Archive for the ‘Deacon Blue’ Category

Once there was a land that lay, green and rolling, between a long chain of mountains and a turbulent sea. This land held only a couple of real cities, but a lot of jumped-up towns. The people who lived in this land didn’t much care for one another, by and large – not for the ones who lived in the land’s far corners, nor for those right across the state lines, nor even for their next-door neighbors, sometimes. To a visitor the people of the land seemed more or less alike, but a native could go on for hours about the foreign, foolish, and downright immoral ways of those who preferred to wear different colors.

But for all they saw as foreignness – because of all they saw as foreignness – nearly everybody in this land came together every year, just before spring sprung, to cease all daily business and watch the champions of their preferred colors compete in a tournament so all-consuming that they just called it the Tournament, in a shared disdain for all other multi-competitor competitions settled in single-elimination or round-robin fashion.

The Tournament was three high holy days, three feast days, all in a row. Friends and families gathered to wear their preferred colors in close proximity and eat traditional foods. The outcomes made stone-hearted men weep with joy or despair.

Things changed. The land improved its commerce with the greater nation. Natives moved away. Newcomers, who knew little of the old ways and cared even less, came, with cables and satellite dishes that let them keep track of distant loyalties. The land itself pushed against its old horizons, and this was not a bad thing. But the land became less of a land, less cohesive and neighborly. Fewer and fewer in the land cared about the Tournament, and nobody cared as much.

I honestly don’t remember what grade I was in, the first time the teacher brought in a TV, one Friday in early March, turned it on at noon, and spent the rest of the day letting us watch the first two games of the ACC Tournament1. It may have been kindergarten, and every year after. I don’t remember because I did not think to notice, it seemed so commonplace, so not unexpected. In the North Carolina Piedmont, in the 1970s, even small children knew about the Tournament.

We knew about the Tournament; we had heard our parents speak of it. We may have not yet heard them talk about David Thompson and Len Elmore, and we had not yet heard of Ralph Sampson or Johnny Dawkins, but we’d heard them talk about the Tournament. We’d heard the name, just like we’d heard the names Lefty Driesell, Phil Ford, the Pilot. At the time, I wasn’t sure if “Dean” was the name or the title of UNC’s Smith; I just knew that when Smith coached the U.S. Olympic team, my father rooted for the Russians.

As best as I can recall, I was in college – at an ACC school, of course – before I found out that halting class to watch basketball games was not ordinary. I remember some years growing up when the teacher didn’t get to the A/V Room sign-up sheet in time, and she’d ask the class if anyone could bring in a TV that Friday. We’d plug it in and play with the rabbit ears until we picked up WFMY, at least in elementary school. In middle school, we’d find WRAL; by high school, we found WSPA. My family moved around the Carolinas, but the Tournament was a constant.

Others can tell you about the games themselves, the players, the moments: Lennie Rosenbluth in ’57; State and Maryland in overtime in ’74; Randolph Childress’s game- and Tournament-winner in ’95. Books and YouTube record the games and the plays; they are fixed points in so many memories, easy to recall and relate. I’m after something more fragile and subjective, something easier to lose. I’m concerned with the effect of those moments. I’m concerned with the land that gave those moments their effect.

For its first 21 years, only the winner of the Tournament got to represent the ACC in the NCAA’s tournament, and play for a national championship. All those great teams would gather for the Tournament, and by Sunday afternoon, all but one would be done for the year. Then in 1975 the NCAA expanded its tournament to 32 teams, which was great, because great ACC teams that didn’t win the conference could still win the national title, like Duke did in 1991, or Carolina did the last three times it won the NCAAs. We recognized that it would be a diminishment, but we didn’t notice any, at least not at first.

Then in 1979, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird practically invented the concept of March Madness, and the realization of how much fun betting on a month-long tournament can be spread across the country like a virus, and someone called the NCAA Tournament “the Big Dance,” and the name stuck. The name stuck on Tobacco Road, too, and ACC teams added much to the madness – UNC and NC State won it all, back to back, in 1982 and ’83; Georgia Tech made the Final Four in 1990; Duke reached the Final Four five straight years, and won in ’91 and ‘92; Carolina (or Chris Webber?) won Dean Smith another title in ‘93, and won two for Roy Williams in 2005 and 2009; Maryland won the NCAA title in 2002. We wanted our teams to win the Tournament, but of course we wanted them to win the national title more, and we knew that lessened the Tournament, but in March we didn’t much care. Ol’ Roy even came out and said that he considered the Tournament a distraction, a detriment, an extraneous demand on teams with sights set on bigger goals.

Outside the arenas, Tobacco Road transformed, starting with the tobacco that, by the turn of the century, hardly grew around here at all. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Even if we still wanted to farm tobacco, we’d be hard pressed to find a patch of unoccupied, unpaved soil between Raleigh and Winston-Salem to grow it in. North Carolina’s jumped-up towns grew into cities, and its villages grew into jumped-up towns, and the whole state filled to bursting. Now, a North Carolinian’s neighbors are as likely to while away the winter following – Lordy mercy – hockey as college basketball, and most natives don’t have the slightest idea how to trash talk over hockey.

