Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Don't Go Crazy

So it turns out I was right, for once. Before the beginning of the 2007 college football season, I warned Wisconsin fans of their coming paranoia.

You see, all had been well in Madison: after decades of toiling in the bottom of the Big Ten, the football team turned things around in the 1990s. Mighty Coach Barry Alvarez led the team to three Rose Bowl games, more success than the program had seen in, well, pretty much its whole history. After another New Year’s Day bowl victory following the 2005 season, Alvarez retired and left the reigns to his 30-something assistant, Bret Bielema. I know a girl who used to drink at the same bar as Bielema. Apparently he can be a bit of a creep sometimes. That aside, he’s apparently quite a football coach.

In his first year on the job, as one of Division I-A’s youngest head men, Bielema led the Badgers to a remarkable 12-1 record. No conference title, thanks to exceptional regular seasons by both Michigan and Ohio State, but a better win-loss record than any of Alvarez’s Rose Bowl teams. Better than Ron Dayne ever did.

It came a bit out of the blue, too. I lived in Madison during that season, and I remember the season preview shows on the local TV stations. Most Madisonians interviewed on the street said they thought somewhere around 9-3 would be a knockout season, but said it in a way that one could tell they thought it was unlikely. The defense-first Wisconsin side, however, won ugly, and they won a lot. After a bowl victory over Arkansas, they ended the season residing in many pollsters’ top fives.

There was much glee in this little corner of unreality. But I felt uneasy. It was the feeling of unease one can only sense if one grew up living and dying with a team whose fan base expected a national championship every season. This past year LSU won the national championship with a 12-2 record. But when I was growing up rooting for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, that was not the way of things. One loss left you clinging to life support, hoping the top teams would stumble and allow your team back in the race. Two, you were through. So every game was important, and every game was an exercise in paranoia.

Things had never been that way in Madison. The Badgers have always played second fiddle to the state’s main obsession, the Green Bay Packers, and most fans were overjoyed to be simply no long the Big Ten’s punching bag. After the Badger’s one-loss season, the slippery mental slope of college football success starting creeping in. Without the early-season loss to Michigan, people began pontificating out loud, we’d be playing in that national championship game.

I knew where this was going. I remembered back to 12-year-old me watching the 1996 Huskers, who followed up two consecutive undefeated national championships with an 11-2 season that included not even a conference title. Nebraskans are too polite to pull the aggressive antics of disgruntled fans in Philadelphia or New York, but murmured dissent grew. The team responded the next season with a national championship once more, and expectations grew so high that faithful tore their clothes and wailed in the streets during the following decade, when Tom Osborne’s retirement led to the team’s descent into mediocrity.

I did not want this for Madison. After all, at its best it’s much better than that. Madison, frequently rated as America’s best college party town, is the kind of place where a win should be greeted with drunken revelry and a loss with drunken swears and oaths to get them next time. But after a 12-1 season, even the loosest fans get spoiled. I knew it was coming, but I’m still disappointed.

When this year’s Badger squad could muster only a 9-4 record, including a bowl loss, the muttering started. They were supposed to be better. The very same record that would’ve marked a successful Wisconsin season in 2006 was a letdown in 2007. Football paranoia is the worst of things, and it’s not becoming of this town. It can’t take us over.

Big Ten champion Ohio State, who defeated Wisconsin in 2007, lost the “national championship game” to aforementioned LSU. It marked the second consecutive season the Buckeyes had be mauled in that contest by a superior team out of the SEC. Ohio State wasn’t the best, or even second-best team in the country. They were a good team who won all their games but one, while the teams with more talent than them had lost twice. So they got to play. And LSU mostly pushed them around.

This repeat deconstruction only fueled what has taken over as college football fan’s now-dominant pastime – arguing which conference is the best. Two consecutive national championships gave more ammunition to Southerners who feel the SEC is by far the nation’s superior regional grouping of football teams. LSU folks even chanted “S-E-C” at the cameras after the game.

They may very well be right. SEC teams play well in bowls; they send dozens of players to the NFL every year and pull in dozens of blue chip recruits to take their place. Considering most blue-chip recruits come from Texas, California or Florida, it shouldn’t be surprising they care to stay home rather than play in the Upper Midwest winter. But one thing above all other leads me to agree with Southerners that their conference is the best: the people are the craziest.

Through the magic of lexical drift, “crazy,” like “addicted,” no longer presents solely negative connotations. Being crazy for something just means a special level of dedication. And football fans in the South have it. Take the Big Ten – once you get past the obsessed fans bases of Ohio State and Michigan, there are a lot of schools with mixed track records – Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota – and some with not much at all – Indiana, Northwestern. Switch to the SEC, and every team has a legion of fans who won’t tolerate any kind of extended failure. LSU, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas, even those with little recent success like South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss think nothing but football and thirst for victory. They have to, just to keep up with the other crazy schools they play against.

The Big Ten and other northern conferences could compete, absolutely. The Big Ten could be as deep and talented as the SEC, here’s what it would mean – the fans and alumni and presidents of all those universities growing so insane about winning football games that they forget about anything else, that they fire coaches after three years if they don’t show enough progress, that if anybody ever happens to graduate from the football program, it’s a pleasant afterthought.

This isn’t what I want for Madison – to become Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa, where life peaks on Saturday afternoons and nothing ever happens any other time. Where a season without a title is a failure and half the people get carpal tunnel syndrome from incessant wringing of the hands. Wouldn’t you rather have a few beers and let it go?

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