By Kolby Paxton
Fans and alumni of the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University are different in many ways; a profuse, abounding, abundance of ways.
In large part, OU students and alumni see Stillwater as a nothing town, full of sheep and cattle, the highlight of which may be found at the local Buffalo Wild Wings; far removed from the refined comfort zone found along the edge of Oklahoma City’s cup runneth over. The Cowboys, easily entertained as they are, remove the charm thought to be inherent with Wranglers, boots and a sun dress in acutely obnoxious fashion, otherwise thought to be limited to the swamp-infested marsh that harbors those hayseed Cajuns at Louisiana State. Degree seekers in Norman would choose to hook ’em at the University of Texas before they’d suffer through more than a Thursday night in motionless h2o.
Said degree, itself, is precisely the problem with OU, though, if you ask a ‘Poke. As in, most Sooner supporters don’t have one from the very school they claim as their own. Of folks yelling “Boomer” on any given autumn Saturday in Norman, no more than 1-in-3 have actually attended the school – even fewer own a degree from the institution. This drives the orange-adorned masses absolutely bananas. There’s nothing quite like defending your university versus the Evil Empire to a guy from East Central, mind you. As for those with actual ties to OU? Aggies describe them as uppity, assuming, even downright haughty. Their intensity and grossly over-inflated sense of self-worth makes establishing and/or re-establishing camaraderie next to mission impossible.
It seems, however, that there is one point upon which the rival fan bases can agree: Hating the Southeastern Conference.
Unlike the source(s) that may be typically attributed to such outward and unadulterated abhorrence, this particular distaste cannot be chalked up to geographical, cultural, or even philosophical differences – at least, not entirely; not chiefly. Oklahoma State and Arkansas share a generally cordial disposition toward one another. The same can be said for Oklahoma and Alabama. Moreover, universally common ground may be found in everyone’s aversion to LSU fans. This isn’t a surface wound. This isn’t houndstooth versus straw hats.
No, Nas, the urban philosopher of Brooklyn, may have summed this one up best when he surmised that we simply hate that which we cannot conquer.
Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series, the SEC has won nine national titles collectively – including seven straight. And while your cousin’s boyfriend would have you believe that the league’s dominance has been limited to the exploits of Nick Saban and Cam Newton, such is simply not an accurate depiction of the circumstance. Prior to the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, 42 percent of the conference owned a BCS championship trophy; nine crystal footballs are scattered across five of the now 14 member institutions, from Knoxville, Tenn., to Gainesville, Fla.
Of course, the tired rebuttal to such grandstanding includes semi-coherent ramblings regarding the SEC bias that is allegedly exalted by the Worldwide Leader, and therefore contaminates the BCS. Child, please.
If anything, the BCS has worked to relieve the country of a far more substantial level of southern fried overload.
Don’t forget, before Oklahoma was dismantled at the hands of Southern Cal and Ashlee Simpson’s vocals in 2004, an undefeated Auburn squad featuring the likes of Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams and Jason Campbell was shut out of the title game. Don’t forget, on three separate occasions since 1998, the SEC has finished the regular season with three teams ranked inside of the Top 10 – the BCS draws the line at two bids per conference. Most recently, a season ago, sixth-ranked Arkansas was exiled to the Cotton Bowl; punishment for the aptitude of Alabama and LSU.
The league placed 42 players on NFL rosters last April. The Pro Bowl will feature 20 former SEC standouts, including 14 starters; ten players topped the AFC depth chart, alone. Five of the 15 winningest programs of the past decade reside down south; nine of the top 50. Admittedly, that is an annoying level of achievement, leaving little wonder as to the root of such outward invidiousness.
Only, all of that winning, all of that production, it doesn’t adequately explain the vitriol aimed in the general cyber-vicinity of those of us so bold as to suggest the notion that Notre Dame was, for the first time this season, exposed to “grown man football” on Monday evening.
I would be amiss to ignore the lonely trigger amid the statistical bravado; that which is but a simple chant, yet explodes as a crescendo of collective pride near the tail end of those all-too-familiar demolitions of the Buckeyes, Seminoles and Sooners of the world.
Nas also suggested that folks fear what they don’t understand, and though fear likely exists to a reasonable degree, egotism suppresses this emotion. Instead, confusion fuels indignation, and I get that. I absolutely get that. No one is bellowing about the Big Ten. “A-C-C” did not echo throughout the Georgia Dome when Clemson upset LSU in the bowl of chicken.
Of course, if it did, it wouldn’t bother you. Listening to the confused medley of Pac 10’s and 12’s would be laughable – not maddening. But the sound of DawgNation, in the wake of destroying previously unbeaten Hawaii, reminding anyone within earshot of the league they call home? Repugnant. Why? Well, for starters, because you’re sick of hearing it. But, also, because you just don’t get it. Why, in the aftermath of a bowl win in Jerry’s World, would the Razorback-faithful opt for a unified conference chest thump versus a hog call? Why, a year later, was Aggieland so eager to remind the Sooners – a team that has historically owned Texas A&M – of the new league in which they reside?
