Sunday, December 1, 2013

It Always Has

All the smart people I know always ask me: why sports? Why dedicate your life to something so meaningless? And I used to answer with "it's fun" or "I like it" and even the ever-dramatic, ever-untrue "it's the most important thing in the world to me." But deep down I question it frequently—why this? There has to be something more important I should be doing.

And then a day like today happens and every doubt, every “what if” is wiped from my consciousness. It’s not a complicated thing really. In my favorite article ever written about college football, Rick Bragg writes ever so simply that “the fact is, it lifts our hearts. It always has.” Nothing more needs to be said.

The association by which I am employed cares about college sports because of the educational experience they provide so many student-athletes who might never see the inside of a university otherwise. Sadly, my motivation is far less noble. It just lifts my heart. It always has. This week was the first major holiday since my mother passed away in July, and yet the week felt a lot like a celebration: of new and old friends, of tradition, of warmth. I have my college football fanship to thank for that. The fact is, it lifts our hearts. It always has.

Sport is different from the other ways we entertain ourselves- like music, literature, film- in a very real way. All those other things are art, and art at its truest level is meant to take us forward or backward or somewhere else deep within our own experiences. Whether we're going through something terrible or something wonderful, we use art to dwell or savor, to reflect, to think, to wallow, to grow, to work through things, to cry, to feel, to pray.

Sport is not that. It’s an escape from reality. You still cry and smile and laugh but it is about something else. It's not about you the personal being- it's about the game- no matter player or spectator- it's about something smaller, more simple, than yourself. Even through the times the mind boggles at calls made or rules invented, sports make more sense than our real lives ever could. There is order, winners, losers, a beginning, and an end. From the time a ball is served, kicked off, tossed up, or pitched you've checked your real self at the door. You're someone else now.

I used I think of Liz the Razorback fan as essentially who I am, but I was wrong. That is only the alternate me that I use. I am a college football fan, an SEC fanatic, and a passionate Razorback but all of that is merely a footnote on the person I really am. It's the me l choose to be most of the fall, but it's not who I am. I choose it because it's easier than being a scared 22 year old who feels alone most of the time and has no idea where her  life is going and worries constantly about her recently widowered father and her little sister. You see, I'd much rather be a football fan. I by no means think sport is free of emotion—sport is mostly emotion (just ask that 10-year old Alabama fan weeping earlier today). But this emotion is about something that's not you. When the Hogs lose, it's actually nice to cry about that. I'm sick of crying about this.

The ability to love/hate/care deeply about something entirely separate from the reality of our own lives is what makes being sports fans unique. Art is good for the soul. To dwell or savor is necessary and often even enjoyable. But sport does something else: it distracts, entertains, and occupies a mind that is trained to think mostly of itself. Compared to the great triumphs and tragedies of our real lives, sports are, well, like playing games.

Today was reaffirming. Seeing the faces of the Auburn and Missouri fans—seeing their hearts lifted—it reminded me of our purpose. For every time I think there has to be something more important for me to do with my life than work in college athletics, a day like this comes along and reminds me that there is nothing, not a damn thing in the world, more important than lifting hearts. You see it really is just a game. And I thank God for it every single day.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Condi Rice, Sugar and Spice, and Everything Nice

Few things up front: I’m a girl! I think girls are mostly fun and cool people full of competence and imagination. I do not have any bones about calling myself a feminist by the strict definition of desiring equal opportunities in life for men and women (aren’t we all feminists at that level?).

The thing is—and this is something else I make no bones about—I don’t believe in being the girl who cried gender. The person always imagining herself on some miserable, never-ending uphill battle. I feel I have already passed that. You see I went to an all-girls high school. There, I learned that women are most powerful when they are simply themselves, not what society wants them to be. Society used to mean some stay-at-home-housewife fiasco but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Currently, in my society of upward bound professional women, the people around me want me to be angry, defensive, and very very aware of my otherness from the norm of successful professionals. I don’t buy it. I never have.  I just want to be myself. I like women who don’t complain about the disadvantages they have due to their gender. I like women who use their gender, the intricate details of what it means to be a woman (and no: not what you’re thinking), to win day in and day out. We have intuition, we have perception—and that coupled with a genuine desire to succeed is all you actually need.

