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The Wicked Game

The narratives about the Tide’s defeat are coming fast and furious, but the long view will smile on what Bama has done.

WICKED---03/01/05---The Touring production of Wicked rehearses, Cast includes Stephanie J. Block, pl Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

You will see many common themes woven into the tapestry of the 2016 college football season. Some have been years in the making, including yet another “End of the Dynasty.” There will be Death Star references to Darth Saban, and there will be passing-of-the-torch articles, and college football fandom will breathe a sigh of relief that the national nightmare is over. Less “The King is dead, long live the King,” and more “Ding Dong, the Witch is dead.”

History will bend toward the latter, but not for the reasons you think. Oh, the parallels are there.

A Brief History of Oz

If you are like most, your first exposure to Oz was the classic 1939 movie, starring Judy Garland. It was in many ways ahead of its time, with the blending of black-and-white and color film to divide the film. It was the Inception of its day. Mind-blowing stuff. (And even more mind-blowing, just look at the lengths people have gone to blend “The Wizard of Oz” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”)

The movie has been the subject of much dissection and interpretation – almost as much as the original source material. L. Frank Baum’s original story has been seen as an allegory of many things, including a very popular theory that he was talking about monetary policy of his day, and debates over the Gold Standard.

(There were some very ugly elements of his larger story, as it appears that the winged monkeys represented the savage native Americans, whom he believed should have been wiped out as part of the white man’s manifest destiny.)

In the days following Clemson’s last-second heroics, you’re going to see a lot more of the “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” variety. Which is fine, because nothing captures the moment like a bunch of small, petty people rejoicing in a result they had nothing at all to do in creating.

Oz Revisited

The 1939 film is the gateway through which nearly all pass, but there is much more to Baum’s universe. Several books, and a richer Machiavellian struggle among the various villains who want supreme reign. There have also been a couple of modern revisions worth your attention.

Promotional poster for Tin Man
Promotional poster for Tin Man

A SciFi (before it became SyFy) miniseries called “Tin Man” took the children’s story and extrapolated it out: what if the events of “The Wizard of Oz” really happened, in some steampunk dystopian manner – and the movie that we got was really the child-friendly interpretation of those events. It certainly adds layers of character development and motive. The villains are not quite so evil, and the heroes not quite as certain about their nobility.

Then there is “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” a book by Gregory Maguire that became the current Broadway musical. In this context, the “Wicked Witch” is not evil personified, but simply misunderstood. She is feared more for what she represents than for anything she has done, other than to succeed and persevere and make good decisions.

In the end of the book, Elphaba (she even has a name!) dies, but it is strongly hinted that she will rise from the ashes. The end of the musical has Elphaba staging her death, and spiriting off to her own happily-ever-after with Fiyero (the prince whom Elphaba saves, by turning him into a scarecrow.)

Time and Perspective

One day, decades from now, historians will look back upon the way college football used to be played. A field with odd dimensions, and arcane rules about touching and neutral zones. And oh, the violence! Remember when the game was rife with violence?!?!

They will marvel at the savagery of the people who watched those bloodsport spectacles, and they will look back with the perspective of one who is seeing college football as a complete historical canon. We won’t have their perspective, because you can’t see the label of the jar you’re in. But they will have the time and patience to look at it all, in total.

And in the end, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide will not be the villain. Not by a long shot. They will be the pinnacle of achievement in the sport. A run like no other, a sustained level of excellence that transcends mere chance. They will not be swayed by petty jealousy nor partisan allegiance. They will not rejoice that “Bama wins are so boring!” They will not be banging out narratives to feed the beast of content marketing, chasing clickbait and trying to stir up passion and hatred like whores for attention.

They will look back, in a cool and calculated manner, and wish they could go back and see what it was like to live and breathe and swim in that environment. When games were important, and fueled the passions that made our dreary existence tolerable. (They will have access to travel and technologies that we have not yet fathomed, and will rightly wonder how we roughed it under such rustic conditions.)

The Next Chapter Begins

Congratulations to Clemson, for bringing your guts and a game plan, and never wavering from either. You have now taken the first step in understanding the real difference between attaining excellence, and sustaining it. Ask Michael Phelps. Ask Bill Russell’s Celtics. Ask Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.

(Okay, don’t ask the Bruins. We have had enough of Bill Walton already.)

Study the Packers of Lombardi. Marvel in the Patriots of Belichick.

But sleep with one eye open, because you have something none of those “dynasties” had: 128 teams gunning for you, and only 13-15 opportunities to prove it. This is the beauty and the marvel of college football. Every game does matter, dammit, and there is pressure like no other. That is why college football stands in rarefied air. Only the Olympics bring us such do-or-die moments – and they only happen every four years.

Next season starts today, and we are all undefeated. We all start from the ground. You have won a championship, but you are years from proving that you can Defy Gravity.