Down here

To understand football's place in the South, you first have to see it from the inside

Updated: August 8, 2012, 6:08 PM ET
By Rick Bragg | ESPN The Magazine

1939 Oklahoma, 2012 AlabamaAP Photo, US PresswireSEC teams have always known their toughest opponents are one another.

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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 true.

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."

[+] Enlarge1967 Sugar Bowl
Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of AlabamaQB Ken Stabler and the Tide finish 11-0 with a Sugar Bowl win over Nebraska on Jan. 2, 1967.

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 bottles.

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.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Charles Sonnenblick/Getty ImagesThe Gators take their first of two BCS titles with a win over Ohio State in '07, beginning a run of SEC dominance and birthing the legend of Tim Tebow.

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 culture."

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.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
John Reed/US PresswireHeisman winner Cam Newton rallies the Tigers from a 24-point deficit in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 26, 2010.

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 we are?"

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.

And the greatest scandal of college football, the greatest darkness, did not descend on the South but in Happy Valley, a tragedy beyond comprehension for another storied program, one that would rewrite a legend. The entire history of Southern football, in all its fanaticism, with all its lust for winning, has nothing to compare. But like SEC commissioner Mike Slive said, there is a warning in that lesson for everyone, including us.

We do lose, of course. We feel the air grow thick when we do. Our limbs grow heavy. I have stood on the beautiful campuses of Southern universities and seen what, I swear, was a kind of graying of the landscape, as if losing had bleached out the beautiful red of the bricks and green of the lawns. It cannot be true, of course, but it feels true, and it lingers for days. Books are read, papers written, problems solved. But it feels a little like the day after Christmas.

"It's absolutely spiritual; there is no tomorrow," says Mike Foley, master lecturer and Hugh Cunningham professor in Journalism Excellence at Florida, who has a Gator tattooed on his right shoulder. He got it in a fit of youthful exuberance and impetuousness. He was 40-something. Somewhere in this steamy landscape -- Ole Miss, perhaps, or Vanderbilt -- a regular-season loss is not the end of the world, and there are such things as moral victories and good college tries.

Not Tuscaloosa. Not Baton Rouge. Not Auburn. Not Athens. Not Fayetteville, where they wear rubber pigs on their heads and yell "sooooooieeeeeeee." Judges do that. Deacons. Florists. Presidents.

"It's a pretty damn hard league," said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, when asked by reporters about playing his first SEC West schedule. As my grandmother, God rest her soul, would say, he might need prayer. Yet the supremacy will someday end -- probably on a bad call. "This, surely, can't last forever," says Rable, the Alabama professor from Ohio. "Texas will be back. USC will be back."

Says Foley: "God, that would be horrible. Lane Kiffin..." Tennessee people still hope to catch him in a crosswalk for what he did to them.

Says Rable: "I was in Ohio and they already had T-shirts in the malls that read 'Urban Nation.' "

I wish, often, that we cared as deeply about other things here in my native South as we do football. "It has become," Rable says, "what's important," sometimes to exclusion. My wife, who knows everything, says not to fret. We are going to be football crazy anyway, she told me, so we might as well beat everyone else. The fact is, it lifts our hearts. It always has.

In the winter of 1993, in an attic apartment in Cambridge, Mass., I sat homesick and watched Alabama beat the trash-talkin' Hurricanes -- I mean beat them like they stole somethin' -- to win its first national championship since Bear died. Late that night I walked through a deserted Harvard Yard, through snow and bitter cold, and thought I might yell "Roll Tide," though no one would hear. I did it anyway.

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