Gotcha. As Howard Cosell famously said, "I never played the game." We won't deal with whose team is best, whose defensive coordinator has got to go, or who deserves the Heisman Trophy. There will be no X's or O's drawn here. However, an affiliation check is expected of anyone writing about Football. So--I have a degree from Auburn. My mama went to Auburn. I'm for Auburn. Can we get on with this?
What I really want to do is gripe about the confusion of a visible football program with a quality education. When my son was a high school junior looking toward college and the possibility of playing post-secondary football, he received letters from schools like Wofford and Elon. These institutions, time-tested and respectable I'm sure, had not exactly been household words up 'til then. We had conversed about or visited the University of North Alabama ("I could walk on there!"), Auburn, Troy ("I'm not big enough to play there!"), and Jacksonville State ("I wonder why they didn't recruit Jim Bob?"). I don't recall my son ever asking me the average GPA of any of these schools' freshman classes.
I noticed the extent of the confusion when I was still a high school counselor. I would interview seniors at length every September to make sure their post-high school planning was on track. A typical interview went like this:
ME: Have you decided what you'll do after graduation?
SENIOR: Going to Alabama.
ME: Excellent. What majors have you thought of?
SENIOR: Ima play football.
ME: Really? Are you playing football now?
SENIOR: Nope. Got to get my grades up.
ME: Oh, right. Do you have any idea what it takes to get into the University of Alabama?
SENIOR (hopefully): Good grades?
More recently, I encountered this from a senior swaddled in red and white:
SENIOR: Roll Tide!
ME: War Eagle. So you're a Bama fan. Which of your family members attended Alabama?
SENIOR: None that I know of.
ME: So you're from Tuscaloosa.
SENIOR: Nope. North Carolina.
ME: So shouldn't you be wearing a Tarheels shirt?
SENIOR: Who're they?
Argh! Not only does football seem to guide educational choices, it appears to control the map as well.
In an effort to awaken an awareness of what an array of colleges there are in and outside the State of Alabama, and to remind kids that colleges are not NFL farm teams, I brought my gaggle of junior- and senior high school students two sets of survey results. One was the U.S. News & World Report listing of the top 50 public universities in the United States. I wanted my young scholars to know that even though the majority of Alabamians don't get college degrees, those who do can boast of a better than average, if grueling, 4 years at our two largest schools.
"Coming in at #31," I announced, "is the University of Alabama."
"That's bad," grumbled a sophomore Alabama fan.
"No, no, that's quite good," I admonished. "Do you know how many public universities there are in the United States?"
"About a hundred?"
"Thousands! and only 30 of them are rated higher than Alabama!"
Pleased smile from the sophomore.
I went on. ":Auburn University is #38 . . . "
"HA HA! We beat you!" This comment was apparently directed toward anyone in the classroom who had ever in his lifetime put A and U together in alphabetical order. I was thinking, Good! Academic competition for once.
I continued, "Alabama has been in the top 50 for about 11 years, Auburn for 19 years." Silence reigned as puzzled football heads tried to figure out what that all meant. When I announced happily that Troy University was #26 on the list of regional universities, the mood shifted again as some one asked, "What's for lunch?"
Undaunted, I changed my tactics and brought a new list to the group another morning. I hoped to kindle their curiosity about how colleges work by bringing in the list of the Top 5 Party Schools in the United States. According to Princeton Review, Ohio University is the top campus for students wanting to major in Fun. My group returned blank stares in place of comments on that information. Staring right back, I continued, telling them that OU's freshmen scored in the 21-26 range on ACT's and averaged a 3.28 GPA out of high school. Respectable! More blank stares. Not one to give up, I went on, "But they were only number 60 on the U.S. News & World Report list. Alabama and Auburn are both ahead of them." Not even a raised eyebrow? OK, desperate times call for desperate measures: "They play Kent State this Saturday if you're interested. They're in the Mid-America Conference."
"I knew it!" The Bammer sophomore again. Everyone else was in the hallway opening their lockers.
Don't get me wrong. I love football, and I share some of the same delusions as my fellow SEC junkies:
1. The Auburn-Alabama rivalry is the best rivalry in the Universe.
2. The SEC is by far the most challenging, expert, dynamic, talent-laden conference in the country, and all others are pretenders.
3. Either Dreamland or Momma Goldberg's is a synonym for lunch.
4. We don't care how loud Neyland Stadium is. Our stadium is louder.
5. The Florida Gators and the LSU Tigers are tied for the title of "Team with the Most Annoying Fans."
That said, I do wish that for at least nine months out of the year, we could somehow be reminded that education is primary, not a sideline. (Get it? Sideline?) If you have a veterinarian you like, you can probably thank Auburn. Aw, barn, you say? Farming feeds the world, buddy. Unfortunate enough to need an attorney? I bet there's a degree from the University of Alabama on her ego wall. Ditto for your doctor. And the number of great educators produced by Troy University is higher than this ex-English teacher cares to count. (Readers from the other 49 states, insert the names of your own universities.)
I have a solution in mind inspired, believe it or not, by a car owned by an unknown Alabama fan. The automobile in question was decorated--no, embellished--NO, FESTOONED--with Alabamorabilia. There were curlicued capital letter A's on every window, houndstooth-checked sayings spattered on every fender, a faded bumper-sitcker proclaiming the University of Alabama to be National Champions (in football) (parentheses mine). There is nothing unusual in this bazaar of a sticker display. We go get our Auburn stuff right after we get our new tags. What caught my eye was a small, red square in the midst of it all--the bumper-sticker equivalent of a Post-It. Centered on the square was a capital S. Underneath the S it said The Coach. It was direct, understated, almost tasteful.
Imagine a society so hellbent on educating its citizens that cars bore magnetic stickies in school colors reading: A The Chairman of the English Dept. (purple and gold); Z Professor Emeritus of African History (orange and blue); or J Dean of the College of Education (green and silver). Maybe The Coach could teach a few sections of Lifetime Fitness!
Or maybe we could, for the sake of the population still uncommitted as far as their education goes, add another slogan to the list that includes WDE, RTR, WPS, and Geaux Tigers.
How about GAE? Get An Education? No cowbells? No whistles? No high fives?
<sigh> War Eagle.