The same thing was happening in Atlanta and in that marble town outside College Park, Maryland. Clemson and Florida State had always been football-first schools, tokens of deep-South SEC culture in the upper-South ACC. Virginia had a long dry spell after firing Terry Holland, and their focus seemed to shift north. They seemed to want to be the “public Ivy” more than they wanted to be in the Kudzu League2, and I have a hard time imagining 2013’s most famous Wahoo stopping production on 30 Rock to watch the Tournament3.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, necessarily. But for several years now, the TV cameras can’t help but find the empty seats, even though the Tournament hasn’t opened ticket sales to the general public since 1966. Few care to take a Thursday off to watch the opening rounds. The Tournament, as an event, lacks not just the urgency, but the festivity it once had.

Then the macroeconomics of the industry once known as “college sports” pushed the ACC to poach its Yankee rival, the Big East, taking first Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech, and then Pittsburgh and Syracuse, in order to “expand its media footprint,” and now please excuse me while I go wash my fingertips for typing that phrase. That expansion, at least, made geographic sense; with the announced additions of Louisville and Notre Dame, though, the Atlantic Coast Conference broke down its old boundaries – and the logic of its name – with a terrible crash.

Keep in mind, though, that we live in a world in which the Big Ten will soon have 14 member schools, divided into “Legends” and “Leaders.”  One of those schools is ACC charter member Maryland. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, at all.

I’m not saying that any bit of this is a bad thing; it’s only basketball, after all, and I’m just being sentimental. The ACC and its Tournament – the way they used to be, with the full passion they could inspire, and the sense of shared identity (or even  – dare I say it? – of purpose, for a time) they could foster – will be another cherished childhood memory that’s only a memory, another much-loved pastime that’s a thing of the past. The schools of the ACC will continue to play basketball (or try to, in some cases), and I’ll still watch. I’ll be one of those crotchety old-timers complaining that it ain’t like it used to be, just like the ones who used to tell me that the Tournament ain’t like it was back in the days of the single bid, or back when they held it in Reynolds Coliseum. I’ll tell some young fans about my teachers bringing in TVs to watch the Tournament in school, and they’ll look at me the way I looked at my father when he told me they let school out for two weeks in the fall so kids could help bring in the tobacco crop.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m not even completely sure that it’s a damn shame.


1 The Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament, just in case I need to specify.

2 The unofficial roster of high-prestige universities in the South, and a topic deserving of its own post one of these days.

3 Let me know if I’m wrong, Tina.


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The Atlanta Braves changed their minds, and all I can say is whew.

Had they not, I’d have felt compelled to weigh in on this mess, despite the deafening roar of readers not clamoring for my opinion.

I’d have had to write about how the South’s racial history isn’t a binary of black and white, and how so much of Southern culture was shaped by the colonial Indian wars, some of which still raged well within the living memories of those who lived through the Civil War.

Then, though, I’d have had to mention that the team name “Braves” originated not in Atlanta, of course, but in Boston, and survived the move to Milwaukee, and that the “screaming Indian” logo came south with the team from Northern climes.screamingindian

At that point I’d probably throw in that the Braves, once they had Georgia on their minds, could have changed their representative “Brave” to one more recognizably Cherokee or Creek, the two major tribes in what they now call “Braves Country.”

That most likely would have led me to tell the story of how some men in the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, still living in the Qualla Boundary in the mountains of North Carolina (not too far from Atlanta, in fact), made good money in the 20th century by dressing as “chiefs” and posing with tourists.

They only made good money, though, after changing their wardrobe from authentic traditional Cherokee garb to something closer to what you’d have found on a Plains Indian, but closer still to what you can see on the extras in a classic Western movie.

After telling that story, I’d almost certainly feel like I ought to make some pithy summation about authenticity and preconceptions and the distortions of history and, since I’d have already brought up Westerns, how legends become facts and we print the legends.

But thank goodness the Braves changed their minds about those ball caps, so I don’t have to do any of that.

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Well, that was anticlimactic.

Deprived of an exciting game to discuss last night, ESPN’s Brent Burgundy Musburger filled a few minutes (and blew up Twitter) by . . . um, lavishing praise on the girlfriend of Alabama QB A.J. McCarron (she’s also Miss Alabama, because of course she is).  Just before his drool ajsgirlfriendshorted out the mike, he urged “youngsters in Alabama” to go throw a football around the backyard with their dads, apparently so that each and every one of them could someday have a good-looking girlfriend like A.J.’s.

Nevermind (for now) the antediluvian sexual politics at play in that statement – does Brent really think there are any Alabama “youngsters,” at all inclined and capable, who aren’t already tossing a football every chance they get?

Much has been and will be made about the various ridiculous streaks that the Tide continued last night.  The University of Alabama has now won two straight national titles, and three out of the last four; the state of Alabama, however, has won all four in a row, since the Tide’s streak was interrupted only by their rivals at Auburn.  An SEC team has won the last seven BCS championships in a row, but that’s misleading: no one’s seen Kentucky, Vandy, and Arkansas contending for the big prize.

Only four SEC teams, each from a Gulf Coast state, have won those seven straight titles: Florida, Louisiana State, Auburn, and Alabama.  If you throw in Texas from the Big 12, then schools from Gulf Coast states have won the last eight straight national championships.  Throw in Miami and Florida State, and the Gulf Coast has won 11 of the 15 BCS Championship games played since 1998.  Remember that Tennessee won the very first BCS title, after the ’98 season, and you realize that the South has NOT sent forth the best college football team in the country only three times since Bill Clinton was president.