Here’s my issue: Condi Rice did it my way. She just simply won every day and got into Augusta because she’s awesome. She never said “it means so much to be the first woman to do this”—she was just all “cool, thanks” about it. And yet, here we are still talking about this.
I have a very clear memory of the day I realized I was not going to fulfill my lifelong dream because of my gender. I was nine sitting in my living room watching a Cowboys game with my dad and I said “you know, I think I’d like to coach.” “Coach what?” my dad asked innocently. “Football,” I answered. He laughed and said it would never work because I HAD NEVER PLAYED FOOTBALL! Omg y’all my dad is Pat Dye! Just kidding—but his argument made sense! I couldn’t coach a game I’d never played! It was so true! So initially I’m sitting here thinking wait Dye and Pollack have a point, you guys.

 But Rice isn’t trying to coach! She’s on a committee that will do something that (at least while it’s only four teams) most monkeys could do and she’s more than capable. ANYONE COULD BE ON THIS COMMITTEE. You literally could have no prior knowledge of college football and if you took a season very seriously and became a student of the game, you would be fine—on a side note: it might actually be better that way.

 It just bugs me to see Pat Dye and David Pollack being assholes when I really try to give men the benefit of the doubt. I like men and I like sports and hell I even like a good make me a sandwich joke every once in a while, but come on y’all. This is sad. When it’s time to get serious, you can’t just pull it together and think critically about the asinine words coming out of your mouth?

I love Condi Rice (not politically lol) because of quotes like this: “I don’t feel like I’m carrying a banner for anyone, except those who love college football.” She’s a quiet, powerful feminist in the vein that I am. I don’t carry banners, besides for myself and the things I happen to believe in. She’s not here to lead women to the promised land of green jackets and committee appointments. She’s here to do her thing, to be herself because she has the power to do that. I want more women like this. No more whining, just winning.

As awkward as this sounds coming from me: you go girl.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

2013 Pre-Season Poem

The time of year has come again when the leaves begin to fall
So I’ll string together some rhymes about our dear friend football
New beginnings are a ‘brewin down in the Natural State
Maybe this year we’ll watch football and see something not to hate

No one could have predicted that 2012 could be that bad
But the good news is we’re moving on, if only just a tad

Our conference is full of talent, absolutely no thanks to us
So in our new pig-farmin leader we must really place our trust

Alabama fans think “dynasty” when they hear ole Saban’s name:
Bama’s surely not just making headlines because of AJ McCarron’s dame

South Carolina and Clowney are certainly no laughing matter
Only now the famous hit would be Jadeveon’s head on a platter

No doubt that Johnny Football is the media’s undisputed shining star
But if he can’t wake up for Manning camp, he’ll never get that far

Georgia was just a play away from being in the BCS title game
And now they want to show us the reason for how close they really came

Bielema’s not the only new coach our conference has had to employ
It’s only a short trip down to Auburn to see one not-so-loved Arkansas boy

From bar fights to barking dogs, there’s always strange news from the Swamp
But one thing that’s for sure is how that stadium can rock

The big SEC team I haven’t mentioned is the one I hate more than the rest
LSU’s got a lot of talent even though they’re schedule will be a tough test

And there’s a lot going on outside the borders of our dear SEC
So we’ll take a look around and see who those challengers might be

After the beating from Alabama, and the girlfriend who never died
Notre Dame has as much to prove as ever, as much the 2012 team tried

Oregon’s always threating because of all that Nike swag
It seems it really is enough to count recruiting in the bag

