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July 29, 2009
College football a way of life in the South
A middle-aged couple wearing Alabama Crimson Tide golf shirts and caps and holding items to be autographed sat patiently on a comfortable couch last Thursday in the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham, Ala.
It was 6:45 a.m.
By 9 a.m. they were among an estimated crowd of 200 fans wearing gear of various teams that were lined up hoping to get autographs and photos of football coaches and star players attending the Southeastern Conference Media Days. The scene was the same on Friday. The only change was the colors and logos on the golf shirts, T-shirts and hats.
The SEC plays the highest-caliber college football, and its fans support it at the same level. That's why the scene in the Wynfrey Hotel lobby is repeated year after year. It always has and probably always will even though the meetings are held during the week when most people are at work.
"I always wonder where they come from," said Tony Barnhart, a longtime college football journalist and author of the book 'Southern Fried Football.' "How many football media days have there been where a coach was handed a subpoena like [former Tennessee coach] Phillip Fulmer was last year? I bet that don't happen in the Big Ten."
Newspapers across the country are going out of business, cutting back staff and limiting travel. Just last year the Cincinnati Enquirer didn't cover the Big East Conference media meetings.
Yet, this year the SEC issued more than 1,000 credentials for its annual media meetings. Clearly, college football means more in the Southeast than it does anywhere else in the country, and any media outlet in the Southeast had better cover the media days or risk losing all credibility.
"College football is more interwoven into the culture of the South than any place I've ever been," said Barnhart, a Georgia native who saw his first live college football game when he was 13. "They love it in Nebraska. I understand that. And they love it in Michigan and Ohio State. But it's like [former Alabama and Kentucky and present Georgia State coach] Bill Curry said: 'Football is not just a game. It's who we are.'
"Where else would someone drive four hours to Athens to sit in a broiling sun and watch the Bulldogs on Saturday and then drive four hours back to Savannah to go to church on Sunday?"
There's a difference, though.
The relationship between Big 12 fans and their teams is like a strong, enduring marriage.
In the Big 12, Nebraska fans are known to applaud the effort of opponents. By tradition, Texas A&M fans do not boo their team. When Kansas State coach Bill Snyder came out of a three-year retirement, the Wildcats' community welcomed him back with open arms even though his last two teams finished with losing records.
The relationship between SEC fans and their teams is more like a tawdry affair that demands consistent and immediate satisfaction.
Auburn fires Tommy Tuberville despite eight winning seasons in 10 years. Tennessee fires Fulmer, one of the most successful coaches in school history. David Cutcliffe led Ole Miss to 10 wins in '03 and the school fired him after the '04 season. Arkansas ran off Houston Nutt even though the Razorbacks appeared in two SEC title games in his tenure.
SEC football is so important that according to legend it even helped end segregation in the South when African-American Sam Cunningham scored two touchdowns over all-white Alabama in a 42-21 USC victory in 1970.
"Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished in 20 years," former Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne said later.
Why is it that college football is so popular, so important and so revered in the South that fans will line up for hours in a crowded hotel lobby to get a glance or an autograph from their team's coach?
Barnhart has a theory.
"My book, 'Southern Fried Football,' was a history book, a cultural book and a philosophy book," Barnhart said. "I wanted to explain the cultural phenomenon, and I had all kinds of theories.
"This goes all the way back to the early part of the [20th] century. The South was still fairly agrarian and the North was industrial. Everyone knows the North looks down its nose at us - it always has - but, by god, we can beat them in football."
Yes, they can. The SEC has produced the past three BCS national champions and four of the past six. Five of the 11 national champions in the BCS era have been SEC teams. Florida is the consensus pick to win it all again this year.
After each championship won by an SEC team the fans chanted "S-E-C, S-E-C" in celebration. No way would Oklahoma ever celebrate a Texas national championship nor would Michigan celebrate an Ohio State title.
"People in the South take a lot of pride in college football," Barnhart said. "You have to understand it's not just a college football game. It's like [deceased Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist] Lewis Grizzard once said: 'It's our way of life against theirs.' "
Life is good in the SEC. Good enough to get up at dawn in late July just to try to get an autograph.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.