Why is the South so obsessed with college football? It’s not a question most of us ever stop to think about. Football has just always been a constant. But this week on the Reckon Interview, Ed Southern explains the roots of our football obsession.
In a conversation about his new book “Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South,” Southern outlines how the rules of football and Southern culture evolved in tandem with each other, whether there is any truth to the legend about football being a way for Southerners to re-fight the Civil War, and how 2020 may have reshaped the future of college football.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
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Reckon: You grew up in North Carolina and your new book “Fight Songs,” I believe was originally designed to be a story about meeting and falling in love with your wife, an Alabamian, and using sports, kind of basketball country in North Carolina and football country in Alabama, obviously, as a way of understanding the South.
And you write in the opening that it didn’t exactly turn out the way that you planned. So tell me about the book you had in your head and the book that you wound up writing.
Ed Southern: Well, at first I really wasn’t going to write a book at all. I was going to write just a short little essay about how weird it is being a lifelong Wake Forest fan, married to an Alabama fan and thinking particularly about the old Steely Dan song, “Deacon Blues”, you know, where the chorus is, “they have a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose, they call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues.”
So I mean, you know, Wake Forest has been on, for us, an extraordinary boom of success the last few years, but we’re still everybody’s go-to shorthand for the football program no one cares about. So I thought I’d write something, you know, just kind of funny and light hearted about that.
And then I started looking into, like really asking the question, like why? Why is North Carolina seen as a college basketball state, whereas Alabama, and really the rest of the South is all about college football. What happened? What’s the difference? Um, the easy answer is because, you know, the North Carolina schools tend to win more basketball than they do at football.
Okay. But then the question becomes, why do they win more at basketball than they do at football? Even back in the 1920s, you don’t just pick five guys, pick 11 guys, roll a ball out on the court, throw a ball out on the field, and start winning games. It takes intention, it takes investment. And so what happened that this was the sport that most North Carolinians set their seasons by instead of college football? And that led down some rabbit holes and into some fairly heavy issues in Southern history and the more I started exploring those, the longer and longer this essay got. And then I was telling a friend of mine who’s an editor about it. And she said, well, it’s far too long for the magazine that I edit, but have you thought of turning itinto a book?
And so I started, you know, exploring a little bit more and still thinking it would be lighthearted and funny and fun. And then 2020 happened. And a lot of these heavier issues that I had planned, at least, to glance at were suddenly front and center throughout the South and throughout the nation. And it just felt irresponsible to not take a fuller look at those in the course of this writing.
Reckon: You talked about being a Wake Forest fan. And of course you write about how they are the smallest of the Power Five schools. I mean, you grew up there rooting for them, and you also spent some time in Greenville home to the Clemson Tigers, who of course are the preeminent powerhouse these days in the ACC—I guess they’ve gone back and forth with Florida State and a brief emergence of Virginia Tech there for a while and Miami once upon a time. But it’s interesting the way that you start to break down, what is, “the South,” based off of that football culture.
You talked about North Carolina being a basketball state, Kentucky is until recently a one sport state and now seems to be having at least some success with football this season, so far. it’s early when we’re recording this, but they can finally throw the ball. And then you’ve got some schools in Alabama, like Alabama and Auburn, who occasionally have some basketball success, but are defined by what they do in football.
At one point, you write a little bit about a chip on your shoulder, about being considered, not Southern enough living in North Carolina and the differences you saw when you came to Birmingham to visit the woman who became your wife. What are the differences you saw between North Carolina and Alabama?
Southern: I mean, there are the obvious differences. Generally, not always, but generally, if you get barbecue in Alabama, it’s going to be on the rib. Uh, if you get barbecue in North Carolina, it’s going to be chopped.
You know, I’d never had crab claws, before my now wife took me to Mobile for the first time. We’ve got Calabash shrimp. And then of course, the difference in, you know, the football culture versus the basketball culture. Beyond that though, I mean, it’s really hard to put a finger on. And I still wonder to what extent is it real? And to what extent is it sort of in our minds?
