What is it that makes the Alabama football experience so . . . intoxicating?
Truth be told, I hated the Tide growing up. It was as easy as hating the Yankees, broccoli, and authority. And yes, there was that stand in the schoolhouse door. It colored all my perceptions about the South, no pun intended.
At the cusp of adulthood I was a poorly traveled West Coast liberal, unaware that I was as blindly prejudiced as I'd falsely perceived nearly all Southerners to be. I basked in a California bubble, fancying myself worldly, when in fact I was provincial. Little did I know what the universe held in store for me.
Fast forward 40 years.
The University of Alabama, hellbent on creating an academic powerhouse that--as the joke goes--the football team can be proud of, has decided to go after top scholars à la Saban. And then . . . the unthinkable happens. They offer my son a scholarship too good to be true.
Alabama? My son? Lord, give me strength.
Bear Bryant described the secret to his recruiting success succinctly. "Just get them on the campus," he said, "and they'll never leave." Was he ever right.
Over the past two seasons I've been privileged to experience Alabama football, both personally (through freshly opened eyes) and vicariously through my son, a newly minted "southern gentleman" (courtesy of the nicest folks we've met anywhere, black or white).
We attended the LSU game this past November and the passion, pageantry, and generally gracious nature of the spectacle was like nothing I'd ever seen. You don't have to care a wit about football to get swept up in the vortex of pride, joy, anticipation, and community that was generated. It was the kind of stuff that makes life worth living.
My wife doesn't know a first down from a safety and yet she was enthralled (in houndstooth and crimson lipstick, no less). And by Sunday at noon the campus and surrounding environs were immaculate. You'd never have known there'd been a party so large that it created human gridlock the day before.
Perhaps my friend put it best. Upon catching his first-ever glimpse of 'Bama the day before kickoff he marveled, "If Norman Rockwell were alive, he'd be painting this."
As we all know, the Tide suffered a crushing defeat the next day. Yet, the fans filed out of Bryant-Denny Stadium with dignity and class. There were no overturned cars, attacks on reveling Tiger fans, or whining. Alas, there was also no Rammer Jammer (my favorite guilty pleasure). That would have to wait a couple of months.
In a world of big time college football where most programs drain funds from needed academic programs, Alabama football is an anomaly. Not only does it support all other sports at UA, both male and female, it returns over a million dollars annually to the general university fund. It is populated by teachers and pupils whose singular goal is mastery of their craft at the highest level possible. Those who don't buy in or are unwilling to endure the pains of growth are turned out. It's an engaging and entertaining educational model on public display that inspires those who get it, and infuriates those who don't.
No, it ain't traditional academics, but as Mark Twain so aptly put it, "Never let schoolin' get in the way of your education."
As with any successful phenomenon, Alabama football also attracts fanatics, boors, and losers seeking to inflate their meager self-esteem through affiliation with achievements beyond their grasp. From time to time they blacken the eye of the very program they claim to love, but do not represent.
They are the minority and, as we've seen time and again, bruises heal.
Is Alabama football perfect? Of course not. But dang, isn't it exquisite?