Dr. Michael Nelson is a history professor at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. He’s a die-hard Arkansas fan who once floated to his wife the idea of making their son’s middle name Zorback, as in Razorback. (He lost.)
Dr. Terry Barr is an English professor at Presbyterian. He’s an Alabama fan who once got embarrassed as a child when his dad took his hands off the wheel while driving to yell at another kid for making fun of the Crimson Tide’s loss to Vanderbilt.
Around 2003, Nelson and Barr started periodically teaching a course about various issues related to college football. It morphed into “Religion of SEC Football,” a one-credit course that freshmen at Presbyterian can take to delve into fascinating questions about the fanaticism of SEC followers.
In recent days, Presbyterian’s SEC class received national attention, even though it has existed off and on for several years. It’s not lost on the professors why a one-hour freshman course at a small, liberal arts college would receive this kind of attention. It’s the SEC, where football is treated like a religion, even by the media in a never-ending news cycle for college football.
“Very quickly it became clear to us the parallels with religion were abundant,” Nelson said. “Even Nick Saban at a press conference is akin to a pulpit.”
One of the first tasks for students in the SEC class is to write a confessional explaining the roots of their college football faith. The professors used to require college football “atheists” to find someone to write about, but they now let students reflect on another topic if they’re not a rabid football fan. Many students write about their parents’ die-hard football habits.
“They will confess, for instance, that their parents find themselves not willing or able to go to church on Sunday because they’re either too hung over from the game the day before or too worn out,” Barr said. “Quite often the students reflect on why do I understand the rituals of football and don’t even understand the rituals of the church service? Why don’t I spend more time thinking about Jesus instead of whether (Clemson quarterback) Deshaun Watson will win the Heisman Trophy?”
Nelson stressed that even though Presbyterian College is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, the professors don’t have an underlying mission to look at the SEC from the Christian faith. Barr is half Jewish and half Methodist. The idea is to introduce freshmen to a liberal arts education so they gain perspective that the world doesn’t revolve around them.
The course started after Nelson and Barr read “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer,” a 2005 book by Warren St. John about the roving community of Alabama fans who follow the team from game to game in RVs. One passage from the book that students have dissected is why a set of Alabama fans missed their daughter’s wedding and went to the reception after the game ended.
The students “are all in agreement across the board that these people have their priorities totally messed up, and clearly there are things more important than football,” Nelson said. “Then I ask my students why did they choose this institution? What you see is a large percentage of the (Presbyterian) athletes are coming because of athletic scholarships. I’ll say, ‘Your first big decision in your life is which college you’re going to, and you made that decision based on college football. How is that any different than these people?'”
Interestingly, Presbyterian’s football team ends its regular season Nov. 19 at Florida. Since 2012, the Blue Hose have lost games to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt by a combined score of 106-0. The team went 2-9 in 2015.
Other books used in the SEC class include “Dixieland Delight,” in which author Clay Travis spent the entire 2006 SEC season traveling the conference as a fan while immersing himself into game-day rituals, and “God and Football,” a book by Chad Gibbs on how his love of SEC football has sometimes rivaled his devotion to Christianity. The students have read accounts of fans lining the highways for Bear Bryant’s funeral procession and how his grave is treated as a shrine.
The readings help provide thematic questions that students tackle in the class. Can a person be devoutly religious and still be a college football fanatic? At what point does devotion to one team become zealotry? And is it OK to be more devoted to football than religion?
“I think for a lot of people in our society this really has become a civic religion,” Nelson said. “It’s the idols we worship. What would compel me on a Thursday to pack up my two boys and drive to Fayetteville, Arkansas 15 hours away? It’s a pilgrimage. The stadiums are meccas.”
There are no right or wrong answers. Each student discovers answers through his or her own experience. But hard questions get asked, even by the professors of themselves.
Barr said the first Alabama game he attended was as a 9-year-old when the Crimson Tide and Tennessee tied, a result that caused his dad to angrily tell Barr he was a jinx. Barr remembers one man not attending church the day after Alabama lost to Auburn simply because he didn’t want to be ridiculed.
“Those stories stuck with me,” Barr said. “It’s a strange circumstance that, in your church, you can be made to feel so horrible over a game you have no control over. I was never devoutly religious myself. I quit going to church and started looking into Judaism, my father’s background. I haven’t really found a comfortable place for me, but all these years I’ve been a crazy Alabama fan and I don’t know what that says.”
When Barr was around 13, a friend remarked how bad Alabama was for losing to Vanderbilt. “My dad literally lets go of the wheel, turns around and screams at this kid,” Barr said. “My mom was embarrassed. I’m on the verge of being popular, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t kill my chances of being popular.’ But you were not going to embarrass Alabama in my dad’s car.”
Alabama became a bridge for Barr, now 60, to connect with his dad, who came from a generation of men who didn’t let their children get close to them. Father and son watched Bryant’s show together every Sunday afternoon. Before his dad died in 2000, Barr took him to one Alabama game each year.
Now Barr’s daughters are devout Alabama fans, too. “Roll Tide” is as much a tradition as any religious ritual. But when Alabama lost to LSU in the “Game of the Century” in 2011, Barr took his daughters to brunch the next day and explained that the loss won’t get them down.
“I have tried my best to tone it down over the years,” Barr said. “But when Kenyan Drake ran the kickoff return back for a touchdown last year (to clinch the College Football Playoff National Championship), I was down on the floor rolling with my dog and I’m a 60-year-old man.”
The “Religion of SEC Football” class caps the number of students at 24. Inevitably, several more students try to get into the course. When the semester is over, some students tell the professors they learned they need to get their priorities in order. Others conclude that they need to become more rabid fans.
So is it good that SEC football has become such a civic religion? Nelson declined to answer and said that’s not his place to say. He prefers to ask the questions and let each student decide.
Barr said the SEC can be too rabid when fans treat a loss like someone died. This season, Barr won’t go to an Alabama game because his family has too many activities to prepare for his oldest daughter’s wedding. But he still loves the elation of counting down the days until football starts.
“I’ve thought recently, well, the Jewish New Year is in the fall and my dad would get so excited about all of it,” Barr said. “Maybe that’s just another way to see renewal. Maybe this is another thing that happens and another way to mark your time. I just feel young again with football. I love the renewal.”