This isn’t extraordinary; this is cotton-pickin’ ridiculous.  This threatens to make college football a regional niche sport, if it keeps up.

alabama-routs-notre-dame-wins-2nd-straight-bcs-titleNor is this a case of big programs importing the best talent from all over the country.  This is, with one major exception, a homegrown phenomenon.  My quick, unscientific survey (i.e., finding the rosters online and counting) finds that of the 116 players on the Crimson Tide’s official roster, 48 are from the state of Alabama, and a whopping 104 are from the South (including Florida and Texas, but not Maryland).

Heck, Notre Dame’s roster includes 29 players from the South (most of them from Texas, Florida, and North Carolina), compared to 34 from the Fighting Irish’s traditional recruiting grounds in the Greater Rust Belt: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.

Much has been and will be made about how and why football is such a big deal down here, how and why we apparently do “do football better down South”; there’s a lot of words about pride and fear, and a lot of metaphors involving forges and furnaces.  All that is true and has its place – that place usually being the bright and hopeful start of the season – but in the cold light of another SEC championship, the more prosaic answers look more right.

This ‘Outside the Lines’ article, from nearly a year ago, sums up most of the reasons why the South keeps playing such fine football, but only touches briefly on two of the most important:

One, it’s warmer here.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.  Spring starts earlier; fall lasts longer.  As fun as it is to play tackle football in the snow, better weather makes for more practice.  Maybe global warming will level the playing field by melting the snow off of it.

Two, the Rust Belt is, you know, rusting.  The population is shifting South, and has been for a long while now.  Houston is the fourth-largest city in the nation, and is gaining on Chicago.  The kids who grew up playing football in the shadows of steel mills and auto plants have moved to Florida and Texas and the Carolinas, and their kids are growing up playing football in the shadow of the SEC’s dominance.

Charlotte, for instance, with no real native football tradition to speak of, suddenly has become a hotbed of high school football and college recruiting, with players from the Charlotte metro seeing significant playing time for both the Tide and the Irish.  Much of this is just a question ofboystacklefootball numbers: the population of the Charlotte area grew by 64.6% from 2000 to 2010, and more people means a better chance of more and better players.  Some of this, though, is the unintended consequences of the football culture.  The Carolina Panthers joined the NFL in 1995; since then, it seems like every time I listen to Charlotte sports talk radio, I hear about another retired Panther who’s stayed in Charlotte and volunteers to help coach a youth or high school team.  Nine-year-olds in Charlotte are getting coaching tips from former pros.  Repeat that pattern all over the region, and imagine the head start these Sun Belt kids have.  Imagine all the Alabamians not yet born, who will learn the game from coaches who are learning the game from Nick Saban.

Today – probably right at this moment – footballs are filling a thousand pockets of the Southern air, tossed and caught by kids who love the game for the game itself, with or without a shot at Miss Alabama.

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Once I was soldiering through a rough summer, jonesing for college football more than usual, and since I’d already read all the preview magazines, and since there are as yet no biographies of Wake Forest football coaches, I bought a copy of The Last Coach, Allen Barra’s acclaimed biography of Bear Bryant.  From this book I felt I learned a great deal not just about Bryant and Alabama football, but about the South, and America in the middle of the American century.  Hell, a couple of times I even felt like Bryant was giving me a pep talk from beyond the grave, asking me what I was made of, challenging me not to quit.

And now I might as well tell you the rest of this story, which I promise you is true: About a month after I finished the book, I met a beautiful woman at a book convention in Atlanta.  When I learned that she was from Birmingham, and a rabid Alabama fan, I thanked Jesus and my reading muse for this little bit of lucky timing.

I said, Why, I just read a biography of Bear Bryant, a fantastic book called The Last Coach.  Do you, by any chance, know this book?

She did, indeed, she said.  Turned out, she knew it better than all but a few.  Turned out that the author was – is – her uncle.

Three years and two weeks later, she became my wife, which is how I came to find myself in Tuscaloosa on a September Saturday (roughly 5 years to the day after we met, by the way), walking down the Strip, drinking beer at The Houndstooth, continuing past the stadium and into the Denny Chimesboundaried swarm of the campus proper.  We ate barbecue and chicken wings.  She toured me around the Quad, from Denny Chimes to the Gorgas Library, wanting me to take in the full array of Tide Nation.

She said that tailgating on the Quad was once like a land rush, a frantic race to stake your claim days before the game.  Now, it seems, the Quad is chalked and platted into lots bought and paid for, most of them by banks and law firms and white-collar businesses.  Other businesses cater to the tailgaters, either literally by delivering food in a golf cart and drinks chilled in locked coolers, or figuratively by erecting a tent and hooking up a satellite TV (to watch other, lesser college football teams).  The effect is less Wild West and more well-ordered, prosperous subdivision; I would like to be here in the early, early morning, when the tents go up.

After a couple of hours we walked back to the stadium to see the team come off their buses, to watch, from the back rows of the deep and plaintive crowd, the tops of massive heads take the Walk of Champions, past the bronze pagan statues of the five coaches – including the one at the head of this walk – who brought the nation’s championship back to Tuscaloosa.

We returned to the Quad in time to see the “Million Dollar Band” line up on the library steps and play “Yea, Alabama” in the fading light.  “Yea, Alabama” may be the fightingest fight song in America.  The words to most fight songs are just rosy platitudes about the virtues of the home team and school, and generic urgings to play hard and win through.  “Yea, Alabama” commands its team to “teach the Bulldogs to behave” and “send the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave.”