Ohio State’s back to prove they could actually be the best
They’ve finally overcome the darkness of tattoos and sweater vests

Our region of the country is simply dominant at this sport
And that even applies to the schools outside the SEC cohort

Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville all pose a significant threat
But if we’re talking about the championship, the SEC really shouldn’t fret

And much as we’d like to think the Big XII’s glory days are long gone
The Longhorns, Sooners, and Cowboys are just waiting to prove us wrong

Stanford’s one other team of which we should definitely all take notice
But now we’ll talk a little more about the team that to our hearts is closest

No doubt in my mind, the Hogs have been through hell and back
From ULM to motorcycles: in good news we definitely lack

There’s work to be done, but we’re off to a good start
The assistants Bret has hired put out staff off the charts

We know Bielema can recruit; he’s been doing it all his life
He has good judgment and persuasion: I’m sure you’ve seen the wife.

Football means the world to us and it simply always will
There’s nothing like a Hog call to give us all a chill

This season will not be easy; we’ll be lucky to make a bowl
But on a fan base like ours that won’t be enough to take a toll

Regardless of how bad our 2013 Razorbacks might be,
Football will still bring us joy as we spend our Saturdays by the TV

I’m really not demanding; I only want one thing out of this season:
A completely crazy upset that we win for absolutely no good reason

It’ll be a test of faith as we stand by and watch our team grow
Yet the good is worth the bad and that is something we’ll always know

There’ll be times when I’ll close my eyes and look far away from the field
But all we can do is take our coach’s advice, and never never yield.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

i think this is the beginning of a beautiful rivalry

I for one, live for rivalries. I can smell one from a mile away. I love the calendar revolving around one date circled with a big, hideous red pen. Although poisoning trees is a tad insane, I have always longed for a rivalry of that magnitude and being an Arkansas fan has under-delivered.

I do know a rivalry when I see one and Saturday afternoon even from the nosebleed section of Bud Walton Arena, I could smell one a' brewin.

Columbia, Mo., is only five hours from Fayetteville. That is three hours closer to Fayetteville than the second-closest Southeastern Conference school. Arkansas employs a basketball coach who was stolen away from the Tigers. Missouri has a lot to prove in this conference in every sport, including basketball in which we expected a much more impressive debut season than we have seen from them. This has all the makings of a real rivalry.

Think about it, Missouri doesn’t have an SEC rival yet, and Arkansas never really did if you ask LSU fans. So this could work, right? Missouri is the new permanent Eastern division rival for the Hogs in football, replacing South Carolina, meaning Arkansas will play Missouri every year in football despite being in different divisions.

If this is in fact the beginning of a beautiful rivalry, it is off to a great start. The thrilling 78-76 Arkansas win Saturday was enough to get anyone’s blood pumping. But it also got me thinking: was it close because it was somehow already a rivalry in our minds? Or is it now a rivalry in our minds because it was close? That remains to be seen.

The atmosphere felt rivalry-like all day. There were a lot (a lot) of Missouri fans in town if you didn’t notice. They were loud and obnoxious and I hated them but I loved that they were there. Even though “good ole Bud Walton” is a myth in my mind, a story my parents tell that I hardly believe anymore, I think I saw a glimpse of it Saturday.

The Missouri fans were nice on Dickson though and they said they would definitely be back. I believe them, you know. They will be back, and Arkansas fans will be going up there too. It’s a five hour drive and the destination is a land where you are almost implored to obnoxiously love your university to the point of well, tree poisoning. Visiting fans is a huge part of rivalry and the fact that it will be accessible to Arkansas students and fans is huge.

I have my complaints about Missouri as an SEC school — for example, their students have some fashion issues that need to be addressed and I can only pray they get that taken care of by the time we play them in football. But on the whole, this is going to be great for these two universities. The two schools have an inter-mingled history of recruiting battles (most recently, Dorial Green-Beckham) and coaching switches (Frank Broyles, Mike Anderson) that is the perfect foundation on which to build a rivalry.

