How the state of Alabama became the center of the college football universe

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, speaks with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn before the first half of the Iron Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, speaks with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn before the first half of the Iron Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Ala

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, speaks with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn before the first half of the Iron Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Dan is on the line, in all his florid Southern glory.

"Growing up, I loved two things," he drawls in a deep voice. "My grandma's apple pie and Paul Bear Bryant."

Dan is part of the flood of callers to Birmingham radio station WJOX's "JOX Roundtable" show two weeks back. Show hosts Ryan Brown, Lance Taylor and Jim Dunaway say they talk college football every single show, all year, and almost all of that centers on Alabama and Auburn. On this day, they are honoring my request for insight into why college football is better in the state of Alabama than anywhere else in the nation – why Alabama or Auburn has played for the national championship six straight seasons (counting 'Bama's inclusion in the College Football Playoff this season), a run unlike anything ever seen. This year marks the Crimson Tide's fourth run at a title since 2009, while the Tigers played for it in 2010 and again last season.

So the Roundtable guys opened the phone lines and I sat in studio scribbling notes. I exhausted two pens trying to keep up with the heartfelt and hilarious stories.

"I was working in Demopolis, Ala., when I heard Bear Bryant had died," apple pie-loving Dan continues. "I fell to my knees on the front porch. I think that was the worst day of my life."

But wait. There is a plot twist.

WJOX's Ryan Brown (L) and Lance Taylor host the JOX Roundtable in Birmingham, Ala. (Yahoo Sports)
WJOX's Ryan Brown (L) and Lance Taylor host the JOX Roundtable in Birmingham, Ala. (Yahoo Sports)

"When Bo Jackson came to Auburn, I started becoming an Auburn fan," Dan says. "… I got to where I wouldn't even say the name, 'Alabama.' "

Finally, Dan's granddaughter shamed him into at least acknowledging the A-word.

"The best things in this state," Dan says, "are our Auburn and Alabama football teams."

The next caller is Jason, who is quite a bit younger than Dan. And he is disgusted.

"What kind of person cries on the front porch when Bear Bryant dies, then flips to Auburn?" Jason asks. "He's lost his damn mind."

The whole state has lost its damn mind when it comes to Alabama, Auburn and college football. And the people are at peace with their insanity.

Why are the Tide and Tigers so good? It's pretty simple – because they have to be. For a great many, quality of life depends on it.

In three days touring the state, it became clear that the emotional investment in the sport extends far beyond passion, trespassing into urgency.

"I heard someone say, 'College football is what we do instead of dueling,' " said Alabama native, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Alabama writing professor Rick Bragg. "But I don't think that's right. It's not that refined. I think it's what we do instead of rioting. … The devotion and preoccupation has grown. It has not lessened. For good or bad, I think it's grown. It's swelling. … And over time comes the expectation. Anything less than being the best is insufferable."

The historic essence of it all was distilled for me on a blustery Tuesday afternoon in the northeast corner of the state – where the foothills of the Smokies begin rolling toward Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, site of a momentous Confederate defeat in a war that in some ways still echoes through the South's football culture of today. Longtime coach and Alabama native Dale Pruitt, whose son Jeremy played at Alabama and today is the defensive coordinator at Georgia, sat in an empty football film room at Plainview High School in Rainsville and explained: "It just means more. And that might be because we have less."

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John is on the line: "I think you're chasing a unicorn – it's hard to explain if you're not from here. … My family's schedule is dictated by football. That becomes the medium your passion goes through; Alabama and Auburn are the sides you're given to choose from. … Wives are sometimes chosen by the quality of her tailgate. Not many things in life can bring a family together like football. You use what you've got, and here we've got football."

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Alabama is the 23rd-most populous state in the nation, with less than one-fourth the population of Florida, less than one-fifth the population of Texas and less than one-seventh the population of California. Of the state's 4.8 million people, only 47 percent were male as of the 2010 census – ranking Alabama 45th nationally in percentage of males.

Yet they win titles here like nowhere else, and follow the sport here like nowhere else. The city of Birmingham TV market annually tops the Nielsen ratings for college football viewing. This year the state is hosting three bowl games, surpassed only by Florida, Texas and California. And Alabama also is home to the venerable Senior Bowl all-star game, played in Mobile since 1951.