I have found that there are two versions of the next verse.  My wife always thought it ran, “If a man starts to weaken, that’s a shame.”  Others say that the original lyrics are, “If a man starts to weaken, that’s HIS shame.”  My wife decided she likes this second version better.  I have been warned.  The band left the quad and marched into the stadium, and we joined the thousands following in their wake.

I am not an Alabama fan; I am a fan of the Alabama football team, and there is a difference.  Mainly I am a big fan of my wife and her family; I love them all fiercely, and, also, I am not dumb.  My own allegiance presents no conflict, and won’t without a miraculous rise or a stunning fall by one team or the other.  For this game I insisted on wearing a shirt in my team’s colors, but with an Alabama ball cap.  I wore that cap honestly, as family and not as a craven frontrunner climbing on the bandwagon, even if I’m not an Alabama fan.

Lord, though, it is seductive: all this history, this hegemony; to be invited into this community, sealed and marked with its own language that’s both private and famous; to be invited into all this confidence, all the downright certitude.  This is the tribal pride, the yawping barbaric gallantry, the “proto-Dorian bond” of the South, rendered joyful and (mostly) harmless and transracial and (so, so often) triumphant.  All that winning.  All that glorious past.  Never mind the sound of it – the very notion of 100,000 people yelling “Roll Tide, Roll” in unison, without mechanical prompt or reminder, astounds.

rolltideLet me be the 5,000th writer to point out that Alabama football gave this state, and all the South, something to be proud of when it had so much else to be very ashamed of, and that’s why they take their football so seriously here, and let me also throw out there that maybe they take their football so seriously here because they keep winning so doggone many football games.  (I will note and admit that most of the Alabama fans I’ve come to know, male and female, know the game well.)

The University of Alabama football team has stood as a symbol of so many things at so many times, and so often at the same time, that if they didn’t keep winning we might lose sight of the ball: They were the standard-bearers for downtrodden Dixie; they were the champions of segregation and white oppression.  To other, older parts of the South, they were a collection of country boys with names like Lee Roy, to be mocked and/or envied; within the state, they play for the school for the moneyed elites.  To the sports media, they are a juggernaut of excellence, the New York Yankees of college football, joyless in their grim perfection and lofty expectations; to their fans, they are the focal point around which the seasons turn.

In our seats high above the north end zone, my wife got teary-eyed watching the pre-game history lessons on the video boards.  First, the survey course, on Alabama football through the ages, from when the game crossed the Black Warrior River onto campus in 1892 through all 14 of their national championships, including – especially – the one won last year.  Then, soon after, the seminar, on the man who coached the Tide to six of those titles, the man remembered everywhere here by name and by fabric pattern.  You could call it a Bear-haunted landscape, except that his presence is too blatant to be a haunting.  The video board shows a clip from one of his locker room speeches, and 50 years on, he’s still the most charismatic man in the state.

Nick Saban is compelling in his relentlessness; he tricks you into thinking that you, too, could enjoy his level of success, his excellence, if you could just focus as narrowly, work as hard, be as single-minded as he is.  Saban benefits from having the job three decades after Bryant died, and he has won enough that his relentlessness has become a kind of charisma.  But the first time I came to Birmingham to meet my future wife’s family, I came for a wedding in which she was maid-of-honor, and the groom’s cake was topped with an edible and frosted houndstooth hat.

The groom, by the way, would have been in diapers when Bear Bryant died.

Tonight Ole Miss becomes the first team all season to hold a lead on Alabama.  They hold that lead for all of 15 seconds.  Alabama wins over the course of the night, and I mean that exactly.  This year’s team, perhaps more than any other ever, really does resemble a Crimson Tide: Alabama’s third-stringers could start for all but a few Division I teams, and for all Saban’s brilliance, he does seem simply to throw wave after wave of superior talent at the opponent.

These players and their head coach, though, never talk about talent.  They talk about “the process,” and how they stay focused on “the process,” and how, as long as they focus on “the process,” then winning will follow.  It’s the message that almost every great college coach, in one form or another, has preached: to Dean Smith, it was “the system”; John Wooden codified it as his “Pyramid of Success.”  The idea is that you worry about performing each function of the game to the best of your ability, each time you practice or perform.  (I assume it’s only a matter of time before someone opens a bar in Tuscaloosa called “The Process.”)

Saban’s other mantra is “Do your job,” the idea being that if each player does his job, and focuses laser-like on his small role within the grand mechanics of the game, then “the process” will proceed without hitch or hindrance, and victory will roll in as surely as the . . . well, you know.

Because Nick Saban and his staff and their players are so good at what they do, “the process” proceeds as envisioned far more often than not, and that much winning can’t help but be fun.  What it may lack in lyricism, it makes up for in effective competence, and effective competence is an undervalued virtue these days.

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The University of Alabama, in addition to the many other academic and social activities it offers its students, fields a varsity football team.  Perhaps you are already aware of this, for they have played admirably over the years.

You also may be aware that a great many people in and from the state of Alabama – including a sizable number who did not, do not, and will not matriculate at the University – care very, very much about the fortunes and performance of the students who made the cut to play on this varsity football team.

