It was Saturday afternoon, and I was in the middle of a perfectly pleasant autumn day. I had the day off from traveling and my family had gathered for the first night game in the history of Wingate University football, lights donated via a generous gift from my stepmother.
We dined on a catered lunch. We strolled through an art gallery dedicated in her honor. I wore khakis. And through it all, my pocket was a’humming with text messages and social media notifications. First, it was only occasionally. Then, the buzzing business picked up steam to the point where it was almost constant.
I knew what time it was without even looking at my watch. It must have been 3:30. You see, that’s when Tennessee and Florida were kicking it off at The Swamp. And while I might now be a crusty old impartial college football writer who officially doesn’t care who wins or loses ballgames, my old college roommates are not subject to such rules. And at what college did we all meet? The University of Tennessee.
Thus, this was the first facetious text from the first college buddy that appeared on my phone on Florida game day.
The remainder of the day was spent riding a digital roller-coaster of emotion, rising, dropping and spinning to the point of inducing nausea. I was not alone for this thrill ride. I experienced it Mystery Science Theater 3000-style, as I do every Saturday, with running commentary from my Big Orange brothers.
This, despite the fact only one of the five former roomies still resides in Tennessee. The rest of us are scattered from the Carolinas to Missouri to the Rocky Mountains. We haven’t attended a game as a group in nearly a decade and a half. Yet, nearly every time our alma mater kicks it off, we experience it together.
And as it is every Saturday, we five are certainly not alone in our not-aloneness. No college football fan is. All around the globe, millions of people are strapped in and riding along with their own personal support groups, everyone joined at the digital hip by the devices in their hip pockets.
For better or for worse, richer or poorer, W or L.
“I’ve been tending bar in this city my entire adult life and the reaction to a big win is still the same, with one exception,” said the gentleman who answered the phone when I called The Gin Mill, a bar on New York’s Upper West Side that serves as Big Apple’s official gathering spot for fans of the Florida Gators. (I didn’t catch his name, sorry. It was a little loud.) It’s one of dozens of watering holes that become the places where alums can gather to quench their thirst of reconnecting with the alma maters in the fall. There are so many, my colleagues at College GameDay have struggled with how to get cameras to them all when the show originates from Times Square this Saturday. “People always go crazy when there’s a great finish. They always do the same thing, raise their arms and scream. But they used to do it longer. Now they all scream for a few seconds and then everyone’s arms drop and it gets kinda quiet for a minute.”
Why is that, Mr. Bartender?
“Everybody’s on their phones texting the people who aren’t here.”
Like my bud Super Dave, wherever he was, who was watching the Tennessee-Florida game just as we all were, wherever we all were. No matter what our location, our feelings about the contest, which was sitting at a sloppy 3-3 score in the second quarter, were the same and they were instantly shared, breaking it all down just as we used to when we sat crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the Neyland Stadium student section.
“No matter where you are, you’re not isolated, you are all in this together,” explains Dr. Anita Blanchard, associate professor of Psychology and Organization science at UNC Charlotte. “Through this technology, you get to cross boundaries of time and distance. It’s amazing, when you think about it. It’s so great when you want to share something with someone, like a moment or an experience, or yes, a college football game. It’s really a positive, unifying, community experience.”
Blanchard heads up the Virtual Identity, Community and Entitativity (V.I.C.E.) laboratory, dedicated to studying how information and communication technologies affect people, organizations and societies. She speaks of “virtual communities,” feelings of “groupy-ness” and how being brought together through technology affects how people feel about their identities.
“When we’re on the road and Auburn is playing, you know what? We’ve got two Auburn guys on this team and like a hundred Georgia and South Carolina and wherever else,” says Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, speaking about himself and teammate Cameron Artis-Payne. “So, come Auburn game time he and I are either watching the game together or texting between us and all our old teammates together … away from these other guys.”
He smiles and holds up his phone. “We find our people and stick with them.”
Be it Superman or mere mortals, when people go searching for one of those communities, they do just as they would if they were in New York looking for a place to watch their team on TV. They go hunting for a room full of folks wearing familiar logos, just as they would if they were at the actual stadium for the real, live game. But there are only so many seats in those stadiums and so many airplane tickets to get there.
So, that clear majority who aren’t there are still hunting for that familiar feeling on Saturdays.
“When you go to a game, what do you do? You wear your team colors and you sit with the people who are with your team,” says Blanchard. “Why, as a [North] Carolina fan, would I go sit with a bunch a Duke people in Cameron Indoor and watch a bunch of Duke stuff? I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to do that. I want to be around Tar Heels!”
That closeness serves a lot of purposes. It cures loneliness. It builds friendships over football. And it weeds out those who would love to foul up those first two. Most of the time. But the haters — even the one who are friends the other 364 days a year — can still find a way to run the blockade.
