Rethinking Those Deacon Blues

Book Reviewed:
Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski, Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath & Dixie’s Last
Quarter
(Hachette Book Group, 2013), 437 pages.

Walter [Becker] and I had been working on that song [Deacon Blues] at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said, ‘You mean it’s like, they call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Cool! Let’s finish it!’
—Donald Fagan describing writing Steely Dan’s 1977 hit “Deacon Blues”

Hear me, Alabama, I was never meant to carry no shame/
Ah but hear me, Alabama, I can hear you when you’re calling my name

—Phosphorescent, “It’s Hard to be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)”

 

Toward the beginning of Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath & Dixie’s Last Quarter, the recently published history of the University of Alabama football program’s return to national prominence during the early 1960s, Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski attempt to untangle what it has meant to be a fan of the Crimson Tide. Combining stories of the larger-than-life Bryant and Namath with a cultural history of the Civil Rights-era South, Rising Tide should appeal to readers unfamiliar with the Bear’s predilection for Golden Flake chips or Joe Willie’s penchant for donning a fur coat in fifty degree weather.2 The book centers on one of the most turbulent periods of our recent past, sharply illustrating the ways in which college football became intertwined with the historical changes that were sweeping the Deep South. By the time that Bryant’s Crimson Tide squads were coming into their own, the state of Alabama had emerged as ground zero of the Civil Rights Movement: the images in 1961 of the Freedom Riders’ bus being torched by Klan members outside of Anniston, AL confirming to many outside the South that the state was a “violent, benighted land, a place that time seemed to have forgotten, and where ‘strange fruit’ hung like Spanish moss from tress.” Bryant, who required his teams to wear “coats and ties to their games [and] khakis and button-down shirts around campus,” molded his squads’ appearance to counter the violent and backward image of the state that was coming out of Birmingham. Such gestures, however, can only go so far. While the images of vitriol coming out of Bull Connor’s Birmingham overwhelmed the nation’s impressions of the state, football became one of the means through which Alabama attempted to rehabilitate (or, perhaps reassert) its persona. It’s these contradictory narratives—“cracker assholes” versus “grandiose” victors—that remain at the heart of Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” and begin to suggest why considering the history of football fandom in the state of Alabama makes for a story that is as fascinating as it is vexed.

At this point, I should probably go ahead and disclose that having grown up in Tuscaloosa I’m an Alabama fan, but one who honestly prefers Steely Dan to Lynyrd Skynryd (I have my grad schools years to thank for my reinforced love of Fagan and Becker) but who nonetheless has a Crimson Tide flag displayed on his porch, employs Big Al to cover his grill, and has framed Bear Bryant stamps hanging in his office. My fandom isn’t so much a confession—pulling for the Crimson Tide since Nick Saban took over the team has been uncomfortable in the same way I imagine being a Yankee fan can be where you end up saying condescending things when your team loses (unless you’re the type who prefers to poison someone’s beloved trees when your team loses).3 Moreover, as an Alabama fan born too late to watch Bryant’s teams, I’m also something of an ideal reader for Rising Tide. In fact, I was surprised by how much I learned in this book: I hadn’t known that Bryant was more than a little reluctant to leave Texas A&M to return to Alabama, or that Joe Namath almost went to Maryland (didn’t score high enough on his SAT to get in), or how good of runner Namath was before his knees gave out on him, or how Bryant was accused of fixing a game with Georgia, an ordeal that nearly cost the Bear his reputation in the early 1960s. My earliest football memories are of the Ray Perkins and Bill Curry teams of the mid to late 1980s squads that did well enough but that never could recapture the glory of the Bryant years. The ’80s were a decade that, in many ways, belonged to Auburn, who could lay claim to both Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley, a pair of superstars whose presence was inescapable in the bedrooms and the basements of many of my friends. Even I had a Bo Jackson poster (but, in my defense, I’m not sure I ever put it up).

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

A feeling of belatedness has in many ways defined my notion of being an Alabama fan, and it’s this sensation that has continued to color my feelings as I’ve watched the success that the Crimson Tide has enjoyed under Saban. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my share of football victories as a kid or that I can lay claim to any prolonged periods of fan misery: there was a nice streak of seven wins against Tennessee and, of course, the Van Tiffin kick in ’85 to win the Iron Bowl, which I seem to remember listening to in my mom’s Cutlass Sierra on the way back from a cousin’s house who we rarely visited. I had a particular affinity for the ’89 team, quarterbacked by Gary Hollingsworth, which had a dink-and-dunk offense that I was sure was the most perfectly designed offense ever employed.4 There were also the Gene Stallings years (1990-96) which were consistently robust—culminating in a National Championship in 1992—and a couple of great seasons with Shaun Alexander, particularly the 1999 season which ended with a painful loss to Michigan. There were also, however, some not great moments during this time: some really nasty NCAA sanctions during the late 1990s/early2000s, the whole Mike Price incident with a stripper named Destiny, and Mike Shula falling out of his chair thing during a press conference, an incident that I found to be endearing.5 Despite the relative success the Alabama program experienced in the post-Bear years, and the incredible success it has recently enjoyed, the memory of football seasons past still can seem more substantial to the present moment. While I would rather not discuss the loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl or the recent hiring of Lane Kiffin (pretty much in denial that either occurred), the rather remarkable run that Saban has put together has been colored by all the football that I wasn’t born to watch.

