The Crimson White, the University of Alabama’s student newspaper, stirred my memory recently with its full-page message to note Auburn’s trip to Coleman Coliseum for men’s hoops. The page, in its entirety, blared: “HEY AWWBURN, WE’RE THE FACE OF THIS STATE. SORRY. ROLL TIDE.”
I was editor of The Auburn Plainsman in 1999-2000, my senior year. Before assuming those duties, I spent hours and hours turning the yellowed pages of bound volumes as far back as I could go. We had hard copies back to the 1930s. I learned Auburn history this way, reading stories of Luther Duncan, Ralph and Caroline Draughon, Harry Philpott, Wil Bailey, Lloyd Nix, Fob James, Tucker Frederickson, controversies surrounding Hanly Funderburk and Charles Curran. I encountered beloved figures like Dean Foy, complicated ones like Dean Cater, Red Bamberg. I read columns by my predecessors: David Housel, Jerry Brown, Beverly Bradford, Rheta Grimsley, Tim Dorsey and many others. It illuminated campus walks to know the people behind the names that graced Auburn buildings and streets. It gave me context as I observed, reported and opined about my school, warts and all. The process also crystallized for me a certain tone for an Auburn person, the way we talk about our institution, the way we internalize it, for better or worse. When I saw that Crimson White edition, another consequence became clear to me in a way I hadn’t thought about before: the way we think and talk about our rivals.
It was once a Plainsman tradition – lapsed by the time I got to Auburn – to plaster “BEAT BAMA” above the front-page flag in the largest, boldest print we could muster the week of the Alabama football game. So for the Nov. 18, 1999 Plainsman, we renewed the old practice. Auburn didn’t beat Alabama that year, Tommy Tuberville’s first for the Tigers. That same Plainsman edition even acknowledged a possible loss to the heavily favored Crimson Tide. In an editorial, we welcomed Alabama fans to our campus for just the fifth time as football visitors. We asked, politely, should they find themselves in a happy mood Saturday night, to celebrate anywhere other than Toomer’s Corner. We asked them to respect our campus and our traditions, regardless of the scoreboard. Yes, there now is great irony in that plea. The same editorial also implored Auburn students and fans to live up to the way we frame ourselves: celebrate with our players in victory; salute our players and leave quietly in defeat, allowing the north end zone its rightful exuberance.
The point is this: We made our coverage of that game and the weekend about Auburn. Even our entreaty to the visitors still found its roots – literally – with Auburn (and it was not printed in 48-point type). I believe we reflected the long tradition of how The Plainsman captures the Auburn spirit, while still doing the important (and sometimes unpopular) job of holding the institution and its leadership accountable. I believe The Plainsman’s historical tone reflects the outlook of the wider Auburn family, from multigenerational legacies to anyone who adopts the university as her own, degree or not.
I cannot pretend that I ever earnestly cheer for any UA sports team. Yes, I have hurled the word “hate” in their direction. But my use of that word embarrasses me, and it certainly doesn’t define my experience and identity as an Auburn alumnus. Our existential character at Auburn is expressed by who we are, rather than who we are not. It’s an accounting of our demonstrable attributes, without a need to disclaim abstract negatives. It also doesn’t turn on trumpeting our positive identity at others as a suggestion that they lack the same.
Certain characteristics cannot be possessed merely by claiming them and in fact are by their very nature out of your grasp if you have to talk about them at all. Class, supremacy, tradition, influence, wisdom, discernment. If you have to tell people you’ve got it, you don’t. And if you have to frame yourself almost entirely using contrasts, then you aren’t secure in who you are. (That goes double if you cannot even identify your foil by proper name.)
As applied to my Auburn perspective, I try to avoid saying things like “Auburn is unique.” I do believe Auburn is special in ways that are not present on every college campus. But there are many schools of varying sizes and scopes that claim the notion of family and camaraderie beyond the sports arena. The plethora of trumped-up “traditions” printed on T-shirts in college bookstores doesn’t mean there aren’t real, authentic ways of life to be cherished and celebrated on campuses not called Auburn.
