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Bragging Rights: A Season Inside the SEC

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Bragging Rights:
A Season Inside the SEC,
College Football's Toughest Conference.

by Richard Ernsberger

Roughnecks and Romance: An Introduction to the SEC

It was good to be back in the South. After twelve years in New York City and two years in Tokyo with Newsweek magazine, during which time I wrote mostly esoteric foreign news stories, I was getting back to my roots»major-college southern football. I'd decided to write a book about Southeastern Conference (SEC) football specifically, the 1999 season, which promised, like all SEC seasons, to be both wild and unpredictable, with a dozen roughneck teams and millions of fanatical fans, galvanized by another quest for supremacy in America's toughest conference.

The South is a region that I love, and had nearly forgotten. It's a place where you can still find people named Thurl, Longstreet, and Lurleen (George's Wallace's wife); where people drawwwl and drink whiskey (happily); where men still work on carburetors and (occasionally) women wrestle alligators; where you can buy crickets for three cents each out of a box in the back room of a Macon gas station (a wrong turn on the way to Athens, and don't ask about the Deliverance character who was tending to the crickets); where they grow Vidhalia onions, okra, and cotton; where Spanish moss grows on live oaks; where you can drink sweetened tea and eat grits, not to mention indulge a hankering for succulent barbecue at a thousand-and-one places with names like Dreamland and Sonny's; where you can still see billboards extolling naked dancers ("We Bare All") and historical fellowship ("Sons of Confederate Veterans, Join Now!); where bible-thumping Baptist preachers still holler at the damned (with righteous indignation); where magnolia trees and stately Greek revival mansions grace the landscape; where pawnshops and trailer homes (price: $20,000) are respectable; where you can still hear country songs, with country lyrics: "Got a six-pack and a bottle of wine, gotta be bent to have a good time." Where the plangent voice of Patsy Cline and the gutsy blues of Johnny Cash still rise blessedly out of the gloaming as you cruise into Memphis on a moon lit Friday night.

And while the South has changed dramatically in recent years»acquired a more prosperous sheen thanks partly to foreign manufacturers like Daimler-Chrysler and BMW, which have plopped several major plants in the region»you can still find plenty of classic ne'er-do-wells. You know, folks who get "likkered up" and then, if they're lucky, find somebody with whom to "get nekkid." One often follows the other.

The South is a place with few pretensions and, still, plenty of rough-hewn individuals»good ol' boys who are lots more into huntin' and fishin' than watching MTV. When I lived in the athletic dorm at the University of Tennessee in the late 1970s, I knew guys who would chew tobacco, dip Skoal, smoke a cigarette, and drink a beer»all at the same time. And the gals can be tough, too. You don't go into a gas station "quick mart" in Ocala, Florida, as I did early one morning, and ask for a fresh cup of coffee and some half-and-half to go with it. If you do, a middle-aged female cashier with an unfortunate face»who's chain-smoking Virginia Slims at 8:00 in the morning»will shoot you a suspicious "You ain't funny, are ya?" glance. You decide you don't want to displease this grizzled woman, who's probably got man troubles and just came off another long, boozy night. "Uh," you stutter, "that icky, muck-on-the-bottom-of-the-pot coffee will be just fine»and I'd forgotten how much I enjoy powdered cream."

The South is a place where people don't have a fetish about their "career"; where peccadilloes are plentiful and human frailties (mostly) forgiven. It's a place with one of the funniest words in the world»Arkadelphia. Say it out loud. It's a place known to anybody who's read Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, whose lovely old home is nestled a short distance from the University of Mississippi campus. In the South, men still throw empty Bud cans on the highway (I saw it), and women still make chicken salad and chase men.

And lest I go on too long, it's also a place where damn near everybody governors, cooks, barmaids, and lawyers»cares deeply and truly about college football.

College football matters in the South. It has for more than 100 years. In 1891 Charles Herty, a twenty-four year old chemistry professor at the University of Georgia, introduced the game of football to his alma mater. Herty had become fascinated with the game as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins. One day Herty walked across an old campus field where Georgia students participated in unorganized recreation. The field was bordered by Moore College on one side, New College on the other; the university chapel was situated on one of the corners. Herty was remembered as carrying a Walter Camp rule book that day for a new style of rugby know as "football." Herty persuaded some students to take up the game he had seen in the East, and he helped prepare a field on the quadrangle that would soon be named Herty Field. A few months later, a great tradition was born: Georgia and Mercer College played the first football game in the deep South.

