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A love letter to college football
Reckoning with the sublime strangeness of a weird, dysfunctional sport that's as America as it gets
You feel it before you hear it, and you hear it before you see it. There’s an energy in the air you can feel on Saturday mornings in the fall, a charge in the zeitgeist that runs through you even before you hear the distant sound of the marching band. College football is back, a rhythm as comforting as the last day of school, a joy as transcendent as that feeling you used to get waking up on the morning of your birthday party.
Too much? Whatever. In the South, when we talk about college football, like when we talk about our mothers or barbecue or Jason Isbell, we tend to get a little mushy.
We’re now contractually required to bust out the most famous quote by legendary Alcorn State coach Marino Casem, so here it is: “On the East Coast, football is a cultural experience. In the Midwest, it's a form of cannibalism. On the West Coast, it's a tourist attraction. And in the South, football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day.”
That still sounds about right. The old “the smaller the ball, the better the writing” sports journalism maxim doesn’t apply when the subject is football in the South.
For Tommy Tomlinson, for instance, college football is a religious experience encompassing salvation, damnation, and redemption — sometimes all three in a single season, like with Georgia last year. For Wright Thompson, the return of college football resurfaces beloved, complicated memories of family and home. For Spencer Hall, college football isn’t a metaphor for life … it’s the other way around. For Ace Atkins, the novelist who once played for Auburn and thus has no use for gauzy soliloquies, college football is about sharing a common language, even across different dialects. (Vanderbilt’s is refined, Ole Miss’s is coated in bourbon, Arkansas’s is unintelligible.)
For me, college football’s core strength — its reason for existing — is its stories. There are the legends of players and programs passed down from generation to generation at tailgates, on bar stools, on front porches, around TVs. (Did you know Nebraska and Tennessee used to be good? No, really, it’s true!) Yes, there are the games and plays that will live forever — the words “Kick Six” will haunt Bama fans to the grave, just like “2nd and 26” will haunt Georgia fans, to cite two recent examples — but just as much that, I love the stories around the games.
Just since the end of last season, we’ve seen a coach survive a coup attempt while on vacation (Auburn); one coach walk right up to the edge of hauling all the skeletons out of the closets of another and setting off Mutually Assured Destruction (Texas A&M/Alabama); the debut of the greatest (and Decoldest) athlete ad to date; and a vicious fight over the ownership of a mascot by the name of Sir Big Spur.
And the season hasn’t even kicked off yet! Just wait ‘til we have in-season strangeness, like The Time A Guy Threw An Opponent’s Shoe And Destroyed His Team’s Shot At The Playoffs or The Time A Guy Capped A Touchdown With A “Peeing Like A Dog” Celebration And Set Off A Butterfly Effect That Rippled Across The Entire Football Universe. How can you not love a sport that delivers like this, week after chaotic week?
If football were a beauty pageant, the NFL version would be 32 different icy, distant European models, unconcerned with whether you like them because you’re too poor for them to even notice. The college football version, on the other hand, would be 200 mismatched contestants, some in pearls and some in jeans, some drunk, some cursing, some tackling each other onstage, some puking behind the curtains. The product is better in the NFL. The stories are so much better in college.
The closest the NFL comes to Southern college football might just be the Saints-Falcons rivalry, a visceral hatred that’s nasty and mean-spirited and tell-your-mother-I-said-hi in a way that brutish eff-you-Tony rivalries like Packers-Bears aren’t. I oversold it a few years ago when I called it the NFL’s best rivalry, but it’s damn sure the most college-like. Nobody out there ever said they’ve got too much Patriot in ‘em, after all.
Now, after all this fawning sentimentality, it’s worth remembering college football’s baked-in flaws, the corruption that runs, in many cases, all the way down to the bone. Show me a school that isn’t cutting corners with recruiting and I’ll show you a school that disbanded its football program two decades ago. Money has warped the souls of coaches and administrators, cracked the foundations of universities, and eluded (legally, at least) the players who make it all work. (I’m all for limiting college athletes’ compensation to the price of a scholarship … as long as we do the same thing for coaches, administrators, conference presidents, bowl officials and everybody else larding up on the billions that pour into the sport every year.) On the horizon, realignment threatens to wipe out the rivalries and regional distinctions that make college football unique among all American sports, turning college football into a soulless parade of logos and sponsors indistinguishable from the NFL.
But like democracy and religion, it’s possible — in fact, it’s a really good idea — to believe in the ideals of the institution without necessarily believing in the very flawed people who claim to act in its name.
The game persists, and it’s why we watch. Earlier this week, I was talking to the head coach of a small school which will almost surely be pounded into paste by one of college football’s Goliaths in a few weeks. He was approaching the game with a deep understanding of what he was facing — with clear eyes and a full heart, you might say — but even so, he’d distilled the challenge into a simple formula: go out and throw down your best, even against overwhelming odds, because man, you never know what might happen.
“There’s never been a game we coached in that I didn’t think we could win. I always tell my teams, if I think we can’t win, I won’t show up,” he said, then paused for effect. “I’ve been a head coach for 23 years, and I’ve never missed a ball game.”
College football’s back, everybody. Enjoy every minute of it.
Song of the Week: “Stubborn Pride,” Zac Brown Band
God bless the guitar solo.
Yeah, it’s self-indulgent. Yeah, it’s dated as hell. Even so, in the right hands it can still be transcendent. Listen to Marcus King, a blues guitarist so young he didn’t even exist when Nevermind or Use Your Illusion were released, tear off some of the most beautiful musical moments of the year here in this Zac Brown gem. Add in Jamey Johnson, another genius born four decades too late, and this elegy sounds like it’s been around forever. Highest recommendation for an end-of-the-night, shut-down-the-bar song.
As always, you can find all the Flashlight & A Biscuit-endorsed tunes on our ever-growing playlist:
Hope your Saturday is a fine one, my friends. Catch you back here in a week.
This is issue #70 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, check out some of our recent hits:
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43 giant presidents’ heads, sittin’ in a field …
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