The Mundanity of Insanity, or: How to Be a College Football Fan Where It Matters Most

One of my proudest moments as an Auburn football fan came at a particularly low point. It was the 2008 Iron Bowl, and Alabama had just finished pummeling Auburn 36-0. Auburn’s glorious 2002-2007 run of victories against its archrival seemed like a distant memory. I watched what became known as “The Beat-Down in T-Town” hundreds of miles from Tuscaloosa, in a sports bar in Florida, where there were no other Auburn fans besides my sister and I, but seemingly hundreds of Alabama fans, each one practically frothing at the mouth over the long-awaited victory against their in-state foe.

As I made my way out of the bar, a hush descended upon the crowd. Knowing that all eyes were on me and my unwelcome orange-and-blue AU baseball cap, I decided to tip my hat on my way out the door. When I did, I left to a cheer. The Bama fans may have been delighted to see a defeated Aubie put in his place, yet what they also saw was someone who left the massacre of his team with his head held high.

It’s a bit of a cliché for those writing about the Iron Bowl to exaggerate the intensity of the rivalry. It’s just as much of a problem for in-state writers who know what they’re talking about as it is for outsiders who want to inspire fascination over the crazy rednecks in the South. While there is no denying the extremes that the rivalry brings out in people—and no, I’m not about to go on about Harvey Updyke—the disappointing reality of living in the eye of the football hurricane is that the state of Alabama is somewhat calmer and saner than football fans are led to believe. Somewhat.

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One of the more trustworthy witnesses to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry is Paul Finebaum, the controversial former Birmingham radio host and current ESPN pundit. He does a pretty good job explaining to outsiders what the rivalry is like in his new book, My Conference Can Beat Your Conference. Finebaum correctly compares Alabama fans to New York Yankees fans (with the caveat, of course, that no one from Alabama would ever want to be associated with the word “yankee”). He sees “a program soaked in success, its hands weighed down by championship rings.” Bama fans demand constant excellence and become downright neurotic when their team fails to win games by at least three touchdowns. Lord help them when their team loses.

Like Yankees fans, Bama fans don’t necessarily have direct ties to the university, or to the city of Tuscaloosa. And while I would never accuse them of being anything other than the most loyal fans in all of sports, I’m quite sure more Alabama bumper stickers popped up once Nick Saban got to town, the same way I imagine it worked in 1990s New York, once Joe Torre began bringing championships back to the city.

Auburn fans, meanwhile, almost always have some form of personal or familial connection to that school in “The Loveliest Village on the Plains,” myself included. I did not attend Auburn, but my parents met as students there, which means I more or less owe my existence to that particular public university.

Finebaum contends that Auburn fans are more like Chicago Cubs fans. “The clichéd way to refer to members of that Auburn family is to say they have a chip on their shoulder, that they want Auburn to be Bama when the program grows up. That’s wrong. Auburn folks are actually proud of that chip, proud that they’re not Bama. They embrace their uniqueness. I think they even embrace their inferiority.”

Ouch. While there is an uncomfortable amount of truth in that “chip on our shoulder, we like rooting for the underdog” analysis, he’s a bit off base with the Cubs analogy. For one thing, Auburn fans are much less fatalistic about the inevitability of losing than Cubs fans seem to be (see the rise and fall of Mr. Gene Chizik).

A better analogy can be made with the Boston Red Sox, and not just because that makes a nice comparison with the only rivalry in sports that truly measures up to the Iron Bowl. Like the Red Sox, Auburn is a team with a proud, tradition-rich history, and its fans have seen some of the most talented athletes in the world pass through (Bo, Barkley, and Frank Thomas among them). But like the Sox, there have been moments of brilliant success contrasted with instances of devastating failure (though, fortunately, no curses). Auburn fans have also had to endure the insufferable effects of their rival’s unparalleled success.

But unlike the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, there is very little that separates the fanbases in the real world, geographic, socio-economic, or otherwise. In a place where we must constantly tolerate neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members rooting for that “other” team, it behooves us to avoid some of the ugliness you see in other SEC rivalries—spitting, bottle throwing, verbal/physical assaults and the like (stately 100+ year old trees, however, are far less safe, but again, I’m not going there). We are all ultimately united by being Alabamians. Everyone, even Bama fans, carries a chip on their shoulder from having deep roots in a heavily stereotyped state with a troubled history, yet great football is the one thing we have going for us that no one with half a brain can deny.

What’s important to understand here is that the rivalry’s not only about obsession with the Tide and the Tigers. Simply put, we’re just really in to our football down here. Texas has a reputation for being the most football-obsessed state in the Union, but Auburn and Alabama fans unite in giving this notion a benign, condescending smile.

College football has an irresistible pull here, and its appeal is no mystery. In the world of sports, there is little to distract Alabamians from the ebbs and flows of the college football season. Alabama has never had a major sports franchise, but big-time college football emerged organically long before anyone started giving us credit for it. People do like baseball; Alabama joins most of the South in embracing the Atlanta Braves (myself included, which made for some strange emotions when Auburn played Florida State last year, whose fans enthusiastically performed the Braves’ Tomahawk Chop after first downs and scores). NASCAR is big, of course, and people watch NFL games, but more as a way of getting a football fix than out of allegiance to a particular team.

You’ll hear the (true) stories of how you have to pick one team or the other, and how, even in the heart of the Bible Belt, the answer to that question is more important than what church you go to (or don’t go to). You may also hear about the remarkable phenomenon that I witness every year: an entire state virtually shutting down on a Saturday in late November, a day when the small percentage of people who don’t care about football can get all their shopping done, so long as it’s not halftime.

Stories of families and friendships breaking apart over the rivalry are probably exaggerated, yet not uncommon. Even in my very civil family’s post-Thanksgiving gathering last year, the Alabama fans and Auburn fans were kept separate (the Bama fans upstairs with the HD television, while us Aubies were downstairs with the crummy old TV. Fortunately, justice was served in that now-legendary game).

What’s perhaps not discussed enough is the way you will hear a group of hipsters, or especially an office lunchroom populated only by middle-aged women, discussing college football as articulately as any fraternity house on the campuses of Tuscaloosa or Auburn. People may know how to keep a lid on politics and religion here, but don’t expect them to hold back on football matters. Always be ready for some ribbing, good-natured or not, from the rival fan base.

With the Nicktator and the Gus Bus rolling on this year, it looks like we will remain in a golden age of football in the state of Alabama for some time. For better or worse, when it comes to the sanity of our populace.