Soon that team will meet the varsity football team fielded by the University of Notre Dame in a pre-arranged contest.  (Notre Dame’s varsity football teams also have played very well over the years, until the last several years when they did not, until this year when they rather suddenly did, again.)  The winner of this game will be acknowledged, somewhat arbitrarily, as the best out of all the football teams, supported by institutions of higher learning, that compete at the varsity level in the United States.  It’s quite an honor.

Old Football

OK, I’ve ridden that conceit into the ground.  Writers are always tempted to turn big games, especially championship games, into palimpsests with bigger meanings about bigger issues than just the game itself.  This year’s BCS title game is such a semiotic playground, is so loaded with Backstory! and Import!, that it would have turned Borges into a college football fan.

The Crimson Tide against the Fighting Irish!  The two most storied football programs in the land!  The Bear versus Knute Rockne, All-American!  Roll Tide Roll and Shake Down the Thunder!

The champions, the victorious mechanisms, through which marginalized populations gained a purchase in the American mainstream while staking out and maintaining a cohesive group identity!

(Put that on a t-shirt!  I dare you!)

Dixie Babble will post updates leading up to Monday’s championship game, because this game is evocative of an important part of the South’s history and culture, and because this game is a very big deal to a very big portion of Southerners.

Also, because that ‘very big portion of Southerners’ includes Mrs. Babble, and Dixie Babble – despite occasional evidence to the contrary – is not dumb.

Over at the Birmingham News (through al.com), Bob Carlton is running a Pop Culture Championship between Alabama and Notre Dame, starting at the movies.  Pick your favorite cinematic football player: the Crimson Tide’s All-American kick returner Forrest Gump (fictional), or Notre Dame’s benchwarming tackling dummy Rudy (pretty much fictional, it turns out).

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Partly because we should cherish what little college football we have left in this season, and Clemson and the University of South Carolina played two of the most exciting bowl games we’ve seen.

Partly because the Tigers and the Gamecocks both won, with guts and drama, and my friends in and from the Palmetto State deserve to celebrate.

Partly because South Carolina’s many, very passionate football fans, normally as bifurcated and bitterly opposed as any, can, for once, be happy at the same time.

Partly because these are the sorts of games you would show someone who doesn’t yet understand the pull and hold of sports in general, and football in particular.

But mostly because I wanted an excuse to watch this again.  And again.  And, maybe, again.


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My sophomore year in college, I shared a dorm suite with several friends.  One Saturday, a week or two into the first semester, I rose early, showered, and dressed.  I was filling a flask (of, um, water . . . yeah, of water) in the shared bathroom when one of my suitemates stumbled in, bleary-eyed.  I finished what I was about and gave him his privacy.  Two more friends staggered into the hall, just up, unprepared.

I was concerned for them.  “Y’all better get a move on.”

“For what?”

I came to a sudden stop and blinked at my friend.  “For the game.”

He looked confused.  “We’re not going to the game.”

I looked more confused.  “What do you mean you’re not going to the game?”

“I might listen to it on the radio.”1

“But . . . you could go to the game.  You could be at the game.  It’s right over there.”

He shrugged.  He just shrugged.

“But . . . but it’s football.  It’s college football.  And . . . and you’re in college.”

I had never considered the possibility, nor could I wrap my mind around the concept, that a college student without pressing matters would not go to a college football game played at home.  Now, I’m a reasonably smart guy.  I love to read, and have done so widely and deeply.  I’m somewhat more than a history “buff.”  I ponder and consider, probably too much for my own good.  Yet a large part of why I wanted to go to college (as opposed to why I knew I ought to go2) came down to attending college football and college basketball games, for free, on a regular basis.

And I went to Wake Forest.3

We take our college football way too seriously in the South, and we don’t take education very seriously at all.  I have long wondered, then, how many Southerners down through the years have been suckered into higher education much as I was – by falling, at an early age, for the splendid pageant of the game and all that accompanies it.  Other than the voices of loved ones, my favorite sound is the right mix of the following: the snap and thump of a drum line, the swell and ebb of a crowd’s open-air cheers, the bark of signal-calling, the grunt and smack of blocking and tackling.

The 2012 college football season started this past weekend.  We need it, we fans of the game; we need the drum lines and the blue skies and the brutal precision, the tactical artistry, of the game itself, after an offseason that has pummeled both us and the myths that the game accrued to elaborate and justify its primal truth, that it is useful – if not downright needful – to outsmart, outrun, and/or overpower those who would oppose us and ours.

I can’t imagine that John Heisman or Pop Warner or Amos Alonzo Stagg imagined that football would become the cultural behemoth it has become, but I suspect that the “culture” of football, the one that the NCAA has now decided to decry, the one that’s getting the blame for the cover-up at Penn State, was in place before Teddy Roosevelt became president.  To play the game – not just well, but without getting maimed on the first snap – requires such dedicated practice and focus, so many hours of physical training, so much strength and speed and aggression and bravery, that the game becomes the world entire to those who play and coach it.  Nothing else is as important or worthwhile.

Surely, nothing else in the South is as important and worthwhile as college football, right?  Hasn’t that become the commonplace?  Isn’t the proof in the BCS trophy, which has spent the last seven years in one ex-Confederate state or another?4  That sort of sustained dominance makes it hard to argue that, to paraphrase the t-shirt, we don’t do football better in the South, which makes it hard to argue that they don’t care more about it in what was once the Old Southwest than they do in what was once the Old Northwest.

