Something – and I don’t know what is – told me this was an anniversary weekend of sorts in my life.
Often times when I think about what I want to write in this space, it’s natural for me to connect past and present, like Mississippi State playing No. 1 Alabama two weeks ago which also happened in 1980.
When you’ve been around long enough, stuff like that come backs full circle. Which is maybe why I was hired to write this column weekly.
Hire the old guy. He remembers.
Certainly I remember.
I remember when there wasn’t football on TV from 11 a.m. to past midnight on Saturdays, when there were no replay boards the size of spaceships in stadiums, when there were no swooshes on uniforms or hash tags on fields, when everything a coach said wasn’t analyzed for days in every form of social discussion possible, when players didn’t smacktalk via Twitter.
I remember when you didn’t have to pay a licensing fee for the right to buy season tickets, when you didn’t have to park in the next state for a home game, when everything wasn’t marketed, bought and sold, when players barely out of high school physically still looked like kids barely out of high school.
I remember when bowls and not conferences made deals with teams, when the term “Heisman Trophy candidate" wasn’t thrown around lightly, when quarterbacks spent most of games under center and not in a spread formation, when punters didn’t have to rugby kick to get a good roll.
Old memories are good, and they started for me on Nov. 5, 1962.
That’s right. Fifty years tomorrow, I saw my first football game live in a stadium. LSU beat TCU 5-0 in Tiger Stadium in the only 5-0 game I’ve ever seen.
I’d never been a place with that many people, probably about 65,000 that night. I’ve never been somewhere that loud.
It all pulled me in. The sound, the sight, the game. I knew this was a place that made me feel good and I had to figure out a way to experience this as much as possible.
So, I’ve made it a lifetime of working in press boxes, experiencing memorable Saturday nights and afternoons. And the best part about being able to have a day job with The Commercial Appeal in Memphis is that it has allowed me to see all the Southeastern Conference and not just one team like the one (LSU) I was raised on as a child.
Over the years, I hope I’ve been smart enough to listen to people who learned to love the SEC long before I did. People like Marvin West and Jackie Sherrill and Phillip Fulmer taught me a few things along the way.
"Passion has always run deeper in the South for college football, and I think it's rooted in the fact there was always a lot more to do at other places around the country where they had pro sports," West, former longtime Knoxville News-Sentinel and Scripps Howard sports editor, told me one time. “I went to a UCLA-Southern Cal game one time in Los Angeles, and there were 33,000 people in the stands and nobody cared. Tennessee could play North Texas and tickets would be scalped. It's that way all over the South. Look at the size of the stadiums. It's more than the game. It's the pageantry. It's the bands."
Sherrill, who was a head coach at Washington State, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, taught me college football in the South is deeply woven in the region's fabric of life.
"It's a social setting, since people plan all year for those 11 or 12 weeks," said Sherrill, who was born in Oklahoma and raised as a Sooners fan, but who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama. "It's like a religion. It's like being a Catholic, or Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian or Jewish. If you're an Alabama fan or a Florida fan or an LSU fan, you are true to that team always. You have an unshakable belief, a faith.
"And college football in the South may have done more than anything else to advance race relations. I played on an Alabama team that was the first to play an integrated team when we played Nebraska in a bowl game."
My job allowed me to discover so many things about this league that gives me an appreciation for every school (now all 14), every experience.
I appreciate a long list of things such as:
Cowbells can be a fashion accessory.
Almost every school has its way of its fans greeting each other, such as “Roll Tide,” “War Eagle,” “Hotty Toddy” and “Geaux Tigers.”
A mixed marriage is an Ole Miss alum married to a Mississippi State alum or an Alabama alum hitched to an Auburn alum.
An RV is considered a vacation home.
Sweet, gentle Southern women will call Hogs, or bark like Dogs, or do a Gator chomp.
It’s an honor being arrested trying to tear down a goalpost.
Pregame parties are often as good as the games themselves.
You don’t need a ticket to enjoy a SEC atmosphere. It’s OK just to party outside a stadium the entire game, just like the 30,000 or so fans who hung outside the Alabama at LSU game last Saturday in Baton Rouge.
Five-star dining can be on a grill next to a white linen covered tabletop under a tent in The Grove, or next to a crawfish boiler in a Tiger Stadium parking lot.
It's not unusual for season tickets to be a major point of contention dividing property in divorce proceedings. You take the house, I need the four seats on the 35-yard line.
Football stadiums are considered cathedrals, and it sure costs a lot more these days to sit in those pews, doesn't it?
You always find a way to get one of your buddies, Jack Daniels, into games undetected.
Sunday is a day of worship and reflection, meaning you pray your head coach gets fired because you've been obsessing why he never changes his predictable offense.
A SEC fan probably can’t tell you when man first walked on the moon. But they can tell you that Billy Cannon’s 89-yard punt return for LSU vs. Ole Miss on Halloween night 1959 started with the ball bounce high into his hands, that a Georgia freshman running back named Herschel Walker ran over a Tennessee defensive back named Bill Bates, that Dana Moore who kicked the game-winning field goal for Mississippi State when the Bulldogs snapped No. 1 Alabama's 28-game win streak, that the only game Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning ever won in Gainesville was in 1994 when the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville moved its game to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium because the Gator Bowl is being renovated, that former Alabama quarterback Joe Namath's middle name is Willie, that Steve Spurrier is the only person in SEC history to win the Heisman Trophy as a player and later guide a team to a national championship as a coach, that Nick Saban is the only coach to win national championships at two different schools.
SEC football fans love football every day of every year. They love the pregame parties, the games, the postgame parties, the Monday morning breakdown of the game at the office water cooler, recruiting season, spring practice, summer workouts.it goes on and on.
SEC fans sweat wins and losses, blue-chip recruits who commit and de-commit, who's going to be the second-team right offensive tackle in spring practice and whether an incoming recruit has academically qualified and is attending summer school.
The SEC football fans calendar is simple. January means bowls and winning another national championship, February is signing day, March and April is spring practice, May means preseason magazines hit the stands, June is hoping your star player doesn't get arrested, July is for buying a new style cap for the season, August is preseason practice, September through November is bowl bliss or bust and December is firing and hiring of new coaches.
SEC fans will call radio show hosts, like my friend Jimmy Hyams in Knoxville, or Max Howell in Birmingham or Buddy Songy in Baton Rouge or Bo Bounds in Jackson or Bo Mattingly in Little Rock or Harold Bugg and Brett Beaird in Huntsville or Johnny “Ballpark” Franks in Biloxi or Lee Shirvanian in Mobile, and ask them in June to break down a SEC game that will take place in October or November.
And in 50 years of watching SEC football, I always remember what former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer once told me.
"For all the things that go into being a head coach - the recruiting, the administrative work, the academics, the public relations - the thing you live for is the season," Fulmer said. "You live for those Saturday afternoons in the fall."
We all do, no doubt about it.