I remember that 1973 butt-whoopin’ like it was yesterday. What I didn’t remember were all the rest that went along with it.
No, I’m not referring to the time I was playing in my mother’s sacrosanct living room and broke her prized vase. The scalding that followed burned bright and hot. She regretted that one, as I recall, checking me later in the afternoon for “marks” and apologizing profusely, probably worried that Dad would get on her for being a little too rough.
I’m talking about the 77-6 smackdown that Bear Bryant’s boys, with their high-octane wishbone offense, laid on Charlie Coffey’s hapless crew of Virginia Tech Fighting Gobblers (aka, “The Hokies”) in October of that year down in Tuscaloosa. The Alabama record book still glows like Three Mile Island from that one: 833 yards of total offense, 53 runs for 748 yards, 4 runners over the 100 yard mark.
Afterward, The Bear knew how that one would be received. He offered up a mea culpa of sorts, hemming and hawing in that gravelly baritone of his. “The last thing I wanted to do was embarrass young Charlie Coffey,” he said. “The first team only played 12 minutes, and we were shoving in the reserves as fast as we could…I couldn’t do anything to stop it. We played 74 men.”
I couldn’t do anything to stop it. But what about the band, Bear, what about the band?
Alabama finished that year 11-1 and won the National Championship. As for “young Charlie Coffey?” All he got was a pink slip and a one-way bus ticket out of Blacksburg.
But as I rediscovered this week, the 1973 Beatdown in T-town was no isolated incident during that era. As if it weren’t hard enough to get some respect with a pissed-off turkey as a mascot and a name like Virginia Polytechnic Institute (hey, we may not be able to score TDs, but we can fix your microwave ovens and transistor radios, dammit!), from 1968-1979 Virginia Tech played the patsy no less than 7 times, twice as an opening game opponent, and 3 times for Bama’s Homecoming. The combined score for those 7 games, drumstick roll please, was 277-64.
Now I am a proud native son of the great Commonwealth of Virginia, and all of this did not sit well with me. I did not grow up thinking very well of The Bear. To me, he was a mix of Genghis Khan and General William Tecumseh Sherman. He scorched our earth, raped and killed our sons, and then, after all that, had the nerve to steal our daughters and turn them into sorority belles and Alabama cheerleaders. So, it was with no small amount of satisfaction, even after living many years in The Yellowhammer State, that I watched The Hokies exact a small measure of sweet revenge in the form of 38-7 spanking on a frigid night in Nashville at the 1998 Music City Bowl.
But that was then, and this is now. You all know how this one turns out. Yes, you can name all the U.S. Presidents, Vice-Presidents, ambassadors, authors, generals and other bright lights of humanity who hail from The Old Dominion. You can even have a great-great grandfather who fought with The 2nd Virginia Cavalry at Gettsyburg, defending the sovereignty of her rich and loamy soil (Sic Semper Tyrannus!), but all these people here in Alabama, what with their constant choruses of “Roll Tide, Roll,” and “War Damn Eagle,” will eventually wear you out and break you down.
It was that book as much as anything, The Bible of All Things Tide, that converted me to The Crimson Way. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word, after all. Last April, I had a chance to visit with Warren St. John for a few moments prior to his talk on his latest book. I shook his hand and started with “I know you’ve heard this one before…” (and he had). I went on to tell him how, after many years of “neutrality,” his paen to hardcore Alabama fandom had helped guide me toward The Light.
He smiled and listened politely, and after I had finished, quietly said, “Ah yes, another one in the fold.” I got the impression that he never gets tired of hearing it.
But I will confess to you, my dear and loyal Fusioneers, that this week has not been without its temptations.
My boss is a Virginia Tech alum. He is a hard and demanding man who doesn’t like long reports or a string of excuses. But over the years I’ve learned to manage him well, I think, giving him what he wants when he wants it.
One day, he saw a Virginia Tech coffee mug on my desk and commented on it. I told him that I had attended graduate school at Virginia Tech for all of 2 quarters (which, technically, makes me an alum, too). Since then, our Blacksburg bond has kept us even keel amid the usual workplace squalls and served as a default safety valve of sorts where we can release the tension, a safe place we can both occupy regardless of the crisis du jour.
He was here this past week, checking up on things, when he spied the Bama lanyard around my neck. He knows Number One Son is a student there, and as one native son to another, he wanted to know where I stood. “So,” he asked, eyeing me warily, “who are you going to be pulling for this weekend?”
I probably paused longer than I should have, but I hope you understand. I’ve got two in college, one more on the way, and tuition these days ain’t cheap. That, and I like to eat.
I wanted this to go well. I wanted my end-of-the-year bonus. I didn’t want my career knocked on its ass like those Virginia Tech linemen back in ’73. So I started to offer one of those halting, highfalutin, nuanced Obamaesque responses, the kind you might hear in some graduate school seminar at a school like, say, Vanderbilt.
But in the end, there was only one thing I could say, so I kept it short and sweet. As my world turned Crimson and Houndstooth and the earth began to tremble (“Hold your horses, the elephants are coming!”), I looked him in the eye and let it fly:
“Roll Tide, Roll.”