even called a one trick-shot pony to his face) delivered a hard push that completely flipped the game.

The noise Ryder made when both bags dropped in was between “wow” and a groan. He hit it from so far down the board! In Ryder’s mind, it was the throw of the tournament.

Then there was the drama on the other side. King David had his stones. Travis Moore had his bags.

SENIOR YEAR of high school, he beat a pro in a charity tournament. That’s when Moore knew he was good. He found a partner, entered local tournaments and got serious. Civil engineering classes, however, sort of have a way of dominating your calendar. In college, if he got the boards out, it was for kicks, not cash.

But over “Shutdown Summer,” he started throwing again, doing tournaments. Thanks to the free time, the itch was back. When he saw his old buddy’s videos on TikTok, it turned into full-blown hives. He picked up the phone.

THE DAY BEFORE THEIR DOUBLES MATCH, North Carolina State’s Draven Sneed had won the singles national championship; Travis had tied for 5th. Sneed and partner Alex Lippard seemed primed to sweep it for the Wolfpack: singles and doubles. And maybe they would have.

Had Draven Sneed kept his mouth shut.

Moore starts grinning.

“Heck,” Moore shouts, “he yells down to his partner ‘boardit—let me get it.’”

Now, without getting into cornhole strategy and the fine print of the point system, just know that this was trash talk. Everyone there knew it. The crowd “ooohed.” Someone shouted, “I like it.”

It was the final round. Throwing against Lippard, Rosier had brought them back and put them in a position to actually win it in overtime—if it got there. Lippard had one bag left. He could have gone for gold with an airmail. Risky, but doable. The safe bet? Just get it on the board, send it back, and let Sneed claim another crown. Which is what he did. But not before the “Board It” heard ’round the world.

Moore shakes his head. “When he said that, I was just like ‘I can’t let this guy win again, no way.’”

It’s overtime. Moore misses to the right. Sneed misses to the back to Cornhole Blaine for double overtime. At best? War Damn Eagle.

The singles champ starts to sweat. He takes his hat off. He goes for a safe slide to send it back to Lippard.

The bag dips halfway into the hole—and then just hangs there.

Travis Moore—the Travis Moore—nearly bear-hugs Cornhole Blaine to the floor.

Once again, Trey Ryder, the world’s premiere cornhole connoisseur, is nearly speechless.

“What. A. Finish.”

Ref: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_FBvyNJhQo

THE MORGAN WALLEN IS STILL BLASTING. The alarm is still going off. Cornhole Blaine sets up his cell phone anyway. Gotta give the people what they want. They’re both about to graduate. Cornhole Blaine plans to keep riding, become an ACL pro and get paid.

Moore is starting to lean that way, too. There’s a job waiting on him at an engineering firm in Columbus, Ga. that he’s definitely excited about. But engineering jobs typically don’t get you recognized at El Vaquero. They typically don’t get your face on TV. Testing the waters of professional cornhole on the weekends? That just might.

“Heck, I turned on ESPN this morning and there it was. They were playing it again.”

“Did you watch it?” I shout.

He nails an airmail, Cornhole Blaine style.

“Heck, yeah.”

To the Moon and Beyond: Chuck Bergh ’94

To the Moon and Beyond: Chuck Bergh ’94

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How are we going to explore distant planets? With robots, of course


Chuck Bergh and the robot

RoboSimian (Cylde) with Brett Kennedy (left) and Chuck Bergh. RoboSimian, developed to respond to mass industrial accidents such as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown in 2011, placed 5th worldwide in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. December 2013. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Chuck Bergh ’94 has been passionate about all things aerospace ever since he was a child. Both of his grandfathers served in the military and his father was in the Air Force, so he grew up around stories of fighter planes and all of the military’s cutting-edge technology.

But by the time Bergh was ready for college, his dream of pursuing a career in aerospace seemed as dim as Saturn’s rings. When he got to Auburn University, he switched his major from aerospace to mechanical engineering and set his sights on a career in manufacturing, securing a job with electronics giant TDK Corporation after graduation.

“We’d seen the beginnings of the ‘peace dividend’ start to kick in because we had already ended hostilities with the Russians at that point,” Bergh says, “and America just wasn’t spending as much on its defense program at the time.”

