To help kickoff the start of game week here at Arkansasexpats.com, here is a rather lenghty post that I've been working on during these long, hot, summer weeks of life without college football. Our wait, however, is nearly over. Come this time next week, we will have seen the 2009 Hogs take the field to begin this fall's campaign. In the mean time, I hope you will enjoy this look at the connections between the sport we love and the region that can claim to have its most passionate fans. Who knows, it might just be gameday by the time you get to the end of it!
In a comment that I posted back when our blog here was still Razorbackexpats.com, I remarked that I looked forward to having a certain shark eyed, business like coach on our sideline after the years of watching the emotional Houston Nutt flop around like a just caught crappie. I wrote that I wanted to see a coach with a killer instinct, not one who bites his nails. I wanted a coach whose men would coldly and efficiently put teams away while he calmly gave orders and sucked on a lemon, just like Stonewall Jackson once did. What I wanted was someone who would say, "Kill them, kill them all," in a matter of fact tone, just like Jackson at Fredericksburg, and mean it, so far as you can by the rules "kill" somone on a football field.
Rather militaristic for someone who considers himself a left leaning humanist, but I think not all that out of place for a Southerner who loves with a passion his team and college football in general. By no means am I the first and only person to think of college football, the South, and the Civil War all at the same time. But as we near the start of another season in the SEC, I thought it would be worth the time, as there are still no scores yet to contemplate, to reflect again on how these strands are woven into the banners and flags we unfurl on gamedays during the fall.
A gameday tradition that I can't really claim is that of being a tailgater. I show up at the game in time to get my seat and then leave pretty much directly afterwards. I am sure many would say that I am missing out on a great part of the whole college football experience. I won't argue with them. But I think you become a tailgater when you have friends and family to tailgate with, and I've never known either who were interested in and willing to put the time and effort into what passes as legitimate tailgating these days. Maybe I would if I did all the work and then invited them.
But I have seen tailgating, and what I do think of nearly every time I walk through the golf course full of tailgaters at War Memorial or hear for the thousandth time how wonderful the Grove is at Ole Miss is the Battle of Manassas or Bull Run, if you want the Union name, which I actually think is the better of the two. I've never forgotten the description of how people in the Washington area in July of 1861 tried to make a picnic out of the thing as if they were going to, ah, a football game.
It certainly wasn't a football game. Over eight hundred young men were killed that day. To put that in perspective, more men were killed and wounded in a single day than will play in the SEC this year. I wonder what the dead of Manassas / Bull Run would say to the fact that today units from states (the Ohio boys versus the Florida boys), line up across from one another, try to outflank one another and conquer territory, penetrate lines, bomb away (See George Carlin's famous routine for the complete list of miltary parallels) and just in general do battle with one another, so-to-speak, and then everyone walks home alive with just injured pride most often being the deepest wound. I wonder what they would say to that? I think they would applaud us and ask out loud why we as a species don't settle all of our disputes that way. And what would the confederate dead say to the idea of young black men playing a sport along with whites? In truth, I suspect most of the dead from both sides would be surprised by that development.
I would say to both - human progress. Tribal instincts are still very much at play in the world. Just look at Rwanda, Serbia, Iraq. In this great release valve known as college football, we put on our tribal colors, yell against other teams, brag about our own, and even dare to take Tim Tebow's name in vain, but that is usually as far as we let our tribal instincts take us. Even LSU fans are not yet at the level of European soccer fans when it comes to taking things too far. Any young man, no matter race or background, can now play in the SEC as long as he can contribute. From the days of waving confederate flags and segregation to the hiring of Sylvester Croom and rosters based on talent and attitude, not skin color, we've moved in the right direction as a region.
But we certainly haven't forgotten the long ago war of our ancestors and the fact that it is the Southeastern Conference. No matter which SEC team you pull for, you are always happy to see a team from the South beat some Northern, some Yankee team. And you can think this way even at the same time you think your ancestors (for me, members of the 28th Louisiana Infantry) were on the wrong side of morality and history. To some degree it goes both ways. BIG TEN teams enjoy coming down South during bowl season and scoring victories like it was 1864. I recall hearing about Ohio State fans bringing up their victory in the Civil War after they lost to LSU, or was it Florida? Possibly both. W-oh to the first SEC team to lose to Ohio State! But being on the losing side of the war, we Southerners certainly think about the regional divide more, and I think, enjoy our victories more as well when a Northern team falls to us. That descendants of slaves make up the majority of our teams' rosters, that they are the ones we so often cheer for, well, you do get another layer of ironic complexity to mull over.
Winning is so important to us that we now say it doesn't matter where you come from as long as you can general, that is coach, your way to victories in the SEC. Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Les Miles, these coaches didn't grow up speaking with a Southern drawl. Just as the desire to win helped overcome racial prejudice in regard to African American players, that same desire has resulted in the firing of old line Southern coaches like Phil Fulmer for whatever Lane Kiffin is. I am not ready to call this unabashed progress, however, for I think we Southerners have always enjoyed rooting for our home grown coaches, but am I going to insist that a still promising Bobby Petrino cultivate a Southern accent or hit the road? Not a chance!
If you go looking for more direct connections to the Civil War than of the analogy variety and deeper connections to the South than what most of our current crop of field generals can claim, you can certainly begin with Ole Miss and its legacy of the University Grays, a Confederate unit made up of Ole Miss students. Colonel Reb still lives in memory at Oxford, even if he isn't officially sanctioned by the university. LSU's connection to the Civil War comes in the form of having their mascot named from two Louisiana brigades that fought so fiercely they became known as the "Louisiana Tigers." Though not founded until after the war and with no direct mascot connection, the University of Arkansas does run out on the field the state flag with its confederate stars and bars turned into a diamond. Georgia, oddly enough, plays the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic during games with"Glory, Glory."
Walk around the campus at Tuscaloosa and you'll see the buildings that survived Sherman's burning of the school. The gray masks on the Tide's helmets are a tribute to the university's time as a military school during the Civil War. "Volunteers" refers to all Tennesseans who have volunteered for military service through the years, including Civil War volunteers. The campus itself in Knoxville was damaged during the war and served as both barracks and hospital to soldiers. Ask an Auburn graduate and he will tell you that "War Eagle!" comes from a legend about an injured eagle owned by a Civil War veteran who found it on a battlefield and brought it to a football game in 1892 against George where it miraculously flew for the first time.
Vanderbilt plays in Nashville, a city full of Civil War ghosts from some of the worse fighting of the war at the Battle of Nashville and nearby Franklin. The university itself was founded with Northern money towards the idea of healing the wounds and bitterness brought about by the war. The SEC as a whole functions as a confederacy of sorts. We fight amongst one another and resent one another, just as the original confederate states did amongst themselves, but more often than not we will pull for one another when facing an outsider to where chants of "SEC! SEC!" have replaced the old slogan of "The South Will Rise Again" as a testament of regional pride.
At the end of Ken Burns' documentary, "The Civil War," Shelby Foote reads from a memoir of a Civil War veteran, Barry Benson, on how he wished they would all someday meet in Vahalla, reconstitute their camps, wake up to taps, sound the war drums, battle one another, and then wake up afterwards all ready to do it again, refreshed and renewed. I think what Barry Benson was unknowingly describing was a college football season.
November the 6th 1869 saw the first college football game played, which was between two Northern schools, Rutgers and what would later be named Princeton. Here in 2009 we get ready to start the 140th year of the sport. Though we in the South can't claim to be the birthplace of college football, we have added much to its long history, have entwined it with our own history, and have embraced it like no other region. If there is ever a last college football game played, I will put my money on it being played below the Mason-Dixon line.