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William Faulkner once wrote about a fictional former University of Mississippi running back who'd spent Saturdays carrying "a trivial contemptible obloid across fleeing and meaningless white lines." This is, shall we say, a sentiment not widely shared in the South, where the chalk outlines of college gridirons carry an immensity of meaning that fans elsewhere can scarcely comprehend.
Faulkner spent most of his writing life in Oxford, Miss., in a home now owned by the university, where these days the tale of a Mississippian who tweeted Bible verses and dialed an escort service is a plot twist of Faulknerian scale. The rise and fall of Hugh Freeze remains the talk of the Southeastern Conference as another football season beckons with its crucible of regional rivalries.
Freeze resigned as football coach at Ole Miss — a post more prominent (and more highly paid) than governor — last month after university officials found what they delicately termed a "pattern of personal misconduct." Critics quickly castigated him as a holier-than-thou charlatan. Charles Reagan Wilson, editor of the multivolume New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, offers a more charitable view.
"Freeze constantly, as much or more than other college coaches, played on that religiosity," Wilson tells USA TODAY Sports. "He used it in recruiting and in talking to parents of potential recruits. It's authentic. He believes it. I don't think it's hypocrisy. I just think his failings are the temptations of the flesh — and that sort of thing is also well known in the South."
College football in the Bible Belt is so often called a religion as to be a cliché, though it offers the distinct advantage of being true.
"Religion is what people invest ultimate meaning in," says Wilson, professor emeritus of history and Southern studies at Ole Miss. And within the borders of the SEC, multitudinous football fans invest fevered faith in their favored schools, whether they attended them or not.
In Georgia, football is so much an article of faith that the state legislature passed an amendment to an economic development bill this year that allows athletics departments to take up to 90 days to respond to public records requests, obliterating the old rule of three days. Georgia coach Kirby Smart favored the change, dubbed Kirby's Law, though Smart told a local radio station he had little to do with it.
State Representative Earl Ehrhart told an Atlanta TV station that "the pure and only intention" was to keep outsiders from finding out "who our schools are recruiting," though such information is often freely found on recruiting websites.
Harvey H. Jackson III, eminent scholar in history at Jacksonville (Ala.) State, allows that football coaches lobbying legislatures might seem unseemly. "But what's wrong with that?" he says, laughing. "He made a request, and they thought it was important, and they acted on it. On the other hand, they might not have any money to build a road."
Winning brings spoils
Faulkner famously wrote that the past is never dead — it's not even past. And so it is with football in the South, where the Civil War is never over.
Jackson says bitter defeats at Gettysburg, Pa., (on the road) and Vicksburg, Miss., (at home) echo still in the Southern imagination. College football has long been the region's way of proving its mettle on a national stage.
"The Civil War analogy is a good one," Jackson says. "It may be overworked a lot of times, but, when in doubt, we can always trot it out."
SEC teams had won eight of the last 10 national championships going into January's title rematch between Alabama and Clemson. The Atlantic Coast Conference club won this time, but circumstances offered slight solace: Tigers coach Dabo Swinney is an Alabama native who played for the Crimson Tide — and Clemson is in South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Newspapers burst with Civil War metaphors when Alabama played Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl, even though heavily favored Washington was from the Northwest, not the North. Washington led 12-0 at halftime, but a rising Tide rallied and won 20-19. Southerners struck up brass bands as the team's train chugged through small towns on its triumphal journey back to Tuscaloosa, as if football could somehow atone for bitter defeat, deep poverty and the self-inflicted wounds of Jim Crow.
"Even fans of Georgia and Mississippi were rooting for Alabama," Jackson says. "It was a moment of cultural drama."
Bear Bryant would take this legacy decades later and build on it, peering imperiously from under his low-slung houndstooth hat.
"The University of Alabama has what they call the pickup truck alumni, who have never set foot on the campus," Jackson says. "That's because of Bear Bryant. He won games. He took his skinny-legged boys and played those big, old Midwestern schools and whupped them. It made Alabamans proud. Same at the University of Georgia, when Vince Dooley was there and Herschel Walker was running up and down the field. It transcended things that usually divided the South."
