The Magazine

There’s Still Football

Geoffrey Norman finds solace in football

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Whatever the reason for holding elections in November, it works out as a merciful thing. If your party loses, you’ve still got football to remind you of what is truly important in life. There is nothing like college football—not even politics—for passionate, irrational affections and loyalties. A Texas Republican, for instance, would rather vote Democratic than switch over to Oklahoma. He might even rather die. This is true despite the fact

Chris Morris

Face off

that the most successful coach in the history of Texas football played his college ball
at Oklahoma. 

Darrell Royal, who died the day after the elections, was one of those old-school coaches, famous for winning and for saying colorful things. Nobody, of course, would remember the colorful things if his University of Texas Longhorns hadn’t won so many championships. Royal’s most famous bon mot (as they say in Texas) came when he was asked if he planned to do anything different against some forgotten opponent. This is an exceedingly conventional sportstalk formulation: “Coach, you got here on the running game, but you’re facing a defense that has been rock solid against the run. Are you planning on doing anything different today?”

“Nah,” Royal replied, “we’ll dance with the one that brung us.”

After an especially hard-fought game, he said that there had been “some snot knocking in the okra.”

And when discussing the breaks of the game, he said, “The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every time.”

They don’t make them like that anymore. But they still play the game, and this year, it is the enduring nature of the game that you feel. There are four undefeated major college teams remaining, two of them iconic powers. And one of these has been resurrected from near oblivion. 

Alabama and Notre Dame are not football teams or “programs” so much as they are traditions and causes to which fans attach themselves with a fervor that is just short of religious. (And in the case of Notre Dame, maybe not short at all.) Even people who have never watched a single moment of college football know the names of the legendary coaches from each school: Paul “Bear” Bryant and Knute Rockne. 

Both schools had close calls the first weekend in November. Notre Dame needed overtime to put away a middling Pittsburgh team. Alabama got a last-minute touchdown to beat LSU. The game was played in Baton Rouge, on Saturday night, with the home crowd in its usual mood; which is to say, a state of howling-at-the-moon madness. Alabama’s quarterback, who is necessarily a tough kid, was weeping on the bench after he threw the game-winning pass.

It is possible, though not likely, that Alabama and Notre Dame will play for the national championship in January. For this to happen, both teams would almost certainly need to win all of their remaining games. This is no sure thing, but you wouldn’t want to bet against it.

However, even if both Alabama and Notre Dame should finish undefeated, they might not play each other to settle the thing. Alabama would certainly be in the national championship game but its opponent would likely be either Oregon or Kansas State, both undefeated and likely to remain so and both in front of Notre Dame in the various rankings.

A national championship game between Alabama and Oregon would be a clash of faiths. Oregon plays a version of football in which the defense takes the field just long enough for the offense to catch its breath before coming back to score yet another touchdown. Last weekend, Oregon defeated Southern Cal by a score of 62-51—and they were not playing basketball.

Alabama plays defense, and its fans believe that to do otherwise would be heretical. Some have suggested that this is because the only thing Alabama, the state, has ever been good at is impeding progress. One of Bear -Bryant’s favorite teams allowed a total of 25 points in an entire season, shutting out six teams along the way. Alabama and LSU have played three times in the last year. LSU won the first, 9-6. Alabama won the next two, 21-0 and 21-17. Numbers like that would represent a low-scoring quarter in most of Oregon’s games.

Still .  .  . it could be the Tide versus the Irish in this year’s “Game of the Century.” It has been almost
40 years since they last played head-to-head for the national championship, in a game that Notre Dame won by one point. That matchup, in January, would be a gift to the faithful from the football gods.

And whoever wins, as another of those coaches given to pithy remarks once said, “There will be a billion people in China who won’t give a damn.”


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