College football kicked off over the weekend and the universe has finally come into alignment once again. And it crossed my mind — not for the first time — how different college football is in the South compared to the rest of the country.
I will make a few observations from my own perspective.
Maybe it would behoove me to give what I think is a cultural explanation as to why there is such an avid following of college pigskin action versus the NFL below the Mason-Dixon Line. I’m sure some of you have thought of this, some of you absolutely could care less, and the rest of you are passing the time, but I’ll go ahead and dive in.
The reason the NFL is not nearly as big in the South as compared to the rest of the country, for us yokels at least — yes I am including myself in this so don’t go getting offended — is nothing more than demographics and population driven.
The NFL’s franchises are based inside of metropolitan areas and quite frankly until the 1960’s the South had no cities that could sustain one. But by then, the love of college football had been ingrained into our culture and society as concerns our football diets.
The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints were the first of the merger — AFL and NFL — teams to take the field, and while expansion over the years had brought others into the fold, including the Carolinas with the Panthers and some Florida teams to harvest the Snowbird dollars, there just hasn’t been an alternative to the Saturday afternoon junkie’s fix.
The SEC with its traditions at LSU, Auburn, Alabama, and Georgia to name a few — and no Gamecock fans, just playing in the SEC doesn’t qualify as tradition.
Names like Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice, Eddie Royal, Bear Bryant, and any number of other famous gridiron legends in the South, evoke a different image. The NFL hasn’t been able to quite capture the spirit that being a fan on Saturday has.
Having seen a lot of NFL football, living in Kansas City and being a Chiefs fan since the drafting of Steve Fuller, I have had the opportunity to see the differences. I have tailgated all over the South for college football, and even though some of the NFL cities do a fair job of it — Green Bay comes to mind — there is just no comparison to the pregame festivities.
The funny thing is, it’s hard to say what the difference in the two really is and I am rarely at a loss for words. Let’s just say there is an electric feel in the air at the college level the way we do it down here that even lifelong, season ticket holding fans in the NFL can’t capture.
Then there’s the loyalty factor.
Don’t get me wrong. I have friends who prefer the NFL and buy every new draft pick’s jersey and are all about discussing the virtues of the new roster each preseason, not to mention the odds of making the playoffs.
But, for me, that doesn’t compare to recruiting, red-shirt freshmen, and returning seniors who could have made the jump to the pros. It seems each season is brand new, at both levels, but the potential of an incoming freshman seems so much more intriguing than some free agent who just made a signing bonus equal to the Gross Domestic Product of most South Pacific island nations.
Even if we are fooling ourselves, I think the average Southern college football fan has convinced themselves the kids on the field play for the love of the game. And somewhere deep down inside, I believe that’s one of the reasons we take it so seriously.
In the end, the reason we have a love affair with collegiate football is simple. There were no local NFL franchises for far too long and with so much geographical separation, the local colleges were the only way to go.
That’s where the hometown hero was born, Andy Griffith became famous for his bit on college football at UNC-Chapel Hill, and things so inane such as Howard’s Rock, Cocky, the singing of Rocky Top, and even that irritating chant of “Georgia, Georgia, mighty Georgia” on a Saturday afternoon find a significance that would be seen as insane or silly in other places.
I don’t really care why, if the truth be told. All I know is, when the September weather begins to cool and campuses across the South come alive with thousands of tailgaters, I miss being in the broadcast booth and travelling all over the South to watch the leaves change amid footballs in the air.
D. C. Moody is a staff writer for The Easley Progress, The Pickens Sentinel and Powdersville Post and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.