Nearly three decades later, though, Bergh is the lead test and integration engineer for the Vision Compute Element of the Mars 2020 mission, named Perseverance and launched this past summer, which will seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth.

“The Vision Compute Element is a computer we built to improve landing accuracy,” Bergh says. “For example, the landing sites for the previous Spirit and Opportunity rovers were roughly 100 kilometers by 10 kilometers, or about the size of a county. For Perseverance, we have tightened that to a 40 meter diameter circle, or about half a football field.”

Bergh got the opportunity to reclaim his childhood dream of working for NASA while he pursuing his doctorate in engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in the late 1990s. As luck would have it, he happened to get an interview with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where they essentially offered to pay him to do the work he was about to do for free during his Georgia Tech doctorate.

“I grew up watching the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle program, and all these really cool things happening,” Bergh says, “and suddenly I’m being invited to join that club. So I jumped on the opportunity to come out to Pasadena.”

Bergh started his career with NASA in robotics, and that’s where he’s been ever since — including work on RoboSimian, an ape-like robot that competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals in 2015. An engineer with a master’s degree among a team of PhDs, Bergh is affectionately called “Howard Wolowitz,” the character from The Big Bang Theory, by his wife Tanja. Now, with the Mars 2020 mission, Bergh has been able to transfer his engineering expertise from a walking robot to a driving rover.

“When I came to JPL, I started working on these portable robots, which later became PackBot from iRobot and picked up by the military,” Bergh says. “This is what they were sending into the caves to protect our soldiers trying to clear caves and in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, I was also working on new ways to land on comets, and those techniques have evolved into what we’re using for Mars now.”

What’s unique about Mars 2020 is that Bergh and his team have come up with the first purpose-built instrument that will change personalities during a mission. When Perseverance lands, the team will load new software into the Vision Compute Element that will transform it from a landing computer to a driving computer.

“What most people don’t know,” Bergh says, “is that all the previous rovers would drive for a little bit, stop, look around, assess their surroundings, choose a new path, and then move forward again. The whole purpose of this new computer is to allow the rover to drive on the surface continuously.”

Bergh’s plan for the foreseeable future is to keep answering the calls of what the NASA scientists come up with next, including working to provide terrain-relative navigation for the Human Landing System for the Artemis program, which intends to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.

But one of the areas he’s particularly interested in is a mission to the ocean moons orbiting Saturn and Jupiter.

“We’re working on some cool technologies to explore these water vents and cryo volcanoes that exist on these other moons,” Bergh says. “We’re developing a snake robot that could potentially crawl its way down into them and investigate.”

Though Bergh has seen many changes in manufacturing technologies since he got that serendipitous interview with JPL twenty years ago — innovations like additive manufacturing and 3D printing that allow NASA engineers to make better motors and structures for going to these far-off places — neither his curiosity nor his passion has been satisfied.

“I still think about my grandfather a lot,” Bergh says. “He grew up in central Alabama at the turn of the century, and yet he saw so much in his lifetime: the Battle of the Bulge, the entire Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.”

“I’m hoping that I can see nearly half as much change in my lifetime as he saw.”


The War Eagle Has Landed

The War Eagle Has Landed

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For more than 50 years, Auburn grads have helped turn America’s wanderlust for space travel into a reality. With a new mission to return to the moon and explore Mars, hundreds of Auburn Tigers find themselves the architects of humankind’s next adventure in the Big Blue.

War Eagle Has Landed Header feature story

When the United States landed on the moon in 1969, Auburn University was a part of it. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin were manning Apollo 11, but two engineers who helped make that happen were Auburn graduates.

“That was the very beginning of the space program,” says Mike Ogles, Auburn’s director of NASA programs. “I mean, that’s when we landed on the moon. That was the start of it.”

It didn’t end there. From astronauts (including Ken Mattingly ’58 and Hank Hartsfield ’54, alumni who flew an all-Auburn shuttle mission together in 1982) to engineers and researchers and others, people from the Loveliest Village have been instrumental in exploring the cosmos.

And now, with President Donald Trump calling for a return to the moon by 2024, Auburn is again on the frontlines of space exploration, helping to lead a resurgence of space interest. Auburn alumni working in the space industry say we’re close to putting men and women back on the moon — and after that, we have our sights set on Mars.


