I never had any problems in the short time I lived in the Deep South. My co-workers in Savannah, Ga., told me at times that I was nice for a Yankee, which is to say that thanks to Southern hospitality, I was very politely well-tolerated.
Still, there were times I felt as if I needed a passport. I also had never seen an entire aisle at the grocery store dedicated to grits, the way they had it at the Piggly Wiggly.
And while that life was a while ago, it was enough to give a sense of some of the bigger things at play Monday night in the Notre Dame-Alabama national championship game. This is a rivalry of the two greatest college football histories. But it’s also — especially to the people of the South, I suspect — between two symbols. This will be part football game, part culture conflict. It will be as if the line of scrimmage is the Mason-Dixon Line.
Alabama football is a way of life. And it also is the seat of football in the South. It’s a cultural icon. Notre Dame is the nation’s team.
Or, at least, the union’s. Those lines still mean something in the South. Strangely, there are still some hurt feelings about the Civil War, which, as I was politely informed while living there, is never to be called that, but instead the War Between the States, the War For Southern Independence or the War of Northern Aggression.
Kirk McNair, who has written two books on Alabama football, including “What It Means To Be Crimson Tide,” is in Florida, where he’ll see his 34th consecutive Alabama bowl game.
He disagrees with me on this, by the way. But even he points out that the rivalry between Alabama and Notre Dame started in 1966, seven years before they had ever played each other.
This is actually one of the great rivalries in college football, yet the teams have played each other only six times, with Notre Dame winning five. Bear Bryant, another cultural icon, never beat the Irish.
What happened in 1966? Alabama was trying to win its third straight national title under Bryant. But Notre Dame played for the tie against Michigan State and then didn’t go to a bowl game, as was its policy back then. The Irish finished ranked No. 1 over Michigan State and Alabama.
In the 1973 Sugar Bowl, the first time these teams played each other, Notre Dame beat Alabama 24-23 in what is considered one of the greatest games ever played. Afterward, according to Bryant in his book, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian wrote a letter to the Alabama coach talking about how much everyone had gotten out of the game.
“He said how much his group had enjoyed playing us,” Bryant wrote, “how wrong the impressions were beforehand.”
Apparently, the impression was that Alabama was a bunch of hillbillies.
Then, in 1977, Alabama crushed Ohio State and Woody Hayes in the Sugar Bowl, but, McNair said, No. 5 Notre Dame beat No. 1 Texas, and the Irish jumped over the Crimson Tide to No. 1, costing them another national title.
“Alabama feels that no team other than Notre Dame could jump from 5 to 1 over Alabama,” McNair said.
Of course not. Notre Dame gets preferential treatment, all the hype. But come on: Some Alabama fans are talking this week about getting revenge for 1966.
It was nearly 50 years ago. All that over football?
Not exactly. It was about culture back then, too, about Eugene “Bull” Connor and Gov. George Wallace and schoolhouse doors and fire hoses and police dogs, and about Alabama never having had a black player.
It was about national image. That’s why it has stuck so long.
“There was Alabama football sort of above it all,” McNair said. “It was something that people in the state could be proud of and not defensive about, something people hung their hat on.”
Still, that was a long time ago. And McNair said that he doesn’t believe the culture clash will be an issue at all in Southerners’ minds Monday night. He said that was in the past.
I don’t know. The inferiority complex is still there in the South, where people think Northerners look down on them. In some ways, they’re right about that, too. Already, T-shirts have popped up surrounding Monday’s game that read: “Golden Domers vs. Mobile Homers,” and “Catholics vs. Cousins.” It’s a play off the T-shirts from 1988 when Notre Dame played the Miami Hurricanes: “Catholics vs. Convicts.”
And if my experiences were a while ago, it wasn’t that long ago that NASCAR, a Southern sport, started putting its efforts into attracting Northerners, even changing some rules. The sport’s officials tried to clean up the image of the sport, which was seen to some as cleaning away some of its Southern roots. It has angered generations of Southern fans.
It has been a real issue.
And The New York Times recently pointed to two polls released just last year: A Pew Research poll showed that most Southern whites think it’s appropriate for politicians to praise Confederate leaders, while a CNN poll showed that roughly four in 10 white Southerners sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union.
I suspect plenty of Southerners still resent all the attention Notre Dame gets and see it as coming at Alabama’s expense.
It’s a strange inferiority thing from a fan base of the favored team, especially while Nick Saban is about to turn Alabama into a dynasty again.
If he beats Notre Dame on Monday, Saban will become a new cultural icon. And a rivalry might seem a little less one-sided.