Thanksgiving weekend, 2013
At the risk of alienating my readers who are Alabama fans, here’s the YouTube clip of the final play of the 2013 Iron Bowl. Enjoy, curse, un-friend me, whatever. Just realize that I’ve lost more heartbreakers than you.
The irony of all this, and what leads to an intensified sense of Schadenfreude, is the fact that Alabama and Auburn were tied with seconds to go in the game and poised to go into overtime, where Alabama’s potent offense would have an advantage. Alabama had the ball, but the clock ran out of time as an Alabama player was pushed out of bounds. Nick Saban, the Alabama coach, challenged the ruling on the field, saying his player crossed the sideline with time left. Saban won the challenge, and Alabama was given the ball and one second. Saban decided to attempt a fifty-seven yard field goal that would propel them undefeated into the Southeastern Conference championship game, and likely into the national title game as well. The kick went wide right, an Auburn defensive back caught the ball in the back of the end zone, and he ran it back, tiptoeing up the sideline before cutting back to the middle of the field, 109 yards for a touchdown.
Auburn went on to win the SEC championship game, but they lost the national championship to Florida State last night. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse Five: “so it goes.”
In the 1980s I listened to a weekly radio broadcast called “Leonard’s Losers.” The show had begun in the 1950s, voiced by Leonard Postero, who created the fictional persona Leonard Postosties (like the popular cereal). Postosties was a good ole southern boy who predicted the “loser” of weekly college football games. He referred to the various schools with comedic references to their mascot, so that Alabama, whose mascot was an elephant, became the “pachyderms,” and the Georgia Bulldogs were the “red clay hounds.”
For most of my life, the teams I have identified with were perennial Leonard’s Losers.
I’m not sure that there’s a rational explanation for where and how my football allegiances develop. All I can really say is that I’m a product of many influences that synthesize into a complex compound that varies in stability from day to day. On some days that compound, my football identity, is as stable and predictable as anthracite, the purest form of coal. On other days it’s as volatile and unpredictable at tri-nitro-toluene, or TNT: dynamite.
I am a product of the South, born in Alabama, raised in Mississippi, where the defeated nation mindset of the Reconstruction Period dominated the region in the 1960s, one hundred years after the Civil War, and arguably, still drives the value system today. I grew up distrusting Yankees, seeing the Civil War as a noble homeland defense against Northern aggressors, advocating (ignorantly, blindly, fearfully) that slavery was a benign and grossly misrepresented condition, and convinced that God created the South on the eighth day of Creation and everything else was an afterbirth. I carried a chip on my shoulder the size of a cinderblock, stood for “Dixie,” and sang along with Charlie Daniels when he told me to “Be proud [I’m] a Rebel ‘cause the South’s gonna do it again.”
I believe none of those things now. In fact, it bothers me to think that I was ever so naive, or stupid.
But though I don’t self-identify as a Southerner any longer, for reasons beyond the scope of this piece, I still believe that the Southeastern Conference is the toughest football conference in the country, where each each school is a Tribute in an annual ritual not unlike the Hunger Games.
Columnist, and Alabaman, Rick Bragg, in an article in ESPN the Magazine, described the southern attitude about football this way:
And we believe — well, maybe all but the Unitarians — that God himself favors our football teams. On Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, our coaches, some of them blasphemers and backsliders and not exactly praying men the other six days of the week, tell their players to hit a knee and ask his favor at the same exact instant the other team is also asking his favor, which I have always taken to mean that God, all things being equal, favors the team with the surest holder on long field goals.
It is gospel — the gospel according to Bear. After a rare Alabama loss in the Bryant era, Bear’s sidekick on his weekly television show told him: “The Lord just wasn’t with us, Coach.”
“The Lord,” growled Bryant, “expects you to block and tackle.”
When my wife and I were dating, she memorized the twelve teams (back then) in the Southeastern Conference, the towns where the colleges were located, and which conference division the teams fell into. I think she honestly wanted to know why I reacted to football scores scrolling across the television screen the way I did. Why, for instance, should I care who won the Kentucky/Louisville game, since neither team is really relevant in the greater scheme of the football world? In general, the hierarchy ran something like this:
• Mississippi State, my undergraduate alma mater, over anyone else. A somewhat strange choice, since I never cheered for Mississippi State before attending college there. I had always been an Ole Miss fan, if I had to be for anyone.
• Any Mississippi school over any other school. This even applied to the University of Southern Mississippi, a school I had barely heard of until I went to grad school there. In Mississippi, there are really only two schools, and though its enrollment is much higher, and it’s the only major university in the southern half of the state, USM is pretty much an afterthought to most Mississippians. It’s not a conference school. Interestingly, Ole Miss and Mississippi State stopped playing Southern Miss in the 1990s, because they didn’t want to play tough teams on their non-conference schedule.
• In non-conference play, any SEC school over a non SEC school.
