This week Stan looks back at one of the most popular TV shows ever, a Mad magazine cartoonist who left his mark on the holidays, a critical day in the American Civil War, a milestone birthday of a legendary football coach, one of the most momentous days in Olympic history, Travis McGee novels, and much more.
It’s that time of year again my friends. College football season begins this weekend. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but there it is. It’s been 7+ months since our beloved Dogs finally slayed the big bad Bama dragon back on January 10 and won the National Championship. The final score, lest you’ve forgotten, was Us 33, Them 18. You can watch all the glorious highlights here.
Full confession: no matter how much I love college football, I’m never ready for the season to begin. Never. I don’t look forward to it. There are many reasons for that.
I’ve written about the joys of college football elsewhere on this blog, particularly the difference between the college and pro game, and since I don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel, I’ll just repeat myself:
“College football is more exciting [than the pro game] and more fun to watch, in my humble and uninformed opinion.
The rivalries are much more intense, and the game-day atmosphere at big-time college football games is unmatched in any other sport.
For game-day excitement, try the Big House in Ann Arbor when Michigan plays Ohio State (ask Michigan alum Tom Brady about it). Or the Horseshoe in Columbus when it’s played there. Or in Oklahoma during Bedlam. Utah during the Holy War or Oregon’s Civil War. Also try finding cool names like these for NFL rivalries. You won’t.
The NFL has nothing—nothing—to compare to the Iron Bowl. Or the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal. Texas and Texas A&M (though temporarily suspended). Catholics vs. Convicts.
I’m not saying there aren’t great rivalries in the NFL—the Redskins and Cowboys, Patriots and Jets, and Packers and Bears all come to mind.
But it’s not the same as the blood feuds in college football, where many of these rivalries go back 130 years. The NFL has been around since the 1920s, but most franchises barely predate the 1960s. And rivalries are divisional (Cowboys-Redskins) not geographical, like Florida and Florida State, and don’t have nearly the emotional intensity of a life and death college football grudge match.”
And it’s that last part that always makes it difficult for me to welcome the college football season—the “emotional intensity”. Let me explain.
Long-suffering readers of this blog know I love baseball. I love the rhythm of the game and the leisurely-ness of the season, as it meanders across 7 months of the year. If you don’t win today’s game, no big deal. There’ll be a hundred more to play, for months yet, nothing to get upset about. And the rivalries are fun, not death grudge matches [Game 7 of the World Series is another universe]. Yes, Braves fans don’t like the Mets or the Dodgers and vice-versa but it’s not civil war. It’s baseball. Have a hot dog. Relax.
But college football is different, especially now that UGA has won it all. Nothing less will do now, and if you lose one game, that’s it, your season is done. No trip to the College Football Playoff for you.
Yes, I know that’s not literally true, but you have to be very careful when you lose that one game. Georgia lost to Bama in last year’s SEC championship game and still made the Playoff only because we went undefeated through the rest of the season. Gasp. One little slip-up against Kentucky or South Carolina would have spelled doom. Pro football teams can lose 7 or 8 games and still make the playoffs, even win the Super Bowl. Not in the college game, and not even close.
The intensity of the season, of every play, every dropped pass, every boneheaded fumble by our “college” QB (who’s old enough to draw Social Security), every missed field goal, every interception, every blown pass coverage—everything is always on the line, waiting to derail the entire season.
And unlike in baseball, there’s no 3-game series to make up for a bad loss. There’s no pre-season to work out the kinks in the offense, or begin to gel as a team, as in the pros. It’s all or nothing all the time, beginning with the very first snap.
Even then you have to count on a bit of luck to wind up in the top four and get invited to the Playoff. Teams ahead of you in the rankings have to lose to someone they weren’t supposed to. You have to catch a lucky break. Sometimes it’s pure chaos, and yes, that can be enormously fun to watch—and it is—if it doesn’t give you an ulcer in the meantime.
Then there’s the sheer amount of good ‘ol fashioned hate that you constantly harbor for all your opponents. I’m talking seething, teeth-clenched, can’t stand those a-holes hatred. Florida. Bama. Auburn. Tennessee. Texas A&M. LSU. Kentucky. South Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Georgia Tech.
Not to mention the teams not in your conference that you don’t even play but that you just have to hate on principle, like Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, USC, Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas, Penn State. Some of these teams you hate because they’re just arrogant; some because their coach is a jackass; some because their coach is an arrogant jackass (every Florida coach till now, and maybe the new guy too once we get to know him). Not to mention, what grownup goes by the name Dabo or Jimbo? C’mon man.
For some reason, the level of jackass-ery among college coaches is astounding. They often run their mouths denigrating other teams at a level that you never see in any other major sport. There are the occasional NFL jackass coaches (see Rex Ryan), but they don’t usually last long. No major league baseball manager denigrates other teams. But college football coaches do it all the time. Partly that’s a function of there being only four playoff spots, and no parity of strength of schedule, so coaches often talk up their team while denigrating others.