Have you met a Texas A&M cadet or listened to Midnight Yell Practice? Ever walked through The Grove, fall Saturday or not? Ever watched the Golden Band from Tigerland march down the hill in Baton Rouge, listened as the music reverberates off Tiger Stadium? Did you ever stop to appreciate the sheer joy of Mr. Two-Bits in Gainesville? Ever talked to a devout Southern Baptist who went to Samford or Mercer? Ever talked to a dyed-in-the-wool Methodist who is a legacy, many times over, at Birmingham-Southern? What about a Catholic from a small, protestant town who ends up at Spring Hill or another Jesuit school? Have you talked to a Virginia Tech alumna since the massacre? Ever seen an interview with a senior who got to dot the “I” in Columbus, Ohio? Ever stopped to think about what Georgia folks feel like when they see us snapping off a piece of hedge – something I vowed never to do again after watching a few Alabama fans try to roll Toomer’s Corner when I was a senior? Ever noticed the Notre Dame players gather to sing their alma mater along with the rest of the Irish students after the game?
I suppose that in merely spending the time and thought to write this I engage, at least to some degree, in the same self-congratulation and comparison-based boosterism that struck me in the Crimson White. And I readily admit that my position is easier after Jan. 10, 2010 – as evidenced by the difference in my mood and reaction to Alabama’s 2009 championship (post-2004 resentment, inebriated Facebook bombast) and their 2011 title (we’ll be back there, and, man, wasn’t last year amazing).
So let me redeem myself with these calls to action.
To my Auburn family: We aren’t the only ones who call ourselves special. We aren’t the only ones who ARE special. We are Auburn. There should be no rest of that sentence. There is no, “We are Auburn, and you’re not.” As in: “WE’RE THE FACE OF THIS STATE” and the implied “NOT YOU!” I’d like to think we’re collectively sound on this point, but no broad brush is completely accurate, and we’ll always have outliers and backsliders.
To my UA friends, particularly the young, impassioned journalism students: You might roll your eyes at my line of thinking. It may fit every stereotype you have of the “Auburn family” as a defense mechanism to cope with the stream of football championships ever flowing in Tuscaloosa. Yes, rivalries are meant to be fun and student newspapers can get away with things that other newspapers cannot (BEAT BAMA, for example). There are wagers to make, ribbing to be done. Fans can flaunt team accomplishments, on occasion, without violating good taste. But if you’re honest with yourselves, you’ll recognize the difference between friendly ribbing or healthy pride and the way the Crimson White used its press to address visitors to your campus. CW editors, ask yourselves what your decision and tone say about how you define yourselves as Alabama students and fans. What does it say about how the University of Alabama defines itself? I assure you it’s a much better feeling when your self-understanding focuses inward. Tell me what the University of Alabama is to you without any reference to Auburn. I’d actually be interested in your view, because I enjoy listening to people talk about the experiences and associations that help make them who they are. I didn’t live in Alabama for 28 years without forming bonds with people who love UA every bit as much as I love Auburn. I don’t sit in here in Louisiana and stew about LSU, because I’ve made many friends and attended many a tailgate with fine conversation, good music, cold beer and jambalaya or etouffee so plentiful it’s stirred with a boat oar. I even argue with my Auburn friends who insist upon using that stupid “corn dog” line – and do so completely sure of my loyalty.
CW folks, Alabama DOES have an impressive trophy case, the subjective debate over the number of championships notwithstanding. All Alabamians can take pride in your academic institution. Tuscaloosa is a fine college-town atmosphere. None of that is proven or disproven – or affected at all – by anything happening in Lee County or Athens-Clarke County or East Baton Rouge Parish. If you decide to make Alabama be about Alabama, you’ll find yourself in a realm of contentment, humility even, rather than trapped in a foolish pride infused with childish insecurity. That won’t ever require you to say “War Eagle” or pull for any orange and blue team or, GASP, congratulate us out loud when our team wins. You might even find that you can still engender the envy you seem to desire. For there will always be rival fans who focus more on you than on their own team and school, including at Auburn.
Bill Barrow, a former Plainsman editor, is a 2000 journalism graduate. He lives in New Orleans with his wife Michelle Krupa, a Notre Dame alumna, and their son Nathaniel, the best little Irish Tiger around. Bill and Michelle both write for The Times-Picayune.
More Barrow: Our Turf, Our Terms: The modern meaning of Dec. 2, 1989.
Photo via @6pintsofkramer.
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