Despite the seeming endless number of deficiencies the South can lay claim too, there have always been two aspects which have set the South apart: writers and football.
Southern writers, when they are good, are very, very good. From Tennessee Williams to William Faulkner to Erskine Caldwell, Southern writers tap into a part of the human equation at a singular depth of understanding, an ability to strip away illusions and expose the raw nerve of life. There is a subline identification of excellence in the Southern Writer, but it is a real one.
And football—especially college football—below the Mason-Dixon Line has the same identification.
Many forget that for years the NFL had no presence in the southern states. The nearest team was the Washington Redskins, which meant little to the people of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Texas entered the game with the Dallas Cowboys, but even Texas did not seem the South.
The only time professional football attracted the attention of the southern fan was when a hero from the home school played on that far and distant team. Minnesota could have been located between Denmark and Norway for all Georgia fans cared, until Frank Tarkenton was drafted by the Vikings. And when Joe Namath went to New York, the Jets became a southern team.
It is college football that causes the blood to rise.
This is not to suggest college football isn’t important and played well in other parts of the country, it most certainly is. There are universities with passionate fan bases and long legacies of winning all over the country, but college football in the south holds a place beyond the winning and losing of a game.
College football offered a reason to celebrate and have pride in a region that for decades had little cause to celebrate or have pride. The deficiencies of the southern states were well known and chronicled—lagging school systems, economic malaise, unskilled labor toiling for low wages, and segregation, the lingering sickness that refuses to die. These problems existed elsewhere, but the South was the poster boy for all the wrongs of society.
But on a fall Saturday afternoon, southerners could look at the rest of the country and say: we’re as good as anyone; our young men are as good as your young men, and, perhaps, for a couple of hours, even better.
Alabama was the first team from the Deep South to go to the Rose Bowl, going 3-0-1 from 1926-1938, followed by Tennessee and Georgia.
There were fans that could not read or write or find Athens, Georgia or Tuscaloosa, Alabama on a map, but could tell you who the backup left tackle was. The fans shared a sense of accomplishment when their team won.
College football ultimately became an ally in the fight against segregation. Although it took a while, some say perhaps longer than it should, the negative images pouring from the south diminished the star that was college football. In 1966, Alabama was left hanging at the box-office, losing a national championship not because they were not the best team in the country—they were—but because of their very name and visions of Birmingham.
By 1972 Alabama had black players all over the field, including an All-American and team captain. Other southern schools followed suit and even the most narrow minded fan could not begrudge an opportunity to a young Black man if that was the guy who helped Tennessee beat Alabama or Ole Miss defeat LSU. Soon all that mattered was the color of the jersey, not the color of the player wearing it.
The passion that is college football in the South goes beyond the field of play, and there are times those passions cross the line. The dislike between fan bases is an honest one, but seldom becomes mean spirited or vicious. The village idiot Alabama fan that poisoned the grand old oak trees on the Auburn campus is an example of how sick and twisted that passion can become, but these cases are the exception rather than the rule.
College football has long left the status of sport and is now a big business, generating millions of dollars in revenue. Television contracts dictate the time games will be played and the NCAA—one of the most incompetent if not corrupt organizations in the history of the world—rakes in cash with both hands while allegedly looking out for the welfare of the game and student-athletes, neither of which it actually does.
Despite the negatives and mercenary aspects, college football is still a glorious spectacle, and below the Mason-Dixon Line it is King of Sports.
For all the glitz and glamour, college football is still young men pitting themselves against each other in a physical contest. It is still fans, face painted, and living and dying with each completed pass or missed tackle. And after a win, it is the right to tell others “my team won,” when that person has never set foot near the campus of his favorite school.
College football is special throughout the country, but in the South it holds a piece of the soul. Players who have long left the field, and in many case this Earth, are still held in reverence. Legendary coaches with names like General, Shug, and Bear are icons with generations of children being named after them.
College football in the South starts in February, with nervous fans awaiting word of what school a 5-Star running back is considering, and ends in January with bowl games.
Excessive? Occasionally. Given unreasonable importance? Sometimes. But in the South college football is more than a game; it is a string that has run through decades of time and woven into the fabric of what is the soul of the people of an entire region. It is a touchstone of life, and embrace of the game and passion for a university is handed down through generations.
The success of all teams ebb and flow with time, but southern college football will forever be a constant, a tangible marker of achievement and pride, even when the most ardent fan must push his cap back and say: wait until next year. The business of college athletic will always be sour milk, but on a glorious autum afternoon, win or lose, college football puts an entire region on its back and lifts it in celebration.