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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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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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