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Sunday, July 17, 2022

Call Me Deacon Blues

 

It was early to mid December when I first heard the podcast.

I’m confident saying that for two reasons: The first is that I remember where I was: the parking lot of a restaurant I tend to visit just once a year - when my free birthday coupon comes in. I was listening to a then-recent episode of Southbound, but I had somehow missed both the episode header and the title of the book that was being discussed, despite it having been mentioned no less than twice in the intro. The author being interviewed by host Tommy Tomlinson - I later came to learn it was Ed Southern - was speaking about the history of college football in the south, much of which I had explored when researching CMB150; the south's lean towards the sport and North Carolina's contrasting allegiance to college basketball; the way the world ground to a halt in mid March 2020; and the unintentional-but-no-less-poignant contrast between Bama and Wake Forest present in the Steely Dan lyrics: "They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues" - his wife's and his college sports allegiances, respectively. I was already intrigued, and when I put my car in park, I went to the episode title to find out the name of the book. Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South. 

This is the second reason I'm confident of the date: I exercised the restraint of putting the book on my Christmas list rather than running out and getting it right then and there.

Sure enough, my mom got me the book for Christmas. At Southern's suggestion and my preference, she headed to a local bookstore - Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro. I started reading nearly immediately, and for a few reasons - not the least of which being my not always prioritizing reading and wanting to give it the proper attention - I wrapped up on vacation at the Carolina coast in early May. And while the title Fight Songs spoke to my band nerd heart, the book was "we'll herald the story and die for her glory" and "Dixie's football pride" in premise, if not prose. 

One of the first things that struck me was that the book was hyperlocal to me, in both time and space. Ed Southern attended Wake Forest and currently calls Winston-Salem - a half hour to my west - home. But it also took place in, functionally, the present day. My reading selections are primarily nonfiction, but they tend to be either evergreen or identifiably in the past. Fight Songs begins at the top of the still-enduring pandemic, as the world ground to a halt. In the exercise of "where were you when..." Southern speaks of the ACC men's basketball tournament - its cultural significance, both in the conference's previous iteration and enduring still, to North Carolina. In 2020, the Greensboro Coliseum hosted the tournament in its ancestral homeland - or half of it, at least. For me, having attended the women's tournament the week before, I had every intention of seeing the men as the pandemic's impact hit the American shores. on Wednesday, we received word that the Thursday quarterfinals - which I intended to attend - would be closed to spectators. Other conference tournaments began calling it off, and by mid-day Thursday, before tip of the Clemson-Florida State quarterfinal, the tournament was canceled.

As for Wake Forest, it probably should be my favorite ACC team. Hell, maybe it is. When University of Maryland, College Park was still a member, it was easy, but since their defection, there's no true frontrunner. Wake's the local school, sure, but it's also a small, selective, nondiverse private school, which runs counter to my public regional university roots. Plus, the size of their marching band leaves some to be desired. Carolina and State get my tax dollars, sure, but I've never had much use for flagships, despite the previous mention of UMCP. I've been known to state UVA, with an insider chuckle to the folks who know my particular connection to March 16, 2018. But while I don't claim Wake, I've probably been to their stadium just about as often as any other, including my own alma mater, where I haven't attended a game live in a decade and a half.

As a foil to Southern's Demon Deacon allegiance sits his wife's Alabama, boasting more championships than anyone else currently playing college football at the highest level by any reasonable metric. Baked into that dichotomy is a definition of what "south" truly is, as our North Carolina hitches its wagon to college basketball in a way that seems to defy a southern identity. Indeed, Southern's interrogation of a sense of south parallels my own. In Southern's case (and yes, he acknowledges the auspice of his family name) North Carolina is surely south, but is it south south? For me, I still hesitate to consider myself a southerner despite having lived in some definition of the south nearly my entire adult life and having 3 1/2 southern grandparents (my tongue-in-cheek 1/2 reference being a nod to my DC native grandmother, while also acknowledging that DC - especially growing up there Black in the 1920s and '30s - was and is largely a southern city).