• Within conference play, it gets tricky, but the general rule of thumb goes to favor a land –grant institution (that is, an agricultural/forestry/engineering school) over an institution that focuses on the traditional liberal arts education. This would put Mississippi State and Auburn ahead of Ole Miss and Alabama. I won’t break it down further, since Mississippi and Alabama are the only states with significant in-state SEC rivalries. But the rankings can extend to other states, which explains why I pulled for Colorado State over Colorado all the years we lived there. This is largely a class issue for me, having grown up solidly working class. My brother and I were part of the first generation in our family to even attend college, much less graduate. Our parents and their siblings had middle school to high school educations, and they worked at blue-collar jobs their whole lives. I associated schools like Ole Miss and Alabama with doctors, lawyers, politicians, fraternities and sororities—rich people, people that added weight to the chip I carried on my shoulder, whereas farmers, foresters, and to a lesser extent engineers were down to earth, working class folk. Ironically, as a professor of English and an advocate of the liberal arts curriculum, I still favor Ag schools over the schools with law and medical schools.
• Outside of conference play, any Southern school over any other school. Naturally, though this can vary according to individual whim. For example, I’d probably pull for Colorado State over Clemson, everything else being equal. Rocky Mountain State schools get a special consideration.
• All other things being equal, any underdog over a heavily favored team. Schadenfreude.
• Any school playing Notre Dame. This is not a Catholic prejudice, a prejudice I’ve never understood. My father and half my family were Catholic, and I like the current Pope. Generally, I tend to hate universally adored teams, the favorites, like Notre Dame, the New York Yankees, and the Dallas Cowboys. (I used to like the Atlanta Braves before they were good, back when they were lovable losers and you could watch every game on Ted Turner’s cable station when nothing else was on. Then they began to win and became “America’s Team,” which automatically turned me off.) Again, this goes back to class. I don’t like the favorites. I don’t like teams that can outspend other teams on talent (essentially buying championships), or ones that can command television broadcasts on major networks, as Notre Dame did during the 90s. As for the Cowboys, I’ve never liked Texans’ outsized egos, or jackass owners like Jerry Jones. When a millionaire who runs a football team like a little boy trading bubble gum cards loses, I get an immense surge of pleasure.
There have been other reasons I favor one team over another. I’ve picked entire NCAA basketball tournament brackets by guessing which team mascot could take the other team’s mascot. It leads to some interesting questions, like how would a badger do against a wolverine, and what exactly is a Billiken (University of Saint Louis)? How would a buckeye (a nut) fare against a banana slug? I always go with the North Carolina Wolf Pack and the New Mexico Lobos, because they practice teamwork and because the wolf is one of my spirit animals, as is the coyote (go Cuyamaca College) and the roadrunner (go Metropolitan State University of Denver).
Sometimes I dislike teams and pull against them because I just don’t like some people. This seems to run deeper than Schadenfreude, beyond taking pleasure in another’s misfortune, and tends more towards malicious pleasure. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of a lot of innocent people and perhaps some friends, so I apologize in advance if you take on collateral damage.
During the mid 1980s I was a quality control supervisor for a particleboard mill in Georgia. This was a miserable time in my life anyway, as I’ve written about elsewhere, but a certain chemical company representative made it so much worse. Every week we purchased two or three trailer truck tank loads of urea-formaldehyde resin from Borden Chemical, a company in Demopolis, Alabama—which is actually Alabama territory. The chemical company representative, whose name I have honestly forgotten, visited our plant on average a couple of times a month, and because of my job, he usually took me out to lunch. The guy was tall and solidly built—a former football player, maybe a linebacker or a running back, probably—a jock. He wore gaudy polyester pants in plaid patterns, pastel knit shirts, white dress shoes, and a white leather belt (this was the 1980s). He had a comb-over, a beer belly, and a golf-course tan, and he would stretch out and put his hands behind his head and talk while holding his cigarette between his front teeth. All he talked about was Auburn football, which he knew a lot more about than his product, since he couldn’t answer any technical questions. This was during the Pat Dye (“I’m a Dye-hard Auburn fan”) and Bo Jackson years, so Auburn was good and Mississippi State, as usual, was mediocre. I could have stood the guy, most likely, had Auburn been in a down cycle, but he loved to give me the equivalent of a pat on the head, like you would a fourth string defensive end who only plays when the lead is fifty points and the game is beyond reach. The kid goes out and gets freight-trained by the first string running back, but he gets a pat on the head for trying.
“That Mississippi State, they’ve got a good ‘little’ team,” he’d say, waggling a Marlboro long between his teeth. “Little” is a condescending southern way to describe someone who is young, but earnest, someone who is out of his league but tries hard. The only way he could have made it more insulting would be to add “bless their hearts.” In Southernese, bless-her-heart means someone is beyond hope, but it’s not really her fault and she couldn’t help it if she tried.
I know that I still carry a chip on my shoulder, the burden of my upbringing. Growing up, I was the perpetual underdog, if not the perennial loser. As a kid I remember being a poor athlete: I couldn’t hit a baseball because I was practically blind until I got glasses in fifth grade; I was chosen close to last for teams, if not last; and because my brother was four and a half years older, I was at a size and strength disadvantage when kids in the neighborhood got together for games. It didn’t help that losing games carried high penalties. B-U-T-T, a popular game modeled on H-O-R-S-E, where you added a letter whenever you missed a basketball shot, ended with the loser grabbing his ankles and everyone getting to throw the basketball at his butt from the free throw line, a painful experience. Let’s just say I was not always the confidant and self-assured person many of you know today. I was the fourth (or fifth or sixth?) string defensive end on my eight-grade football team, a ninety-nine pound wildcat, who gamely sacrificed my body to the older, heavier, running backs who had been held back a grade or two. I’m sure my adventures in youth athletics twisted my personality and character in marked ways.