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SEC MAYHEM: SOUTHERN MAN, BETTER KEEP YOUR HEAD
As well-adjusted Americans seek an equilibrium amid the most complex times of our lives, the South manufactures crazed football drama while, alarmingly, posting low vaccination rates
The South is going to ruin us all. Of the 13 U.S. states with the lowest full-vaccination percentages, nine are in places with twangs or drawls. Though I hate to mix pandemic data with football, it’s unavoidable: All nine have major universities that are current or future members of the Southeastern Conference, which is supposed to represent the elite of the college game, in the most American of pursuits.
If you’re ignorant enough to reject epidemiological science, you’re also ignorant enough, I suppose, to hurl golf balls, full water bottles, mustard containers, beer cans, pizza boxes, vape pens, liquor bottles and other hard objects that endangered the health of coaches, players, cheerleaders, marching band members and other human beings who rushed for the exits in a scene from a disaster movie. That happened in Tennessee, where only 46.8 percent of the population is double-jabbed.
If you’re misguided enough not to wear a mask in a country where COVID-19 has killed 729,000 people and infected 45.2 million, you’re also misguided enough, I suppose, to admit you fired a football coach not because his program was drowning in scandals — including his own, in which he attempted to pick up a woman who wore workout clothes at a gas station, unaware she was the wife of a high-ranking school official — but because, of course, he wasn’t winning enough football games. That happened in Louisiana, where only 46.7 percent of the population is double-jabbed.
And if you’re crazy enough to still dismiss the coronavirus as a hoax, you’re also crazy enough, I suppose, to freak out about a rare loss to the point a man shot and killed another man during an argument outside a watch party. That happened in Alabama, as it does from time to time, where only 44 percent of the population is double-jabbed.
This is a region, Waffle House Country, that believes football is God’s creation and vaccines are the devil’s work. Next thing you know, an SEC program will be rescuing Nick Rolovich from the anti-vaxxer portal, where he was placed by Washington State when he spurned a mandate requiring all state employees to jab up. Still drying out from the Gatorade bath delivered by his players after his final victory on the Palouse, over Stanford on Saturday night, Rolovich is suing the university for declining his request for a religious exemption. His lawyer says Rolovich doesn’t want the shots as a “devout Catholic.’’ Maybe the legal tag-team should have researched how Pope Francis is advising Catholics, urging them to be vaccinated as “act of love.’’ That sort of weaksauce sacrilege would play in the American South.
Hey, LSU needs a coach. Wasn’t it just yesterday when the Cajun warrior, Ed Orgeron, gravel-voiced and barrel-chested and living life to the beat of “Born on the Bayou,’’ was producing one of the dominant seasons in college football history. Coach O never would have to buy another Hurricane or Muffuletta sandwich in the state. Unfortunately, he took that to mean he could sleep around with Louisiana’s women, and as quick as he could file for divorce from “Miss Kelly,’’ his wife of 23 years, a photo went viral, showing a shirtless, satisfied Orgeron in bed with a younger woman.
The karma cops — and a lot of stupidity — proceeded to disrupt his career. The unity and love that defined the national championship team dissolved into chaos, with an outcry among players wondering why their coach wasn’t supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The program was swallowed by sexual assault investigations, in which Orgeron was accused of not reporting accusations. On the field, he was lost without NFL-bound star Joe Burrow and offensive strategist Joe Brady — the real reasons for LSU’s dominance — and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, now at Baylor. But if Coach O had kept winning, you know how it works in the South. He’d be in Baton Rouge for the long term, regardless of the filth, celebrating his dream job and inviting random women to work out with him. But when 15-0 slides into eight losses in the next 17 games, suddenly, the cumulative baggage warrants his dismissal. Not that the athletic director, Scott Woodward, ever would admit as much. Was Orgeron doomed by the backlash among Black players?
“I can clear it up,” Woodward said. “It had nothing to do with this decision. It was wins and losses on the field and where the program was going.”
Only in the SEC would a man of misplaced priorities, who appeared to stop coaching or caring after the perfect season, somehow be rewarded with a whopper goodbye check. Thanks for the dysfunction, Ed. Here’s your $16.9 million.
“I’m going to have enough money to buy me a hamburger,’’ said Orgeron, who didn’t exactly seem distraught, though future first dates still will be demanding Mussel escabeche before hooking up.
Oddly, though maybe not really in the South, Coach O will continue to coach the Tigers until their season ends. What’s in his future? “I’m open-minded now,’’ he said Wednesday, “but I do need to take a year off. I want to spend some time with my children.’’
Until ESPN and Fox Sports start bidding for his services.
