Recently, on one of the message board threads, a young man made a few negative comments about Southern football programs, and to some extent, about Southerners in general. Needless to say, this stirred the ire of many of the Southern football fans and he found himself barraged by comments refuting his perceptions.
Now I don't think that he really meant any great ill will with his comments. I don't think he even understood why so many of the Southern fans became so irritated. For the most part, we have all "known" each other for sometime via Fannation. However, I don't think he really understood the psyche of Southern football fans or how deep our passions run.
So I decided to post this blog as a way of trying to explain why football is such an intrinsic part of the Southern lifestyle and culture. I had orginally penned it as a response to the aforementioned young man's classy apologetic post to all that may have taken offense to his remarks. However, it was too long for a "Comments" post so I decided I would morph it into a blog post of its own.
Sometimes we Southerners CAN be a thin-skinned bunch. Sometimes we can be hard-headed. Most all of us are very passionate about our sports - particularly football. There are a lot of reasons for this, deeply rooted in the history of the region. Articles, books and thesis by the dozens have been written by far more knowledgable people than me about this subject, so I will not pretend to be an expert. These are my perceptions as a life-long Southerner and college football fan. However, I can recommend an excellent article that was written about a couple of years ago by Frank Defoe for SI: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008/writers/frank_deford/10/08/sec/index.html
I will venture with this brief history lesson though. In the 1920's the South had little to be proud of and little of anything period. The Civil War was only 60 years removed and the Southern economy still suffered. The people were bitter and times were extremely hard. The game of football was just beginning to really take root and Southerners grasped at it and relished it. Back then, football certainly wasn't the multi-million industry it is now. All you needed were a few warm bodies, some sturdy clothes and an open space to field a team. Club, high school, and eventually, college teams sprung up all over the South. Very soon it became the prime source of entertainment in the South. A social gathering, a sport that appealed to our Celtic background. And it didn't cost much - which was very important to a very poor region. It also restored a sense of lost pride to the people as it was something that the hard, tough Southern boys excelled at.
However, in the world of college football at that time, Southern football was considered second-class. The teams in their rough uniforms and crude equipment were considered not to be on the same level as football played in the rest of the nation. Once again, the South was ridiculed and looked down upon. Of course, this only made Southerners prouder and more passionate about the sport.
After years of being shunned, finally a Southern team was given some credit as perhaps being good enough. Or maybe it was a determination to teach the upstarts a lesson and put them in their proper place. Whatever it was, the University of Alabama was invited to play in the 1926 Rose Bowl (actually they were the 4th choice - Dartmouth, Princeton, and Colgate turned down offers). It was the consensus among the majority of football experts that the upstart Tide stood little chance against a mighty Washington team. As it turns out, they were all proven wrong. But that is not the point here. As Alabama traveled by train to Pasadena, they had to make frequent stops (it took them about a week to get there) along the way. As they traveled across the Southern leg of the journey, they were met by hundreds of people in various Southern states. These were not particularly Alabama fans, they were just Southerners who had something to be proud of. Something they could rally behind. A bright spot in a bleak time. On the victorious return trip, the crowds were even larger and the joy of the championship did not belong to just Alabamians, but Southern people in general. (for more information about this first game: http://www.rollbamaroll.com/2009/12/21/1197952/the-1926-rose-bowl-alabama-vs)
That first appearance and win by Alabama (along with 5 other appearances) paved the way for respect for Southern football nationally. At last, the South was recognized for being very good at something. This even further fueled the passion of Southern people and their football. Even today, the South is still the butt of jokes and ridiculed throughout much of the rest of the nation. We are still considered "backward" and "different". But the one thing that no one can dispute is that we are damn good at football. It is nearly a religious institution in the South and we take great pride in it. The rivalries between states, and within states, fuels year round debate and animosity. Yet, let an "outsider" make offensive remarks about our rival and we will defend them vehemently. Many of you wonder about, and ridicule us, for our "SEC! SEC!" chants. It is another way for we Southerners to express our pride, and even our defiance, in a sport many of us started at age 6 or 7. It is our "Us Against Them" mentality. You can put us down, make fun of us, but we can still whip your ass on a football field. It is something that cannot be taken from us. Ask most any Southerner about their fondest childhood memories, and the majority of the time it will involve the game of football. Many of us grew up huddled around the radio, later TVs, agonizing, bleeding, crying and cheering for our teams. In other parts of the nation, a 40,000 seat college stadium is considered large enough. Here in the South, we call that a high school field. Yes, it is a passion and unless you are from the South it is incredibly difficult to understand.