Except that I’m not sure that they do.  I don’t know that the South cares more, but I do think the South cares differently.  (It’s not so much that we do things different here; it’s that we do many of the same things in a different way.)

With a resounding lack of surprise, Rick Bragg traced the importance of football in the South back to the shame of Civil War and Reconstruction.5  That shame, Bragg explains, was redeemed and expiated in 1926, in Pasadena, when the Alabama Crimson Tide won an unexpected victory in the Rose Bowl.  It wasn’t economic prosperity or racial reconciliation or educational achievement, but it was something the South could crow about.  Those Alabama boys had gone out and whipped the Yankees in the most direct and satisfying way possible, short of actually re-fighting the Civil War. 6

Bragg quotes the eminent Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, who describes the young Southern men in that long-ago Rose Bowl as drawing “on a long history of not being afraid . . . It’s not like you’re unprepared for a little physical suffering,” if you were (or are) a young man raised in the South.  Bragg elaborates that “next to the pain of just living down here, football was, well, like playing games.”

That notion has a nobility to it, and a truth.  My own grandfather, who started laying brick when he was 8, told my father once that, after going home from school to work construction all his life, going to football practice was like a vacation.

Bragg is far from the first to make this argument (or tell this story?  or spread this myth?), and neither he nor those who came before are wrong.  They are, however, not entirely right, in the sense that the story is still incomplete.

It’s too easy, chalking up another piece of Southern culture to “because we lost the War,” when maybe we fought and lost the War because of that Southern culture, in the first place.  It lets us off the hook, retroactively and actively: we got back our lost pride, we showed them Yankees, by whipping ‘em in football, instead of in education, income, health or quality of life.

It’s the kind of answer that raises more questions, because once you drag in history, once you go beyond “we love it because we win a lot, and we win a lot because we love it,” you stare into a rabbit hole that goes way, way down.

Why football?  How much of our love for it came from beating the Yankees at their own game, and how much from our own warlike predilections?

Is tailgating in the South the spiritual descendant of the picnic at Twelve Oaks, or just a function of having warmer Novembers?

Does it mean anything that the combat simulacrum of football came about not only within living memory of the Civil War, but as the American frontier finally closed?  If it does, what does that mean for the South, where isolation and invasion froze frontier attitudes in place for a long, long time?

Is the Deep South really – I mean, really – more football-mad than western Pennsylvania or central Ohio, or Oklahoma, or Nebraska, or Michigan?  Or is more just made of it, in part because of the SEC’s remarkable run, and in part because it fits into preconceived notions and narratives about the Deep South?

Do the young men of the South draw on a “long history of not being afraid,” or on a long history of being very afraid, of having so very much to be afraid of – of the wild and primal land itself, of the Chickamaugas and Creeks, of slave revolts, of Stoneman’s Raid, of your own bushwhacking neighbors, of duels and blood feuds, of droughts, of carpetbaggers, of the company men, of the subjugated millions you’ve wronged and wronged again, of lynchings, of forced deference, of overcrowded prisons, of no hope – so that all you have in this world to stand on are cunning and strength and pride, and the savage prayer for God to join you against the foe?

I thought about none of that this weekend, nor will I next weekend, not when I’m in front of my TV and not when I’m in the stands.  I’ll think about the merits of the 3-4 defense and why the O.C. keeps calling that delayed draw that never works.  I’ll think about being 16 again, or how I wish I hadn’t been so Ichabod-skinny when I was 16 the first time, or about how much fun it would be to be twice as big and twice as fast and half as old as I am now, like those kids out there on the field.  I’ll think about having another hot dog in the third quarter.

I’ll think about staying up late to watch a Pac-10 game.  It is football, after all; it’s college football.



1 I went to college in the olden days, before every game in the country could be found on cable or online.  I’m so old, in fact, that the radio my friend listened to probably had an actual dial.

2 At the time, I thought I ought to go because I’d get a better job, because I’d have more earning potential, and – mainly – because my parents wanted me to go.

3 Wake Forest University is the smallest school – by a substantial margin – in the six BCS “Automatic Qualifier” conferences.  When I was there, I was one of about 2800 undergraduates; schools like Michigan and Ohio State have more students currently enrolled than Wake Forest has alumni – ever, living and dead.  Despite Jim Grobe and the 2006 ACC Championship, the Demon Deacons still have the lowest winning percentage of the AQ teams.  I’m still Proud to be a Deacon.

4 Since 2005: Texas, Florida, LSU, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Alabama.  (The last 6, you’ll notice, are all from the SEC.)  Confederacy, hell; the BCS title hasn’t left the Gulf Coast in 7 years.

5 It’s a little funny that the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s college football preview, in which Bragg’s article appeared, read “Curse the SEC.”  Their other outlets give off the distinct whiff of terror that the SEC is going to so dominate the sport, for so long, that college football will become a regional niche sport.  (To be fair, the various ESPN “platforms” have featured some thought-provoking commentary on football the last couple of weeks, especially Charles Pierce’s Grantland article on the history of land-grant schools and J.R. Moehringer’s “120 Reasons.”)

6 Actually, they whipped the University of Washington (as in the state), who don’t really qualify as Yankees, and they beat them by one point, which doesn’t really count as “whipped.”  The bigger victory was over the derision and low expectations.

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I confess that Dixie has not been much on my mind these last two weeks.  The games of the 30th Olympiad have taken what little attention I have to spare.

