Waaaaaaaarrrrr Eagle! Hey!

The arrival of the fall means three things to me: a welcome break from the severe heat, kids and teachers going back to school, and the return of college football. And you bet your rear-end that on Saturday, September 1, I was checking the TV all day to see what was going on, even though the game I cared about wasn’t on until 6 PM. I was ready— ready to holler at the TV and complain about bad calls, to beg and plead with the players to play better and with the coaches to coach better, and to consume beer and munchies voraciously, which constitute my duties in a fan’s very important support role in the Auburn Tigers football. I had been waiting for September 1 since last New Year’s Eve when Auburn beat Virginia in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl by a score of 43-24. Eight full months is a long time to wait to engage one’s favorite pastime. I love college football. I love it.

It is normal for someone in the Deep South to like college football as much as I do. It’s normal, it is, it really is, I promise. Curtis Wilkie, a Mississippi journalist and author of the memoir Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South, describes our Southern love of football especially well in his chapter “Forget, Hell!” about his time at Ole Miss:

Several passions are important to Southern men. The love of a good woman ranks slightly ahead of the exhilaration that comes from a sip of sour-mash whiskey. [ . . .] Then there is football. [ . . .] Fall weekends were built around football, and I would sooner flunk an exam than miss a game. 

Many, many of us in the Deep South feel the same way, Mr. Wilkie, you eloquent man.

Furthermore, many, many of us feel the way about Auburn that I do, as evidenced by the sellout crowds at the nearly 90,000-seat Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturdays in the fall and by the plethora of Auburn Clubs that span the nation, from the tip of Florida to New York and Philadelphia, from Dallas/Fort Worth and Oklahoma City to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Orange County, California. For that matter, my mother once went to London on vacation and out of nowhere this British accented voice said, “War Eagle,” to her in response to the logo on the jacket she was wearing.

Another very eloquent man, Dr. Wayne Flynt, provides us with a good understanding of Auburn’s role in the creation of Southern football mania. In chapter nine, “The Social Significance on Sports,” in his 2004 topically arranged history, Alabama in the Twentieth Century, Flynt writes:

Although University of Alabama fans like to believe that God awoke one morning, yawned, then thundered “Roll Tide,” the transformation of Alabama’s sport history actually began at Auburn. (416)

Flynt goes on to explain the visionary role of Auburn’s Dr. George Petrie in bringing football to prominence in the South in the 1890s with his innovative ideas and coaching, A little ways down, Flynt continues:

The national press applauded this southern return to the union, celebrating football as a way of revitalizing American competitiveness through “manly” sport. Predictably, clergymen and “effete” Christians led opposition to the new game, complaining about too many injuries, too much violence and too much corruption. (416 – 417)

According to Flynt, Southern football was born at Auburn— injuries, violence, corruption and all.

It’s just easy to like college football when you live in the South because the Southeastern Conference (SEC) gives us plenty of reasons to cheer. In the last six years alone, the national champions have been: Alabama in 2011, Auburn in 2010, Alabama in 2009, Florida in 2008, LSU in 2007, and Florida in 2006. If you go back a little further, LSU won it in 2003, Tennessee in 1998, Florida in 1996 and Alabama in 1992. In the last twenty years, SEC teams have claimed ten national championsips. During the 1990s, SEC football teams showed real strength and power – Philip Fulmer’s Volunteers, Steve Spurrier’s Gators, and Gene Stallings’ Crimson Tide – but in the last five or six years, SEC teams have littered the Top-Ten rankings in college football.

Even beyond that, in the last five years, three Heisman Trophy winners have come from SEC schools: Cam Newton in 2010, Mark Ingram in 2009, and Tim Tebow in 2007. And Heisman trophies for the SEC are not a recent occurrence: in the 1990s, Danny Wuerffel of Florida won it, and going back further, it went in 1982 to Georgia’s Herschel Walker; in 1985, Auburn’s Bo Jackson got it; in 1971, Auburn’s Pat Sullivan took it home; and in 1966 it was Florida’s Steve Spurrier. You’re talking about some of the best football players (and coaches) of all time.

Watching the 2009 Iron Bowl in Jordan-Hare

Living in the state of Alabama, though, I can’t discuss football without bringing up the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, dubbed the Iron Bowl from its roots in Birmingham, a city known for its iron and steel production. Alabama fans like to taunt Auburn fans with their numerous national championships and their infamous coach Paul “Bear” Bryant versus Auburn’s less-stellar record of national championships. Alabama fans love to try to shove “Bear” Bryant down our throats, but the man has been dead since 1983, and we Auburn fans have plenty to be proud about, including being able to remind them how Auburn beat Alabama six times in a row during the 2000s. I’ll sum up the end result for you: we all keep taunting each other and nothing changes. Every once in a while some redneck kills some other redneck during an argument about the game, but beyond that it’s mostly in good fun. Of course, Alabama has a leg up on greatness right this minute, with two national championships in the last three seasons and just last weekend a decisive win over eighth-ranked Michigan, but I don’t care if ‘Bama wins 75 million national championships, I won’t be switching sides anytime soon— or ever.