Is it, you know, there’s this image that we somehow build up over time, that kind of colors, what we see when we’re in either place.
For me, at least it was more shocking when we moved not that many miles away to upstate South Carolina and really felt like we had crossed some kind of dividing line, not just between the two states, but of course in South Carolina football rules, the way it does in Alabama. You know, basketball is nice, but on football Saturdays, even back then, Clemson became the fourth largest city in the state. That was where I really noticed the big difference. And, um, I don’t know, just something in the air and like I say, even after doing 300 pages of this book, it’s so hard for me to put it in concrete terms. Other than in things like the state of Alabama comes to a standstill for the Iron Bowl every year, the state of North Carolina used to come to a standstill for a quarter final Friday of the ACC tournament, but it doesn’t anymore.
What I wanted to explore was not only the difference in sport and in season. But the difference in that verb tense that I use that, Alabama still, you know, the Iron Bowl has that place in the calendar that the ACC tournament doesn’t in North Carolina anymore.
Reckon: One thing that was really interesting was the way that you talked about how fan culture has evolved over the generations. You write about your grandfather, and my grandfather was the same way, being fans of the sport more than they were fans and devotees of a specific team. When did we start seeing this fan culture really kind of emerge and become a defining hallmark of Southern sports?
Southern: To some extent, it was always there. At least among some people. But you really started to see it rise, based on what I’ve read, in the Sixties and the Seventies. And I think with the rise of sports on television and with the advent of new media where you could follow a team more closely than you once could. I think it also coincides with not just the rise of new media, but with what C. Vann Woodward called the bulldozer revolution. Where you had more and more Southerners moving off of the farms, out of the rural areas out of the small towns and into the cities.
And I think, I mentioned in the book, a large part of my rooting interest in the teams that I root for is because of this sense of rootedness that I get. And I think as more and more people started to lose that sense of rootedness, they picked up, they moved to a new town, they moved to a new region, they looked to the home team as a way to get that sense of home. And so they started attaching more to a team than they did to just the sport itself.
And then that only increased now with cable TV, I talk about in the book, you know, the morning before I went to my first game at Bryant-Denny, I turned on the TV and they were showing a Wake Forest-Duke game, which was just astonishing to me. Who on earth in the Birmingham media market cared a lick about Wake Forest and Duke playing each other? But that’s how ubiquitous college football has become now. I could still watch my favorite team, a whole time zone away while I’m fixing to go watch Alabama play.
And so that allows a kind of fandom and a kind of rooting for a particular team that you wouldn’t have had even, you know, 40 years ago.
Reckon: Before we reach that point, however, you go the extra 10 miles, I guess. And you go to football’s real roots, hundreds of years ago in England, the Shrovetide football games—not to be confused with roll tide football games. What did medieval football look like?
I didn’t realize this until you pointed out in the book, but there are Shakespearian references to footballers and things like that, which, you know, I guess in my head, I just automatically made the change to that being soccer, but there were some similarities between Shrovetide football and American football too, it sounds like.
Southern: I’m so glad that I discovered Shrovetide football. And I did it a few years ago before I even was thinking about writing this book .For any who don’t know, it’s one of the few surviving games of village football left in the world. No one knows when it began. Literally. There’s a poem that was written in the 1600s that references it and refers to it as an ancient tradition already by the 1600s.
If there was a record of how it started, it’s long since been lost. There’s one theory that it began, they would play with the severed head of a sacrifice to the sun God, before Christianity came to the British Isles. There’s another theory that it was first played with the severed head of an invader whose attack they’d defeated.