I for one am very excited to start hating Missouri with a unique kind of hatred. Please join me; it should be fun.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Catholic Southerners’ Guide to Tonight

I felt lost as the pieces started slowly falling into place to make me realize the decision I would have to make on January 7. Of course it does not even kind of matter who I root for, but this has been a dilemma for me. Choosing between faith and football seemed a daunting task, until I realized there was plenty of each on both sides of the ball.

My mom grew up in the north, a Catholic Yankee through and through. Rooting for Notre Dame was a given—it was rooting for God, almost literally. And root for them I did, at times almost with as much passion as I rooted for my beloved Razorbacks. I remember crying the day of the Bush Push—only time I have ever cried over a non-Razorback football game. (No matter who wins, I’ll probably cry tonight—take southern pride and catholic pride and mix it all up and I’m gonna cry yall, no way around that.)

For as long as I can remember, Notre Dame was my dream school. Catholicism, football, high academic standards—utopia. I got wait-listed when I was a senior in high school, and if you think I’m over it, well then you don’t know me all that well.

One of my dear friends (who has become quite a good little college football fan herself) is a student at Notre Dame. I spent my freshman year of college at a Jesuit school in Chicago and went to visit her in South Bend one game weekend. I had been to Notre Dame twice before but never for a game—and although my love of southern football is deep, this was something else. It is the only weekend of my life that leads me to believe that Northerners are not terrible at being college football fans. Seeing that Dome and Touchdown Jesus and watching my faith and my football combine was moving to say the least. There is something special going on there—as there was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.

I am writing this on campus at the University of Florida, where my sister is a student. The game is being played five and half hours away from me. I woke up today telling my sister we should just get in the car and go. Not because I am an Alabama fan or a Notre Dame fan or even an SEC fan, but because I am a fan of sport and more than that, a fan of passion.

This is as grandiose as it gets: the two programs that represent the two strains of college football in their most perfect form. The experience of both programs is enough to take your breath away. Being an Alabama fan or a Notre Dame fan is not something to be taken lightly. It is life; it is a religion all its own. A religion with gods like Lou Holtz and Bear Bryant, with prayers like “roll tide” and rituals like midnight drum circles. In the church of football these two programs are saints, doctors of the church really—they do it absolutely right: robed in tradition, immersed in greatness, and ever-entangled with success.

Every single young man who steps on the field at Sun Life Stadium tonight will have been to Mass today, based on tradition for Notre Dame and based on Saban’s own team rule for Alabama. The Church and college football are not as different as they may seem. A sense of mystery and even mysticism, pageantry that you either love or hate, deep tradition, great passion, high holy days, saints and sinners—it’s all there.

I’m rooting for Alabama tonight. But no matter what you think of Notre Dame, having them “back” at least temporarily is good for college football. The SEC is where my heart is—I truly want to devote my career to living and working in this conference, but college football is special to more than just our pocket of the country. It is nice to see that, I think. Plus, I hope Notre Dame fans in Miami are showing the Bama fans that southern college football fans are not the only people good at drinking; Catholics know a thing or two about that too.

So to my fellow Southern Catholics, it’s one of our religions versus the other tonight. But do rest assured, both head coaches are devout Catholics, and every young man on that field has been to Mass today. At least that’s how I’m justifying my decision. No matter who that beautiful crystal trophy goes home with tonight, passion and college football will win. And that is a victory in which we can all rejoice.

God bless, and roll tide.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bret Bielema. After a Whole Week of Reflection.

