Ah, Autumn! Leaves are falling, footballs are sailing, and the mascots no longer smell like mothballs. Bright college years with pleasures rife, the shortest, gladdest years of life – what better Saturday afternoon than sitting in the stands amid the pomp and pageantry of Division I football? The band is pumping out the fight songs; the cheerfolk are tumbling and screaming. A rumble as the first players burst from the tunnel, then a roar as they stampede, more than a hundred superbly conditioned young men, moving as one, a blur of helmeted color.
Sweet, Jesus. All’s right with the world!
Except that this is Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s 92 degrees in the shade at 3 PM as the Aggies of New Mexico State scurry to the sideline, rushing like a man pulled from a brothel into church, aware at a cellular level that they don’t belong and will soon face the wrath of an unforgiving God. Their mascot, Pistol Pete, twirls a pair of unloaded six guns in front of the four or five New Mexico Tech rooters.
Pistol Pete is one of the few mascots drawn from the pages of history. Frank Boardman “PIstol Pete” Eaton, born in Hartford, Connecticut, was a scout, indian fighter, and cowboy, famous for his skill as a gunman and for his relentless pursuit of the men who killed his father. Eaton’s ability to kill people was much admired, and over the course of several decades, his mustached likeness was trotted out as the embodiment of all things admired in the Old West. Think of a young(er) Tom Selleck. In any case, students at what was then known as Oklahoma A and M, now Oklahoma State, petitioned the administration for a change of mascot, aware that their claim to be the Princeton of the Prairie hardly entitled them to joint custody of the tiger as a mascot. As the former New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Las Cruces, New Mexico took its place in Division I football, it too had need of an inspirational figurehead, adopting Pistol Pete as their own.
Except that he wasn’t. At the outset, in the 1950’s, NMSU paid Oklahoma State a royalty of ten dollars a year for the logo and mascot. Times changed, conversation between the two institutions of higher learning grew testy, and in 2005, New Mexico State folded, changing the mascot’s name to “Lasso Larry”, arming him with a coiled rope. Outraged students asked, “Who brings a lasso to a gunfight?”, a not unreasonable question if athletic competition is seen as war, and Pistol Pete returned to the sidelines, prompting OSU to sue NMSU.
That suit settled (NMSU can only sell 3000 articles featuring the cowboy and the royalty is to be paid in perpetuity), It’s September 7th in Tuscaloosa, the temperature is rising, and Alabama’s Crimson Tide sweeps onto the field accompanied by their mascot, Big Al, a rumpled but enthusiastic grey elephant. ‘’Bama’s team numbers something above one hundred and five players, eighty five of whom are on scholarship. Of that number, twenty seven of the newest players, recent recruits, arrived as four or five star recruits, giving Big Al something to cheer about and placing Alabama at the top of the 2019 recruiting classes. NMSU’s class is made of two and three star recruits, placing them at spot number one hundred and twenty in the recruiting sweepstakes.
Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium is named after a former president of the university, Denny, and a former coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. The stadium is the seventh largest stadium in the world, welcoming almost one hundred and two thousand loyal ‘Bama Boosters to its seats. Naturally, the scramble for seats is ongoing, and students line up for their season passes, plunking down one hundred and thirty five dollars for the season, a bargain to be sure. Individual game prices vary. The NMSU student ticket price is twenty dollars if purchased separately; tickets to the LSU game go for one hundred and twenty. A season pass now looks like a heck of a bargain. Good times in Tuscaloosa!
Except that the temperature is rising, humidity is woolen, classes don’t begin for another two weeks,and the Tide has pasted sixty two points on New Mexico State, the designated early season punching bag. Apparently believing they have some agency in their lives, students stick with it through the first half and retreat to cooler options in the second half, leaving a bare patch in the stadium’s flanks.
Sensible, you say. Understandable.
In an age of outsized egos, however, such defection is taken personally, and no ego puffs with more satisfaction than that belonging to Alabama’s exceptionally talented and successful football coach. Nick Saban makes seven point nine million dollars a year with a four hundred thousand dollar escalator clause. He is an exceptionally good coach in a state that venerates college football. His wish is the State’s command. He has complained about Alabama’s students with clear contempt.
“Everybody wants to be a part of the team,” he said. “Everybody wants to be No. 1, but everybody don’t want to do what the beast does. Everybody wants to be the beast but they don’t want to do what the beast do.
“So everybody’s got to make a sacrifice. You want to be the lion? Everybody got to do something. Everybody wants to be No. 1. If I asked that whole student section, do you want to be No. 1? Nobody would hold their hand up and say I want to be No. 4. They would all say No. 1. But are they willing to do everything to be No. 1? That’s another question. You can ask them that. I don’t know the answer.”
Alabama’s answer is to create a “Loyalty Program” which offers students advantaged access to the highly prized post-season games. Go to a game, pick up one hundred points. Stay through the fourth quarter? Two hundred and fifty more points. And how are the ticket czars able to keep track of who is where doing what? Simple. ‘Bama’s tracking students’ cell phones. The app was developed by FanMaker and is used at forty other colleges in order to reward fans by giving them t shirts and other team gear. They go to a game, they get a reward. Alabama’s Grand Poobah is not satisfied with attendance; he wants LOYALTY.
The introduction of Big Brother creepiness to Alabama football is not entirely surprising given that some pundits refer to the university as “Sabanistan”; Nick Saban has become he who must be obeyed in a state delighted by his casual arrogance. Without making the obvious comparison with other monstrous egos demanding loyalty, it is worth remembering that the entire conversation takes place within the walls of a university. President Denny was lucky to hold his office before Bear Bryant became the face and voice of the university; it’s unlikely that Alabama’s current president, Stuart R. Bell, will find his name emblazoned on a stadium’s gate. Lucky and loyal ticket holders do line up in front of a nine foot statue of Nick Saban.