And then there’s the more prosaic theory that it’s just it was probably a bunch of kids who took a bladder or some other internal organ out of a sheep and inflated it and started kicking it around. This village, Ashbourne, in England is divided by the river Henmore. And if you’re born north of the Henmore, you’re an Up’Ard. If you’re born south of the Henmore, you’re a Down’Ard, and those are the two teams that play Shrovetide football. And the whole village joins in. And the whole village is the playing field. There’s one goal about a mile and a half above town. One goal about a mile and a half below town.
There are three rules: You can’t transport the ball in a motor vehicle. You can’t take the game into a church yard or into a church. And you can’t kill anybody. Other than that, anything goes. And I watched it on the livestream one year when somebody had left their car parked on a side street where I’m sure they thought it would be safe and the car was totaled just by a whole village full of bodies pressing up against it.
And you watch this car crumple underneath the weight of all those people. It’s extraordinary. It is my favorite sporting event that I’ve never been to. And I very much hope I can go. Uh it’s certainly high on my bucket list.
Reckon: The early evolution of American football, you write, when it first came to America, it was more similar to English football, which we all commonly call soccer. You know, that game between Princeton and Rutgers, which is commonly called the first college football game. And the rules changed a lot very early on, but you also pointed out that it was unique that American football was so preoccupied with establishing rules. What do we know about that version of the American football game and how quickly it became something similar to the modern game?
Southern: The Princeton-Rutgers game, from everything I read, would have looked a lot more like what we’d recognize as soccer then than what we’d recognized as football. There was a lot more kicking of the ball. I think the players could use their hands, but they rarely did. And then at some point, and I forget the year, the team from Harvard went north to Canada and played the team from McGill University, which was playing football using the rules developed at the Rugby School, which we now recognize as the game rugby. Which you didn’t kick the ball, or you rarely kicked the ball. You mostly picked it up and ran with it and tossed it by hand to your teammates.
And the Harvard team decided they liked this version of football better. So when they come back to the United States, they talk all the other teams that they’re playing into playing with the rugby rules. So the rugby rules take off. And then I think it was in the 1870s that they established the line of scrimmage, which was an American mispronunciation of scrummage, a rugby term.
And the idea that, okay, we’re going to draw this imaginary line through the field and one team’s going to be on one side of it and the other team’s going to be on the other side. And the team in possession of the ball is going to start the play and the team playing defense is going to react.
And the book I read, Michael Oriard’s “Reading Football” said that really that’s the only freely chosen innovation that turned American football into American football because every other new rule in the American game came about as a response to some oversight or some loophole that the line of scrimmage had created.
So they created the line of scrimmage, teams start taking advantage of something that the organizers of the sport never intended. So they make a rule to stop them from taking advantage of it, which leads to another rule, which leads to another rule. And next thing you know… whereas rugby for decades didn’t have a referee at all. The team captains were expected to call penalties on themselves. And when they did add a referee, the purists were outraged. They thought, well, there goes our gentlemanly sport. You know, we should be expected to police the game ourselves. By the early 1900s, American football, you already had something like five or six referees patrolling the field because there were so many rules in place.
And for however many rules, teams had four ways of getting around them.
Reckon: You’re also kind of, as you’re charting the history of the sport, you’re charting the history of the South as well. When you talk about, Americans needing those rules in place, in part, because it was such a new country and a relatively unestablished people.
And you do some of this through your own personal lineage. And you say in the book that it’s lame for people to bring up your name, but I’m going to do it anyways, because you do have a name that seems destined to write this book. So tell me about the Southerns, not the Southerners, and where they came from in Great Britain.
Southern: Southern apparently is an Anglo-Saxon name. There are actually a fair number of Southerns in the UK still. In fact, maybe now that the book has launched, this has changed, but at least the last time I checked, if you Google “Southern,” your first hit is going to be Sir Edwin Southern who is a Lasker Prize winning molecular biologist at Oxford. Or as I like to call him, the smart Southern. It referred originally to the direction that either, you know, some ancestor of mine lived on the Southern end of the village or wandered into the village from the south.