I geek out over the Olympics.  Being from the South, I’m a sucker for elaborate productions of grand sentiment and triumphant nationalism; when said productions also involve physical dominance, how can a good ol’ boy resist?

I am tugged by my own personal history with the Olympics, too: I remember watching the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid at the same time that I watched a rare snow fall on my North Carolina home.  I ran back and forth from the TV to the window, giddy with the growing realization that not only were we going to beat those Godless Commie Russkies, but we weren’t going to school the next day, either.

Then the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics came about a week after my family had moved from my hometown to a new one on the other side of the state, where I almost got into a fight my first day in town.  Staying inside and watching every minute of the overproduced, red-white-and-blue broadcast seemed the safer option, at least in the short term.  I was young enough to be only vaguely aware that Carl Lewis was a massive tool; it made me much more vulnerable to the hype machine, but it also let me appreciate the magnificence of what he accomplished in the L.A. Coliseum, without being distracted by the full knowledge that he was, you know, a massive tool.

Centennial Park in Atlanta

In retrospect, I should have figured out a way to make it to Atlanta for Dixie’s only Olympic Games, even though in 1996 I had neither money nor a reliable car.  I should have bummed a ride, hitchhiked, crawled, since, given how it turned out, I doubt the Olympics will ever be so close again.  The media covering the games complained about the heat and humidity (apparently surprised that the American South swelters in late summer), as well as the shortcomings of MARTA (though Charles Pierce wrote recently on Grantland that he went to the Atlanta Olympics “as a fan and had a great time,” adding, “Most of the people who covered those Games consider them one of the great train wrecks in the history of the Olympics. There is a greater distance between reporters and spectators than I thought there was.”).

And then one of our homegrown whack jobs decided that blowing up the Olympics would be a good way to . . . what, exactly, I don’t remember.  He wasn’t crazy about women’s reproductive rights, damn furriners, the modern world?  I remember that he had bombed some Birmingham women’s health clinics before the Games, and I can’t forget that he hid for years in the southwest corner of my state, in the deep Appalachians where the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee meet.  I remember that the media wrongly identified a security guard named Richard Jewell as some kind of lead suspect, which he wasn’t, but they hounded him into reclusion and lawsuitsanyway.  He was a big ol’ round-bellied hoss, more than a bit of a Bubba, and it was almost as if he was offered up as a sacrifice, a man who looked like the worst and most convenient stereotypes of Southern manhood, because such a man makes an unprovocative scapegoat.  It was almost as if Richard Jewell was dragged into service as a global exculpation of the South’s old sins, in order to hide the new, darker version of those sins, as represented by the actual bomber, whose militancy was far worse than the Bubbas’ old lazy ignorance and casual hate.  A man like Richard Jewell is easier to confront, condemn, and punish than the far more disturbing Eric Rudolph.


I geek out over the Olympics every four years.  I geek out over London every four months or so, so imagine my geek singularity now that the two have converged.  London is the only place outside the South I’ve ever lived or ever would live.  London bursts with the spoils of a thousand years as a city, a capital, a seat of great empire; it manages to be sprawling and dense at the same time.  Within a week of my first arrival I went to Westminster Abbey.  They charge a small fee to tour beyond a certain point; when I stopped to pay, and looked down at my wallet, I noticed that I was standing on the gravestone of Charles Darwin.  I jumped a little, not used to trampling on the resting place of a man who changed the world.  The kindly old man waiting to take my money looked at me with that paradoxical patient exasperation that Londoners so often feel for Americans tourists, as if to say, “Yes, Charles Darwin.  Isaac Newton’s rotting over there.  Now, then, that’d be two pounds, please.”

Londoners tend to be polite, blissfully reticent, sarcastic, cranky, pessimistic but indomitable, and orderly.  No wonder I could live there.  And, four hundred years ago, Londoners led the founding of what would be the United States of America in what would be the American South.  Many English had tried to gain a foothold in North America; the Virginia Company of London succeeded at Jamestown, if barely, and at great cost.  The English who invested in the Virginia colony – either with their money or their person – were called adventurers, and the name fits.  They were hierarchical, more medieval than modern in most of the salient ways, but even their aristocrats were bumptious with the aggressive energy and vulgar vitality of a restless and growing nation, just starting to assert itself in the wider world.  They were vigorous and ambitious, grasping and brutal; their heroes were Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, whom other nations called pirates.  As much as America wants to see itself as a “city on a hill,” imbued with divine purpose, the nation irrevocably began at Jamestown, a purely commercial enterprise founded and backed by a corporation.

Jamestown, VA

These pushing English, transplanted to the Virginia tidewater, set the template that the country – and especially the South – would adapt, revise, remake, but always refer to, down through the centuries.  The timeline of the South can be traced, though faint and twisting, back to London.

So even if I haven’t watched the Braves these last two weeks, or pondered on the ruins of tobacco sheds, or speculated on the Democrats’ convening in Charlotte and all that it could mean, or even worried much about the coming college football season, Dixie may have been on my mind more than I thought.

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Lord, how my rational, progressive mind wants to hate the Masters.

But my hidebound, history-laden heart does love it so.

The players who made the cut are out on the course, the sun is shining over Augusta National, and soon Jim Nantz once again will manage to gush while whispering, rhapsodizing pine trees and azaleas and “a tradition unlike any other” into a right vision of heaven.1

Nantz has been doing his thing over at CBS for so long that we now have a parallel Masters-week tradition of pre-emptive anti-Nantz narrative, pinpricking the pompous reverence Augusta National demands of those who would broadcast their one public event.

