Monday, November 20, 2006

A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias – 4

Wherein our hero discourses on the wonders of Southern collegiate football.

To play this game you must have fire in you, and there is nothing that stokes fire like hate. ~ Vince Lombardi

Given that this past weekend featured any number of well-known college football rivalry games, it seems an appropriate time to consider the difference in attitude toward toward the fall's premier sport.

I lived in Ohio for over thirty years, and, like most Ohioans I rooted for Ohio State to beat Michigan each year (well, nearly every year; the Big Ten teams only play 8 of their opponents each year, so every 8 years, they didn't play each other). Even though I've moved to Alabama, I still like to see the Buckeyes come out on top. This year's game got a lot of national attention because OSU came in ranked number 1 and Michigan came in as number 2, meaning that the winner was going to the BCS championship game.

The sports networks made a huge deal about the game, especially ABC-ESPN, who were showing the match. It was supposed to be the most important game ever between the two. Every time they interviewed an ex-player or coach about it though, the reaction was the same. Listen, they would say, back in the day, the winner of this game generally went to the Rose Bowl, while the loser went home. Period. The Big Ten (and the Pac Ten) wanted the Rose Bowl to be special, so none of their teams could go to any other bowl games.

Eventually, of course, money began to talk, and bowl games began to proliferate, so that changed. But, the idea of the rivalry game being a big one has always been huge based on the consequences of winning and losing. So, adding the championship game into the mix was no bigger deal than the olden days.

Even given that titles were perennially on the line for OSU and Michigan, the buzz for the game didn't really start to build until a week or two before the game. Once the game was over, that was that for another year. Thoughts turned to the Rose Bowl, and once that was over, we began to think about hockey and baseball. It ain't that way down here.

My first inkling about how serious people are about football in Alabama came the first week I arrived in April of 1985. I was reading the morning newspaper and got to the sports section expecting to read about the upcoming opening of baseball season. Instead, the paper was full of college football news: Recruiting news, spring practice news, all kinds of football news. Baseball was relegated to a small section on part of one page. I began to suspect there was something different about sports attitudes in the South.

I got serious reinforcement at my new job, as I heard people in the spring of the year already arguing over the superiority of Alabama or Auburn in the coming annual Iron Bowl game. I presume the name “Iron Bowl” came about because the game was played for many years in Birmingham, once the steel capital of the South. At any rate, I found that I would be asked if I followed college football. Once I answered in the affirmative, I was asked whether my allegiance was to Auburn or Alabama. The answer, “Well, actually, I'm an Ohio State fan,” was not acceptable. I had to state a preference or be regarded as some sort of non-football-appreciating pariah.

In case you're curious (and anyone from the state of Alabama is), I chose the perennial underdog, Auburn. Of late, that's looked like a good choice, hasn't it, Tide boosters?

This year's Iron Bowl was for pride only, with neither team having a chance at the SEC title game or a national championship. I can assure you, however, that the bulk of Alabamians were watching the Iron Bowl Saturday rather than the big one in Columbus, which is where my attention was focused. They're far more serious about their rivalries here.

It's not just the Iron Bowl. Both teams have other rivalries, Alabama with Tennessee and Auburn with Georgia. People worry over those games almost as much as they do over the Alabama-Auburn tilt. But, every Southern college has one really, really serious rivalry, and it is a subject of discussion, debate, and downright arguing 365 days a year (366 in leap years).

I don't really understand it. Football is a sport associated with cold and snow, at least to anyone living north of Memphis. I can remember freezing my nether parts off watching many a high school, college,and pro game. Down here, they postpone games because it's raining. Of course, down here, games are played in heat that will cause the football to sweat, so I guess things have a way of evening out.

It still doesn't explain the football madness that pervades the South. Texas is legendary in its mania for high school football; there are high school stadiums that some colleges would kill for. As mentioned above, people following the recruiting circus year round, looking to see if the home team can sign that hot quarterback from some bitty high school in Arkansas.

My guess is that it has to do with the lack of professional sports that the South endured for so many years. Today, there are pro baseball, football, basketball, even hockey teams throughout the southern United States, but for decades, pro sports were the domain of the North, the Midwest, and the West. Down here in the the land of magnolias, grits and barbecue, it was the colleges that provided the sports fix for people. Interestingly, it was only the outdoor sports that really caught on. Except for the Carolinas, basketball was something to do while you were waiting for baseball (and spring football practice) to start. In recent years, basketball has gained in popularity, but even last year, we were treated to the Alabama basketball coach pleading for more fans to show up.

So, ultimately, a Southerner's first love is still football. It's hard to understand how this land of gentility and charm has given its soul to a game that is based on collisions, concussions, and general mayhem. Well, I think that's the point. Southerners are unfailingly polite and friendly people (okay, in Craigsville, Virginia, they shoot first and ask questions later, but that's atypical), so they have to put their aggressions somewhere. What better place than on a football field? For the fan, it brings together the elements of Southern sociability (tailgating and game parties) with that universal characteristic of mankind, violence (the game itself).

I don't know if any of that is correct, but I do know that when I get back to work, the discussions will not be about Ohio State going to the BCS national championship game. People will still be replaying Saturday's Iron Bowl and already talking about how next year's game will go. Me, I'm focused on Ohio State ... although I would like to say, for the record, War Eagle!

If you don't understand why it was necessary to add that last, you don't understand Southern football.

More Southern musings:
Southerners are nice people
Human Nature overcomes all
Northerners just don't understand

No comments:

Post a Comment