The state ranks 47th nationally in poverty rate (16.7 percent of households) and 47th in percentage of adults with high school degrees (82.1 percent). By 2009 census figures, only 22 percent of adult Alabamans had a bachelor's degree or more college education.

Alabama fans hold up a sign during the Crimson Tide's 2014 win over Auburn. (USAT)
Alabama fans hold up a sign during the Crimson Tide's 2014 win over Auburn. (USAT)

"There's a lot of Alabama fans that have never been to Tuscaloosa," Pruitt said. "They'd have to ask directions on which way to go – but they love Alabama just the same as someone who graduated from there. They're just born into it."

They are born into the state's greatest bragging right.

It is not a place bereft of pride beyond football. It is by no means a place that only has redeeming value on fall Saturdays. The stereotype can be unfair in that area. But when you start a comparison contest with the rest of America, there is only one ranking where the state of Alabama is an undisputed No. 1.

Let Bragg describe the historical forces that shaped the state's psychological reliance upon college football. Like family fandom, it goes back a long way – to the aftermath of being part of the only region of the United States to be defeated in war.

"It's a retreaded idea, but this is what we've got to be proud of," he said. "There are those of us in the state who don't agree with that, but it does have a deep historical basis in fact. Go back to Reconstruction: this was truly a republic of suffering. … As the century ended, things did not improve much. Jim Crow Laws took hold, and what you read and heard about us was after dark.

"Then comes the Great Depression. … But around that time a bunch of boys from the University of Alabama get on a train and go out to the vaunted Rose Bowl and put their stamp forever on the college football world."

That was Jan. 1, 1926. After several other schools declined, the Crimson Tide was invited to the first bowl game in school history, and a matchup with heavily favored Washington. College football was scarcely respected in the South at that point – it was a game with Eastern beginnings that spread to the Midwest and the Pacific Coast, and nobody thought the teams from downtrodden Dixie could compete.

This was a game fraught with significance far beyond the 100-yard field. Even Auburn's president sent a telegram to the Alabama contingent in California that read in part, "You are defending the honor of the South." That honor had been trampled for long enough, and here was a chance to restore some of it.

In a contest referred to as the birth of football in the South, Wallace Wade's Alabama team proved itself – and uplifted the South – by upsetting the Huskies, 20-19.

Bragg, on when the train carrying the Crimson Tide returned home: "People without shoes and wearing faded overalls and floursack dresses – millworkers, farmers, people who worked a one-acre tract – stood on the side of the railroad and cheered those boys."

Even as poverty wracked the region, Alabama would claim four national titles in the next decade and play in five more Rose Bowls over the next 21 seasons, not to mention the Cotton, Orange and Sugar. Along the way, the Southeastern Conference was formed in 1933, and more Southern schools joined the Crimson Tide in the pursuit of a bragging right that got the attention of the nation at large. Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn and LSU all claim national championships between 1928-58.

Gary, another JOX radio caller, said his dad – a gunner in the Army Air Corps during World War II who hailed from Blocton, Ala. – would listen to all the bowl games on Armed Forces Radio in the barracks. For Southern soldiers, this was a chance to stand taller among their peers.

Alabama players hoist Bear Bryant after the team ended its undefeated 1966 season with a win over Auburn. (AP)
Alabama players hoist Bear Bryant after the team ended its undefeated 1966 season with a win over Auburn. (AP)

"He always pulled for the Southern teams," Gary said. "There would be bets between the troops, and the Southern guys would win their pack of cigarettes or whatever they were betting that day. That Dixie football pride is probably what brought it down to the next generation."

But as Bragg noted, the birth of a football powerbase dovetailed with more national shame. The African-American push for equality in the 1950s and '60s was resisted most bitterly in the South – Alabama prominently included.

"The region becomes shorthand for the very worst of the civil rights movement," he said. "And it does seem, 'Here we go again.' But out of that struggle, in come athletes who changed the world of college football. And again, we put our stamp on it and beat the best."