Augusta National and the Masters are easy to prick, impossible (so far) to puncture: a bunch of (extremely) rich, (mostly) old, (almost entirely) white guys in ugly blazers hanging out in their own gated He-Man Woman-Haters Club (as far as we know) whose clubhouse was once an antebellum “big house” on a Georgia rice plantation.  They couldn’t make themselves an easier target, short of burning a cross on Magnolia Drive.

The volume’s been turned up a notch this year, thanks to Ginni Rometti’s ascension at IBM, a long-time tournament sponsor whose CEO traditionally becomes an honorary member, as well as the general fat-cats-bad unrest in the nation.

Not surprisingly, Grantland offers a couple of creative takes to the annual pile-on.  Wright Thompson leaves Augusta National in search of James Brown’s Augusta, exploring “the Terry,” the rough neighborhood where Brown grew up (in his aunt’s brothel).

At a greater remove, Brian Phillips compares the Masters to Mad Men, both selling “poisonous nostalgia” for a gone America we’re better off without.

Phillips’s critique of the Masters mystique is interesting: “the Masters is essentially Mad Men, season 51,” he writes, and he imagines an octogenarian Don Draper musing, “The golf course made sense.  The careful plan of the fairways, the pimento cheese sandwiches2, the creek.  This was order, civilization, tradition.  A place where a man commanded respect.  The kids would never understand this.”

The crux of Phillips’s argument is a question he asks about the tournament, but that applies equally to the TV show: “Why is something so clearly redolent of a past no one seriously wants to go back to capable of inspiring so much goofy affection?”

Let’s admit, first of all, that there are among us troglodytes who do, in fact, “seriously” want to go back to that past, part and parcel, and have long since been seduced by Augusta National’s vision of a world where the gals and the blacks are kept firmly in their places.3

Leaving those asshats out of the discussion, let’s now admit that the Masters inspires “so much goofy affection” in many of us because, apart from the regular occurrence of breathtakingly great golf, Augusta National thinks to wrap their sandwiches in green paper.

I’m serious.  Quit looking at me like that.

Please understand that in order to pass through the gates of Augusta National, you first have to pass along Washington Road, passing the pay-day check cashers, the Hooters, the TGI Friday’s.  Washington Road is the vomit of late 20th-century sprawl, all fast food and quickie marts.  If Augusta National is the last bastion of the “clubby, genteel” postwar America4 that otherwise died off in the early 1970s, then Washington Road is the apotheosis of what most of the rest of America has become: cheaply built and mass produced; baldly, anonymously commercial; disposable and impermanent and tacky.  It’s a four-lane insult to the American citizen, a congested, spluttering scoff at any notion of democratic taste or intelligence.

On the other side of those gates, though, someone thought to wrap those concession sandwiches in green paper, so that if a wrapper doesn’t make it to the proper receptacle, it won’t wander glaringly white or silver across the fairways in front of the TV cameras.  On the other side of the gates, the visitors who’ve paid (or finagled) their way in to see the tournament are patrons, not fans; they hold badges, not tickets; they abide by the strictest code of conduct this side of a Richmond cotillion.

You can call this as stuffy as Roger Sterling’s three-piece suits, as fussy as Pete Campbell’s tie clips, but there’s a reason why official Mad Men collections and clearly Mad Men-inspired designs are showing up in shopping malls across the country.  You can regret how Augusta National’s concern for aesthetic veers hard right into the unfortunate (all caddies, each of whom is a highly paid professional, must wear matching white jumpsuits and green Masters caps during the tournament), while appreciating the appeal of its effect.

The particular draw of the Masters and Augusta National isn’t always aspirational or exclusionary in nature and essence.  The draw is not some idea of an older, more hierarchical civilization, but an old civility, in which attention is paid to the little things, to appearances, and through which all – not just old, rich, white men – inherently are shown respect.  For some of us, the four days of the Masters isn’t a trip back to the “good old days” of discrimination and patriarchy; it’s a respite from the hollow, soul-leeching, offensive postmodernity of Washington Road.

1 In all fairness to Nantz, have you seen the course at Augusta National?  I mean, damn, y’all.
2 Which really are delicious, by the way.
3 What’s especially funny about these morons is that they never quite grasp that in that past they long for, they and theirs were kept firmly in their place, as well.  Idiots.
4 I don’t know that “postwar” America is what Augusta National’s going for.  If it is, it’s for a version of postwar America that was itself going for an imagined version of pre-Depression, post-Reconstruction America that saw the rise of the first and second of the four New Souths, in which textile and tobacco barons, bankers, and professional men were riding the crest of a new prosperity (Augusta National opened in 1933).  That era was, in many of its ways, going for the look and feel and codes of an imagined antebellum culture of moonlight and magnolias and mint juleps, which was itself – insofar as it ever existed at all – going for what it knew of the earlier plantation culture of the Low Country and the Virginia Tidewater, which was in turn trying to replicate a late-medieval European society that never really was, in the first place.  Thank you for entering the Dixie Babble Hall of Mirrors; we hope you enjoyed your trip.

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On the eve of a Final Four with no NC team playing (long sigh), it’s good to know that fans in a border state can act every bit as dumb and rednecky as those of us further south.

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