Doug Loverro ’89, who earned a master’s in political science at Auburn, is NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operation Missions Directorate. It’s a mouthful of a title, but he has a pretty straightforward mission: he’s in charge of getting humans back to the moon.

“The president has asked us to go back to the moon in the next four and a half years, and we’re charged with how we’re going to do that,” says Loverro, who took the job at the end of 2019 after a distinguished Department of Defense career that included five years as assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”

Todd May ’90, whose 25-year NASA career included working on the International Space Station project and running the Space Launch System, says NASA’s focus is back to what it was in the Apollo years.

There’s no doubt that Auburn University has an untold number of graduates involved in the space program. We talked to just a few of them for this story:
  • DOUG LOVERRO (master’s in political science, 1989), NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operation Missions Directorate
  • TODD MAY (materials engineering, 1990), former director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, now vice president of space strategy for KBR in Huntsville
  • JIM VOSS (aerospace engineering, 1972), a former astronaut now teaching at the University of Colorado
  • MIKE OGLES (mechanical engineering, 1989), Auburn’s director of NASA programs, who oversees millions of dollars in research contracts that Auburn has with NASA
  • SUZAN VOSS (mathematics, 1971), a 35-year NASA veteran who has worked with the space shuttle and space station programs
  • AMY JAGER (aerospace engineering, 2005), project manager with the Aerospace Corporation, a NASA contractor
  • TIM MONK (aerospace engineering, 2005), a senior manager with Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company
  • JONATHAN MITCHELL (international business, 2013), policy advisor in the New Zealand Space Agency Not an exhaustive list, by any means, but let’s keep this conversation going. Know others involved in space exploration? Let us know at aubmag@auburn.edu
The War Eagle Has Landed earth graphic

“Before I even got out of high school, we had kind of halted deep-space exploration,” says May, who was director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and now works for a private company in Huntsville. “We dipped our toe into deep space with the Apollo program, and then we stopped. We decided to build the shuttle instead and establish a permanent presence in space in low-Earth orbit. For the last 30 years or so, that’s been a major focus.”

Two other Auburn NASA connections are Suzan Voss ’71, who is wrapping up a 35-year career with the agency, and Amy Jager ’05, who has been a contract employee for the past seven years.

“It’s exciting to be involved in these programs where you’re launching crew, science and cargo to space, and, of course, safely returning them to Earth,” says Voss, a mathematics major and a member of Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics Leadership Council.

“I really loved the shuttle, but I like the space station even more. It’s great to work with international partners, and the station has gotten to a point where their focus is on science, technology and discoveries in low-Earth orbit.”

We’re basically looking to establish a lunar orbiting outpost around the moon

Now, a focus at NASA is on the lunar Gateway, which will be a small spaceship — including living quarters, labs and more —that will orbit around the moon and provide access to the moon’s surface.

Jager is working on that project as a contractor with Aerospace Corporation.

“We’re basically looking to establish a lunar orbiting outpost around the moon,” says Jager, who works at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the logistics module of the Gateway. “Pieces of it will be launched and it will be assembled there.”

Astronauts Ken Mattingly (front) and Hank Hartsfield on their way to Launch Pad 39A on May 29, 1982 for a rehearsal of their liftoff.


Auburn’s involvement is not limited to NASA. In 2006, the agency’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems) program opened up avenues for commercial companies to fly supplies (and, eventually, people) to the space station, helping to bring companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to prominence.

“That’s when NASA first decided to do something in a different way,” says Jim Voss ’72, who spent 202 days in space on both shuttle missions and on the International Space Station. “They said, ‘Build us a cargo vehicle, meet these requirements and do it safely, and when you’re done, if it works, we’ll buy your services.’”

Some of these companies have already launched satellites into space, while others have bigger plans, such as developing vehicles that can carry humans into space.

Loverro says these groups are partners with NASA, not competitors.

“When I was growing up, we viewed companies like Lockheed and Martin Marietta and Northrop as these big industrial giants that the government turned to do things, and we forget that their roots were exactly the same as the Blue Origins and the SpaceXes,” he says. “If Elon Musk is not an exact facsimile of Howard Hughes, just 60 or 70 years removed, I don’t know who is.”

Another major player is Bezos, founder of Amazon. His Blue Origin, like Musk’s SpaceX, is working on prototypes for new spacecraft.

