When the flagship universities of the state of Alabama meet to do battle on the gridiron Saturday (November 30, 2013) the stakes will be huge. If the top-ranked University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide wins, it will secure a place in the SEC Championship game, and cement its number one ranking in the BCS championship polls; a victory in the SEC Championship game would all but guarantee the Tide a third straight trip to the BCS Championship game. If fourth-ranked Auburn University’s Tigers win, it will have dethroned its hated cross-state rival’s reign as BCS Champion, while gaining a trip to the SEC Championship game and a remote shot (i.e., needing a little help) at playing in the BCS Championship.
To recall an Auburn-Alabama matchup as fraught with championship implications would require going all the way back to 1971, when a third-ranked and unbeaten Alabama team faced a fifth-ranked and unbeaten Auburn squad to decide the SEC championship and to determine who got to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the Associated Press national championship. Alabama won that Iron Bowl, but was walloped by Nebraska. Auburn followed its loss in the season finale with a loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. This year’s game, for all the hype, will likely yield something of the same result. It’s likely that neither team would get past Florida State or Ohio State (unless the former’s phenom-freshman quarterback, Jameis Winston, gets inconveniently arrested on a year-old sexual battery charge just before the BCS game), two unbeaten teams (presently second and third in BCS rankings) that are grinding through their opponents like sausage makers grind through pig parts.
The Auburn-Alabama rivalry is deep and bitter, at least in part because the game is about so much more to Alabamians than just football. For native Alabamians, immersed in their xenophobic and insular culture, the game is a metaphor for their whole world view and philosophy of existence. The game’s importance arises from a cultural viewpoint that long preceded the arrival of college football. The sentiments animating this epic rivalry can be retraced in an unbroken, if quite squiggly and fuzzy line, all the way back to the Civil War era, and really, even well before then, back to the Irish/Scots/English cultures from which Alabama’s somewhat unique culture was derived.
First, a bit of Alabama history and geography. When the colonies parted ways with England, Alabama lay on the western colonial frontier. The southwestern flank of the Appalachian mountain range, the range forming the colonial frontier’s western edge, dips into Alabama on a line running northeast to southwest. The range slowly peters out upon reaching the middle of the state, roughly in the vicinity of Montgomery, and reaches about two-thirds of the way across, east to west, into the vicinity of Tuscaloosa. This Alabama remnant of the Appalachians was, like the whole of the range, ill-suited to plantation agriculture (excepting the portion comprising the Tennessee River Valley), but was rich in minerals, so much so, that it became colloquially known during Alabama’s settlement and development as the “mineral region”.
Thus there developed at least two distinct geographies; two distinct regions determined by geology and the possible means of exploiting it, within the territory that gained statehood as Alabama in 1819. The roughly southern half of the state, partitioned from the northern half by the swath bordering the spent Appalachians that was called the ‘Black Belt’ for its deep, rich, black soil (not for the skin color of the slaves working it), proved amenable to plantation agriculture, i.e., to imported European feudalism, except with slaves instead of serfs. The northern half of the state, particularly including the mineral region, made its money any way it could, a little by exploiting the area’s mineral wealth, but mainly at the time through subsistence agriculture. It had very little in the way of vast land and slave owning plantations.
By the time of the Civil War, the mineral region had only just begun to realize its potential. It was poorer than the rich, plantation South, but the poverty was more equally distributed than in the hierarchical South. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the North and South of Alabama had its own Mason-Dixon Line, which roughly followed the northern edge of the Black Belt and the concomitant southern boundary of the Appalachians. As an incipient mining and manufacturing economy, the northern mineral region had more in common with the rapidly industrializing Union than with the Confederacy. One county in the mineral region, Winston County in the west-central part of the region, even voted to secede from the state when the state voted to secede from the Union. Though the reasons for splitting away were similar, the partition of Alabama between north and south never happened as it had in the Carolinas and Virginia. Alabama’s northern half was more similar to West Virginia and North Carolina than it was to its own southern half; the southern half more similar to South Carolina and Virginia than to the north.
