MAXWELL:  In the grip of football fever

8/26/1998- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


That time of the year is upon us. The nights are cooling, marching bands and cheerleaders are practicing and a general excitement is in the air. In case you have been in Russia and do not know what time it is, you need to know that college and high school football season is here.

Northerners, Midwesterners and Westerners love football, but they do not love it as much as Southerners. Down here in Dixie, we go dag-blamed crazy about the game.

“Football mania” is the only term that accurately describes the mass psychosis that grips Southern towns such as Athens, Auburn, Baton Rouge, Clemson, Columbia, Gainesville, Knoxville, Little Rock, Oxford, Tallahassee and Tampa.

Tampa? Yes, Tampa _ home of the University of South Florida (football) Bulls. More on the Bulls shortly.

Football occupies the Southern mind 13 months out of the year. Hunting and stock car racing only serve as momentary distractions. In many small towns, such as Chiefland, High Springs, Live Oak, Newberry and Williston, the level of community pride is directly tied to the number of W’s and L’s the local football team amasses each season. In short, pigskin prowess is a matter of Southern honor.

Florida football fans are truly fortunate. We are a football haven. Each of our three major football programs has been national champion at least once during the past 10 years. This year, the Associated Press has the ‘Noles and the Gators ranked 2 and 3.

Along with their counterparts in Texas, Florida high schools attract college scouts like stink attracts flies. If a coach in Michigan wants a scatback, he knows to go, for example, to Glades Central in Belle Glade.

Scholars have long recorded the South’s obsession with the gridiron. In his article, “Geography of Sports,” Oklahoma State University professor John F. Rooney Jr. writes that “football mania is still intensifying throughout the South. . . . Though football is a national game, the ability to play it well is inordinately concentrated in the South.”

And because it is obsessed with the sport, the South sends more football players to college teams and to the National Football League than other parts of the nation. Many men in the South, especially black fathers, start early grooming their sons for football careers.

Many social critics cast a wary eye at the South’s obsession with football. They believe, argues University of Iowa professor Benjamin K. Hunnicut, that the game, like many other popular pastimes, reflects regional values and characteristics that crave so-called “blood sports and materialistic games.”

Here in Dixie, the well-known initials TGIF have a double meaning: Thank God It’s Friday and Thank God It’s Football. James M. Gifford of Appalachian State University said that “Friday night in the autumn is the time for a major Southern ritual occasion. Football is the center of a complex cultural event involving more than players on the field.” Football is, in fact, an instrument of psychic survival in the Old Confederacy.

Now, back to Tampa and USF.

College football fever has invaded the land of Santo Trafficante, the Tampa Bay Bucs and cigars. In case you have been at Martha’s Vineyard with the Prez, you need to know that the Bulls are heading into their second season as a Division I-AA independent.

During its first season, the team scored an impressive 5-6 record, with a near-upset of Georgia Southern, the perennial Division I-AA powerhouse. The Bulls’ first game ever _ an 80-3 skunking of Kentucky Wesleyan _ still has the sports world scratching its head. The team also sold 22,000 season tickets, the most ever for an inaugural season in I-AA.

“I doubt whether there’s ever been a more successful launch of a football program than the launch of the program at South Florida,” said Michael Slive, commissioner of Conference USA, the conference that the team may join in 2001.

The team is already paying for itself, with bucks left over. Why? Because USF fans, like those at other Southern campuses, are rabid, loyal college football fans. In fact, we are just seeing the beginning of USF pigskin mania. And all of those naysayers, who whined for years that football would come at the expense of academics, should shut up and buy season tickets. The Bulls are here to stay.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge one of the real sources of the team’s phenomenal success: head coach Jim Leavitt, a first-class act if there ever was one. His style is exactly what a start-up program needed.