Tim Monk ’05, who graduated from Auburn with Jager, is a senior manager at Blue Origin working on the company’s New Glenn project, which the company calls a “heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth orbit and beyond.”

“In a nutshell, what Jeff has given Blue Origin to accomplish is to get humanity to the point where millions of people are living and working in space,” Monk says.

The goal is to fly the New Glenn by the end of next year, but first comes Blue Origin’s New Shepherd, which plans to fly astronauts this year, Monk says.

All of it is good for the space industry, Loverro says.

“Every time that Elon Musk excites the American public about space, we get more applications at NASA. Every time Jeff Bezos excites the American public about space, we get more people who want to join us on that journey.”

One Auburn grad is trying to excite people on the other side of the world. Jonathan Mitchell ’13, a New Zealand native, has returned to his home country to work for the New Zealand Space Agency, part of the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

“The NZSA is heavily focused on the commercial aspects of space and in promoting, enabling and growing our domestic sector,” he says. “What I’ve particularly enjoyed is seeing just how much space activity is happening in New Zealand and getting to interact with and hear from some really smart, driven people who are collectively building a cutting-edge industry with real-world impacts for New Zealand.”

All of this points to what May refers to as a “sea change” in the space industry.

“It’s very clear that space isn’t just for NASA and the American government,” he says. “It has become much more democratized. I think there are over 100 companies now either developing or flying rockets around the world. The next Americans to launch from American soil will launch from a commercially driven development. The government is still involved, but it’s a completely different way of doing it.

“What we see going forward is that NASA wants to explore, and we want to go back into deep space, but we don’t want to do it alone,” he adds. “We want countries and companies to come with us. We want a viable commercial industry to develop, and we want America to lead. NASA’s role has become one of enabling that market to grow.”

In my personal world, I would want us to get on with it and go on to Mars, but I’m not the one who has to make the decisions that might involve risk to life, either.

From Auburn Magazine: "The War Eagle Has Landed"


After a number of decades, NASA has set its sights on deepspace travel again, and Auburn’s space contingent is all for it.

“By abandoning the Apollo program, we lost the ability to get humans into deep space, and by abandoning the shuttle, we lost the ability to put humans in space at all,” May says. “Now I’d say we have started back, and our goal in deep-space exploration is to go and stay.”

Loverro says further space exploration is directly linked to getting men and women back on the moon.

“After that, what are we going to do?” he asks. “We get to envision how we are going to sustain our presence on the moon and then, more importantly, how we’re going to extend human existence to Mars.”

Voss, who teaches at the University of Colorado, says the 2024 goal is “physically impossible,” but it might happen “relatively soon after that.”

“We’ll eventually get back to the moon, and even farther out,” Voss says. “I really do believe we’ll get to Mars. NASA has to take the conservative approach, which is going back to the moon and learning some things we need to learn for deep-space exploration. We have a better chance of solving problems if they’re closer. In my personal world, I would want us to get on with it and go on to Mars, but I’m not the one who has to make the decisions that might involve risk to life, either; I think I’ll see us land on the moon again, but Mars is probably 30 to 40 years away.”

May agrees that 2024 is probably not realistic for getting back to the moon, and he says what we need to do goes far beyond just landing there. He discussed that very point with one of a dozen people to know about landing there firsthand.

Jim Voss ’72, Expedition Two flight engineer, prepares to exercise on the cycle ergometer in the Zvezda Service Module on March 23, 2001. “I had breakfast with Buzz Aldrin in Naples, Italy, one morning and I was able to ask him if it was a moral victory if we go back to the moon,” May says. “He said, and this is one of 12 guys who can say it, ‘I’ve been there, and planting a flag is all fine, but what do you do after that?’ His point was that you don’t go to just plant a flag or just for the glory. You go to settle. At the end of the day, altruistic reasons are not the only reasons to go. In order for it to be sustainable, it needs to have some sort of business there.”

For Loverro, his job at NASA couldn’t be more exciting as the space agency and other companies, many of them with Auburn graduates working there, set their sights on the stars.

“It’s all unplowed ground,” Loverro says. “There’s nothing we have today that will get us there. Everything will be something my team conceives of, test out, do the research on or build. We get to do the most fun thing in the universe, which is to explore it.”