If you grew up in Alabama like I did, it was an interesting day Saturday for college football in the Southeastern Conference. The Crimson Tide got rolled by a bunch of gamey cocks from South Carolina. Nick Saban proved he’s no Bear Bryant, as he couldn’t beat Superior (SC coach Steve Spurrier)with his boys, even though nobody thinks for a minute that Superior’s boys were superior to Saban’s. The vaunted “Process” got gummed up somewhere between Tuscaloosa and Columbia it seems. Thankfully, Alabama’s quarterback is not Tim Tebow, and so didn’t cry at the first loss he’d suffered as a starter since he was in diapers. Neither did we get the tearful pledge that he would make this right, and that it was his fault, and all that baloney. Greg McElroy ain’t got the athletic ability of Tim Tebow, but he’s a damn sight more of a man. Anybody over the age of twelve that cries over losing a football game, like Tebow did at least twice in his career (most recently, after the SEC championship game last year) just doesn’t get how precious little the God whose words were forever referenced on his face cares about whether the Florida Gators and Tim Tebow wins or loses.
Auburn, realizing a loss would be no big deal back home, since the team their fans like to see lose more than they like to see Auburn win (i.e., Alabama), had already lost. It seems the news didn’t arrive until halftime of what should have been a blow-out victory at Kentucky. So the Tigers wallered around and did everything they could to give the game to Kentucky during the second half, until their last possession and they managed a last-second field goal to break the tie and post the victory. The new Auburn rallying cry of “War Cam Eagle” didn’t much help their juco-transfer phenom of a quarterback, Cam Newton, during a plodding and unproductive second half when they got outscored 17-6. By Kentucky.
College football is a religion down here, or at least it is for the natives. The immigrants (i.e., folks from other states), though they’re mainly from Ohio and Michigan–what with the union-busting foreign car plants down here humming along–marvel at the ferocity with which college football is worshiped, even coming from college football hotbeds themselves. Natives here are forced to choose at the earliest age of comprehension which will be their team–Alabama or Auburn. And then are expected to stay loyal to the bitter end. Which, of course, will be duly noted in their obituaries.
I chose at the relatively advanced age of eight to worship at the Auburn football altar. But it was only because the only kid in the neighborhood to play with was an Auburn fan. We had just moved back to Alabama after a two-year stint at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where my dad was stationed when he got drafted during Vietnam. When the kid was sizing me up for playmate material, the first thing he asked me was, “Who you fer, Alabama or Auburn?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I had never heard of Auburn, but I knew I lived in Alabama, so I said, “Alabama.” He said, “Awshit, why you want to be fer dem?” So I said, “Okay, I’m for Auburn.” And that was that. I was officially an Auburn fan. During the seventies. When Auburn’s coach was this pencil-necked geek named Doug Barfield, and Alabama beat ’em nine years in a row. Man, could I pick ’em. Then I went to college at Alabama. But I wasn’t playing football for the Tide–my career ended with the last game in high school–so I stayed an Auburn fan, at least secretly. Then I joined the Army and left Alabama, and start pulling for the Tide, since I did go to school there and all, and I didn’t have to personally put up with the stupid and snotty Alabama fans anymore. Then I went to law school at Texas and Alabama won the mythical national championship my freshlaw year. It was the one and only happiness I’ve ever really enjoyed rooting for either team. Then they pushed my hero coach, Gene Stallings, out the door, and suffered a succession of coaching incompetents, until I really just gave up and didn’t root for anyone. I still loved the game, but why bother pulling for Alabama when they couldn’t even beat Kentucky? After I moved back to Alabama in the mid-nineties, they were awful most of the next decade or so, with a few anomalous flashes of brilliance, like the 2000 SEC championship. But I don’t want my obituary to list me as a loyal Alabama fan. I don’t think it would get me out of purgatory any quicker, one way or the other.
Then Alabama hired Saban. I’ll never forget the day he arrived in Tuscaloosa after proving again that collegiate coaching skills don’t often count for much in the NFL. There was a middle-aged guy standing in his path with his shirt collar pulled down over his breast, asking Saban to sign his chest. Whew. These people really are nuts. Saban went 6-6 his first year, losing to Louisiana-Monroe along the way. We went to the bowl game in Shreveport after the season in order to show my son where he was born. Passing through Monroe (where he was born), which is along I-20 on the way to Shreveport from Birmingham, we were greeted by a sign put up by some local Louisiana-Monroe supporters. It had the score of their victory over Bama, with a snide, “Roll Tide Roll” at the bottom. My son took a picture he treasures to this day.
Though Saban hadn’t really done anything yet, at the start of the 2008 season, people started putting little stickers on the back windshields of their SUV’s that said “S”, and then underneath, “The Coach”, like those “W” stickers they had just scraped off. Then Alabama ran the tables, except for Florida at the SEC championship game, and then Utah in the bowl game. I didn’t see anyone cry after the loss to Florida. The finally, the following year, the mythical national championship returned to the Capstone as the Tide rolled with a perfect season, ending with a victory over my other alma mater (Texas). But I didn’t much care one way or another. I was thick in the mix of dealing with my son’s second transplant. I do remember telling someone along about October, before my son’s transplant in November, that Alabama would win the MNC and my son would be fine. But really, football was just a diversion that helped pass the days and weeks as he teetered between life and death. It happened I was right on both predictions. Which is sort of funny. I don’t often do well with short-range predictions. Just long-term, big-picture type things. I can usually sense which way the wind’s blowing, but not how fast the storm will arrive. That time, I nailed it. Good for me. And my son. Roll TC’s kid!
It’s hard to say what Alabama might do the rest of the season. Now that they’ve lost, they might just mail it in the rest of the way, and lose another two or three. Maybe even to Auburn. In Tuscaloosa, again. If they do, get ready for the Bama nation to start grumbling that Saban’s an imperfect God that perhaps should never have been worshiped like the Bear, and you know, he doesn’t even have any cousins, never mind he or his immediate family members, that went to Alabama. And he never even met Bear. The A-Club boys that run the joint (Bear’s lettermen) will keep him on a short lease if the Tide starts not winning. And then Saban will leave for another place that has equally rabid and stupid fans, like Notre Dame. And he’ll apply his “Process” to make them into champions again. But for me, “S” The Coach is Gene Stallings. Who, by the way, had as many MNC’s as Saban does after his first three years. Even without a “Process” and psychologists and motivational gurus.
*MNC–Mythical National Championship. I say MNC because until there is a legitimate playoff system that doesn’t exclude teams because they don’t come from a favored conference (i.e., a conference with a good television draw), there is no national champion in college football, except in what used to be called Division II and III.