And so, you know, that was how he got referred to. And the name ended up getting passed down through the generations. We’re not sure, I’m not a genealogist. And to be honest with you, I’m not all that interested in genealogy. I know some people who are, and so I’m able to take advantage of their research.
We’re not sure exactly when our first ancestor came to what’s now the United States. But the assumption is that it was sometime in the 1600s in what was Virginia. There was a John Southern who landed in about 1620 at Jamestown and served in the first House of Burgesses. There’s no definitive proof that I’m descended from that guy as nice as it might be to claim it.
But then, you know, spent 400 years in this country and you kind of spread across. I’m distantly related somehow or another to the screenwriter, Terry Southern, who wrote Dr. Strangelove, which I think is most fascinating connection to me. Yeah. And so then, you know, in the 1700s, they wandered into North Carolina and at least my branch has been here since.
Reckon: You talk about there being this tendency in the South for everybody to claim that they are from the Scots-Irish and that really most people are from the borders. And that that did bring a certain sensibility with it to the South, which may have in some ways shaped football fandom years down the line. Can you talk about that evolution?
Southern: I could die happy if I never hear the term Scots-Irish again. And I mean, it’s a valid group, but even originally, you know there was a Scots Irish immigrant to this country who was quoted as saying, “we are a mixed people.” And people tend to talk about it as if it’s, first of all the whole notion of they racially a ethnic group is ridiculous, but it was really the Scots-Irish were just one part of this mass migration from, for the most part, the north of England, lowland Scotland, what’s now Northern Ireland and Wales. Along with Germans, Dutch, there were all sorts of people, the closest geographic definer would be the North Sea, that were coming to what will become the United States in the 1700s.
And there was this history and culture that they brought with them. A lot of small-scale warfare. A lot of raids back and forth across the various borders that they lived on. A lot of resentment. They were described, and of course, you know, often those who were doing this describing had their own biases, as being very touchy, very quick to fight. And it did sort of, you know, flavor life in the back country of the South. But there was already a tide water culture in place that had been established in the 1600s by those settlers which had its own tradition of demonstrative play and using athletic contests, mainly horse racing, as a marker of dominance.
And so these are two cultures sort of bound up in honor and shame that collided in the American South, and we’re still feeling the effects today.
Reckon: You talk about a couple of the key reasons that people pushed football and sports in general on college campuses, one—and I was surprised to learn this—was to teach corporate hierarchy and divisions of labor. And then also the sense that it did maybe prepare people for and teach them the lessons of combat.
And then in the South, which was late to football and I suppose the Midwest, there was sort of this regional pride. And there’s always been kind of the common argument that Southerners glommed on to football as a way of re-fighting the Civil War. And you suggest there may be some truth to that, but that that’s not necessarily the whole story about why the South embraced football.
Southern: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s in the late 1800s, by the time football came to the South, there already was this tradition in the Northeast of ascribing to football these “manly and martial virtues.” That it could teach the next generation of young men how to be “real men” and could prepare them, you know, if they ever had to fight in a war. And I got a lot of this from Andrew Doyle, who teaches at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
And he talks about how following the Civil War in the Northeast, you’ve got this period of rapid industrialization and all of a sudden, you know, men are working out of the home place and there’s this what he called a “crisis of masculinity” that they’re worried about, how are we going to teach our boys to be real men if they’re at home with their mothers all day or locked up in a schoolhouse? You know, we’ve got teach them the “manly virtues.”
And I think football started because it’s fun. You know, it was a fun game for college boys to blow off some steam, but then not just the players themselves, but others who were watching it sort of fastened all these other meanings onto it.
