Football is one big repository of analogies for politics. Candidates “kick off” their campaigns. If they’re smart, they have a “game plan” that features a “ground game.” In the politics of Washington, Bill Bennett says, “if you’re not on offense, you’re on defense,” which is bad. In a pinch, a politician might “throw a Hail Mary.” Normally, though, politics is “played between the 40-yard lines.” An issue that’s hard to agree on becomes a “political football.”
But football—big-time college football, aired on TV and played in huge stadiums—is more than a metaphor. It’s a mirror. A football team, more often than not, reflects its home state. This may seem like a stretch. And perhaps it is. But you only have to look at Auburn University, which won the college championship last week, and the 11 other football teams in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) to see that teams and states tend to match.
SEC teams, which reach across the South from Florida to Arkansas, are the most fiercely competitive. They’ve won the past five national football championships. Even Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney says, “They’re a step ahead of everybody else.” Given this, it shouldn’t be surprising that SEC states—you can throw in Texas too—are the most economically competitive, vying against each other and with states outside the South to attract new investment and create jobs. And, like their football teams, they’re succeeding.
At the risk of being redundant, here’s another way to understand the phenomenon: The values and practices that produce extraordinary college football teams are similar to those that have transformed the South from the backwater it was a few decades ago into a region bristling today with prosperity, growth, and Republican ascendancy.
The teams play conservative football, with 300-pound (or bigger) linemen the rule and a style of play that overpowers opponents. And they come from states that are increasingly governed by Republicans who play a popular brand of conservative power politics. The similarity is not entirely coincidental.
Two more things. SEC teams are entrepreneurial, recruiting players from all over the country while keeping local stars at home. SEC states have been particularly aggressive in attracting foreign auto companies by offering low taxes along with incentives like right-to-work laws. Auburn is a public university in Alabama. In Alabama alone, Honda, Mercedes, and Hyundai have built manufacturing plants. Just across the border in Georgia, Kia has set up stakes.
And then there’s religion. Evangelical Christianity is big in the South among both blacks and whites. All but two SEC teams have full-time chaplains. Chette Williams, Auburn’s chaplain, published a book, Hard Fighting Soldier, in 2007. “Chette’s ministry is a major part of how we build a football team,” writes Tommy Tuberville, Auburn’s coach at the time, in the book’s foreword. Was he exaggerating? Maybe, but he had a point.
The Auburn example is instructive. The school has a conservative student body. When President George W. Bush appeared on the stadium JumboTron during an Auburn football game, he was cheered. When he uttered the greeting that Auburn people give to each other—“war eagle”—the crowd went wild.
The greeting, by the way, grew out of the pregame tradition of having an eagle circle the field, then land near the 50-yard line. Auburn folks use it everywhere. My son, who graduated from Auburn in 2008, spent a good bit of time in the two days he was in Phoenix for the BCS championship game saying “war eagle” to anyone connected with Auburn.
Auburn won by executing its power game against Oregon, a finesse team specializing in trick plays. Power teams usually beat finesse teams. Auburn’s most important player was a 298-pound defensive tackle, Nick Fairley, who repeatedly disrupted the Oregon offense. Without Fairley, Auburn would have lost.
Shift to politics. In Alabama’s November election, Republicans captured both houses of the legislature for the first time in 136 years, aided by an extra $5 million raised to fund candidates against Democratic incumbents who’d never faced strong opponents before. Republicans won every statewide office and outgoing Governor Bob Riley immediately called a special legislative session to pass a sweeping ethics law that Democrats had long delayed. Accountability prevailed.
“The SEC is built on results, not appearances,” Art Spander wrote on RealClearSports shortly after Auburn’s victory. The same is true of political clout. Auburn fired Tuberville after a couple of mediocre seasons. The new coach, Gene Chizik, won the national title in his second year. That gives him job security for no more than two years. If his recruiting of good players slips and the football team falters, he’ll be shown the door. Accountability will trump nostalgia.