The book is a love story, to be sure, and speaks of Southern and his wife's courtship, marriage, and life together, against the backdrop of their respective southernness and college sports allegiances, but also of the pleasures and pitfalls of college sports in particular: sports' power to unite; the mismatches born of realignment (and Syracuse fans at Stamey's pales in comparison to what's to come); and the immense wealth generated by sports - especially football - that seems to enrich everyone except the proletariat, except lately with the onset of NIL. It reaches back to college football's march south from its northeastern roots in the long shadow of the Civil War and brings us through integration, in the macro and micro, to the present day. While I'm hesitant to put this into the universe, the book is thorough enough with the legacy of the "complicated south" that certain school systems might be inclined to affix it with a certain three letter acronym and ban it from instruction. Fight Songs pulls no punches, and in such, it digs deep into a sport, a system, hell, a region and country we all love, even while daring to delve into the finer points of its makeup.

There are a few books I've been known to revisit, and I've got a good feeling this will be one of them. I encourage y'all to check it out too.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Rights and Wrongs

 

The ACC Grant of Rights is either the smartest or stupidest thing its member institutions could have done.

It may be both.

As another round of college sports realignment hangs in the air, the only teams that don't seem to be in play either already found their seat in growing superpowers the SEC and Big Ten, or are in the ACC. During the last major reshuffle, the member institutions swore what functionally amounts to a blood oath to one another: They contracted to “irrevocably and exclusively grants to the conference during the term all rights necessary for the conference to perform the contractual obligations of the conference expressly set forth in the ESPN agreement..” This means that even if a school were to leave the conference, all assets they would stand to gain from their new landing place through media rights would be remitted to the ACC. Practically, it makes the schools untouchable, so long as the grant of rights remains in play, which at present is until 2036 without some sort of intervention.

Conventional wisdom is that were the grant of rights not in place, the ACC would be in jeopardy. Geographically - as though that still matters - they already share nearly their entire footprint with the two 800 pound gorillas, and the more football-fronted schools in particular would make an excellent addition to either. The conference members have fortified themselves from poaching, but in doing so have locked themselves into a media rights deal that will continue to fall behind the power players. What the conference gained in stability, they lost in agility. While others can renegotiate and make forays into new media, the ACC remains locked for the next 14 years.

The grant of rights first came into being in 2013 near the close of a previous round of realignment. The ACC had been a primary aggressor at that point, decimating what was then the Big East, but tasted its own blood when losing the Terps to the Big Ten. Fearing future volatility, the first grant of rights centered around the contract with ESPN at the time; it was modified in 2016 with the groundwork for what would become the ACC Network and set for 20 years, to expire in 2036.

The thing is, 20 years is virtually an eon when it comes to the everchanging media landscape. Imagine, for example, a 20 year deal inked 20 years prior, in 1996. At that point, there's no way it could have anticipated even ubiquitous high speed internet and wifi, much less ESPN+, conference networks, YouTube, streaming services, and virtually every game being televised in some fashion. Knowing how rapidly the landscape changed in the first dozen years or so of the 21st century, the members had to have known that there was no way to imagine what the landscape would be 20 years hence. In walling off their city, they also shielded themselves from some modicum of progress. 

Time what the future holds for the conference. They may be faced with an impossible choice: Letting the contract stand pat may mean taking less than they're worth, but to seek to rework the terms could provide the out that potential deserters need to answer other calls. Meanwhile, the SEC and Big Ten have reportedly both said there won't be any more moves - for now - and a big piece of that may be that the most attractive candidates are currently bound to the ACC. Should the grant of rights fall, the realignment land grab would likely spring back into high gear.

Friday, July 8, 2022

No Division


(Yes, I'm well aware of the huge disturbance in the force that happened just over a week ago. I'm sure I'll get into that that at some point, possibly when/if the dust settles. In the meantime, I did get most of my thoughts out in this tweetstorm.)

So long, Atlantic. Farewell, Coastal. We barely knew thee.

No, seriously. 17 years of divisional play and I still can't get it right.

The ACC has done away with divisions, and in doing so will likely be the first Power 5 conference to make the move to divisionless football for a league of 12+ members. Rather than division champions meeting in Charlotte in early December, the two best conference records - tiebreakers withstanding - will play for the championship. The move meets two goals: First, having the top two teams meet gives the conference the best chance to put a team into the College Football Playoff: Whichever team wins will pick up another quality win, and there's no chance of, say, a 7-5 division champion pulling an upset and scuttling the conference's chances. It also ensures that conference teams will meet as often as possible: Each team will play its three permanent opponents annually, and meet the remaining ten teams twice every four years, ensuring a home-and-away experience on each campus for any four year players. In doing so, they combat one of the less savory aspects of large conferences: conferencemates meeting so seldom that any shared affiliation is merely a formality. Famously, SEC conferencemates Georgia and Texas A&M have met just once in the decade that the two have shared a conference.

