‘Don’t you all take your football seriously?’

By Tom Mattingly

These “rivalry games” in the SEC sure are fun, even though they are very intense from start to finish, 365 days a year. The banter on the chat boards, supposedly uninhibited, wild, and wooly, is part of the contentiousness of today’s society. It does, however, attract a bunch of thin-skinned people. There’s no slight or remark that can’t be blown up into something way out of proportion, bulletin board material as some people say. The language can get colorful, far beyond the bounds of a family newspaper.

As an example, Tennessee people have often called the University of Memphis “Tiger High,” even the 1970s-era fan who once suggested that a new Memphis mascot be called the “High Tiger of Tiger High.” Things also get particularly heated in the Bluff City, with Memphis, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and the Vols having substantial fan support in Shelby County and West Tennessee.

Over the years, Bear Bryant called Auburn “Cow College.” He once called the Auburn football office early, early, early in the morning. When he was told nobody was there, he said, “Don’t you all take your football seriously?”

When Alabama and Auburn were slated to play in Auburn in 1989 for the first time ever, bumper stickers appeared on autos owned by Alabama fans, saying simply, “Your ass on your grass.” Since that day in 1989, Alabama has won multiple times in Auburn, and Auburn likewise has won several times in Tuscaloosa.

When Auburn blocked two punts late in the fourth quarter to win 17-16 in 1972, the Tigers achieved some measure of revenge with bumper stickers reading, “Punt, Bama, Punt.”

As head coach at Auburn, Tommy Tuberville, now U. S. Senator Tommy Tuberville, once held up five fingers, supposedly symbolizing five straight wins over Alabama, part of a streak that reached six before it finally ended.

Tennessee linebacker Steve Kiner, proud possessor of three wins over the Tide during his 1967-69 Vol career, chastised Alabama players for not playing better for Bryant in the 1969 game at Legion Field. The final was 41-14, and it really wasn’t that close. That was also the day Vol fans chartered a plane to fly over the stadium, pulling a banner that said, “Welcome to Big Orange Country.”

“Look over there at that poor old man,” said Kiner late in the game. “He looks pitiful. Can you see him? You should be ashamed of yourselves. I remember when there was some pride in wearing those red jerseys.”

(For the record, Tennessee won the next year in Knoxville, then Alabama won each time out between 1971 and 1981, before the Vols won four in a row between 1982 and 1985. Such are the vagaries of history.)

We’ll probably learn very quickly what the Texas and Oklahoma people call their opponents when they come into the SEC next season. Get used to “Boomer Sooner” and “Hook ‘em Horns” and no telling what else.

Steve Spurrier once said, “You can’t spell Citrus without U.T.” and “God sure smiled on the Gators today.” Winning players or coaches invoking the Deity is always cause for some grumbling from the losing side.

Vanderbilt students have always considered themselves among society’s elite, suggesting that U.T. students will be working for them in their post-collegiate lives. Gerry DiNardo wouldn’t say “U.T.” when he was head coach at Vandy, calling it, “That university in the east end of the state. “There were once signs in Memorial Gym that called Vandy “THE University of Tennessee.”

Other SEC schools, except Georgia, saw Auburn as too small, too country, too whatever, to host a major college football game. All they did in response was beat people’s socks off on a regular basis. Other schools now regularly go to Auburn, even Alabama, the folks who once said “Never” about a trip to the Plains.

Nebraska players and fans weren’t exactly enamored with Tennessee when they played in bowl games in 1998 and 2000, and that was when the Cornhuskers were winning. Tennessee talked a good game about being tough, they said, but didn’t back it up on the field. The Vols did manage a win over the Cornhuskers in the 2016 Music City Bowl, but that somehow didn’t seem to matter to many Vol fans.

In any event, there’s something special about the ambience of college football, on and off the field. The venues are special, as are the rivalries. Gen. Neyland told Lindsey Nelson he would prefer the games be played in empty stadiums, unburdened by the presence of fans. Those of us who have followed the SEC over the years can’t imagine that would ever come to pass. That would be the ruination of weekends in the fall. What would we ever do without college football?