There is football, college football and then there is University of Alabama football. A visit to Tuscaloosa for the night game against Ole Miss was an eye opener, dispelled many stereotypes and provided me with a renewed appreciation for SEC football.
I kept being introduced as having come for the game from Athens, followed by a pause and the clarification Greece, not Georgia. This unfailingly got a laugh and provided me with all kinds of access and recognition. No doubt, I was given the red carpet treatment.
While touring the football team facilities, it became obvious that they were state of the art and not exactly Spartan. But neither were they posh or luxurious. Functional is the key word.
What caught my attention was a huge billboard with a high definition photograph of three players, designated as the students-athletes of the week, having achieved the greatest academic improvement over the previous seven days. The stereotype is of course that academics don't matter, that college football players are mere human fodder for a huge cash making machine. But right in front of my eyes was palpable encouragement, acknowledgement and recognition of the importance of studying and learning and not just dominating opponents. Problem is, unless you have access to the inner sanctum of the training facility (and almost no one does), this positive emphasis remains unknown and unacknowledged.
In fact, I would go even further and argue that the vibe that I got from the facility was that of one large classroom, the emphasis being on teaching. I understand that this sounds almost counterintuitive, but as a University Professor, I would like to think that I have a certain feel for such things; and if Coach Nick Saban is running first and foremost a teaching program that may well be at the source of his phenomenal success.
Walking around the beautiful and clean campus, I came across the Denny Chimes, a 25-bell carillon. There was something special about this place. Football players who excel are often remembered and celebrated in their alma matters. But the University of Alabama takes this to another level. A Hollywood level to be precise. It is well known that Gauman's Chinese theatre in Hollywood has a forecourt with many a star's hands and feet imprints in cement. Well, the University of Alabama does the same thing for its football team captains and co-captains. It is thus only a football related activity that can bestow upon a student such a unique blend of recognition, gratitude and immortality.
Being a devoted New York Jets fan, I dutifully photographed Joe Namath's imprints (and locker room). Which brings me to the famed, fully deserved, hard to surpass Southern hospitality. Mere hours after meeting a wonderful person who quickly understood my devotion and affection for Joe Namath, he presented me with a framed photograph of Namath with Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, personally autographed by Broadway Joe. "I know that it will mean a lot to you" he said, almost reducing me to tears. Only in the South!
Later during that big SEC game day, I paid my respects to the "Bear" Bryant Museum (of course there is a museum dedicated to him). Surprisingly, some of the visitors broke into spontaneous applause while watching decades old achievements on a video display. This simply goes to show the emotional resonance that football continues to have in the South.
Alabama is well known for its checkered history of racial relations. But I am pleased to report that I saw absolutely no incident suggesting any race-related animosity. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was rooting for their teams that were mostly comprised by young African-Americans (nor to mention that most of the music blurting out of the speakers was hip hop).
While watching the game there were several Ole Miss supporters around us who were never heckled or bothered in any manner, despite their often wild celebrating. As far as I can tell, University of Alabama football fans simply do not tolerate expressions of violence, racism or bad manners. Period. Everyone is in essence overly friendly (and yes, this extends to the cheerleaders who were happy to be photographed with us having pre-game field level access).
One vignette perhaps best sums up for me the character and excellent future prospects for both college football in the South and the South itself. Sitting right next to me was a proud Alabamian father with his six year old son. At some point the kid asked him: "Dad, why is Colonel Reb not Ole Miss' mascot anymore?" His father gave a pitch perfect reply: "Because it is inappropriate."
As far as the actual game was concerned, it was a rollercoaster ride payed in a unique atmosphere that only 102.000 rabid fans could provide at the Bryant-Denny stadium. The University of Alabama lost 43-37 after committing five turnovers and suffering the results of what may well be the play of the year.
I left Tuscaloosa late that night with a sense of wonder and deep satisfaction, perhaps now a true concert to the mystique of Southern football. University of Alabama football is simply unique!
Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University Of Piraeus and Standing Fellow at New York University's Remarque Institute.