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Written by Rick Bragg, uat professor. A wonderful piece on the inherency of football in the South. Either that or it's just gittin' to be that time of year!!
Down Here by Rick Bragg Football in the South
WE BELIEVE SOME things, down here. Some of them, I have lived long enough
to question. We believe that if a snapping turtle bites you, it will not
turn loose until it hears thunder, but since I have seen a snapping turtle
as big as a turkey roaster bite a broomstick in two, I believe it will
turn loose any time it damn well wants. We believe snakes have mystical
powers and will charm you if you look into their eyes. When I retire, I
plan to test that theory on water moccasins at my stock pond, and if they
have not charmed me in four or five seconds, I will shoot them. Then, in
times of drought, I will hang them in a tree. That, we believe, will make
it rain. My grandmother, God rest her soul, told me so, so it must be
And we believe -- well, maybe all but the Unitarians -- that God himself
favors our football teams. On Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, our
coaches, some of them blasphemers and backsliders and not exactly praying
men the other six days of the week, tell their players to hit a knee and
ask his favor at the same exact instant the other team is also asking his
favor, which I have always taken to mean that God, all things being equal,
favors the team with the surest holder on long field goals.
It is gospel -- the gospel according to Bear. After a rare Alabama loss in
the Bryant era, Bear's sidekick on his weekly television show told him:
"The Lord just wasn't with us, Coach."
"The Lord," growled Bryant, "expects you to block and tackle."
The point is, and we talk real slow down here, so it may take awhile to
get to it, that we believe some things regardless of science and sometimes
common sense. And what we mostly believe in -- across racial, political,
religious and economic lines -- is football. We believe absolutely in our
supremacy over all pretenders, upstarts and false prophets from the North,
East, West and some heathen parts of Florida that are too sissy to mix it
up with the real men of the SEC. We have been fed that belief since we
were infants. That, and an unhealthy amount of Coca-Cola in our baby
But for years and years, we have even had the science of the BCS on our
side and have grown accustomed to the pretty way that crystal trophy
catches the light; for three years it has not even exited the state of
Alabama. We are sure of this pre-eminence -- so sure that we view all the
years when the South was not dominant in college football as a surreal
space-and-time fluctuation, like the dancing hot dog and bun they used to
show at intermission at the Bama Drive-in theater on Highway 21 north of
Anniston, Ala., which we watched through a blur of Boone's Farm. It was
just temporary, just intermission, 'til the real show resumed.
We felt no disappointment in January, when two SEC teams played in a
rematch for the national championship in New Orleans. We have long known
that the real battle was in playing each other anyway. South Carolina's
Steve Spurrier, who was nicknamed the Evil Genius when he was the head
coach at Florida, said recently that it is harder to win an SEC
championship than a national one. "Ask Nick Saban," he said, though he
might have just been trying to be a smart aleck.
My uncle John Couch, who made tires for 20 years at the Goodyear plant in
Gadsden, Ala., is a Crimson Tide fan. Years ago, in the era of Bear Bryant
and Shug Jordan, he suffered through a brief Auburn resurgence, in years
he cannot precisely recall, nor cares to. But he remembers seeing a
co-worker strutting around the plant in an old Auburn jacket. He remembers
how he walked up to the man, leaned in close to him and sniffed.
"I thought so," he said.
"What?" the man asked.
"Mothballs," he said.
Somewhere, right now, an Auburn man is telling that same story, the other
way around. We know the true big games. We might not even be able to tell
you whom we played in a bowl game long ago, probably against a Yankee team
that would melt like Crisco in the furnace of a Southern summer, but we
remember how we did against Florida or Tennessee or Georgia. We know that
if our teams survive the outright savagery of an SEC regular season, their
regional rivalries, they can beat anyone.
There will always be the occasional Utah or rare Boise State in down
years, but they are an aberration, like heat lightning. "Somebody else
might win a championship," says my uncle John, "sneaking out through the
back door." Don't get him started on Notre Dame.
We know deep in our guts that it is not truly a birthright. We know that
it takes blood and sweat to win in college football. We know that dominant
programs are built by smart and relentless taskmasters like Saban, who is
so serious about the process -- the science of it -- that when he allowed
himself a big smile after winning a second national championship in three
years, it kind of scared me, as if Billy Graham had done a handstand.
When Spurrier went to South Carolina seven seasons ago, he was
disheartened when he heard fans applaud the team after a close loss.
"Please don't clap," he told them, "when we lose a game."
I, personally, think we're a little wack-a-doodle but usually in a good
way. Before the hate mail begins to flood in, or people start leaching
bile into a chat room, they should know that this story -- half of it,
anyway -- is written in fun, because that is how I view this game.
I had Alabama season tickets once, but it's hard to take anything too
seriously when you're up around Neptune and can barely discern actual
human beings. Situated somewhere above the catfish concession, I came home
smelling like french-fried taters. And while it is a joy to watch real
Southern football, from any seat, my self-worth has never been bound to
this game, though there have been times in our history as a region when it
seemed it was all we had. For Southerners, to say we do not care is to
invite suspicion. We must know football to be Southern.
