October 4 was the worst day of my 2014 college football season. Katy Perry chugged beers in Oxford. Bulldogs celebrated in Starkville. Mississippi emotions exploded across social media.
I watched my Southern Miss Golden Eagles lose to Middle Tennessee, saw the outpouring, of which they were no part, felt sad, and tried to understand: Why?A fellow graduate of the Southern Miss Honors College delivered the answer. “While people from the South like to talk about loyalty to our institutions, traditions, etc.,” said Neil Rogers, a year later and in an unrelated context, “many of us have a really hard time understanding or caring about the effects the things we expend our energy on have on our communities.”
People in the South, Neil said, for all their talk about the South, tend to lack a particular sense of place. Emotional Southerness is more intangible than it is physical. People affiliated with the two universities that triumphed on October 4, 2014, were understandably thrilled by their schools’ big wins, but unaffiliated Mississippians who didn’t attend those schools, who maybe have never even walked on those campuses, were thrilled too, because the wins vindicated a shared concept of Mississippi.
The “SEC! SEC!” chant that reverberates through stadiums during every bowl season is another example of the same thing, only extended beyond Mississippi. SEC pride isn’t pride in the conference, per se. It’s pride in a shared concept of the South that the conference represents. But concepts aren’t places. They’re just ideas — powerful ideas, maybe, and for Mississippi on October 4 the sort of idea that’s worthy of an emotional investment; but still just ideas.
Sense of place emerges when a certain geographic landscape is unified with the tangible artifacts that result from daily life: a beloved restaurant or store, a public space that people actually use, a notable piece of architecture, etc. Sense of place arises when we take emotional possession of what results from intensely local cultural action — or maybe those results take possession of us. See New Orleans: As Gertrude Stein might put it, there is there there.
Even in the actual South, somewhere like Oxford might be a place. Neil also mentioned Chattanooga, Athens, and Charlottesville, and made his argument in straightforward economic terms. In those places, he said, you must actively search for a chain restaurant. “A lot of factors are in play there,” he continued, “but one of the biggest is that the residents of those cities have a firm understanding of how much bang for their buck they, their neighbors, and their communities receive by spending their money at a locally-owned restaurant, as opposed to helping to pay the salary of the CEO of O’Charley’s.” That’s another way of saying people in places like New Orleans, or the cities he mentioned, are attached, some may argue obnoxiously so, to local things.
I am a New Orleans native who was also, before moving back to New Orleans, a longtime Mississippian. Maybe New Orleans is responsible for the dominance of place over concept in my emotional makeup. Regardless of the why, I was never attached to the idea that university football teams that have played no part in my life represent me by default. I chose Southern Miss, took emotional possession of it, and found upon my arrival in Hattiesburg that Southern Miss, and Hattiesburg, had also taken emotional possession of me.
I felt a sense of place, in other words. For me there is there there.Go to the Red Lobster in Hattiesburg, Neil said, and count the number of Alabama t-shirts. Compare that to the number in Crescent City, one of Hattiesburg’s best restaurants. At the Turtle Creek Mall, notice the number of LSU shirts and contrast it with the same at local institution T-Bones Records, a few blocks from campus. “You can see where I’m going with this,” he went on. “There is a direct correlation between understanding how to better support the community and supporting USM.”
Aside from being intuitively correct — when I lived in Hattiesburg, I responded emotionally to T-Bones, or to the Keg & Barrel pub, or to JavaWerks, the coffee shop across the street from campus, in a way I never did to the Books-A-Million, Buffalo Wild Wings, or Starbucks — his point is a fine metaphor for the experience of being a Southerner who loves a Southern major-college football team without giving a damn about the Southeastern Conference. Down here the SEC is powerful and pervasive. Its football teams are wealthy and influential and stretch their presences across the map and strangle comparative mom-and-pop operations like the one from which I derive so much meaning.
Older Southern Miss partisans sometimes refer to the horde of Alabama fans, the ones with no connection whatsoever to the University of Alabama, that existed even during the eon between Bryant and Saban as “Wal-Mart fans.” I get that now. It’s not that the link between a Bama alum, or Tuscaloosa resident, or follower of a Crimson Tide family tradition and the school’s football team is somehow inauthentic, or that the sense of place they perceive around their campus is inferior to the one I feel around mine. Quite the contrary: Their support and mine are exactly the same.