And it began to be encouraged as this, you know, inculcator of the manly virtues and, you know, a way to teach our boys how to be men. And so it has that already, when it comes to the South. When we’re talking about the young [white] men who are in college at this time, we’re talking about the sons of the elite. You know, we’re talking about the sons of people who can afford to send their children to college. They’re trying to reestablish their dominance over Southern society. They’re smarting still from the loss of the Civil War. And so, you know, you hand them this game that has these meanings pre-attached to it, and of course they’re going to embrace it. Of course, many of them are going to see it as a way of re-fighting the Civil War. Especially come 1926 when Alabama goes to the Rose Bowl and no one in the country expects them to win and they do. And they come back and there are Southern newspapers, not just in Alabama, but all across the South, celebrating this as “revenge for Gettysburg.” It sort of naturally fit.
But I don’t think that that’s all that was going on in the embrace of college football. I think there was a long history that predates the Civil War that got wrapped into it. This tradition of competitive play as a marker of dominance. This tradition of honor and shame culture. This tradition of expecting young [white] men to be proficient with and willing to use violence, to, you know, to put down a slave revolt, if necessary, to fight against the indigenous peoples, protect young settlements from the indigenous people, who’d wanted their land back. All of this gets wrapped up into it and leads to football taking this place atop the hierarchy of sport in most of the South.
Reckon: Well, and that’s a section of the book that’s really interesting is college football in the South starts out as a source of white racial pride and a sport of the elite, like you were talking about. Cause that’s who could afford to go to college. You know, in the intervening decades since then, there has kind of been this ongoing dance with college football when it comes to racial progress.
On the one hand you’d have football success as a carrot for desegregation in places like Alabama. But on the other hand, some have pointed out that the modern game does seem to have some similarities to a plantation economy. How has the game evolved since the advent of integrated football?
Southern: Again, it struck me as one of these historical coincidences that the integration of college football, again, roughly coincided with the rise of college football on TV.
Most college football programs began…some were integrated as early as the 1950s. And I think a few even in the 1940s, but I could be wrong about that. And then some even earlier. In the South that doesn’t begin at all until the 1960s and then accelerates in the 1970s, which is also when you have college football becoming a TV mainstay, both on Saturday afternoons and in prime time. You have Bear Bryant becoming a TV star, in addition to a great coach. And so with the rise of football on TV, eventually that leads to these multi-billion dollar media rights deals that colleges, or more specifically conferences, are signing these days where there is so much money changing hands in the business of college sports and especially college football. Up until very recently so much of the college athletics world was still touting these ideas of amateurism that really were out of date a hundred years ago. And somehow saying that the value of an education, often a curtailed education, is enough payment to the players on whose backs this industry has evolved.
Reckon: And last year, you talked about how you were writing this book in 2020, that shed a light not only on the economic issues of football, and to some extent basketball, but also the racial issues at play. And you saw a lot of players in Tuscaloosa, in Greenville, in Oxford, Mississippi, starting to recognize the power that they had to advocate for change both systemically and locally.
Southern: Yeah. And, you know, when I said it seemed irresponsible of me not to deal with the heavier issues, confront them, or try to confront them head on as much as I could. The involvement of so many college athletes in the Black Lives Matter movement was really front and center in my mind. I mean if you could have these players, many of whom are in a very precarious situation, you know what I mean? They could have their scholarship revoked at any moment. And yet they were speaking out. Speaking their minds. You had a, I thought, brilliant essay that Alex Leatherwood wrote and that they recorded with what seemed like just about the whole team and Coach Saban reciting for video. You had Darien Rencher and Trevor Lawrence at Clemson leading a rally and a march through Clemson, South Carolina. The corpse of John C. Calhoun must have been spinning in his grave. You know, you had Kylin Hill at Mississippi State saying he was going to boycott the season, if the state of Mississippi didn’t change its state flag. You had Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach showing up at the Mississippi state capitol.
And then of course, towards the end of the summer, you had Nick Saban leading his team on a Black Lives Matter march to the very same schoolhouse door that George Wallace once stood in. And I know that all of this is… you know, these are all symbols. These are all signs. They’re not necessarily representative of systemic change, of real and lasting change, but they’re sure representative of something. And so much of it that we saw would not have been imaginable, not that many years ago. I found it extraordinary to see.
