The game between Alabama and Georgia, Monday night, had some of everything. Perhaps it would be better to say that it had it all. Or as the purest fan of the Georgia Bulldogs or the Alabama Crimson Tide might put it, this wasn’t life or death; it was a lot more important than that.
Researchers and students of the game have never been quite able to account for why college football means so much to its most fervent fans. Why they will paint their faces in the school colors. Drive a thousand miles in an RV (also painted in the school colors) to tailgate with their brethren when the team is playing on the road. Why they name their kids after their team’s legendary players or coaches. Why, in short, they go emotionally all-in over a game played by men who are, most of them, teenagers or barely into their twenties and are not even being paid. (Not much, anyway, and none of it above the table.) There is a wonderful irrationality and tribalism about the whole business. It touches some atavistic part of us, which is why the scolds of the world hate it. Violence? Clannishness? Yuuuk.
This modern day tribalism is nowhere more intense than in the South. No surprise there. And among the most clannish of fans are those from Alabama. But those from Georgia are not far behind.
The state of Alabama became accustomed to winning, championship football in a time when it didn’t have hardly anything else; when life in the state was pretty much captured in those haunting Walker Evans black-and-white photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers, their faces etched with the woes of poverty and hard luck. Meanwhile, the University of Alabama was sending teams across the country, by train, to play in Rose Bowl games. One of the Alabama star players actually made it in California as an actor in Western movies. Johnny Mack Brown was his name.
Another Alabama player who made the cross-country trip to play in a Rose Bowl was a young man from Arkansas named Bryant. First name, Paul. But known to history — and the football gods — as “Bear.” He was head coach of the Alabama football team for a quarter of a century. His team won six national championships.
After he was gone, the Tide wandered through a Wilderness of coaching turnovers, recruiting scandals, mediocre seasons and, most intolerably, frequent losses to archrival Auburn. Something had to be done.
So the faithful found themselves a coach. One of the people who was charged with tapping possible donors for the cash it would take to get Nick Saban to come to Tuscaloosa once said to me, “I’ve done a lot of fundraising in my time and that was the easiest it ever got. There were plenty of times when I’d be just getting into my pitch and I’d be interpreted with two words. ‘How much?’”
It was money well raised and well spent. Saban came to Tuscaloosa in 2007 and national championships followed. Four of them as of Monday night when a fifth was on the line.
But if you are an Alabama fan, you can never get enough of those things. Going by the fever of the Alabama fans in Atlanta on Monday night, it might even be that the more you get, the more you want.
But, then, you may want them just as much when you keep coming close and the thing just slips through your fingers. That is the University of Georgia’s story, anyway. They hadn’t won one since 1980 and the last time they were this close, it was 2010 and their team was playing Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Georgia came up short… by five agonizing yards.
This time, Georgia fans smelled opportunity. They had a new coach, hired off Saban’s staff, and his team had gone out to California to play in the Rose Bowl. The Bulldogs (“them Dawgs,” if you are one of the faithful) finished the Oklahoma Sooners in an overtime thriller.
Then, it was back to Atlanta and bring on the Tide.
And them Dawgs looked ready and meaner than the kind commonly associated with junkyards. Behind a freshman quarterback, they led 13-0 at halftime and Alabama was lucky to have scored that many. The Tide’s offense was flatter than last year’s yield curve.
Nick Saban is not known as a gunslinger coach. He doesn’t take big chances; preferring, instead, to trust in what he calls “the process.” Lots of practice and preparation, after which you stick to the game plan and execute.
Unless you are down 13-0 at the half. Then you pull a quarterback whose record as a starter is 25-2. And you replace him with a freshman.
The change worked. Tua Tagovailoa has what is technically known as “a cannon for an arm.” And he was cool and composed even after throwing an interception. He brought the Tide all the way back and with seconds remaining and the game tied, the Alabama kicker came out to finish things off with a short field goal.
He missed. Evidently, the gods were not yet done with this one. They were having just too damned much fun.
Georgia managed a field goal on its first possession in overtime. They sacked Tagovailoa for a huge loss on the first play when it was Alabama’s turn. The Tide was now out of field goal range for even a good kicker, much less one who had just shanked an easy game winner that would have earned him immortality and his team a national championship.
Tagovailoa dropped back on second and a whole bunch, looked off his receivers to the right, then picked up DeVonta Smith, another freshman, streaking down the left sideline, wide open. The ball dropped into his hands like a gift from the now-appeased gods.
Alabama won the national championship.
A wonderfully modest and innocent Tagovailoa said all the right things in the post-game interview. Except, that is, for some stuff about his savior, Jesus Christ. This made his interviewer so uncomfortable that it came through the ESPN satellite and into your television set.
People best get used to it. He is a freshman, after all, and you have to figure that he and Nick Saban and the Tide will be back.