All of which brings me to this past football season. I was reading Roberts and Krzemienski’s book throughout this fall as Alabama seemed to be on its way toward a third consecutive national championship. The original plan for this review had been to consider the book alongside the championship run, a plan that took something of a swerve early in the evening of November 30th when Alabama met Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl. I won’t elaborate on the game itself, but it’s safe to say that it has taken me almost six months to recover from it to write this essay, which has been a real breakthrough in processing my grief. I’ll admit that I had underestimated Auburn throughout the year, and I had actually found myself pulling for them against Texas A&M and Georgia, an inclination that I should have immediately repressed. I was in a sports bar in Columbia, MO when Auburn’s Chris Davis ran that kick back, my decision to go to Columbia for the weekend a tactical mistake in hindsight since I had watched all of Bama’s games this year at home with my wife (who has gladly adopted my Alabama fandom).6 I messed with good mojo and paid the price. Lesson learned. I had agreed to meet a couple of friends, both fellow Bama fans, in Columbia to watch the Iron Bowl and then go to see the Mizzou/Texas A&M game so that we could jeer Johnny Football. Not the purest of motives. A few stray observations about the experience of watching the Iron Bowl in a bar full of drunk Mizzou students clamoring for the upset: don’t argue with inebriated Mizzou undergraduates who have been downing a series of neon looking shots for the better part of five hours; the waitresses without glitter are more reliable than the ones with it; and cookie delivery guys (didn’t know such a thing existed) are good for cheering you up if you happen to find yourself walking across the Mizzou campus on a cold November night after watching the most devastating ending to a football game that you’ve ever seen.

At the heart of Rising Tide is a consideration of why moments such as the end of this year’s Iron Bowl matter so much for those us who grew up in Alabama. While it largely focuses on the Namath-led squads of the early 1960s, the book also offers a more comprehensive account of how football became an obsession throughout the state of Alabama during the 1920s and 30s as the program rose to national prominence. Roberts and Krzemienski highlight the 1926 Rose Bowl—in which Alabama defeated a heavily favored Washington Huskies squad 20-19—as being a particularly pivotal moment, the victory having been received by the Atlanta Journal as an “impressive victory for the entire South.” Rising Tide, though, complicates the conventional narrative of how Alabamians (and the South in general) looked to success on the football field as a way to redeem their national image by providing a more complex portrait of how sports and politics intermingled during the Civil Rights movement and illuminating how Bama’s success during the early 1960s sat uneasily with the politics swirling around segregation.

The uneasiness came to a head toward the end of the 1961 season—just months after the Freedom Riders were attacked outside of Anniston—when Alabama defeated Georgia Tech to claim the top spot in the national polls. Media speculation had the Crimson Tide playing an integrated UCLA in the Rose Bowl, and the possibility of a segregated Alabama team playing in the most revered of bowl games led to a wave of protest from the West Coast. Leading the protest was Jim Murray, of the Los Angeles Times, who declared that an all-white squad being named National Champions in 1961 would be a “denial of democracy.” The controversy engendered by just the possibility of Alabama playing in the Rose Bowl illustrated how inevitable it would be that an “Alabama football story” in 1961 would evolve into a story primarily about race relations. In the end, University’s president, Frank Rose, was left with little choice but to reject the Rose Bowl invitation, and Alabama would go on to defeat Arkansas, another all-white team, in the Sugar Bowl to claim the National Championship.

Perhaps more so than any other single game, Alabama’s victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, along with the specter of the game not played against UCLA, crystallized the ways in which Alabama football throughout the 1960s would be tangled up with the politics of integration. In considering these broader historical and cultural tensions that surrounded the Crimson Tide during this period, the book offers a nuanced portrait of the Bryant/Namath relationship, two men who came to embody the cultural and political tensions that were bubbling throughout the South at the time. The brash and flashy (and Northern) Namath, who hailed from the industrial town of Beaver Falls, PA, seemed to be the perfect foil for Bryant, who embodied a certain idealized form of Southern white masculinity. Beyond tracing his relationship with his star quarterback, Rising Tide considers Bryant’s relationship to the politics of race, suggesting the ways in which the coach attempted to navigate the issue. Roberts and Krzemienski begin to sketch out the ways in which Bryant attempted to negotiate the realities of a segregated South: he regularly recommend talented African-American recruits to northern schools (Michigan State was the primary beneficiary of this arrangement) and he became aware, as early as the late 1950s, that Alabama would have to integrate if they were to remain a competitive program.