Reckon: Well on the one hand, part of me is a little bit apprehensive to have Bryce Young as a competitor in the podcast space. It’s going to be interesting to see how these new deals that college players are able to strike right now does change the economies of the communities where they grew up. Because a lot of the money had funneled into the pockets of people who already had money, up until players reached the NFL and were able to get big paychecks then. But you know this could reshape many of the economies of the South and in the years ahead, I think.
Southern: Oh, I think so. And it’s funny how the attitude towards that has changed among fans. A North Carolina sportswriter that I spoke to for the book, Lauren Brownlow, has talked about how we’ve gone from, ” what?! That player got paid! How awful! Gosh, you know, the decline of civilization right there.” And now we hear about a player getting paid and we’re like, “good. Good for you. Get you some. That’s great.” You know, it’s only right that they get a small cut of the many, many dollars.
Reckon: You talked about sports and especially football being tied to masculinity in the South. You write early on in your book about how you weren’t big enough to play Peewee football as a kid. How much do you think that that shaped how personally devoted you are to the sport? The fact that you weren’t able to play when you were young?
Southern: Yeah, I think it certainly did. I mean, it’s hard to say if I would be more or less of a fan of football, if I had played, or played organized football, at any level. For a long time, I turned away from football and for a while from most sports. And just wasn’t interested. I was interested in other things.
And I think part of it is because we grew up in such a sports centric household that, as most kids do, it wasn’t so much a rebellion. It’s just a break. You know, I just needed a break from all that. Certainly by high school I was getting back into it and playing sports and watching sports. It’s always been something that I’ve enjoyed doing with my family. One of the surprising things— well, I guess not surprising—but one of the interesting things that almost everyone that I talked to for the book who consider themselves a sports fan and particularly a football fan, brought up their family and connection to it, very early when I started speaking with them.
And I don’t think I ever had to ask about it. You know, they were the ones who volunteered that, “well, I love football, because I grew up watching it with my dad” or “cause you know, it was something that my family did together.” You know, “we had season tickets,” or, you know, “we gathered in front of the TV every Saturday to watch,” you know, Alabama or whoever. But I do think that family plays an awfully important role for a lot of people in their connection to sports.
Reckon: Definitely. Man, it starts early. In Alabama, everything is scheduled around Saturdays in the fall. But let’s talk a little bit about basketball culture and the way that it differs from football culture. Those of us in the SEC outside of Kentucky are fairly new to this basketball mania. I don’t know if that’s your first passion for sport, but it’s certainly one that you cared a lot about. And you talked about caring about the ACC tournament. What is the difference between basketball fandom and football fandom to you?
Southern: I think because of the schedule and because of the season, being a college basketball fan, it’s more of a sort of constant hum, not quite in the background, but it’s sort of omnipresent. Because, at least when I was growing up, games were played on like a Saturday-Wednesday schedule or Sunday-Tuesday, or something like that.
And so you had at least a couple of games a week and they were almost always at night except on Saturdays and Sundays. And so it couldn’t become The Event the way a football game is. You know, you can tailgate for a basketball game but it’s kind of tough because you’re gonna be doing it a lot. Especially during the week it means you’re going to be coming straight from work, trying to set up some kind of tailgate and then going to the game.
And it’s just not nearly as fun plus it’s played in the wintertime. And so a lot of times you’re dealing with bad weather and it’s an indoor sport. Dome’s aside, football is an outdoor sport. There’s this feeling of celebration just being out there. I don’t know how many descriptions of college football that I read that referred to a beautiful fall Saturday, you know, the leaves changing color or the crispness in the air. In basketball, you’re talking about, you’re inside a sweaty arena with several thousand other screaming maniacs. And so the game has a different feel to it.
