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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?"

The Big 12, which stretches from Texas to Nebraska, is often compared to the SEC. It generates great fan support, particularly at Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

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.

Everyone knows the North looks down its nose at us - it always has - but, by god, we can beat them in football.
- Tony Barnhart, author of the book "Southern Fried Football"
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.

The Edge

This week's matchup is Michigan State vs. Cincinnati. Got a matchup you'd like to see. Send it to [email protected] and we'll work on it.

1. Head to head
The series is tied 1-1. The most recent game was in 1946, which Cincinnati won, 18-7.
Edge: Even
2. NFL first-round picks
Cincinnati: 2 (Most recently DT Bob Bell by Detroit in 1971).
Michigan State: 32 (Most recently WR Charles Rogers by Detroit in 2003).
Edge: Michigan State
3. Iconic head football coach
Cincinnati: Sid Gillman led the Bearcats to a 50-13-1 record from 1949-1954 and won four Mid-American Conference championships.
Michigan State: Duffy Daughtery posted a 109-69-5 record from 1954-72. That included Big Ten championships in '65 and '66 and a share of the national title in '66.
Edge: Michigan State. Although Gillman had more conference championships and went to the NFL, Daughtery had more wins, a national title and had to compete in a stronger conference.
4. Basketball legends with great nicknames
Cincinnati: Oscar "The Big O" Robertson.
Michigan State: Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Edge: Even. Both were selected among the top 50 NBA players of all time. Robertson had more points 26,710 to 17,707) and more rebounds (7,804 to 6,559). Johnson had more assists (10,141 to 9,887) and NBA championships (5 to 1). Fittingly, all their championships were won with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a teammate.
5. Hall of Fame baseball pitchers
Cincinnati: Sandy Koufax, who was a three-time Cy Young Award winner and was part of three World Series championship teams. In his 11-year career he had a 165-87 record, a 2.76 ERA and 2,396 strikeouts. He was also the first to pitch four no-hitters.
Michigan State: Robin Roberts, who had a 286-245 record in 19 MLB seasons. He had a 3.41 career ERA, 2,357 strikeouts and was a seven-time All-Star.
Edge: Cincinnati. Koufax might be remembered as the best pitcher ever had arthritis not ended his career at age 30.
6. Heads of state
Cincinnati: William Howard Taft, who graduated from Cincinnati Law School, was President of the United States from 1909 to 1913.
Michigan State: Adnan Badran, who received his MS and Ph.D degrees from Michigan State, was prime minister of Jordan for seven months in 2005.
Edge: Even though Taft supported the 16th Amendment, which allowed for a federal income tax, Cincinnati gets the edge here. Hey, Taft had a longer term and he did lead the most powerful country in the world.
7. Famous actors
Cincinnati: George Clooney, who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in "Syriana."
Michigan State: James Caan, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather."
Edge: Michigan State. Yeah, Clooney is a bigger star and has won more awards. But Caan's Sonny is one of the most memorable characters in my favorite movie.
8. Former football player to become a coach
Cincinnati: Urban Meyer has a 44-9 record as a college football head coach and has led Florida to two national championships in the past three years.
Michigan State: Wayne Fontes, the winningest coach in Detroit Lions history with 67 victories. He directed the Lions into the NFC title game in 1991.
Edge: Cincinnati.
9. Conference championships
Cincinnati: The Bearcats have won 10 titles while competing in the Buckeye, Mid-American, Missouri Valley and Big East. Their most recent championship was last year's Big East crown.
Michigan State: The Spartans have won or shared six championships since joining in the Big Ten in 1953. Michigan State's most recent championship was in 1990.
Edge: Cincinnati.
10. Under Mark Dantonio
Cincinnati: The Bearcats went 18-17 in three seasons from 2004-2006.
Michigan State: The Spartans are a combined 16-10 in '07 and '08.
Edge: Michigan State.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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