OPINION: Full Circle
Alabama has what A&M wants, but don't forget to welcome its fans
Published: Friday, September 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 13, 2013 00:09
The worst I got was a hybridization of “Gig ’em” and a slur as politically incorrect as they come. The second-worst I got from an Alabama fan was a sign on the door of the Crimson Tide, season-ticket-holding family we were staying with that read, “The door is locked, enjoy the car.” But that note hung on an unlocked door.
By rights, we ruined Alabama’s season. Some creative poll shuffling and the unlikeliest of heroes (Baylor) nudged the Crimson Tide into the BCS National Championship game. But Alabama’s year should have been over that Saturday in Tuscaloosa last November.
A first-year SEC program had just filched a championship ring from a top-five most devoted fanbase. A Sumlin-powered vacuum sucked the air out of Bryant-Denny Stadium — I got to witness it on scene — and the second-worst I got from that fanbase was a joking note (and breakfast on the table the next morning).
Alabama fans aren’t more or less altruistic than ours or any other fanbase. I doubt each person respected my friends and me from the goodness of their hearts. No, southern hospitality is a real thing, and SEC kinship is just as real, but that’s not what made those Alabama fans so great. It’s this: Alabama fans know football.
Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings are legends in Tuscaloosa. They’re legends here too. That means something in Tuscaloosa, a place that values its history almost as much as a certain tradition-oriented former military institution I know. Football fans, mostly those in Alabama, celebrated Bryant’s 100th birthday Wednesday (Bryant died in 1983) because that’s the kind of thing Alabama fans do.
History mattered in the respect I was given, but the present sealed it. Those 40 fans (or 50, or 60 — Alabama fans aren’t shy) with whom I interacted had just witnessed something. An out-of-nowhere quarterback had shredded the nation’s best defense.
That ’Bama defense gave up 26 first-quarter points all season; the Aggies accounted for 20 of them. Either they were still reeling from the shock, or they understood what they had seen.
And they gave that performance its due. Fair and square. The guy who jumped in front of us outside the stadium and karate-chopped our stomachs while yelling, “I hate you but I also love you and your quarterback is incredible” — he understood what he had seen.
Our universities’ intertwining goes beyond Bryant and Stallings, because we have Nick Saban’s crew to thank for the Johnny Football myth — for the “first freshman to win the Heisman” tidal wave. If sports broadcasters hadn’t spent months framing Alabama in “could this team beat an NFL team” questions, the Tide would have been just another team.
The Saban myth perpetuated the Manziel myth. Legend begets legend. It took more than a win over an ordinary coach or an ordinary team to catapult Manziel past the limitations he faced.
We introduced the Tide to Johnny Manziel, and he came back to town as Johnny Football. We could, I suppose, further extrapolate Saban’s significance to the situation and — if we dig hard enough — find a way to blame him for the buzzing swarm of media bees that have engulfed this University in recent months.
So that’s what comes to town Saturday. Not another SEC team, or a coach with a vendetta, or a depth chart teeming with NFL talent on both sides of the ball, or even the defining dynasty of the BCS era. On Saturday, Manziel confronts his genesis.
Aggies should realize Alabama still represents things Sumlin hates and things Sumlin wants. Saban is the recruiting giant Sumlin has shown glimpses of, and Saban is old-school football incarnate, something Sumlin certainly isn’t.
Aggie fans are emotional. Let’s keep it that way. But I think we need to admit we weren’t ready for the Manziel rollercoaster, and we’ve shown lapses in judgment. We haven’t respected the guy’s space or kept a level head on Twitter. You don’t need a reminder. Aggies pride themselves on the way they treat visitors.
But I wrote this in a column after that win last season, and I’ve been waiting to print it again: “When [Alabama fans] come to town next year, Aggies, treat them with class. Pull out the stops, because they did that and more for us. In the interim, remember this game for the moments. The madness on Twitter or the beautiful mockery we made of the BCS rankings, Swope taking a pop and coming up screaming or Manziel putting the ball on a dime for Malcome Kennedy in the end zone.”
We’re too far invested to watch this game like everyone outside College Station and Tuscaloosa will — with objective, for-the-love-of-football detachment.
This is, if we’re being conservative, the biggest Aggie game of the millennium. This town will be a nuthouse Saturday, and I’ll love it. Win or lose, I’ll see you at Northgate. But watch out for that emotion. Save it for the yells.
Alabama fans love football, just like you and I. Treat them with respect.