Yes, tales (and legends) from recent memory give ‘Bama fans reason to pay constant homage to Alabama’s celebrated status in college football, which was cemented by Bryant in the 1960s and 1970s when the Crimson Tide won a gracious plenty of championships. Yet, let’s get a few more things straight about the larger history of football in the state and of this rivalry, things that came before Bear Bryant’s easily remembered and often discussed golden era; I’m talking about things that went on before many of us living today were born. Reading from the 1994 history, Alabama: History of a Deep South State, one part of the story goes like this:

It was during [John William] Abercrombie’s tenure [in first decade of the 1900s] that the last football game for the next forty-one years was played between Alabama and Auburn. The teams had met eleven times, and Auburn had won seven of the contests. In the twelfth year, the teams battled to a 6–6 tie before a crowd of 5,000 spectators. (334)

The annual in-state rivalry game was terminated – by Alabama – in 1908, with Auburn leading the series seven wins, four losses and one tie. But of course it was revived:

Although the 1945 University of Alabama football team won the Southeastern Conference championship and beat Southern California in the Rose Bowl, the team fell on hard times after Coach Frank Thomas retired [after the 1946 season]. Auburn became the dominant team in the state after Governor Chauncey Sparks and the legislature forced Alabama to renew its rivalry with Auburn in 1944. Auburn won a Southeastern Conference crown in 1953 and the mythical national championship in 1957. (542)

All that was way before my time, too, but what sticks out to me is that word forced. Alabama had to be forced by the governor and the legislature to start playing Auburn again. What’s up with that?

Enough about the past . . . There’s an Auburn game to talk about.

Last Saturday, on the morning of the Auburn-Clemson game, we were packing up our bags to head to the lake for the Labor Day weekend, and gearing up for the 6 PM kickoff. (Alabama was playing at 7 PM, which meant very little to me except that I could watch that game during Auburn’s halftime, instead of listening to the ESPN commentators spew their bullshit.) As we packed the car, my kids were stomping around the house, fists pumping, and in their best husky voices shouting, “War Eagle! Yeah!”

The game didn’t start until evening, so we had a day to kill. We filled it with grilled hamburgers, swimming, sunshine and family— and with football on the TV all day long. The first game I saw to come on was Georgia versus Buffalo. Later in the day, Florida was playing Bowling Green. LSU was also playing North Texas. It’s always comfortable to start off your season kicking sand in the face of a ninety-pound weakling . . . By late afternoon, it was time to crack open a beer and get ready for the game. By kickoff time, my sister-in-law and her husband were making homemade pizzas in the kitchen behind me, and I was nestled into a spot on the couch that I had occupied a half-hour earlier to be sure I had a clear view of the game.

Unfortunately, Auburn didn’t fare so well against Clemson. My team only took the lead once, when they pulled ahead 19–16 in the third quarter. Kiehl Frazier, Philip Lutzenkirchen, Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason, and Corey Lemonier all played well – we had one big ol’ offensive lineman, #73, that wouldn’t quit jumping before the snap – but Clemson’s running back Ellington ran for over 200 yards and their quarterback Tajh Boyd played a hell of a game, too. Auburn had one especially heartbreaking moment when a receiver caught a touchdown pass and his feet landed in the white behind the end zone, so it didn’t count. After lots and lots of field goals from both teams, the final score was 26–19. Auburn was driving at the end, but couldn’t tie it up to put into overtime.

This won’t be the first year that Auburn has started the season 0 – 1, but the only thing harder than watching the Auburn Tigers have the lower score at the final buzzer is trying to watch the game while the announcers at ESPN are obviously pulling for Clemson the whole time. If you can’t be professional, then at least be honest. I wish they would just come right and say who they’re pulling for, instead of remarking constantly on what Clemson needs to do to win and repeatedly showing highlights of great plays by Clemson while not showing Auburn’s highlights. Maybe you boys could consider replaying the beautiful long-yardage touchdown reception by a wide-open Emory Blake as much you replayed Ellington’s runs. Since I’m asking for honesty, I’ll give it: when I see that Auburn is playing on any ESPN station, my first inclination is to put the TV on mute and listen to the Auburn Radio Network while I watch the silent screen.

Any true fan of any team in any sport knows his team will lose sometimes. I’m sure I’ll hear about next week, about how Alabama beat the number-eight team by a score of 41-14 and Auburn lost to the number-fourteen team. That’s alright. That’s part of it. I’ve had plenty of laughs at other teams’ expense when Auburn was kicking ass.  We’ve got a long season in front of us before the match-up with Alabama around Thanksgiving time. For now, we have to see what happens when Auburn plays Mississippi State in Starkville next Saturday at 11 AM.

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