While studying at Johns Hopkins, Herty had made friends with a man named George Petrie. He later became a faculty member at Auburn»and that university's first football coach. Through their friendship, Herty and Petrie arranged a football game between Georgia and Auburn. On February 20, 1892, the two teams met in Atlanta's Piedmont Park. It was the start of the South's oldest rivalry. Auburn beat Georgia, 10-0. The sport caught on in a hurry»and fed into the region's primal instincts. Writer W. J. Cash described "the southern pioneer [who] began to exhibit a kind of mounting exhultancsic, which issued in a tendency to frisk and cavort, to posture, to play the slashing hell of a fellow»a notable expansion of the ego testifying at once to his rising individualism and the burgeoning of the romantic and hedonistic spirit." Many southern "slashing hell fellows" would play football, and the fans would latch onto its spirit.

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) began play a few decades later, in 1933. There were thirteen teams originally, and ten of those universities are still SEC members: Auburn, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. Georgia Tech, Tulane, and Swanee dropped out, and in 1992 two new schools joined, Arkansas and South Carolina. At that time, the twelve team conference was divided into divisions-East and West. The winners of each division play annually in Atlanta for the SEC championship.

How much do southerners care about football? Not long after Bill Curry took over as coach at the University of Alabama in 1989, his wife got a call from the couple's Methodist minister in Atlanta. The minister, Bill Floyd, asked Mrs. Curry how the couple was faring. "Well," she replied,"you know football is a religion down here."Oh, no," said Floyd, "it's much more important than that."

How true. In the SEC, the football traditions are old and deeply cherished. In fact, college football is one of the few things which, in a sense, divides the South. When the time comes to tee up the pigskin, the South stops being a region and reverts to earlier times: it becomes a collection of hugely competitive states, each with an overweening pride in its major-college football team. Autumn Saturdays are reserved for feuding-for trash-talking and a settling of grievances as twenty-two young men throw themselves at one another on verdant fields»in Oxford and Knoxville, Gainesville and Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Athens, Baton Rouge, Lexington and Starkville.

Football games? They're atavistic, primal fights»two-men-in-a-steel-cage survival tests»and, as some would joke, those are just the fans. At issue: who's got the toughest and most talented group of athletes, who can claim bragging rights in a sport that falls just behind God and family on the region's priority list. "College football touches people here," says Charles Wilson, who heads the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss. "It's very much tied up with our value system."

"Ten minutes till Alabama-Tennessee," proclaims the public address man at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. If you are in any way associated with either of those states, either of those universities, that simple utterance»signifying that the annual blood match is about to commence»will send chills down your spine. If you've ever spent Saturday night in the Swamp, a raucous bandbox that's home to Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators, you will need no further tutoring on the shibboleths of major-college southern football. It is nothing but intense. SEC football is Georgia fans collectively woofing like, well, dogs. (Georgia has got some of the best expressions in college football: the Bulldog defense is expected to "hunker down," the players wear "silver britches," and when things are going well, the fans yell: "Go you hairy dogs!") SEC football is the Louisiana State University (LSU) band playing "Tiger Rag" and making a four-corner salute to a Cajun crowd stoked up on crayfish and bourbon; it's the Auburn Plainsmen and their Toomer's Corner tradition (the students "roll" trees outside Toomer's drug store after every home victory); it's the soft strains of Dixie (toned down in recent years) wafting over a Mississippi Saturday night.

Football matters in the South. It matters whether Tennessee can whip Alabama»or vice versa; whether Georgia can beat Florida; whether LSU can topple Ole Miss; whether Auburn can wax South Carolina»not in the cosmic scheme of things, of course, but very deeply in the practical sense. "In the SEC, every Saturday game is like the Super Bowl," says Jesse Palmer, a Canadian-born quarterback for the University of Florida. The psyche of states, the self-esteem of alums and students, and the economic well-being of the modest burghers in these quaint, gritty college towns all hang in the balance on game days. "Football has a life of its own down here," says SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer.

Energy and Passion

Bragging Rights
by Richard Ernsberger

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Excerpt Sections

Roughnecks and Romance: An Introduction to the SEC

Energy and Passion

A Secret Weapon

Downgrade Football?

Pressure Cauldron

On the Road

Fathers and Sons





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