Auburn and Alabama won national titles in the 1950s and '60s with all-white teams, but the ethical and pragmatic end to segregated football was in sight – it was a benighted stance that put programs at a competitive disadvantage. Southern schools were the last to recruit black players, finally welcoming in players who had been starring for years at Historically Black Colleges in the SEC's backyard. Auburn signed its first black scholarship player in 1969, Alabama in 1970.

In a region with the highest percentage of black population in America, this was the piece that would guarantee staying power for Auburn and Alabama. In addition to recruiting Birmingham, they began tapping the rich rural African-American talent in the state – the so-called Black Belt, that covers much of the lower third of the state, and down into Mobile on the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, this was true elsewhere around the South as well. Fully armed with the talent in their backyards, Southern schools have won or shared 24 national titles since 1973. And the SEC competition has been ratcheted up along the way.

"An Auburn guy, [former athletic director] David Housel, compared it to the Greek city-states – our strong, big boys can go beat up your strong, big boys," Bragg said. "And we can all share in that glory. In the South you had these city-states beating on each other something terrible. Then we go out and put a hurting on everyone else."

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Richard is on the line: "I consider myself a stable person. I have a wife, four kids, I'm a lawyer. But nothing is more important in life than Alabama football. I'm not the best father, I'm not the best lawyer, but Alabama football is the best of the best. I would give my life to my country, but if Bryant-Denny [Stadium] were under attack, I would have no problem going down to defend it and giving my life to defend it."

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From the WJOX studio, you can look out the window and see two significant cultural landmarks: Legion Field, once known as "The Football Capital of the South" and the site of many Alabama games and all the Iron Bowls for decades; and Elmwood Cemetery.

Elmwood is the final resting place of The Bear.

The employees at the Elmwood main office know the location. If you follow the red dotted line on the road through the cemetery, it leads you to a pair of red arrows. They point toward the simple headstone that reads:

Paul 'Bear' Bryant's gravestone. (Photo: Yahoo Sports)
Paul 'Bear' Bryant's gravestone. (Photo: Yahoo Sports)

Paul William Bryant, Sr.

Sept. 11, 1913

Jan. 26, 1983

Bryant's funeral was televised live statewide. Televisions were wheeled into school classrooms so children could watch as the procession wound its way to Elmwood.

A week before Christmas, someone has placed a small bouquet of plastic poinsettias at the grave. Twenty pennies dot the edges of the marker. The oldest dates to 1961 – the year The Bear won the first of his six national titles at Alabama. That's not likely a coincidence.

If the SEC resembles a confederation of Greek city-states, Bear Bryant is the Greek god. He is Zeus. In the nine-decade epic that stretches from the Rose Bowl train to today, he is the central character.

An end on 'Bama's 1934 championship team, he was brought back to his alma mater to coach the Crimson Tide in 1958. This was a time when the Tide had to combat the rising power at Auburn, where Shug Jordan had won the national title in '57 – and also won four straight Iron Bowls by a combined score of 128-7. As has so often been the case, one rival forced the other to get better or get left behind – and being left behind is intolerable.

Nothing would be the same after Bear arrived. The substance of his coaching acumen was clear on the field and in the record books, but along with it came a signature personal style that is almost worshiped to this day, more than 30 years after Bryant's death. The houndstooth, the growling voice, the iconic pose leaning up against goalposts during pregame warm-ups – you may have seen pictures of the Alabama fan with a full-back tattoo of Bryant in goalpost-lean position – only embellished the legend.

"I grew up watching Paul Bear Bryant coach football," Bragg said. "I grew up with the legend. There was a growling, mumbling mysticism around Bryant."

The Bear's growl was matched by his bite – in addition to those national titles, Bryant for a long time held the all-time FBS record for victories at 323 at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama. Most of those (232) came as coach of the Crimson Tide, and they came in all form and fashion: with segregated teams, with integrated teams, with star passers, with the ground-bound wishbone offense, and almost always with defense.

As former coach Bum Phillips famously said: "Bryant can take his'n and beat your'n, and then he can turn around and take your'n and beat his'n."

Most significantly, he beat Auburn with regularity. Bear went 19-6 against the Tigers, including a string of nine straight from 1973-81. But his final Iron Bowl was a 23-22 loss to his former assistant, Pat Dye, who had come to the Loveliest Village on the Plains the year before.