The game itself is more fast paced. It’s more constant. It’s not as cinematic. One of the writers that I’ve talked to, Eric G. Wilson described football as the most cinematic sport. And I thought he was right. I’d never thought of it in those terms, even though, you know, I would argue the best sports movie ever is Hoosiers, you know, a basketball game itself doesn’t have kind of the four act drama that a football game does. It doesn’t lend itself to the emotional rise and fall that football does.
Reckon: You married into an Alabama family, and that was going to be part of the thrust of this book, or of what was originally gonna be an essay, I guess. Meeting your future wife as a result of having read a Bear Bryant biography. Tell us about how y’all met and then tell us about your reluctance to put on an Alabama football shirt in Tuscaloosa.
Southern: As we’ve talked about when I was a kid, my family moved to Greenville, South Carolina, which, I mean, you move any place right before eighth grade, it’s going to be kind of a shock and a difficult adjustment, but I already felt very bound to my home state of North Carolina by that point.
And so one of the things that I started doing after we moved down there was every summer I would buy up as many college football pre-season preview magazines as I could get my hands on. Because I’m old enough that this was before the internet and so there was no other way for me to find out what kind of season Wake Forest could be expected to have?
There was no other way for me to find out the likely starting roster before the season started. That became a tradition that I carry on to this day. You know, I spend my summers reading as much as I can about the upcoming season. And I found myself back in Winston-Salem, the summer of 2007, Wake Forest was the reigning champion of ACC football, something I’d never thought I’d see happen in my lifetime.
Uh, otherwise it was one of the most difficult summers of my life. Um, just, you know, a lot of personal stuff going on and really a struggle to get through. And so I’d read all my pre-season magazines by July and needed something to get me through to kick off. I was really craving the start of college football, was really craving that continuity of going to tailgates and going to the games with my family. I write in the book, none of my problems that summer would line up and face me head on and so I needed that open collision that football provided, that kind of catharsis.
And so, in my job, I was working in publishing at the time and was talking to Jake Reiss at the Alabama Booksmith, and said y’all are crazy about football down there. Can you recommend a good book about college football for me to read? And he said, “yeah, you need to read The Last Coach by Alan Barra. It’s a biography of Bear Bryant.”
Sounds great. Send me a copy. And he did. And I read it and it’s an extraordinary book. It’s a book that came at just the right time for me because, I learned a lot about Bryant, of course, and about Alabama and Alabama football, but I really felt like I learned a lot about the South. I learned a lot about America and the American Century.
And I even felt like I got a pep talk from Bryant from beyond the grave, because the speeches that he’d give to his players: Are you going to quit? You know, it’s fourth down now, but someday you’re going to be 35 and your wife’s run off with the milkman. You’ve lost your job and your kids are sick. Are you going to quit then?” Heck no, coach. Let me at em. Put me back in there. I’m ready to go.
So I finished the book right before the season started. And then a couple of weeks later, I was in Atlanta for my job and I met a woman and we got to talking and found out she was from Birmingham, worked at the Alabama Booksmith and was a huge Crimson Tide fan.
And so I’m thanking the good Lord and trying to play it cool and mentioned, you know, I just read a biography of Bear Bryant called “The Last Coach,” do you know about this book? And she looked at me funny. And so I thought, well, I don’t know what’s going on there, but I’m going to change the subject. Uh, we hit it off. We stayed in touch. We’d call. We’d email. A few weeks after that, we were talking one night and football came up again, as it does often when she and I talk, and Bear Bryant came up and I asked her again, have you read “The Last Coach?”
And she says, do you have your copy handy? I said, yeah. And she said, check the dedication, page. She’s Alan Barra’s niece, one of the people that the book is dedicated to. And that was, let’s see, it’s coming up on 14 years ago and, come October, we will have been married 11 years. So, I owe Coach Bryant a big, thank you. Not only for getting me through that summer, but for helping me make that connection with the love of my life.
Reckon: Well, congratulations. Was it tough taking on that Alabama sportsdom? I mean is that part of your identity?
