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S.C. football, politicians and great expectations

Posted: November 25, 2013 11:28 a.m.
Updated: November 27, 2013 5:00 a.m.

This week, virtually everyone in South Carolina is talking about the Clemson-USC (University of South Carolina) football game. Without a doubt, it’s the biggest Clemson-USC game ever. Dating back to 1896, it is the oldest uninterrupted football rivalry in the South and the second oldest in the country. A 1952 state law requires the two schools to play each other.

This year, for the first time ever, both teams are rated in the Top 11 nationally.

However, the hard truth is that regardless of what Clemson or USC does, the big prize will probably go to Alabama, as they are likely to be the undefeated national champions for the third time in four years.

So what does this have to do with politics you ask? Actually a lot. Football and politics are both all about passion, competition and, most of all, leadership. And therein lies a story … and a couple of important lessons of my youth.

My father was a Presbyterian minister and when I was 5 years old, we moved from Greenville to Anniston, Ala. It was there, during this era of George Wallace and Bear Bryant, that I became fascinated by both college football and politics. I learned a great deal from watching both of these men.

First, Bear Bryant. Paul Bryant was known simply as “The Bear.” How could you not love a Southern football coach named “Bear,” who legitimately earned his nickname by wrestling a bear at the county fair when he was 13 years old?

In the three years before Bear came to Alabama in 1958, they had a 7-21 won-loss record. In 1955, they were 0-10. In only the second season under Bear, Alabama rose to 10th in the nation. Two years later, they had a perfect season and were national champions; they outscored their opponents 297-25. During the next 20 years, Bear had four more national championships and finished in the Top 10 every year but two. The NCAA’s annual college football coach of the year award is named for Bryant.

Thus, Bear became a football legend nationally and a god in Alabama. What was unique about Bryant is how he created an expectation of perfection that permeated the state. Everyone, even the Auburn fans who hated him, fully expected Alabama to win every game, every year, and to be the national champions. That was the expectation … and anything less was a disappointment.

The other Alabamian who played a leading role on the national stage in that era was George Wallace. About the same age, both were born and raised in the same hard scrabble poverty of the rural deep South in the Great Depression. In 1958, the same year Brant was hired at Alabama, Wallace ran for governor as a progressive populist and was defeated by a hard core segregationist. Wallace then infamously vowed to “never be out n—–ed again” and he wasn’t. Four years later he won the governor’s race and embarked on a national career based on resentment, racism and abject ridicule of “the fed’al gubment.”

Interesting, you say, but what does this have to do with South Carolina politics?

First, great leaders, either in football or politics, create great expectations and people respond by trying to live up to these expectations. Bear told his players they were special, he treated them like they were special and they played like they were special.

Every player on the team was fitted out with a snappy crimson blazer, sharp creased dark slacks and alligator shoes -- yes, alligator shoes. To a bunch of back roads Alabama boys one step removed from the overalls of the farm, that outfit make them feel like Supermen -- and they played like it.

Second, for Bryant it was always about the team and results, not the individual players or their personal egos. In 1962, Bryant recruited Joe Namath, one of the first great players of the modern era of TV football. In his first season after a bad play, Namath came off the field and made a show of throwing his helmet on the ground in frustration. Bear calmly walked over to Joe, put a fatherly arm around his shoulder and quietly said, “Boy, if you ever do that again, I’ll personally put you in the car and drive you back to Pennsylvania and put you out.” He would have and Namath knew it.

George Wallace, on the other hand, appealed to the worst instincts of Alabamians. Instead of inspiring people with great expectations, he played on whites’ fears and prejudice about blacks. While Bear sought to make “his boys” feel and act special, Wallace played on white folks’ insecurities and resentments.

Bear Bryant had more than his share of human faults and he was not above stoking a sense of Southern regional pride when playing against schools north of the Mason-Dixon line. But he understood something basic about leadership. He made everyone feel that they could be a winner and he brought out the best in his players. He demanded results and did not put up with excuses or petty egos.

It has been years since we have had a politician -- of either party -- in South Carolina that truly inspired us. At a time when we need real leadership, we are getting politicians that appeal to our worst instincts.

Now more than ever, we need leaders that demand and produce real results and don’t offer up excuses or rely on the cheap political rhetoric of division or rigid ideology.

So while all of us in the Palmetto State will be pulling for either the Tigers or the Gamecocks, at least once, for a brief moment, I’ll think “Roll Tide.”

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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