If Auburn was going beat The Bear, it would hire one of his own to do it.

________________

Will is on the line: "I think people have this backward – there's nothing to do other than Auburn and Alabama football because who would want to compete with it? Who wants to put on a play of Shrek the musical on a Saturday night? … I'm engaged, and my fiancée wants to get married in October. My whole family vetoed that. We'd have 150 people RSVP and 25 people show up."

Lance Taylor, the co-host: "The biggest no-no we've got: fall weddings."

Ryan Brown, the co-host: "One year Auburn and Alabama had the same bye week. Every wedding in the fall in Alabama was on that weekend. Every church was booked."

Soon Will's fiancée, Savannah, is on the line to defend the indefensible wedding timing: "I am definitely standing by it. It's just one Saturday, I think they can do it. … I think [Will] is going to suck it up. We may just have to change the time, if it's a big game."

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Bobby Humphrey grew up in the housing project across the street from Legion Field.

"I could throw a rock and hit Legion Field," he said. "I parked cars there and sold Cokes in the stadium."

As a high school star in Birmingham in the early 1980s, Humphrey had to make an excruciating decision: Alabama or Auburn?

"If you were good enough for Alabama to recruit you, then Auburn was recruiting you," Humphrey said. "And you were stuck dead in the middle trying to decide."

'Bamanation' hot sauce and 'Saban Sauce' on sale at the Mobile, Ala. airport. (Yahoo Sports)
'Bamanation' hot sauce and 'Saban Sauce' on sale at the Mobile, Ala. airport. (Yahoo Sports)

There were no family ties pulling him in either direction – he was the first person in his family to go to college. The decision didn't come until the 11th hour – he committed to Alabama and signed his national letter of intent the same day.

And aside from Dan, the guy who dropped to his knees when the Bear died but became an Auburn fan, allegiances never change. Humphrey's son, Marlon, currently is redshirting at Alabama. They have become a legacy family.

There are some old friends of Bobby's who still hate the fact that he chose the Tide over the Tigers.

"We're friends again," he said. "Until it gets closer to playing each other. Then we draw that line in the sand.

"We get joy out of pulling for our college teams, and some people get joy out of pulling against the other college team."

Tom Banks came out of Birmingham a couple of decades before Humphrey, and his recruitment was totally different. He was going to Auburn from the crib.

His father played at Auburn in the leather helmet days and became a high school coach, raising the oldest of his seven kids to be a hard-nosed center. And even though people consider Birmingham an Alabama stronghold, Banks and the guy he played with from eighth grade on – a quarterback named Pat Sullivan – both went to Auburn.

"I got asked to come to Tuscaloosa and meet Coach Bryant on more than one occasion," Banks said. "I didn't want to. I wanted to go to Auburn and didn't see the point of making a visit where I wasn't interested in going. The people that go to Auburn love it so much, they have a connection and a heritage. Alabama has a lot of subway alumni – they may only set foot on campus on gameday."

Although Banks grew up in Birmingham, he joined all other Auburn fans in rejoicing when Pat Dye forced the Iron Bowl to be played at each campus instead of at Legion Field. The day Alabama had to come to Auburn for the first time – Dec. 2, 1989 – still ranks alongside the Tigers' national championships as the most important athletic moments in school history.

But just as Dye was the Auburn response to Bear Bryant, so did Gene Stallings become the response to Dye at Alabama – winning a national title in 1992. When Tommy Tuberville got the upper hand at Auburn earlier this century – beating Alabama an unprecedented six straight times – something needed to be done. And that something was Nick Saban, paid an enormous sum to leave the NFL and resuscitate the Tide.

"Obviously, he's the best football coach in the world – and Alabama people insist on that," Bragg said. "[Former Alabama athletic director] Mal Moore told me, 'All we want is to be in the conversation again.' It struck me, 'Oh, is that all we want?' Alabama people don't want to be in the conversation. They want to be the conversation.