The backcountry culture brought to Alabama with its Scots and Irish and English settlers was distinctively Borderlands according to David Hackett Fischer, author of Albion’s Seed, a magnificent historical survey of the British folkways imported into fledgling America. Here he describes the Borderlands culture as it was imported to the backcountry:
The people of the southern highlands would become famous in the nineteenth century for the intensity of their xenophobia, and also for the violence of its expression. In the early nineteenth century, they tended to detest great planters and abolitionists in equal measure. During the Civil War some fought against both sides. In the early twentieth century they would become intensely negrophobic and anti-Semitic. In our own time, they are furiously hostile to both communists and capitalists. The people of the southern highlands have been remarkably even-handed in their antipathies—which they have applied to all strangers without regard to race, religion or nationality…
…Another symptom of this attitude was a strong mood of cultural conservatism… ‘We never let go of a belief once fixed in our minds,’ wrote an Appalachian woman with an air of pride.
The Borderland area between Scotland and England, in some measure extending to Northern Ireland, had long been in contentious dispute. The people there were far removed from the centers of power in London and Edinburgh, but they bore the brunt of the ceaseless conflicts between the feuding monarchies. The land was hilly and hard scrabble. The conditions, social and environmental, made virtues out of independence, combativeness and tribalism. Fealty to the family, clan and tribe trumped all other considerations. It was this culture from which the state’s independent streak, clannishness and mistrust of outside authorities arose, and though it was more prevalent in the northern sections of the state than in the south, where a more genteel feudalism obtained, it suffused the state, tying it together on its long north-south axis.
It was the Borderlands’ culture, imported to the state through its earliest settlers, which would later yield legions for Civil War slaughter for a cause almost none of the participants could claim was theirs. And it is the Borderlands’ culture that forms the foundation for the bitterness of the Auburn-Alabama football rivalry. Football is essentially mock hand to hand combat done by teams of warriors, making it the perfect metaphorical expression of the legacy of the Alabama backcountry by way of the Scotch/English Borderlands. Both teams inherited the legacy. It is riven through Alabama culture, both in the mineral north and agricultural south. It is why the fierceness of the rivalry forced its cancellation for forty years (1907-1948).
The teams part ways along the fault lines of the mineral north and agricultural south in the perspectives from which they view the world. To the mineral north’s way of thinking, capably represented by Alabama’s football team and first exposited by Enlightenment philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza, Bacon, Locke and Hume, reason is the guiding light to truth. The mineral north owes its world view to the Age of Reason that spawned the Industrial Revolution, which it internalized as it rushed headlong into exploiting its mineral wealth through industrialization after the Civil War.
The agricultural south’s way of thinking, as represented by the Auburn Tigers, is much like that of the Old Confederacy, taking a more Romantic, nostalgic view of things. It is resistance to reason for all the dehumanizing aspects of its excesses. It romanticizes a noble and chivalrous past, glossing over the bits requiring slavery for its expression. It is spending the last shards of a luxuriously appointed past to wallow in emotion, the most extreme and expensive luxury of all. In its post-Enlightenment expression, it was Rousseau and Kant and Hegel and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. It believes that belief, true to the woman quoted by Fischer, animates all of human experience. It believes that belief determines truth; that the depth of belief is the proper measure of its veracity. Auburn’s world view is a suicide charge at Gettysburg, undertaken just for the proof that it provides for the depth of commitment with which the belief in the South’s cause was held.