The SEC's expansion, in fact, may very well have set the wheels in motion for this style of scheduling. With the expansion to two seven-team division plus a permanent crossover rival, SEC teams could only cycle through the rest of the opposite division opponents once every six years. At that point, someone more clever than I mapped out the 3-5-5 scheduling model the ACC now employs; quite a few folks took a shot at mapping out permanent rivals. I was one of them. Still, the SEC's longevity and relative stability as a conference led to more natural pairings of permanent opponents, such that mot models looked pretty similar in what matchups they preserved.

In contrast, the schools of the ACC vary greatly in terms of longevity with one another. Charter members like UNC and UVA have faced one another in the South's Oldest Rivalry since 1892, while Louisville, the league's newest member, shared the Big East with a few current members, but as both a temporal and geographic outlier has little history to speak of. Some programs bring history from previous leagues with them; Some rivalries are more recent constructions.

To begin with, the schedule made all of its lobs, preserving FSU-Miami, Virginia-Virginia Tech, and UNC-Duke and UNC-NC State. Clemson-NC State maintain the Textile Bowl as the Carolinas' land grant PWIs; old Big East tilts like Pitt-Syracuse and Boston College-Miami remain as well (curiously enough, Miami-Louisville, both former Big East members but never simultaneously, are also paired). The slate features a few closed triangles: The northern triumvirate of Syracuse-Boston College-Pitt, and the Research Triangle of UNC-NC State-Duke. Like geographically, Wake Forest breaks with its Tobacco Road brethren, matching only with their Methodist counterparts at Duke. 

Still, even the misses won't be strangers, as league opponents not protected will still play 50% of the time. The ACC is slated to begin this schedule in 2023; the SEC and Big Ten are currently exploring how future schedules will look for them, though recent and future realignment will certainly play a role.

Friday, June 17, 2022

BoomBox Birmingham

 Oklahoma-Nebraska.

West Virginia-Pitt

Texas-Texas A&M

And now, Jackson State-Southern.

Realignment in college sports has fundamentally altered traditional rivalries. In some cases, a conference split has stopped teams from playing, relegated their matchups to at times rare out-of-conference games, or even made in conference, but cross-divisional games that were one annual a novelty. The most recent expansion of the SWAC and subsequent adjustment of the divisions put annual rivals Jackson State and Southern on opposite sides of the split, meaning they would miss one another on the conference schedule two out of ever six years. Thankfully, the two schools, with the help and support of the conference office, were able to find a solution with a little magic.

Magic City, that is. 

Back in January, HBCU Gameday sat down with SWAC commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland to break down a move of the annual rivalry game, the BoomBox Classic, to Birmingham in 2023 and 2024. To be clear, the games aren't actually moving; the two schools would not have played in those years if they had not scheduled what is functionally a nonconference matchup. Still, why not a home-and-home in Baton Rouge and Jackson instead of a neutral site game that's at least 230 miles from the closest campus?

Opportunity.

The SWAC's deal with Legion Field in Birmingham came from the offer of three rent-free events for the conference. The league, in turn, offered up the opportunity to members, and Jackson State and Southern, who were having difficulties scheduling for 2023 and 2024, saw this offer as a path forward (the third game will also feature Jackson State, who will face UAPB in Birmingham). These "SWAC Classic" games in Birmingham are part of a new foray into the steel city of the south, which hosted the SWAC football championship from 1999 to 2012. Southern and Jackson State last met in Birmingham in the 1999 championship. The games in Birmingham also provide significant winfall for both schools: Often, SWAC and other FCS schools are beholden to "money games" - lucrative but usually athletically demoralizing games against FBS and often Power 5 competition - to help fund the program. With Birmingham comping the operating costs for these games, each school stands to walk away with a substantial payout from each game.

Realignment has also moved Birmingham closer to the heart of the SWAC, as the addition of FAMU and BCU stretched the conference eastward. While Legion Field once again has a permanent tenant in the USFL's Birmingham Stallions, the Old Gray Lady is no stranger to college football either. In addition to annually hosting the SWAC's Magic City Classic between Alabama State and Alabama A&M, Legion Field was once home to the Iron Bowl, as well as a home-away-from-home for both Alabama and Auburn. The game will bring Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders into the veritable backyard of Alabama's Nick Saban; t he two traded words recently on the topic of NIL.