Nevertheless, when the University of Alabama integrated in 1963 the Bear was consumed by the defamation case against The Saturday Evening Post, which had implicated him for supposedly colluding with the Georgia athletic director and former Bulldogs head coach to fix the 1962 Georgia/Alabama, a game which Alabama had won 35-0. Butts and Bryant would win their libel suit against the Post, but the trial kept Bryant preoccupied during this crucial summer. “Bryant was not a politician, and he was not even much of a political man,” Roberts and Krzemienski conclude early on in the book. Such an assessment seems both accurate and inadequate at the same time, and the book in the end does little to complicate this notion of Bryant as an apolitical football coach who found himself caught up in this period of tremendous social change.

Although the Bear remains the most imposing figure in the book, it is Namath who emerges as the book’s most compelling figure. While the book traces Namath’s exploits while at the Capstone—at one point they calculate the number of coeds he slept with per month while in college—it also presents him as an appealingly sympathetic figure, illustrating how he, too, struggled to navigate the cultural and racial politics of the Deep South. During his freshmen year, Namath’s teammates—with “apparent obliviousness to the discomfort it caused him”—had nicknamed him “nigger” due to Namath’s dark complexion and his Northern “streetwise attitude.” On the one hand, like his coach, Namath seems to have been largely apolitical while at Alabama; in a memorable episode, he recalls selling sandwiches and Cokes at inflated prices to the federal troops protecting the first African-American students admitted to the University. Roberts and Krzemienski, however, also chronicle a how Namath attended a game between the Druid Dragons and Ullman Wolfpack, both all-black high schools, “a small gesture against segregation, but still more than necessary or expected, and well received by the black community.” Similarly, they recount how Namath attempted to counter the racism he encountered on the practice field:

As he was standing in the huddle at a freshman practice, a play came in from the sideline. “Nigger right, on two,” was the message to Namath. The word hit his ears like a bee sting. Although he had grown inured to the term around campus, the huddle was a bit too much. In a quick bit of improvisation, he reverted back to his parents’ language. “Okay,” he told the team, “fekete right on two.” Fekete was the Hungarian word for “black,” but it carried with it the connotation of a dark-skinned or swarthy person. While it fell short of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the pantheon of the civil rights movement,” “feketeright” was not without a bit of disobedient charm.

495Such gestures, as small as they might be, nicely illuminate Namath’s character, and begin to suggest how he remains the book’s most interesting subject. Rising Tide ends with Namath’s final game with the Crimson Tide, the 1965 Orange Bowl game, an anticlimactic loss to the University of Texas in which his playing time was limited because of an aggravated knee injury. That Namath’s career at Alabama should end with a loss could perhaps be viewed as precedent of sorts for what happened to the Crimson Tide at the end of this past season. The politics surrounding the Alabama football are certainly less complicated than they were during the early 1960s—discounting perhaps the politics of defending Nick Saban’s sometimes less than joyful public persona—and the experience of watching Alabama’s run over the past few season has been perhaps the most satisfying experience of my sports’ viewing life. And while I love to defend Saban (in a recent interview he claimed the Stones to be his favorite band and then proceeded to turn-up “Sympathy for the Devil”—a detail too wonderful for words), I still bristle when national commentators compare him to Bryant. The comparison to me seems all wrong, and what Rising Tide does so well is illuminate the long history that comes into the play when I watch Alabama football that suggests why I might have this reaction. For someone who was too young to watch Bryant’s teams, the iconography surrounding the Bear—the houndstooth hat, the gravel voice, the Chesterfield cigarettes—will always have a certain romantic resonance for me. Rising Tide, in the end, doesn’t resolve the contradictions of the past, but it does capture it in all of its wonderful and painful complexity, helping to underscore how the past continues to shape what it means to be a fan of the Crimson Tide.

Matthew Shipe grew up in Northport, Alabama, went to college in Memphis, and later moved up the Mississippi to St. Louis for graduate school. He currently lives in St. Louis where he teaches courses in American literature and American Culture Studies at Washington University.


1 If the internet has any value it is for preserving things like Bear Bryant espousing the value of Golden Flake Cheese Curls.

2 I’ll try to make this my only reference to Harvey Updyke, the Alabama fan convicted of poisoning the famous oak trees that populated Toomer’s Corner on Auburn’s campus.

3 It obviously wasn’t: Alabama closed out the ’89 season with two consecutive losses, getting whacked by Auburn and losing to Miami, 25-33. I remember the Miami loss being worse; however, the two losses cost Billy Curry his job. It was, of course, the Auburn loss that was the most costly; Auburn had defeated ‘Bama in all three Iron Bowls that Curry had coached, and the fanbase had a collective conniption fit. Such episodes are not the most flattering, and are perhaps better not discussed.

4 Of these, the Mike Price story is both the most amusing and unbelievable. The Sports Illustrated article, entitled “How He Met His Destiny at a Strip Club,” is worth a quick read if you are unfamiliar or somehow forgot the story.

5 We actually got married at the same time that Alabama was playing LSU in 2009, a game that ended up in a narrow win for ‘Bama on their way to their first National Championship under Saban. And my wife is totally cool with me remembering our anniversary as the day Julio Jones beat LSU.

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