Why was Alabama so proud of the SEC? And why on earth was the rest of the SEC so proud of the Crimson Tide?
In actuality, the concept isn’t really too difficult to grasp, and it has nothing to do with bandwagon jumping or coat tail surfing. Fans of SEC schools are fans of the SEC because the alternative is loathing the league and longing for a retreat to the Big East. Players, coaches, students and supporters of these football-playing institutions understand the arduous grind that is the regular season, and it is an understanding that one can only gain through experience.
A lot was made of a Notre Dame schedule that featured road tilts at Southern Cal, Oklahoma and Michigan State (ranked 1, 4 and 12, respectively, during the pre-season), a group that finished the season with a combined record of 24-15. Yet, outside of the southern region of the U.S., not much was said of a three-game run for the Tide that included trips to then-unbeaten Mississippi State and LSU, followed by a visit from Johnny Manziel and the Aggies.
As dominant as Alabama was in Miami, Fla., on Monday, the Crimson Tide were five yards away from the Capital One Bowl. While the rest of the country celebrated the coming playoff system, Southeastern Conference members shrugged with indifference. “Down here, we’ve been playing a national semi-final for years,” they said. “Awfully kind of the rest of y’all to show up.”
‘Bama may have been far superior to the Fighting Irish, but they weren’t far superior to Georgia and Texas A&M, who weren’t far superior to Florida and LSU – who weren’t far superior to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. See where this is headed? Outsiders complain because a two-loss team from the SEC can still navigate its way to the main event. Meanwhile, those within the league scoff at the ignorant dismissal of the hell through which a group must wade just to get there.
There are no bye weeks in the SEC – well, except for Kentucky and a Gus-less Gene Chizik. There is no Kansas. There is no Colorado, no Boston College. In sum, there is no margin for error. A cupboard full of talent cannot overcome John L. Smith, just as Gary Pinkel cannot overcome a barren cupboard. Good enough to compete in the Big 12 isn’t necessarily good enough to compete in the SEC.
We’re looking at you, Mizzou.
In much the same way as the oppressing elements of summer two-a-days unify a team, the unforgiving demands of the conference slate similarly bond southerners from Fayetteville, Ark., to Columbia, S.C. Trial and adversity breeds solidarity among those affected; such is human nature.
In this case, the affected are also the inhabitants of a slew of red states; a relevant variable.
To see the SEC as merely an athletic conference, to assume that the pride that exists therein is simply a byproduct of winning football games, is to view the phenomenon amidst the depth of a lazy river. The SEC is a subculture, an admixture of hospitable southern capitalists, dark liquor and an affinity for tradition. In most cases, it’s an inheritance, a predisposition that follows an individual through adolescence and into adulthood.
You see? The SEC wins more because the SEC, in sum, contains better players playing better football for better coaches, but that isn’t ample explanation for why three letters have turned the 107 miles separating College Station and Austin, Texas, into what suddenly feels like 1,000.
Oklahoma is the winningest program in modern day history. Texas is the most valuable, by far. Victories and exposure didn’t turn the Big 12 into some esoteric occult – or even stabilize the league, itself, for that matter. The ACC nabbed Virginia Tech and Miami – and a combined three BCS title game appearances – in 2003. The move didn’t create some regenerative social movement along the Atlantic coast.
The Southeastern Conference means just as much to the plaid-clad business major in his boat shoes and Croakies, just as much to the Zeta in a cocktail dress, as it does to the blue chip wide receiver listening to Kevin Sumlin’s sales pitch. It’s just a different sort of different in the south. At West Virginia they burn sofas, at Cal they hang out on a hill. In Norman, folks reenact the Land Run of 1889, claiming and reclaiming real estate upon which to construct a tent each Friday morning prior to a home game. All of that is cool – torching love seats a little less so – but that isn’t this.
This is slacks, high heels and outdoor chandeliers, fused with Southern Comfort, southern pines and southern drawls – on gamedays, too. The fact that the best damn brand of football on God’s green earth is found in this part of the country is a source of dignity, to be sure, but it’s nothing more than an auxiliary to a grander way of life.
The chant, itself, is a tip of the houndstooth fedora to the lovelies in The Grove, a good ‘ole Rammer Jammer to be shared with the Pride of the Southland. You don’t like it? Fine. But it won’t stop Dixie from heeding the advice of one Anthony Burgess.
“It’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it,” he said. “To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going.”
There aren’t many things that southerners do better than football, but, as it happens, celebrating is one of those things. And with as many as six teams likely to be ranked near the top of the 2014 pre-season Coaches Poll, where the SEC is headed appears sure to aggravate the rest of the country every bit as much as where it’s been.