One name mentioned prominently at LSU is Lane Kiffin, who is lucky both eyes are intact after he was nailed by a golf ball in Knoxville, where he used to work and isn’t recalled fondly. No word is strong enough to describe the madness at Neyland Stadium — shameful, contemptible, reprehensible, wack — where a fan base already established as psycho decided to riot when a late official’s call didn’t go Tennessee’s way. The sheer volume of debris on the field — and the number of arrests (18) and ejections (51) — served as another disgusting reminder of perspective gone batty in the SEC. Nor was a soul wearing a mask, but we lost that battle when native son Clay Travis transitioned into another right-wing lunatic. “I am astonished and sickened by this behavior,’’ said chancellor Donde Plowman, who mostly is blaming students for the disarray and is working with police to identify the miscreants on video.
An accompanying issue for Plowman: Who hired the Gomer Pyle-inspired security force (Google it, kids) that allowed people to bring dangerous objects into the stadium? “The disruption of (the) game is unacceptable and cannot be repeated on any SEC campus,” conference commissioner Greg Sankey said.
He hit the university with a $250,000 fine, not much of a deterrent when SEC programs will divide more than $300 million annually after a $3 billion deal with ESPN kicks off in 2024. The deal was fueled by the conference’s poaching of Oklahoma and Texas, two more nuthouses. After police cleared the Ole Miss sideline, Kiffin made his way to the tunnel and whipped his visor into the stands. His attempts at humor were much appreciated. “It's an emotional game and fans are emotional, but you never expect something like that, to see all that stuff come flying out of the stands,’’ Kiffin said. “I got hit with a golf ball, but at least whoever threw it was smart enough to throw a dirty range ball.’’
And those bottles? “There were a number of bottles with some brown stuff in them,’’ Kiffin said. “I’m not sure what it was. It probably wasn’t moonshine. They probably wouldn’t waste moonshine on me.’’ It’s so typical of the SEC mentality that Kiffin, long known as the Bart Simpson of his profession, is a candidate for every big job now.
The rampaging isn’t endemic to Tennessee. Nick Saban, the almighty ruler of All Things Southern Football, was smothered by Texas A&M fans who rushed the field after an Oct. 9 upset of top-ranked Alabama. Good thing Saban has state troopers protecting him on the road, or he may have suffered more than a bruised arm in College Station. “I’ve said this before: We're in the entertainment business, there's a lot of people that come to the games, and they've got a lot of passion and excitement for what they do,’’ he said. “Hopefully as institutions and fans, we'll always do that in a positive way.’’
Speaking for sectors of America that don’t brag about having friends in low places, I’m praying for a College Football Playoff not hogged by the usual country-fried programs. With Alabama’s loss and the demise of Clemson, our wish might come true. Cincinnati should be the nation’s rooting interest, armed with a victory over Notre Dame in South Bend, double-digit wins over every opponent and eyeing the first-ever CFP berth for a non-Power 5 team. I don’t want to hear Deep South grousing about the Bearcats’ schedule, especially as it pertains to Alabama. Saban’s crew lost to A&M, now ranked 21st, and having watched the Crimson Tide wins six national titles under St. Nick, I’m not interested in seeing a one-loss blueblood play leapfrog. Besides, Alabama likely faces an SEC title game spanking from America’s unquestioned best team, the Georgia Bulldogs, who get a pass in my anti-South bias because they are so spectacular defensively and have yet to win a national title under Kirby Smart. I could live with Georgia, Cincinnati, the survivor of the Big Ten’s four-car pileup and, OK, if I must, Oklahoma. Any program that benches one of the early kings of the Names, Images and Likenesses Era — Spencer Rattler, with an estimated $200,000 in NIL earnings and two vehicles from a Norman automobile dealer — has my appreciation. Quarterbacked now by a true freshman without an NIL deal (yet), Caleb Williams, the Sooners might squeeze in. Better, two Big Ten teams would represent the North.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, also a darling in the buzzy coaching marketplace, called on the media “to go ahead and get the ball rolling’’ for the playoff push. I’m doing my part to reward a Group of 5 team and ignore the Power 5 pedigrees. “We only can play who's on our schedule. We, in our program, don't look at it like that,’’ Fickell said. “It's everybody is the same. Everybody's got the same numbers. We all know there's a difference in realities, but for our guys, we never allow it to be a crutch, to say, hey, that they're a little above us or they get more money or whatever it is. We don't allow that.’’
Such an underdog attitude wouldn’t survive in the Church of Southern Football. Which explains why Fickell is in Ohio, a bridge away from an SEC upstart in Kentucky and not far from West Virginia, where only 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, the lowest number in a land that no longer is one nation, under God, indivisible.
Neil Young once blamed Southern racism for America’s ills. Fifty years later, I will use this hybrid of football idiocy and anti-vax lunacy to follow suit, waiting for a “Sweet Home Alabama’’ retort. You know: Southern man don’t need me around anyhow.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.