Yet, do not confuse this passion for a lack or morality or a "win at all cost" attitude. The South is not known as the "Bible Belt" without good reason (personally, I think that one big reason why pro football has never really caught on here has much to do with interfering with attending church). Ask any good Southern football coach, at any level, about "priorities" and he will list God, family, and school - in that order. Believe me, if a program is found to be breaking the rules, the harshest critics - and the first to call for the coach's head, are that team's fans. Cheating, and any other moral breach is just not tolerated. It does not fit into our Southern idea of morality and ethics. For the most part, you will find Southerners to be very conservative in our views and in our pollotics.
During the DuBose years at Alabama, much was tolerated because he was "one of us". Eventually, it was discovered that he had an affair with a secretary at the college. Then the NCAA investigation. He was gone, and the ones howling the loudest for his head were the Alabama fans. Mike Price arrived at Alabama as a bright hope and considered to be a good man. But he never made it to the first practice before he was fired for a fling with a stripper. We Alabama fans were furious and embarressed by his behavior. Terry Bowden led Auburn to one its most successful stretches, yet the rumor persists that he left just ahead of the axe because of an "indiscretion". Mike Shula came to Alabama with an extensive football pedigree. Certainly, his winning record did not do much to endear him, but to make matters worse was the rise of players in trouble with the law. Not only do we hold our coaches to a higher standard in terms of success, but also to a higher standard of behavior. We are trusting our young men to them, to be taken care of, to be educated. We expect the coaches to also be the father figures. Does this mean that all the coaches or programs are the bastions of morality or righteousness? Of course not, but we do not long tolerate it.
Want to know why coaches like Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley or Shug Jordan are so revered and long lasting? Not just because of the winning or losing - they all had their share of bad seasons - but they "raised" generations of young men that went on to become successful members of the community. They instilled discipline and ethics into their players. But they also taught compassion and understanding. Where do you think the careers of Joe Namath or Kenny Stabler would have went if Bryant had not given them a second chance? To this day, both men credit Bryant for saving their careers and possibly their lives (Although Stabler might not have completely learned the lesson - he was removed from the radio broadcast team after a DUI arrest. We even hold our announcers to a higher standard). An example: Gene Stallings was well known as a no-nonsense disciplinarian with little tolerance for bad behavior. During his tenure, a young man named David Palmer got in trouble twice, in a short time span, for drinking related incidents. Many in the state of Alabama, and the Bama fan-nation, called for his immediate dismissal. Instead, Stallings, suspended and disciplined him, keeping him on the team in spite of the howls from all corners. Palmer went on to graduate from Alabama and have a successful NFL career. To this day, he says that Stallings saved his life, because without football, without the discipline that he learned, his life would have spiraled downward. Stallings said later that he realized that football was all that Palmer had and that the young man's well being was more important than what others might think of his decision. For Alabama fans, this story is as important to Stallings' legacy as his National Championship.
Many have questioned Houston Nutt's descision at Ole Miss concerning Jeremiah Masoli. Many of us were apalled by Nutt allowing someone with such a checkered past into his program. Yet, we do not personally know this young man or who he truly is. Maybe Coach Nutt's reasoning was truly altruistic or perhaps he was just trying to bolster a poor team. Regardless of his reasoning, we all begrudge the man some respect for giving the young man a second chance. After all, we are talking about a 21 year old man and who among us led a perfect and trouble-free life at that age? Or exhibited sound judgement? I certainly cannot say that I did. But none of this is indicative that we Southerners are willing to sacrifice morality for wins. I think you will find the vast majority of us find that idea extremely distasteful.
I am sorry that I have gone so far in this, but I hope that it helps some to understand why it is that football is the source of such pride and passion for we Southerners. We are all far from being perfect. And certainly we can, at times, be arrogant, irritating, and over-the-top with our passion. For many of us, football is woven into our Southern psyche and permeates all levels of our society. We are proud and unapologetic for it.
If any of you would like to read more about the pride, passions, and history of football in the South, please let me know. I will be glad to recommend several excellent books for you.