NEW ORLEANS – If you want to know the biggest reason the SEC is winning all these national championships, you have to look beyond the talent, the coaching, the facilities and the money.
You have to look at Anna and Walter Smith.
They're a Tuscaloosa couple that my friend Michael Casagrande of the Decatur (Ala.) Daily wrote about in November. The Smiths have taken to sleeping in their car in a parking lot every week to get good seats … for Nick Saban's radio show.
The week Alabama played LSU, the Smiths pulled their Ford Escape into the parking lot of Buffalo Wild Wings in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday morning, 35 hours before Saban's show aired. That's 35 hours early. For a radio show.
They ate their meals in the restaurant and slept in the car. The goal was to get the best seats for the show.
Here's the real kicker: They're not the only lunatics in town.
One of the Buffalo Wild Wings managers said the couple used to arrive around 2 a.m. the day of the show but were beaten out for first-in-line status once or twice. So they stepped up their game.
"I love my Alabama football – I always have," Anna Smith said. "Moved to Tennessee and stayed 20 years and never got converted. Never."
Of all the things to expend 35 hours of effort to see, I cannot think of anything less important than a coach's radio show. Coaches' shows are routinely awful. But that's the SEC.
I asked Saban about his overnight radio campers. He did not wince at the mention of them. In fact, he managed a small smile.
"The radio show probably won't be that good," he quipped. "But we do appreciate the support; our fans have been wonderful in the five years that we've been in Alabama.
"I think the fact that we have such a good team, that starts with our leadership and our administration, Dr. [Robert] Witt, our president, Mal Moore, our athletic director. And the fans and the passion they have and the enthusiasm they've created is much appreciated by our team and by us.
"And I think all that positive energy of everybody sort of working together to try to restore the tradition that Alabama has enjoyed, that passion, has contributed to that. So we have a tremendous amount of respect for it."
Respect, awe and perhaps even fear are appropriate emotions when describing SEC fans. Commissioner Mike Slive said the 12 teams in his league put nearly half a million fans in the stands for spring football games last year. Half a million fans for glorified scrimmages.
And when the real games start in the fall, the SEC annually leads the nation in attendance.
That, more than anything, is why the SEC is dominating the rest of America and will win its sixth consecutive national title Monday night. Because the fans demand great football. They need great football. They will go to any lengths – financially and emotionally – to support great football. They will buy tickets, build facilities, pay salaries. They will put players and coaches on a pedestal.
And if the football falls short of great, they will knock that coach off his pedestal, get him fired and try again with the next guy.
For a lot of SEC fans – by no means all of them, but a decent percentage – college football is the most important thing in their lives outside of family. A lot of them don't have anything else.
Pro sports don't rule the South. Neither do the arts, or a lot of other leisure-time activities that help diversify life in other parts of the country. In a lot of living rooms, barber shops and office buildings across the region, college football tends to be the bonding agent.
So the people just care more. The results matter more.
Too much? Yeah, probably so for some. There are deeply passionate, borderline obsessive college football fans in every part of the country, but more per capita in the South than anywhere else.
I remember covering a California-USC game in the L.A. Coliseum in 2004. It was a phenomenal game. The Trojans were ranked No. 1 and would go on to win the national championship. The Golden Bears were led by a junior-college quarterback named Aaron Rodgers. He completed 23 consecutive passes at one point, but Cal came up just short, 23-17.
It might have been Cal's biggest game since the early 1950s. It was the only game Cal lost that season. A couple of plays here or there, and the Bears might have played for a national title instead of the Trojans.
But as I was walking through the Coliseum stands postgame to get to the interviews, the Cal fans I passed were far from dejected. Great game, they said. There were a few smiles. They already were getting over the loss.
Having walked through postgame crowds everywhere, I know that SEC fans do not react that way after a loss. The craziest among them might even poison trees on a rival campus after a particularly painful loss.
He's here, of course. Harvey Updyke. He was out on Bourbon Street on Sunday night, wearing Alabama sweats ("Roll Damn Tide" they said on the back) and a houndstooth baseball cap. There's not a lot of shame in the alleged tree killer.
Out among his people, Updyke reportedly was something of a celebrity. Other Alabama fans got their pictures taken with him.
The famous and the infamous both attract a crowd these days. Reality TV stars often become big deals for behaving like fools. Maybe the Harvey Updyke saga is the college football version of "Teen Mom."
Or maybe fellow SEC football fans look at Updyke and see a little bit of themselves in him. They might not be criminally crazy. They might not be willing to poison trees. But they know where that urge comes from.
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