Southern California brought an integrated team to Birmingham in 1970 and beat an all-white Alabama team 42-21. Sam "Bam" Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. The myth surrounding that game suggests it was the catalyst toward Bryant welcoming African-American recruits — according to legend, a Crimson Tide assistant said Cunningham had done more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. had done in 20 years — even if the truth was not quite as dramatically pat.
"Bear Bryant grew up hardscrabble on a farm in the older, poorer rural South, yet he would be part of that transition to the modern South," Wilson says. "He won in the mid-20th century, when the South still had a vivid memory of the war and the poverty that settled in after the war. He also represented that transition out of the old racial ways of segregation."
Jackson says the integration that came late to Southern college football helped bring it more broadly to other facets of Southern life.
"When Southerners put winning ahead of segregation, segregation was dead," Jackson says. "Football has made the South a better place, even if we go around poisoning trees now and then."
Light in August, one of Faulkner's novels, is not a reference to these last weeks of training camp twilight, when anticipation of another floodlit football season rises like the summer heat.
George C. Rable, professor emeritus of history at Alabama, marvels at the intensity of that interest in the South. He grew up in Ohio steeped in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. "But once I moved down here," he says, "I found out what real rivalries are."
Ohio State-Michigan is hugely important, but Ohio has the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals and Michigan has the Detroit Lions. The state of Alabama has no NFL teams — or, for that matter, teams from any major league — and that ratchets up the enormity of Alabama vs. Auburn to something akin to blood sport.
"With the exception of the two (NASCAR) race weekends at Talladega, college football at Alabama and Auburn are our major league franchises, if you will," says Eli Gold, since 1988 the voice of Alabama football, a gig he cherishes like a piece of fine crystal.
Gold likes to say he's a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, N.Y., with no athletic talent who's in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. He grew up a New York Yankees fan in an age in which college football in New York meant Columbia University, often an Ivy League doormat.
"When I first moved down here, I didn't get it," he says. "I have since learned."
New Yorkers don't generally greet one another with "Go Yanks," but Gold found Tuscaloosa to be a place where "Roll Tide" was a year-round salutation, the way people in other places say hello or goodbye.
"It's in the DNA," says Jackson, who has graduate degrees from Alabama and Georgia but always roots for Auburn, where his father went.
"I don't get excited about Auburn baseball," he says. "If the basketball team does well, that's nice. But those are just things that go on between football seasons."
This is the sort of fervor that makes Alabama coach Nick Saban a more important figure in the state than the governor, by Rable's reckoning.
"It's not even close," he says. "You don't see statues of Alabama governors."
Statues of each of the five coaches who have won national championships at Alabama stand on a plaza outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, including Saban, Bryant and Wallace Wade, who won that 1926 Rose Bowl. And no one would dare ask that those statues come down, as sometimes happens with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson memorials.
"I think football coaches are like the old Confederate generals of the 19th century — figures who sum up the local identity," Wilson says. "After the Civil War, the South was obsessed with the past. Confederate generals had a sort of glamour about them, even in defeat. They were made into cultural heroes who symbolized virtue and honor.
"And I think coaches symbolize a lot of the virtues of the contemporary South. They are charismatic. They symbolize success on the national stage. Nick Saban is an inheritor of all this. He is a successful businessman. The old, agrarian South is no more. The South is a place of business, and football coaches represent that — CEOs in a region that now admires businesspeople as cultural heroes."
The generals lost. Coaches don't get statues unless they win. And, as it happens, Faulkner, too, has a statue, near Oxford City Hall.
There's a passage in his 1940 novel The Hamlet that captures college football's raging, raw, evocative appeal. It is about that ex-Ole Miss running back who, though he had played with contempt for the game, found in its fleeting moments of action that "he lived, fiercely free — the spurning earth, the shocks, the hard breathing and the grasping hands, the speed, the rocking roar of massed stands."
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