What's It Like at the Mecca of College Football?
On his way to cover the Steelers, PM sports columnist Mike Prisuta took a detour to witness what many believe is the best college football experience in the country.
This is what it must have been like to visit The Colosseum at the height of the Roman Empire.
This is what it must feel like to make the trek to Mecca.
Welcome to Bryant-Denny Stadium and the University of Alabama.
The team that plays here has won two of college football’s last three national championships and five of the last nine, and claims 17 in its illustrious history.
That qualifies Alabama as a dynasty –– then, now and probably for as long as scores are kept in such venues.
And that makes a game at Bryant-Denny a “Bucket List” event whether you’re a college football historian, a college football fanatic or merely someone who wants to see what all the fuss has been about for all these years.
There are other destination stadiums, other campuses that reek of atmosphere, passion and tradition.
Penn State’s Beaver Stadium qualifies as such, and ought to be overflowing with all of the above on Saturday night when Ohio State invades.
But if you’re willing to put regional or alumni bias aside and actually check out Alabama firsthand, you’ll understand where NFL scouts and general managers who traverse the country annually in search of talent are coming from when they insist that, environmentally speaking, there’s the SEC in general and Alabama in particular, and then there’s everybody else.
I was skeptical last Saturday prior to attending Alabama’s hosting of Texas A&M.
Today, I’m drinking the Alabama Kool-Aid.
The signature drink is actually called a “Yellow Hammer,” I’m guessing because it’s served up at game-day favorite “Gallettes” in a yellow plastic cup.
It consists, I was informed, of “orange, pineapple and lots of alcohol.”
As for those doing the imbibing prior to filing into Bryant-Denny 100,000-plus at a time, they’re a different breed.
The ladies dress to impress. A noticeable number of the undergrads look like they’re going to a dance club rather than a football game, and those beyond college age appear headed for a country club event rather than the seats in the end zone or the upper deck.
Southern women represent.
The Southern men are as geared up and as liquored up, presumably, as college football crowds are everywhere else. And they’re probably more passionate. But at Alabama there’s still an element of respect extended to fellow fans, even if they’re obviously from out of state or clearly rooting for the visiting team.
The overriding vibe is much more welcoming than confrontational, which is as atypical as it is appealing.
Maybe it’s different for a game against arch-rival Auburn.
Maybe when you know you’re going to win by a lopsided margin (Alabama beat Ole Miss, 62-7, a week before entertaining Texas A&M) it’s easier to greet strangers with a sincere geniality.
Or, maybe there really is something to Southern hospitality.
As the game plays out the student section stands and waves pom poms (how 1950s is that?), the band blasts the fight song at appropriate intervals and everybody pays more attention to down and distance than what’s on Twitter.
Bryant-Denny isn’t unique in that regard, but there’s an intensity and an engagement on the part of the crowd, a religious zeal that resonates, one that has to be experienced to be truly appreciated.
What they’re cheering was apparent against No. 22 Texas A&M. What might be Alabama’s best team in recent seasons, what might be Alabama’s best team ever won easily, 45-23. The offense is much more explosive than Alabama’s more standard methodical-but-dominant attack thanks to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who looks like a future Heisman Trophy winner and first-overall NFL pick. And while you can pass on Alabama’s secondary on occasion, good luck getting passes off thanks to a pass rush that’s equal parts relentless and devastating.
Did Bear Bryant ever have a team this dynamic?
So far on the field this season, there’s No. 1 Alabama and then there’s everybody else.
They’ll tell you to go to “Dreamland” for dinner after the game unsolicited, and if you take them up on it you’ll experience Southern barbecue in all its glory.
“Y’all want ribs or sausage?”
There are no other entrees at “Dreamland.”
What more could a college football fan require?