"At LSU, for instance, everybody knows what Les Miles should have done,"
says George C. Rable, the Charles G. Summersell chair in Southern history
at Alabama, whose football heart belongs mostly to his grad school alma
mater, LSU. That means last season he was 1-1...in a purely mathematical
sense. A friend at LSU tells him that since the championship game, "one of
the big donors has refused to wear any LSU attire...he is not wearing his
hat." How mad do you have to be to not wear your hat?
An award-winning author of books on Southern history, Rable is not a
native Southerner but grew up in another football incubator, in Lima,
Ohio, in the swirl of Ohio State-Michigan, rooting for the Buckeyes. He
came down here to see real obsession. He once exited Tiger Stadium as the
faithful chanted: "Go to hell, Ole Miss, go to hell."
"And," he says, "we weren't playing Ole Miss."
We do not care so much about professional football here because it is a
new phenomenon and has had only 40 or 50 years to catch on. Whereas
college football has been an antidote to an often dark history for as long
as even our oldest people can recall. We are of long memory here. I gave a
talk once in Mobile, Ala., and mentioned that the Southern aristocracy had
been on the wrong and losing side in two great conflicts: the Civil War
and the civil rights movement, prompting one older gentleman to rise from
his seat, huffing that I did not know what I was talking about, and leave
the room. Later, I said I was surprised that mentioning the turbulent
1960s would anger anyone so, after so much time. A nice gentleman told me,
no, that wasn't it. "He's still mad," the nice man said, "about the war."
Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn, says the South's
devotion to college football probably reaches that far, to a time before
there even was any football, to defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, "to a
whole lot of times when we just got the hell beat out of us, as a
Reconstruction starved us. Then, the Ku Klux Klan swept candidates into
pretty much every elected office in the state of Alabama and burned
crosses on the skyline across the South. The rest of the nation, not that
it was without sin, looked down in disdain. Then, just after Christmas
1925, the Alabama football team boarded a train for California, for the
1926 Rose Bowl, and fought back against that derision, even if the players
did not know they were doing so at the time. Those young men drew, Flynt
explains, "on a long history of not being afraid," of the hottest days or
endless rows of cotton or a million bales of hay. "It's not like you're
unprepared for a little physical suffering," he says, and next to the pain
of just living down here, football was, well, like playing games.
Not knowing any of this, the rest of the nation gave Alabama no chance
against its Rose Bowl opponent, the vaunted University of Washington, but
Southerners knew there was too much at stake to lose. "Even the president
of Auburn sent a telegram," says Flynt, "telling them, You are defending
the honor of the South, and God's not gonna let you lose this game."
Halfback Johnny Mack Brown ran, as one writer described, like a "slippery
eel," and the South won something of great value, at last.
Years later, as the apparatus of Southern politics threw itself violently
into the shameful oppression of civil rights, white Southern players again
won national championships and acclaim on the gridiron, as front-page
headlines belittled and ridiculed the region for its backwardness. College
football was not a cure, not a tonic for what was wrong in the South,
merely a balm.
Then, as black athletes finally made their way into predominantly white
universities, they fought their own battles on those Southern fields, "for
something else," says Flynt, for a place not only of acceptance in the
greater society and therefore a heroic place in the national history, but
also a place in that shining legacy of championships, until the color line
in college football finally faded away. Most of us cannot even imagine a
team of any other character. And through it all, the winning continued
'til it became expectation.
Other parts of the country would try to condemn us for the South's very
success, which made about as much sense, Flynt says, as our condemning
someone else for being good at math. Our climate, culture and history made
us supreme at this thing. "Why should you put us down," he says, "because
Elsewhere, fans still grumble that Southern colleges are dominant at
football for reasons that are, amusingly, no different from what makes
their own programs successful from time to time. They say we have better
athletes because we have lower academic standards, but that notion has
become a glass house in which other colleges in other regions no longer
wish to throw stones. Because history has shown that all programs have
intelligent young men, some who possess the potential of Rhodes scholars,
and other young men who think you spell that r-o-a-d-s. But region has
little to do with which teams have more of the latter. Alabama's
graduation ranking, as Saban points out, was third among BCS schools last
season, behind Penn State and Stanford.
A recruiting scandal has also proved to have no geographical bias, as much
as other programs would like to pretend it only happens, down here. USC,
for instance, the place where Reggie Bush's Heisman once sat, could not be
farther from the South unless it was floating in the Pacific on a barge.
Intolerance for losing has no geography either -- losing coaches are
fired, even in places with ice fishing. The people who say "they're
football-crazy down there" probably play on something called Smurf Turf,
or wear blocks of foam-rubber cheese on their heads. The people who say
"football is religion down there" should be reminded that we did not
invent Touchdown Jesus.
Remember: If The Jury Box Is Stacked With Foxes...The Chickin Is Always Guilty
I'd say he rather nailed it.
Scot by blood, Southerner by Birth, Auburn Tiger by choice - War Eagle!
Great read ...funny and truthfully serious!
Do you have a link?
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