But Birmingham has more than college football in its past. The city is also an anchor of the civil rights era, central to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birmingham Campaign, and saw Dr. King imprisoned; firehoses and dogs turned on children at the behest of police commissioner Bull Connor; and the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church (among others) that killed four young girls. Birmingham is now hom to the National Park Service's Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. The population of the city itself is now nearly three-quarters Black.

The BoomBox Classic draws its name from the two schools' marching bands: Jackson State's Sonic Boom of the South, and Southern's Human Jukebox. If the SWAC classic games grow into a larger celebration of HBCU culture, it's not hard to see a battle of the bands popping off. Alabama is home to more HBCUs than any other state, and with the import of Jackson and Southern, the number will rise during that weekend. In addition to Bama State and AAM|U, Miles, Tuskegee, and Talladega all share the state, and Atlanta is only two hours away. While some of the Tiger and Jaguar faithful are not happy with the game leaving their respective campuses for these two years, there's a good chance the outcome could be something greater for the culture.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Battle of the Battles


There is an HBCU battle of the bands, sponsored by the American arm of a Japanese automaker, taking place in an NFL stadium with a retractable roof, in a major southern city with a significant HBCU presence.

I must be talking about the National Battle of the Bands, sponsored by Toyota.

Wait what?

Following a (lamentable, in my North Carolinian opinion) move from Charlotte the Queen City Battle of the Bands rebranded as the National Battle of the Bands and found a home in Houston's NRG Stadium. Its positioning at the beginning of the football/marching season makes it a logical foil to Honda's late January tradition. But with a few major sponsorships and momentum on its side - with all due respect to Atlantan and former Honda Battle of the Bands performer Ludacris - they're coming for the #1 spot.

Since its inception in 2003 - in the wake of Drumline's fictional Big Southern Classic - the Honda Battle of the Bands has been the premier HBCU battle. Make no mistake, it still is, and hasn't yet been dethroned, but The Toyota (no one calls it that - yet) just so happened to emerge amid a series of challenges in Atlanta that have led to just one Honda since 2018; in 2019, the Super Bowl being held in a then-new Mercedes-Benz stadium caused a "scheduling conflict" with the Honda; it returned for 2020, but we lost the 2021 and 2022  contests to the pandemic. The National Battle of the Bands, in contrast, happened to thread the needle between summer 2021's declaration of "outside" and the omicron variant such that it's the most recent battle on our minds, and in doing so, garnered new sponsors in Toyota - oh, and Pepsi, in case a foil was needed to Atlanta's Coca-Cola. 

If the energy is indeed shifting from the A to the East Texas bayou, it isn't happening in a vacuum. Back in 2016, Black Enterprise declared Houston "America's next great Black business mecca," a title most would currently attribute to Atlanta. Much as Atlanta has long been associated with its HBCU presence, so has Houston - indeed, with Texas Southern and Prairie View sharing the metro area, greater Houston is the only metro to boast two HBCUs with a population of 8,000 or greater. 

But Houston's rise  feels like something else we've seen, coincidentally also involving Atlanta: The move of the College Football Hall of Fame from South Bend to Atlanta was an allegory for the sport's power shifting to the SEC. In HBCU sports and marching, the balance of power - conference power, certainly - is shifting to the more western of the Division I conferences. The SWAC has grown with the addition of FAMU and Bethune-Cookman, while the MEAC lost not only those schools, but Hampton, A&T, and soon possibly Howard to the Big South and the Colonial. While all the schools' locations remain unchanged, the company they keep is taking an occidental tilt. And after years of the SWAC's western schools taking the hike to the Honda, they now have a major battle on their home turf.

All indications are that the Honda will return in 2023, bookending a marching season kicked off on Houston. May the battles battle.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

#bracketbands is Back!

 

In March 2020, the ACC women's basketball tournament was one of the last events to reach completion before the global pandemic took hold here in the US.

In March 2021, the tournament returned. Unlike so many other sporting events through the calendar, that particular tournament was rare in that it missed no time in either 2020 or 2021; however, the 2021 tournament was drastically altered. Attendance was limited, and no pep bands made the trip to support their teams.