Southern: It’s strange because, uh, and I think it’s harder for me because Alabama has done so well. We met during Nick Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa. And so I tell this story in the book, we dated long distance for about a year and a half. And the first time that we got together specifically to watch a game together. She was working in New York. I was in North Carolina. We met in Washington DC, and it was the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta, Alabama playing Clemson, 2008. You asked me about the Alabama t-shirt, she had brought me an Alabama football t-shirt to wear, and I thought, you know, I’ve got no particular love lost for Clemson, but they are an ACC school. And I am loyal to my conference and I’m loyal to the friends that I made in Greenville, all of whom are Clemson grads and huge Tiger fans. But on the other hand, I love this woman and she loves her Crimson Tide. It was a real moral dilemma for me. Finally, as is usually the case, she won out and I put on the shirt and we watched Alabama absolutely demolish Clemson. And the thing that upset me was, I didn’t mind Alabama beat Clemson, what upset me was Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger calling the game kept saying, “and Clemson is the best that the ACC has to offer.”
It was like, oh God, now I feel awful for wearing this shirt.
And so we watched the game and I mean, frankly, you probably remember it, it got kind of boring there towards the end. Clemson finished with exactly zero yards rushing. And that was the first game, you know, Saban and the Tide have done it many times since, where they not just defeat an opponent in the season opener, but kind of reck ’em for the rest of the season. And so we leave the bar where we’d watched the game and we’re going back to our hotel and I’m walking down the street and someone hollers out “roll tide,” and I just keep walking. And then we go a little bit further and someone hollers out, “roll tide.”
And my wife nudges, excuse me, my then girlfriend nudges me. And I looked at them and they’re looking at me and I look down and think, “oh yeah, I’m wearing this t-shirt still.” And so what I said back was “thanks?” And finally the third time was the charm. The third time is when we were getting on the Metro, someone says roll tide. And finally I managed with a grimace to say roll tide back. And so I guess that was sort of like my knock three times, and I get in the club.
I would feel more comfortable taking on an identity as an Alabama fan, if Alabama wasn’t so dominant because I worry… you know, I don’t want to be a front runner. I don’t want to be a bandwagon jumper. It feels almost too easy to claim to be an Alabama fan in the Nick Saban era. You know, we have seen an exponential increase in the number of Alabama bumper stickers and window decals, even up here in Winston-Salem, in the—what are we up to now? 14 years since Saban took over in Alabama? I certainly root for the Tide and I’m cheerful even when they play the ACC. So far, I’ve been lucky, they have not yet played an ACC team that I particularly care about. They’ve played Clemson, they’ve played Duke . I told my wife, I’m going to pull for Alabama harder against Louisville than she does. But I’m still not sure that I want to, you know, to claim that as an identity, just because I don’t know, like something about it just feels almost like cheating.
Reckon: Well to close, one last question for you: In the course of reporting out this book, everybody should go pick up a copy of it, especially if you love college football or if you’re just interested in Southern history. What have you learned about the South that’s changed the way that you think about things?
Southern: If I had to sum up what I learned in a single sentence, it would be that however complicated you think the South is, it’s more complicated than that.
I think when you start looking at the history of the South and really looking at it and looking beyond the stereotypes and the myths you find it’s a lot messier in ways that you weren’t necessarily expecting. And some of that is in pretty innocuous ways. Like I was shocked to discover that the Atlantic Coast Conference was set up because of college football. Basketball was an afterthought at the time.
I was vaguely aware that Duke had been a football power. In fact, Duke hired Wallace Wade away from Alabama in the 1930s. That’s the easy stuff. You know, that’s the kind of innocuous stuff. I was really surprised to learn more about—this is an overused word, but I’m going to overuse it some more—the burdens that we’ve carried with us and that we’ve carried in often very unhealthy ways.
You can find a copy of Ed Southern’s book “Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South” at your favorite local bookstore or through Blair Publishing.