Alabama’s empirical, materialistic perspective has found its fullest expression in its present coach, Nick Saban, through his “Process”. The Process is simply this: Break down every task of every individual on the team into discrete steps and repetitively train on those tasks, and then train repetitively on deciding which task is appropriate for the circumstances, determined by appropriate environmental cues. Teach the players to worry only about their assigned tasks. The Process is the idea that each individual can, by ensuring they are constantly and maniacally devoted to the superlative completion of their assigned tasks, help the team to achieve the ultimate outcome desired of the machine–a victory on the field. This is not so radical. It basically turns football into an assembly line, and one that operates under the close supervision of a Frederick Winslow Taylor acolyte. Whether Saban or the Alabama fans want to believe it, Saban is more scientific manager than inspirational football coach. But Saban’s Process fits the Alabama psyche perfectly, where building a winning system is all that matters, much in the same vein that designing and running a blast furnace efficiently might have yielded existential success for a mineral pioneer a sesquicentennial ago. But the Process takes a lot of the fun out of the game. Henry Ford won at the Process long before Saban, and now we all sit in cube farms and on assembly lines cursing his success. If football is reckoned as an entertainment that should be an escape from the grinding processes enslaving us, then Saban has taken a bit of the joy out of life for football fans (and it’s suspected, also for the players).
Auburn has no similar process. Its success or failure on the field is fueled by emotion. If Alabama is the Process, Auburn is the Passion. Auburn operates on the belief that victory will come to the team if its heart is in the right place, individually and collectively. To be sure, Auburn does not ignore the nuts and bolts of constructing a competitive football team. But it puts more emphasis on individual human agency; on the people leading the team (shades of Nietzsche’s Superman), either the guys on the sideline (Shug Jordan, Terry Bowden, Gus Malzahn, et al), or the guys actually on the field (Pat Sullivan, Bo Jackson, Cam Newton, et al). Auburn attributes victories to the goodness of its heart, whereas Alabama attributes victories to the system it has designed for gaining them.
If it can be imagined that the Civil War was at least partly animated in the hearts of those who fought it by the raging conflict in the Westen mind between reason and romanticism; between the heart that sought bucolic pastures and fields, and the head that saw beauty in the money generated by factories and machines; between an organization of economic life that placed little value on the individual, and one that held fast to the primacy of individual agency (at least so far as the agent was a plantation owner); between the industrial and agricultural means of organizing the economy of life, then this 2013 clash between Auburn and Alabama’s football teams is a perfect metaphor. It is a Civil War Reenactment.
Auburn comes to the game with the chance to play for the BCS championship in the most improbable manner, almost mystical in its resurrection from the dead last season. It makes no reasonable sense that essentially the same team that last year could not win a solitary SEC game is now in position to win it all, including not least, the SEC championship, but also, possibly, the BCS championship. And that’s exactly how Auburn likes it. It relishes in proving people wrong; in ushering what should be a losing cause instead to victory. Auburn is the Confederate Army at Gettysburg, but with the confidence that an otherwise suicidal frontal assault on the strength of its enemy’s defenses will instead turn the tide in its favor (no pun intended).
Alabama’s season, this year’s like last, and that one like the year before, has been Sherman’s march to the sea, systemically destroying anyone and anything in its path (excepting Texas A & M last year and LSU the year before, but no metaphor is perfect). Alabama’s Process hasn’t allowed Auburn to score a single point since the last resurrection of Auburn’s Romantic ideal in its 2010 BCS championship season. In this telling, Auburn is Nathan Bedford Forrest to Alabama’s plodding Ulysses S Grant. It has occasionally swooped in, harassing and impeding and causing general consternation to Grant’s army, every now and then even stealing substantial and sustained victories, but inevitably Grant keeps marching on, if with a vigilant and wary eye for Forrest’s resurgence.
There’s no telling how the battle will turn out this time. This Alabama team is playing for its own slice of history—to be the first team since Minnesota over three score ago to win three national championships in a row. This Auburn team is playing for the opportunity to again knock Alabama off its lofty perch, on the way to proving the veracity of its belief that its cause was ever and always just and proper and true. Alabama rarely loses when a championship is on the line. Auburn rarely loses when winning will prove the superiority of its virtue.
Will it be the Process, or the Passion? We’ll know on Saturday. But at least watching the battle unfold won’t mean assuming the danger of getting bloodied in the ensuing melee or its aftermath, as happened to the spectators decamped from Washington DC to watch the Civil War’s first major battle at Bull Run. Thankfully, this is a Civil War reenactment, not the real thing.
But even as metaphor, it ought to be a battle for the ages.