In March 2022, I'm excited to once again head to the Greensboro Coliseum for one of the best basketball tournaments in the country and to once again get my fill of #bracketbands.


Feel free to follow along on Instagram @eightyminutes, on Twitter @80mins, and #bracketbands in both places.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Hail to the... ?

 

The Washington Football Team is now the Washington Commanders, the franchise announced yesterday, confirming a previous leak. The planned February 2 unveiling came with a robust brand kit, including a new crest, logo, and uniforms, but a few elements remain to be revealed.

Y'all know where I'm going with this.

The Washington Commanders Marching Band, the oldest marching band in professional football, last took the field in totality during the 2019 season, the last season the team competed under its previous name. 2020, was, well, 2020, and in addition to pandemic restrictions altering crowd attendance, the band pared down to just the drumline for that season. The drumline remained during the 2021 season amid the rebrand, but the full band is slated to return to the field for the 2022 season.

But what will they look like? The band updated their uniforms more than a decade ago, forgoing headdresses and other faux-Native American imagery for uniforms more readily recognized as "traditional" marching band uniforms. What will the next update bring? Will the new name evoke military imagery? Would a program so steeped in tradition go the route of some of the more modern designs found in DCI and high school marching bands?

We also haven't yet learned what is to become of the fight song, also among the oldest in the NFL. Hail to the Redskins was both fight song and rallying cry, and no doubt the Washington football faithful auditioned team names within the cadence as the front office mulled potential name changes. Assuming the tune doesn't change, most notice immediately that the new name simply doesn't fit. The Commanders could insert a two syllable rallying cry: Something like "Let's go, Commanders" would fit, however generic it may be. The current fight song lyrics are such that relatively little change is required. With an update to the opening line and "Braves on the warpath," the rest of the song can be used unaltered.

If they're willing to take their cues from a fan of a division rival, I've arrived at my suggestion: Drive On, Commanders. "Drive," as both a noun and verb, is already featured in any number of football fight songs, but that particular construction would be unique to the new team identity. It also acronyms to DC, at least as well as the District [of] Columbia does.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

#bowlbands - College Football Playoff Championship

 Alabama and Georgia will meet for the championship in a decidedly un-SEC locale. Three of their last four meetings - two SEC title games and the championship game following the 2017 season - took place in Atlanta, but this time a pair of schools separated by less than 300 miles in the southeast will make the trip 500 some odd miles north to Indianapolis, a city far more well known for Big Ten tilts.

The city is also known as the host of the DCI World Championships, but this Monday night they'll be hosting a pair of Sudler Trophy winners - much as they did a month ago as Michigan and Iowa met in the Big Ten championship. On that same day, the Million Dollar Band and the Redcoat Marching Band last saw one another.

Georgia:

Alabama:

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Casual Fan

Who is the casual fan?

They get brought up often, usually in the context of TV ratings, and especially in the postseason. As Georgia and Alabama prepare to play for the College Football Playoff championship, questions abound about how much the "casual fan" cares to see this matchup. The question is not without merit. The two played just a month ago in the SEC championship game. Alabama in particular is the "boring" participant, having appeared in five of the last six championships and won three of them. Both teams represent a conference, the SEC, that holds four championships in the playoff era. The pair are separated by less than 300 miles, and occupy two adjacent states in the southeast. It's easy to see how the rest of the country - or at least the ones who aren't chanting S-E-C - would be uninterested.

And yet, the last time these two met in the title game, following the 2017 season, was the second most watched championship game of the playoff era. While Bama wasn't yet as deep into its just-this-side-of-boring dominance by that point, most of the other factors remain the same. So why did it draw so many eyeballs? Perhaps "casual fan" is a misnomer.

"Casual fan" may accurately describe those who don't cling to every pre-season magazine, watch every also-ran bowl game, consume every piece of media about the sport, but it may not get at what they are fanatical about. To a casual college football fan who loves sports because they enjoy seeing amazing athletic performance, for example, this game may be of great interest. To those who can't miss a championship game for simple FOMO, they're tuning in. The game is also of interest to those who are primarily NFL fans - after all, it will be full of players with Sunday in their future. Even with an Alabama program that writes the championship game in their planner in pen, the potential that Georgia might be one of the few to get the best of the Tide may be of interest to the casual fan. So whether they're tuning in to hate-watch Bama, get a glimpse of the future, or just get the last glimpse of college football until the fall, there's a good chance this one still draws decently.

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