Overdone: Southern football fanaticism, Harvey Updyke, Paul Finebaum and the return of leisure

“If something was worth doing, it was worth overdoing” –Historian Grady McWhiney on Southern ways

Paul Finebaum asked on today’s radio program how many fans would be capable of doing the same type of thing as Updyke? It is an interesting question and one I’ve been thinking about since reading Grady McWhiney’s book on southern culture. I was thinking about the Updyke situation earlier this week in the context of southern culture when I read a new magazine article on the topic. Sports Illustrated provided yet another look at Harvey Updyke and his infamous attack on the trees of Toomer’s Corner. The article attempts to provide the answer as to why someone would allegedly poison the trees. The answer is “to look at the fan’s roots.” But that provides only a partial answer. The cause is larger; the cause is cultural stretching back to the very things that make the south different from the rest of the United States.

Certainly, Harvey Updyke or Al from Dadeville as he was known on the Paul Finebaum Radio Network is a product of his own unique situation. It is easy to understand the young boy whose father was killed by a drunk driver and how this young man was desperate for a male role model or idol. The imposing and legendary Paul W. “Bear” Bryant came on television and filled that role via “The Bear Bryant Show.” He was devoted to Alabama football.

Sports Illustrated and the story’s author Tommy Tomlinson try to look at the roots of SEC football passion. They turn to a historian: “Everybody searches for some kind of group identity,” says Wayne Flynt, a professor emeritus in history at Auburn. “In a [state] like Alabama, which was so poor and so looked down upon for so long … all year long you can put on the jersey and belong to something. And part of that identity is who you are not.

That is one way of looking at it. The group identity is a major element of southern devotion to football. The socio-economic issue is another motivator, but perhaps both of these things have a deeper cause.

The cause is cultural. The origin of a Southern obsession with football goes back to the Celtic roots of everything southern. Historian Grady McWhiney in his book Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South looks at why the South was different and remained different than the rest of the United States. One big reason was the English influence in the North and other sections of the Union and the large number of Celtic peoples (Scottish, Irish and Welsh) settling in the south. McWhiney found, the settlement trend “was for Celts and other non-English people in the North to become Anglicized and for Englishmen and other non-Celtic people in the South to become Celticized. Thus, more than anything else, settlement patterns determined the cultures of both sections.”

Even though not everyone in the south was Celtic, the Celtic ways including diet, violence and entertainment became dominant, and influenced everyone who lives here. Fighting being one of the things that makes the south different from the rest of the country.

Most people probably immediately think of Scottish soccer hooligans that enjoy a good fight after a match, but there is some additional context for the Celtic influence on the South that McWhiney can provide. First, the passion for sports, entertainment, fighting and drinking was here from the earliest days. According to Cracker Culture: “If something was worth doing, it was worth overdoing” for the typical southerner. And “Scots, Irishmen, Welshmen and Southerners all loved sports and recreation,” and the tradition of “sport” in Ireland went back “as far as recorded history goes.” “(The Southerner) suffered no guilt when he spent his time pleasantly—hunting, fishing, dancing, drinking, gambling, fighting or just loafing and talking… Nor did he see any good reason to have more than he could eat, or drink, or wear, or ride.” Another noted “Life (in the South) is to them but a play-day, and the question of every morning is—how to kill time?” Often the answer was “drunkness, horseracing and cock-fighting” along with gambling and fighting.

The observation on the nature of southerners provided in Cracker Culture is rather important when you consider devotion to football: “If something was worth doing, it was worth overdoing”—that sounds like football fans in Alabama. Updyke’s devotion is overdone. But so are other fans. In the same Sports Illustrated story an Auburn fan was described as taking her five-year-old son to Toomer’s Corner and spending three hours near the dying trees.

Three hours.

Overdone. Not overdone to the extent of Updyke, but still an example of intense southern devotion.

There are hundreds of such examples not only in Alabama and Auburn, but in every SEC school. Perhaps in every SEC fan. When over 90,000 fans attend a practice (A-Day Game) it is an example of this southern passion.

People can try to blame the Paul Finebaum Radio Network, but that misses the point. Finebaum’s popularity and the rise of Internet websites like this one dedicated to the sport are products of the already intense interest in these teams. What these types of sources represent is an increase not in interest, but in leisure. There is simply more leisure time for Americans today than in the last few decades.

Another cultural element from the Celts was the tendency to fight amongst themselves when not fighting an outsider. This correlates to the old cattle raids of Celtic mythology. Something of this old tendency can be seen in the consistent trash talk on radio shows like Paul Finebaum’s. Updyke’s actions are an example of this type of behavior. Sports Illustrated and others have talked about Updyke’s irritation at seeing a Cam Newton jersey tapped to the Paul W. “Bear” Bryant statue in Tuscaloosa. The stories talk about Updyke’s frustration at taunting from Auburn fans on the radio.

Finebaum went further by stating that in his opinion Updyke was motivated by a desire to help Alabama by his actions., “Harvey Updyke is just a college football fan, he is an Alabama fan and I think that emboldens him…because of that, he did what he did. I believe Harvey Updyke did what he did that day for Nick Saban. I think he felt like he was trying to help the cause,” Finebaum said.

Why did Updyke feel the need to help the cause? Because of Alabama’s catastrophic loss at home in the Iron Bowl.

Updyke’s response was overdone. His passion provoked him to action without regard to the consequences. Southerners have a history of doing that. Anyone remember Fort Sumter?