But jackass coaches long pre-date the current playoff system. The college game just seems to attract them. Steve Spurrier at the University of Florida is the primo example, and of course he’s long gone. Many others have taken his place, and many of them coached at Florida. Incidentally, I can hear my mother’s voice saying, “Stanley, you don’t hate anybody!” But this is college football hate, and it’s different. Even God hated Steve Spurrier.
As you can see, it’s all mentally and emotionally exhausting. But it must be done if you’re going to follow the sport, week in and week out, from August till January. There’s just no other way.
By now you’re thinking, geez Stan, get a grip. No one is making you do this. And you’re right. I’ve tried in the past to just be a casual fan. Why put my emotional state in the hands of 18–22-year-olds? Who cares if we lose to Florida? It’s not the end of the world. No big deal. Have a hot dog. Relax.
But in college football, that just doesn’t work. For reasons that only psychologists can explain, there’s an emotional attachment that fans feel towards college football teams that is different than any other American sport (though I believe it holds in European football as well).
Let the trash-talking, complaining about weak schedules, wailing, and gnashing of teeth begin. A short slate of games kicks off this weekend, then #3 Georgia will tee it up against #11 Oregon on September 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The madness will continue through the National Championship game next January 9, five months from now.
Keep the crying towel handy. Grab your foam fingers, order a side of tranquilizers, and hang on.
Item: In this column on September 24 I noted that a very rare original copy of the US Constitution was coming up for auction at Sotheby’s and that it would likely sell for $20 million. Those estimates were wrong by half. As GHS President Dr. Todd Groce noted in the AJC, the document sold for an astounding and record-setting $43.2 million. GHS owns a draft copy of the Constitution, one of only 12 in existence, that is annotated and signed by Georgia delegate Abraham Baldwin. The copy at auction was bought by hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who will lend the document to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, for public exhibition. The museum, founded by Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, opened in 2011. And in case you were wondering, Bill Gates set the previous auction record for a book or manuscript in 1994 when he purchased the Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci at Christie’s for $30.8 million.
Item: As you no doubt heard, the Georgia Bulldogs—thanks to their undefeated regular season—have made the College Football Playoff for the second time, despite losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship in Atlanta on December 4. Yes, we all hoped this might be the year we finally beat Nick Satan and his Crimson Tide, but there’s no denying that Bama’s had Georgia’s number for a while now—seven straight losses since the last Georgia win in the series 14 years ago in 2007.
Who can blame Dog fans for thinking this was the year? Bama had looked positively human against all its SEC foes, scraping out wins over Arkansas, LSU, and Florida, taking four overtimes to beat Auburn (on the same field where Georgia crushed the Tigers), while actually losing to Texas A&M. In the week leading up to the game, the press in typical fashion dished out what Bama coach Nick Saban calls “rat poison”—hyping Georgia’s defense, yammering about Bama’s porous offensive line, even the threat that Georgia’s Jordan Davis might eat Bama QB Bryce Young like a Varsity chili dog. None of that happened. Georgia’s defense received a good-ol-fashioned butt whipping, Young looked like the Heisman Trophy winner he is, and overall Bama played like the New England Patriots.
One could legitimately ask, where had this Bama team been all season long? Which is the real Crimson Tide: the one that played with razor-thin margins all season, or the Super Bowl champs who dominated in Atlanta? Looming over it all is this: should Georgia get by Michigan in the Orange Bowl, and Bama beats Cincinnati in the Cotton, the two teams will meet yet again for a national championship. Could Bama really do that to us again? Surely, they can’t channel the Patriots twice in one season. Can they? All I can say is, no one of sane mind should ever underestimate Satan and the Tide. The question of the year: how much misery can Georgia fans be expected to endure in one single season? I don’t know about you, but maybe this is the year to record the game and sign up for that New Year’s Eve pinochle tournament down at the Mason’s lodge.
Item: December is upon us, and at some point this month you’re bound to hear Andy Williams’s classic Christmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Williams recorded the song, written in triple time, on September 10, 1963, and released it on his Christmas album that October. It has become a seasonal staple and has been enormously popular since its first release 58 years ago, appearing in commercials, movies, and TV shows, including in the trailer for the new Disney/Marvel series Hawkeye. But here’s the interesting part to me–the song was co-written by George Wyle, who also co-wrote the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. How’d you like to have those royalty checks? By the way, Wyle’s grandson, Aaron Levy, plays in Norah Jones’s band. Now you know.
Item: December means Dickens, and this year I’m reading the first book he ever published, Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People. Pre-dating Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Sketches is a collection of short essays that Boz (Dickens’s nickname) published in various newspapers and magazines between 1833 and 1836, when he was ages 21 to 24. I’m reading the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition with illustrations by George Cruikshank, first published in February and August 1836. It’s still astonishing to me that anyone could write with this level of maturity and insight into the human condition at the equivalent age of a freshly minted college graduate. Though it lacks the appeal of a full-fledged Dickens novel, there are still some vintage Dickensian character sketches here. You can see him limbering up, stretching himself for the great novels to come.