What I’m about to spend way too many words telling you is that this is a great hire. Not necessarily for Arkansas but for the SEC. The Big Ten has actually never been slapped in the face this hard; and they’ve been thrown around quite a bit these last few years.  
The crushing reality that those of us born and raised in the best state in the country do not realize is that, well, no one else thinks that. Now I’m not trying to go all Clay Travis on you, but we must understand how other people perceive us in order to understand why this is such an incredible hire. People think that Arkansas is a miserable and desolate place very much in tune with the way Bush Sr. described it in a smear campaign against Clinton in 1992. (Really follow that link, in the mind of Bush’s campaign team Arkansas looked a lot like Northern Africa in a sandstorm; it’s funny).
There are people across this country whose jaws dropped at the fact that someone would leave a good, comfortable job at Wisconsin and bolt for (and you know the way they said it, like it is actually a hard word to pronounce while continuing normal breathing patterns or without swallowing in an entirely distracting manor)…..Arkansas. Not only did he bolt, he started brown-nosing his way into this job in September. He wanted to leave. He wanted to leave very badly.
Now we know that our facilities are seriously great. We know that we are surrounded by better talent in bordering states. We know we are in the best division of the best conference in the country. We know we can pay anyone just about anything they want, especially if allegations that we offered Les Miles what we did are accurate. All of this makes Arkansas a great place to be and we should be counting our lucky stars that Bielema saw that side of the story and not the other one, which is just as compelling.
That other side of the story is that this is a hard place to recruit blue chip out of state talent and a very difficult place to coach in general. The last five head coaches at Arkansas (including John L) have been fired (de facto, at least), some leaving behind levels of fan dissatisfaction that Ron Zook could only dream of. You have to go back to Ken Hatfield to find a non-interim Razorback coach who did not leave the university for eventually failing at his job in one way or another—usually another. Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino both left Arkansas in as dramatic a fashion as you can get.
And that has become a reputation to a certain extent—that this is a really hard place to coach. I do not in any way disagree with that statement. I honestly think it might be the hardest job in the country when you take into account how high the expectations are, how hard it is to recruit, and how difficult the strength of schedule will always be.
And Bret Bielema left a job where he had success, money, and respect to come here. Forgive my girly-ness, but “Gretchen realized it was better to be in The Plastics hating life, than to not be in at all.” Sometimes Mean Girls is just relevant, whether we like it or not. Having an extremely difficult job in the SEC is better than not having a job in the SEC at all. And that is an incredible victory for our conference.
Please don’t think I am belittling how great of an opportunity coaching at Arkansas is. I think it is a step up for Bielema’s career without a doubt.  But not everyone feels that way. The phrase I kept hearing from the national (really, the yankee) media is that this is a “lateral move at best.” I call major BS on that for all the reasons I’ve already stated, but I do see where they are coming from.
I think this hire is great for Bret Bielema, great for the SEC, great for male Arkansas fans (you’ve seen the wife by now, I’m sure), and great for Barry Alvarez who is paying himself $118,000 to coach in the Rose Bowl. I remain unconvinced that this is a wonderful hire for the Razorback football program.
I hope I am proven wrong, and fast, but I just have a lot of doubts. I worry about the “beat Saban at his own game” mentality because I just have not seen that work nearly as well as I’ve seen the “beat Saban at the exact opposite of his game” mentality work (Cam Newton, Johnny Football, Tim Tebow). I worry about recruiting, but I always worry about recruiting so that’s nothing new. And I actually think that Bielema’s good ole boy personality might resonate pretty well down in these parts. It's going to be hugely important for him to get the right coordinators and his focus on that is reassuring.
I do have that healthy dose of Arkansas hope we’re all born with, but I tend to fall on the pessimistic side of the spectrum. Only time will tell, and the good news is that Bielema has a legitimate amount of institutional and fan support, as good as it gets at Arkansas anyway. I’m not sure I’m quite the Bielver that my fellow Liz (LizHoney, of course) is, but I do have hope. Woo pig, yall. Tomorrow is here.

PS—Sorry if I miss-spelled Bielema at any point. I checked like ten times, but ya know, we Arkansas fans couldn’t even spell Petersen on Twitter. It is what it is.

Thursday, November 15, 2012