A Yankee football fan heads to Alabama to witness the glory of Coach Bear's court
Author Paul Flannery
THERE ARE FEW MORE USEFUL PHRASES in the Alabama lexicon than “roll Tide.” It can be used as a greeting, a rebuke, an exhortation, a farewell or even a signifier of camaraderie between complete strangers.
I’m sitting in The Houndstooth, a bar near the University of Alabama’s campus in Tuscaloosa, enjoying some Big Bad Wolves BBQ nachos and a SweetWater pale ale, when a round of applause erupts around me. A Georgia running back has just ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run against the hapless Tennessee Volunteer defense. This delights me as a UGA fan, but it also seems to please my Crimson Tide-clad neighbor, as evidenced by his low cackle.
“Heh-heh-heh,” he says. “Excuse me,” I say. “Are you happy that Georgia scored, or that the Vols are losing?”
He considers this for a moment, then says, “Son, I’d drive through the gates of hell just to avoid the state of Tennessee. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes, sir, I believe it does,” I reply, before lowering my voice to a confessional whisper. “I’m actually a Georgia fan.”
“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Dawgs,” he says in return.
“Roll Tide,” I offer. He nods. “Roll Tide.”
EVER SINCE I CAN REMEMBER, I’ve been a hard-core fan of college football in general, and Southern football in particular. The problem is, growing up in the Northeast I never had the opportunity to take in the spectacle of a major college football game. And it doesn’t get any more major than the University of Alabama.
The Crimson Tide are the reigning kings of college football, having won two of the past three national championships. This was thought to be their rebuilding year, but, after steamrolling Michigan in the opener and hammering Arkansas, they are once again undefeated and on top of the polls when Ole Miss comes to town. So, to fill that glaring hole in my college football experience and complete myself as a fan at long last, I make the trip south to catch the game.
When I arrive at the Quad eight hours before kickoff, the tailgates have already been up and running for a full day. Under tents and awnings, fans gather to grill vast amounts of meat and watch the early games on flat-screen TVs, the signal carried via portable satellite dishes. Everything from folding chairs to baby strollers is colored Alabama crimson. The encampments are guarded by inflatable versions of Big Al—the Tide’s elephant mascot—while recordings of ‘Bama’s marching band blare from massive sound systems. This is no free-for-all, but rather a highly organized operation with preassigned plots and an information tent in the middle to help folks find their parties. It’s boozy, yet more laid-back than its pro counterparts.
Leaving the bacchanalia behind, I wander past the cluster of RVs by the law library to check out the Paul W. Bryant Museum. It’s a shrine to both its namesake legendary coach and the majesty that is Alabama football. The Bear’s importance can’t be overstated. For 25 years, he stood watch over his boys in his trademark houndstooth cap, winning six national titles and demanding not only perfection on the field, but also victory with class.
The museum’s effect on ‘Bama fans is not unlike that of the Holy See on devout Catholics. Grown men stare transfixed at the Bear’s office, which is just as he left it when he retired after winning the Liberty Bowl in 1982. Prompting almost as many cellphone pictures is a symbol of more recent success: a Gatorade-stained shirt, displayed under glass and bathed in soft light, worn by current coach Nick Saban during last season’s championship game.
The position of University of Alabama head football coach is said to be the second most important job in the state, after university president and just ahead of governor. The rest of the state (at least the part that doesn’t truck with Auburn) takes its cues from the coach. A detail-oriented and methodical man, Saban talks endlessly about the process, and it’s not uncommon to hear everyone from plumbers to state senators parroting his lines.
Replacing the Bear hasn’t been easy. There have been seven or eight head coaches in the past three decades— depending on whether you count Mike Price, who was fired before ever coaching a game—as well as a number of scandals off the field. But with the old-school Saban, the Tide today have the perfect coach to satisfy a demanding congregation. In an era of garish uniforms and flashy offenses, the Tide wear crimson and white, only crimson and white, and combine a smashmouth offense with a destructive defense.
Saban’s teams are relentlessly disciplined machines. Eight players from last year’s championship squad were chosen in the NFL draft, including four first-rounders. His players go to class and graduate, an obvious point of pride on campus. And, of course, they win.
AS GAME TIME APPROACHES, the sights of the SEC come alive. Among these are the coeds in brightly colored sundresses who stride through the Quad on platform heels or in cowboy boots. Nothing will stop the women of Alabama from appearing in their traffic-stopping finest (not even injury: I count half a dozen knee braces and just as many walking boots).
Many of the ‘Bama boys are dressed in the standard uniform—khaki pants, white oxford shirt, blue blazer, red tie—and sport the same moppish haircut. Some wear buttons proclaiming “Beat Ole Miss”; others opt for “Go to Hell, Auburn”; a few go with the more sensible “Beat Everybody.”
That Alabama-Auburn rivalry, incidentally, is not to be taken lightly. A marriage between graduates of the two institutions is known locally as a house divided. I happen upon a ‘Bama woman who is married to an Auburn man. When I ask if this causes problems, she says, “Oh, hell no. I’d never fly that flag. He just needed a good woman to help him see the light.”
Across the street from the Quad, at the university president’s antebellum mansion, congressmen, judges, university trustees and assorted other power brokers gather at a pregame reception to talk football and politics until the blaring of police sirens announces the team bus’ approach to the stadium. “Kind of makes you choked up,” one immaculately dressed partygoer tells me. She appears to be genuinely teary.
By nightfall, the excitement in the stadium has reached a fever pitch, matching the stifling humidity. When a highlight montage plays, the eyes of 100,000 people are locked on four massive video screens. For fans, these moments from the Tide’s storied history are as memorable as, say, their own wedding day: Van Tiffin’s 52-yard field goal that beat Auburn, Cornelius Bennett’s sack against Notre Dame, George Teague’s strip against Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, and so on.
When the game finally kicks off, a young woman behind me in the stands can no longer take it. She screams above the throaty din, “I LOVE FOOOOOOOTBAAAAAWL!”
A few turn their heads and reply, simply, “Roll Tide.”
PAUL FLANNERY, who teaches journalism at Boston University (a school with no football team), has suddenly developed an overwhelming desire to wear houndstooth.