Item: Speaking of Dickens, as the Season is upon us, if you’ve not seen the 1984 film version of A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott, check it out. It’s the best of all the theatrical versions of the Dickens classic, from the location setting in Shrewsbury to the perfect casting, right down to Old Fezziwig. Frank Finlay’s Marley is the best you’ll ever see, though Edward Woodward’s (of The Equalizer fame) Ghost of Christmas Present is a strong runner-up. David Warner as Bob Cratchit, Roger Rees as Scrooge’s nephew, and Angela Pleasence as the Ghost of Christmas Past top off a stellar cast. And for good measure, director Clive Donner worked on the 1951 rendition, Scrooge. Now you know that too.
Item: Speaking of A Christmas Carol, fans of audio books who want to experience the original 1843 novella in a new way should check out the versions read by Simon Prebble (whose father, historian John Prebble, authored the famous Fire and Sword Trilogy of Scottish history) and the version narrated by Dr. Frank-n-Furter himself, Tim Curry.
Item: Speaking of Old Fezziwig—and this will be the last Dickens reference in this post—if you’re a fan of great seasonal Christmas brews, you’ll be happy to hear that Sam Adams has brought back in its holiday pack both Holiday Porter (“inspired by the famous drink of London’s Victorian era luggage porters. Brewed with generous portions of Caramel, Munich and Chocolate malt, this hearty porter finishes with traditional English Fuggles and East Kent Goldings”) and—joy to the world—Old Fezziwig Ale (“Like the character that inspired it, this beer is festive and worthy of a celebration all its own. Bursting with spices of the season, its full body accompanies a deep malt character, with notes of sweet toffee and rich, dark caramel”). Old Fezziwig was missing from last year’s holiday pack, turning festive ale lovers everywhere into small-hearted grumpy grinches who refused to bang their slew-slunkers. And no, I’m not getting paid to write this, nor is Sam Adams a sponsor of this blog, but I and they should be.
Hoist a glass and enjoy the holidays. See you in 2022.
The baseball season ended Tuesday night in the most improbable way imaginable. Our Atlanta Braves won the World Series. I honestly didn’t think I might ever see those words again. It’s been 26 years since, midway through my graduate years at the University of Florida, I watched them beat the Cleveland Indians 1-0 to claim their first title in Atlanta. That long-ago October evening has faded to a distant memory, but not the pain of losing the next year after going up 2-0 in the Series against the hated Yankees, only to lose the next 4 in a row. The Braves never really came close to winning it all again. Until now.
I don’t need to recount to Atlanta and UGA sports fans the dangers of counting championships before the game or series is completely over. And I won’t do it here. But when the last out was recorded on Tuesday night, Dansby Swanson to Freddie Freeman, the overwhelming emotion I felt was one of relief. Other fans I’m sure can relate without any explanation needed.
This Braves team will obviously always be special. Unlike the 1995 team, no one predicted them to win anything, except perhaps the National League East again. By mid-season their underperformance made even that unlikely. The story of the mid-season acquisitions at the trade deadline that remade this team has been told and re-told elsewhere. Their winning without ever seeming as if they possibly could is part of the greatness of this year. The season felt like it was put together with duct tape and baling wire.
But for me, this year’s edition of the Braves is special for another reason entirely. This was the last Braves team that my father—a Braves lifer—ever watched. He died peacefully at his home on Sunday, September 5, a month from his 89th birthday, quietly drifting away as “the sun gradually wheeled his broad disk down into the west,” as Washington Irving so eloquently put it.
In the last month of his life, my father stopped watching his favorite TV shows; he stopped reading his Westerns; he stopped following the news. The only thing that he didn’t put away as he prepared to go was his love for the Braves. They were on and winning—9-2 against the Colorado Rockies—on the afternoon that he died.
That these Braves would go on to win the big prize in the same autumn as his death seemed cruel and yet somehow poetic. Each step that brought them closer to the summit—from Freddie Freeman’s improbable home run against Josh Hader and the Milwaukee Brewers, to Eddie Rosario’s game-winning homer against the Dodgers, to his impossible catch in Game 4 to put the Braves up 3-1 against the Astros—confirmed that something magical and yet mystical was happening right before our eyes. The Braves weren’t doing this alone. As I mourned my father missing it all, I sensed that he wasn’t missing a thing. As one reporter noted after Rosario’s game-saving catch, there seemed to be angels in the outfield.
Baseball’s passing every year brings a sadness with it, but this season’s end brings more melancholy than usual for me. This year’s Braves will always be the last upon which my father’s eyes rested.
Baseball will come back in the spring. It always does. There will be new prospects and predictions and expectations. In the new season, any team, at least on Opening Day, might be champion.
But something will be missing next Opening Day. The irreplaceable man who taught me how to throw and hit a baseball won’t be there to see it.
He had, throughout his life and especially in his final days, “the capacity to wear glory with grace,” as Jesse Jackson so movingly said in his eulogy of Jackie Robinson. For me, this championship season will be forever linked to my father who, just as the leaves began to change and the days grew shorter, stole away home, and, like the Braves, ascended to glory.
I bet he had the best seat in the house.
Once again this year, in celebration of the spooky season Stan reads a favorite ghost story, “Rats” by the master of the genre, M.R. James, first published in 1929. Also, this week in history and a dark day in Mayberry. Draw near the fire, dim the lights, and enjoy…..