But a member of a totally different community from theirs, like the one centered on the University of Southern Mississippi, who claims fidelity to the Southern ideals of local tradition, local culture, local institutions, and meaningful loyalty can’t claim such fidelity while also delivering their energy and resources to Tuscaloosa, Oxford, or Starkville. The result is bland devotion to a watered-down version of Southerness that is fun if LSU — normally your rival — is beating Ohio State, but is meaningless during the day-to-day act of living in a real place in the world. There’s no tangible connection to your community. It’s like shopping at Wal-Mart, or maybe like buying a book from Amazon that you could have gotten from your local library or from the independent bookstore across town.Saturday’s game between Southern Miss and Mississippi State is the biggest event to take place in Hattiesburg in years. That’s because State is the first SEC team to play at M.M. Roberts Stadium since the Bulldogs played there in 1989, yes, but it’s also because, for the first time in my generation, the place of Southern Miss/Hattiesburg has a chance to measure itself, in all its unique local qualities, on the football field against one of the two other places in Mississippi that can tap the fountain of FBS-level football emotion in the South.
It’s not just a game between sports teams. It’s the Lucas Administration Building vs Lee Hall; Downtown Hattiesburg vs the Cotton District; Branch vs Restaurant Tyler; the Thirsty Hippo vs Rick’s; and so on. Southerners can enjoy the South as a concept, but we shouldn’t do so at the expense of the individual places and cultures that comprise it — and too often that is exactly what we do. The South is not a monoculture, no matter how desperately some Southerners cling to the idea that it is. Southern Miss, the old teacher’s college, is different from Mississippi State, the land grant institution, just like South Louisiana is different from North Louisiana and the Mississippi Coast is different from Oxford, Mississippi, and all of them are nothing much like Georgia or Tennessee, and that’s okay.
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d choose Southern Miss every time,” former star football player Tracy Lampley said, “because it is a bunch of blue collar guys that were overlooked.” And that sentiment defines the university. Southern Miss is smaller than its SEC charter member siblings and a whole lot poorer. It has the highest share of African American students of any non-historically black school in the state. Its graduates tend to be nurses, teachers, or artists in myriad fields from literature to theatre to radio, television, and film. Its football players, even the ones who become NFL stars, come to Hattiesburg because they weren’t taken seriously by schools with more money, and maybe because they found themselves one day on campus when the glint of the sun off the administrative dome was just the right shade of gold, and the sudden feeling that they were home overwhelmed them.
In 1982, Bear Bryant’s Alabama lost its first home game since 1963. The team that ended its twenty-season home winning streak was Southern Miss, which beat the Crimson Tide 38-29. Afterwards, sportswriter Mickey Spagnola deciphered the university, and the city that surrounds it, with words that are its cultural cornerstone: “Don’t fight Southern Mississippi,” he wrote. “No matter how hard you fight, those folks will fight harder. They are that way, as if this Hattiesburg, this school of 11,800, is some sort of transplanted inner-city core in the state of Mississippi. Blue collar types, you know. Hard hats, tattoos. Cigarettes in the shirt-sleeve. Beer. These people know sweat. They know work. They know nothing ever came easy, nor will it ever come easy.”
I cheer for Southern Miss and pay money to support Southern Miss because I identify deeply with that particular culture, and feel strongly the sense of place that is associated with it. It’s an identification that started when I chose a decade ago to possess this little “transplanted inner-city core” and it possessed me right back. That hasn’t changed even over the past three seasons, the worst period in the history of Southern Miss athletics. God knows giving up is a temptation when your school is pulverized in front of you almost every week for three years. That I haven’t done so has little to do with me as an individual and a lot to do with the collective identity of a particular place. For us, nothing comes easy.
“Always choose Southern Mississippi,” Mickey Spagnola wrote in 1982. As an alum, as a college football fan, and as a Southerner, I always will.