Despite his choice of curriculum, my dad's football allegiances have always been for Alabama. He grew up cheering the Tide through the 1960s and '70s, and didn't switch his allegiance just because of where he attended class.
(Note: I once asked my dad how he managed to survive during his collegiate years — his response: "It was the '70s ... nobody really said much of anything to me about it.")
Like most little boys, I wanted (and still want, in a number of ways) to be like my dad. And that meant being an Alabama fan. That's just the way it was.
Dad was also wise enough to raise me with a healthy amount of perspective. Auburn people — as I've said before — are our friends, our family, our fellow citizens. This is a fact of life: we can't avoid them and they can't avoid us. So we've all got to live together, however passionate we are about our teams.
(Note: As I'm saying this, I should add that the whole mantra of "I root for Auburn/Alabama as long as they're not playing Alabama/Auburn" isn't really true, either. No one actually does that. The closest we can come is saying we don't actively cheer for the other one to fail. Unfortunately, most people can't even live up to even that low a standard.)
It's in that spirit that the events of this offseason thus far have troubled me. The Alabama-Auburn rivalry — call it "The Iron Bowl" if you wish — has always been an intense one, no question. When we play one another on the field, we want nothing more than to beat one another's brains in. That's the way football is supposed to be played.
One thing that's always struck me about attending those games, however — and I've now been to every one since 1995 — is how (relatively speaking) friendly the rivalry actually is. Alabama-LSU games always feel like life experiences: I was always just happy to leave them not in an ambulance. Alabama-Tennessee games are terrifying — particularly in 2005, I thought CNN was going to show up and broadcast one of those soccer-style riots.
The Alabama-Auburn game has the same amount of passion, but not the same edge, at least for me. I've been to every game since 1995 — an improbable streak when I think about it — and one thing that's always struck me is how closely the two schools relate. Perusing the stands before kickoff, you'll always find orange-and-blue and crimson-clad fans sitting together, all part of the same big party. Only one time have I ever been a part of an Auburn game where I feared things might break down: during the fateful 1999 game, when a group of Alabama students and drunken fans stupidly attempted to roll Toomer's Corner in celebration of that big victory (for more, read Warren St. John's "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer"). Even then, cops separated the two crowds, and everybody kind of shrugged and moved on.
Shrugging and moving on is not what's happening right now between the two fan bases. Reports are swirling all over the Web about it: Auburn fans are monitoring every move Alabama makes in an effort to nail us down for NCAA violations. Alabama fans are responding in kind with each Auburn recruiting effort, including the most recent "Limo Tour" and "Big Cat Weekend."
It was bad enough that my cousin Jamie — an Auburn guy from birth — sent me the following text message yesterday:
However these cheating accusations/facts, whatever they are, turns out, it's going to get ugly(er) between the two institutions. It's getting to the point that neither program will be able to breathe without getting turned in. And it's just the fans.
If 'Bama or AU go Albert Means on anybody, they should be punished. But this is getting to be an unhealthy obsession.
There's some precedent here: the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry, which was a clean, relatively respectful rivalry until Roy Adams and Phillip Fulmer turned it into "Gossip Girl" in the latter part of the last decade.
(Yes, Alabama was cheating. Yes, Alabama should've been called out for it. We all admit that. But there were better ways to handle it than by meeting with the NCAA in secret like a third-grade tattle-tale.)
The point is that Fulmer and Adams made it clear by their actions that they were no longer just trying to beat Alabama on the football field. They were trying to ruin Alabama football. They were trying to destroy it.
That changed the rivalry from a football game into something else. Beating Tennessee took on a greater importance, because each success against Tennessee showed they were failing. We were surviving. We were persevering. Tennessee and their army of NCAA flunkies could go straight to hell.
Let me also be clear about this: that shift in the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry wasn't a healthy one. Football rivalries are meant to be contested on the football field, not by hiring private detectives or attempting to prove the other is cheating. And my concern is that's where we're headed, as Brent said recently.
A suggestion was offered that maybe our little band should take to the atomic red and gray blast pattern notion that if it is to be war then let it be that none survive. ... In theory it is a fine notion, go Captain Ahab on those four toed watermelon humpers and burn the whole league to the ground if necessary. Rash and violent action has its charm, but there is more constructive junk that a person can do to employ their time beyond hiding in a drainage ditch with a disposable camera. Auburn can do whatever the hell they want, and I wouldn't give the change and old Cheetos fragments from under my couch cushions to have three guesses and two free vowels to be in the know on the dirt. Real people get hurt in these things, and who really gives two shakes of a goats ass (stop touching yourself Auburn fan) about hiding out in some kid's tree house trying to use the gear you scored from radio shack to stop the cheating. What a riot! How do you explain that to the wife?
Unfortunately, I'm not sure what's the answer here. Recruiting keeps expanding and expanding — yes, it's fair to argue that the recent pushing of boundaries by Auburn and Tennessee is a direct response to the recruiting acumen (and effort) of Nick Saban at Alabama — and the more it does, the more attention media and fans pay to it (instead of doing what normal people do during June, like going to the beach or watching afternoon baseball).
Just know that I'm not the only one who doesn't like where we're headed. To quote Jamie again (this time via email):
Though AU and UA are psycho about which one has the upper hand at the time, I think the SEC in general along with the insanely over-hyped business of recruiting, this could get bad enough to ruin the conference. Southwest Conference was pretty strong at one time too. I may be wrong but I think you'll find that's what helped bring that conference down.
And it shouldn't be that way. We're all going to have to work together, worship together and live together when all this is settled.
Let's not lose ourselves over something so petty.