Alabama's Nick Saban (L) speaks with Auburn's Gus Malzahn after the 2014 Iron Bowl. (AP)
Alabama's Nick Saban (L) speaks with Auburn's Gus Malzahn after the 2014 Iron Bowl. (AP)

"Saban helps remove chances. The Auburn game last year proved that there is always chance. In the SEC, it's always going to be a knife fight in a ditch. But he does help lessen the chance of defeat."

With Saban dominating, Auburn responded by firing Gene Chizik just two years after he won the 2010 national title and replacing him with offensive mastermind Gus Malzahn. To which Alabama responded by paying Saban $55 million not to go to Texas, then hiring former Tennessee and USC head coach Lane Kiffin to juice up its offense. And after 'Bama strafed Auburn for 55 points in November, the immediate response by Auburn was to fire its defensive coordinator and bring in former Florida head coach Will Muschamp at a whopping $1.6 million a year.

The facilities arms race is ongoing. The stadiums continue to swell. And so do the salaries paid to the coaches who simply cannot afford to lose to the other side.

"No Alabama-Auburn outcome is quiet," wrote Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News after Muschamp was hired. "The game echoes, loudly, and for the losing side, the more quickly you can do something to muffle those echoes, to wrench the conversation away from the scoreboard and on to the future, the better a fan base feels."

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Lance Taylor, WJOX co-host, on whether Alabama and Auburn fans have been able to root for each other during this championship run: "I think the politically correct thing is to say, 'I'm going to root for the state.' But I wonder, at the end of the day, when Florida State was driving [against Auburn last year in the BCS championship game], how many Alabama fans were rooting for Auburn to hold? I'd say 80 percent of these fan bases hate the other team."

Ryan Brown, co-host: "Hibbett Sports' top two selling hats most weeks are Alabama, and whoever is playing Auburn."

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It's probably true that no college football fans cherish victory like those in Alabama.

It is undoubtedly true that no college football fans are wrecked by defeat like those in Alabama.

"Ole Miss can win the party – that's fine, we'll give them that," said Bragg. "But when they beat Alabama this year, it's like the taste goes out of the air."

When you can't taste the air, you don't want to taste anything else. Bob Baumhower was a star defensive lineman under Bear Bryant in the 1970s, then went on to be a star defensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins under Don Shula. Today he lives in the Mobile Bay area and operates 14 restaurants, including Bob's Victory Grille locations in Tuscaloosa and Auburn – and when the local teams lose, he knows it.

"I don't know if you'd call it a catastrophic experience," Baumhower said. "But if Alabama loses, it definitely hits me in the pocket book. We'll be down 20 to 30 percent. It's definitely a cultural thing that creates some behavioral tendencies that surprise you.

"You see a lot of things at the table, including what people are thinking. One of the things you see very clearly: it is damn important."

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Jason is on the line – the guy who thought Dan "lost his damn mind" by switching sides from Alabama to Auburn. Jason is an Alabama fan, and he plays in a band.

His band was playing in a wedding on Oct. 4, when Alabama was playing Mississippi in the game Bragg says took the taste out of the air.

A view of rolled trees near Toomer's Corner the day after Auburn beat Alabama in the 2013 Iron Bowl. (USAT)
A view of rolled trees near Toomer's Corner the day after Auburn beat Alabama in the 2013 Iron Bowl. (USAT)

Jason and his bandmates were in the basement of the location for the reception, watching the game. It was time to set up and play – but the game was going down to the wire, and nobody wanted to miss the ending. Among those glued to the basement TV was the groom's father.

The father of the bride, whom Jason said is an Auburn fan, was not amused by the tardy band. He went downstairs and fired them on the spot for caring more about the Crimson Tide than their wedding gig.

After the game ended, the father of the groom – an Alabama fan – rode to the rescue. He reached into his wallet.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "Set up and play for two hours. I'll take care of it."

More proof of the perils of fall weddings in Alabama. You can't get hitched in October without a hitch.

And you cannot go anywhere without feeling the pulse of football hammering through the veins of the people. It meant more here 90 years ago, and it means more here now.

"It may not be as romantic as a Rose Bowl train or Bear Bryant leaning against the goalpost at Georgia Tech," Bragg said. "But it's still fun, ain't it? It still comes down to whether our'n can beat your'n."

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