For example, a former coworker of mine who, at the end of the third quarter when the score was 6-3 in favor of the Gators buzzed in outside of the comfort of our group text. He’s a Florida alum. And I’m not going to publish his name because I don’t want to give him the publicity. I will, however, publish the text he sent:
I started to forward that photo into the group conversation with my buds, but decided against it. I mean, he hijacked the #GBO (Go Big Orange) hashtag, for heaven’s sake! Sticking with our folks-in-the-bar comparison, allowing him to interrupt our chummy conversation would have been like letting some guy pour a bucket of brew over our heads.
You know, like the people who derive so much sick pleasure from crashing into social media timelines.
“Social media — Twitter, Facebook, whatever — that’s a whole different animal,” Blanchard says. “If you’re texting, then you are selecting the people you’ve decided to hang out with. If you’re out in the wild, where anyone can jump in there just by using what supposed to be a friendly hashtag, that’s no longer what I would call a group. That’s a crowd. Anyone can bump against anyone else or scream whatever they want to in a crowd.”
Oh, and what a crowd it is. According to Twitter’s analytics department, over the course of the 2016-17 season there were more than 27 million college football-specific tweets producing more than 3.8 billion impressions, originating from 10 countries. Sports-wise, in the United States that trailed only the NFL and Major League Baseball. The gap from those top three back to the other sports is enormous.
It should be no surprise that 45 percent of that chatter was produced by 18-to-24 year olds, aka college students. But 36 percent was sent by 25-to-44 year olds, what universities refer to as “young alums,” aka all the people in all those sports bars … not to mention me and my old roomies.
Take last weekend’s other wild game, Texas at USC. A game that the Trojans dominated, squandered, pushed into overtime and then ultimately survived with a field goal kicked by a walk-on freshman in overtime.
“Man, I don’t even really do social media anymore, but during that game USC looked great and it looked bad and then it looked great again,” says former Trojan-turned-TV analyst Matt Leinart, who could be seen live-tweeting throughout the game standing between the Fox Sports desk and the end zone. “It was ‘Darnold is great!’ and then ‘Darnold is too immature!’ and then ‘Fire Clay Helton!’ and then ‘Clay Helton is a genius!’ … and that was just the USC side.”
Then he thought about the team who lost. “I can’t imagine what the Texas side was like.”
“Drama, man,” says Leinart’s counterpart, Vince Young, who was on the Longhorns’ sideline. “You keep up with it for a while, then just turn your phone off. I mean, you turn your Twitter off. Leave the phone on. Let your friends find you. You need them then.”
Good call, VY, especially when a game ends the way that one did and your team is the one that lost.
Which brings us back to earlier that Saturday, and my phone once being blown up by my guys. Only now it came after Florida’s 63-yard dagger of a game-winning pass as time ran out. Final score: Florida 26, Tennessee 20.
“The most positive aspects of this group, community experience isn’t what is the most valuable when you win,” Dr. Blanchard explains. “The real value is when you find yourself on the side where you need some consoling. When you need some support. It’s not just you, isolated and alone. You are feeling validated because your feelings are like everyone else’s.”
Well, almost everyone else’s. That other side — the side that won — let’s not forget that it is experiencing group emotions, too. Those people also spent the day living among their little digital neighborhood of friendlies. And they have no issue going forth and sharing their feelings with others. Not even five hours after the end of the game, to provide the last gasp of our game-day group text message therapy session … er, I mean, conversation.
Speaking of phone calls, Adam Rittenberg has spent the week chatting with head and assistant coaches about how they are prepping for opponents this weekend. Here, in their own words, is the best of those conversations.
Todd Grantham has been a first-year defensive coordinator for four teams — the Cleveland Browns, Georgia, Louisville and Mississippi State — but no group has bought into him and his system faster than Mississippi State, which leads the nation in QBR and ranks second in yards per play. Grantham frequently met with the entire defense this spring and identified categories of performance: loafs, physical play, tight coverage, loose coverage, running to the ball, sagging off. “I was up front with them,” Grantham said. “These are habits we’ve got to create and how we have to play. They were eager. You see guys who are coachable and understand that effort and energy are important.”
Oklahoma State’s defense has six takeaways this season and has scored a touchdown in each of its first three games. Coordinator Glenn Spencer is pleased with the defensive scores but wants to average three takeaways per game, which includes fourth-down stops. Last year, Oklahoma State held TCU to six points and twice intercepted Kenny Hill in a 31-6 win. “They weren’t healthy,” Spencer said. “[Kyle] Hicks was banged up, [KaVontae] Turpin was banged up, Kenny wasn’t the same. They’re a healthy team now, so they’re a lot more explosive. They’ve changed. You can tell they’ve got a bigger commitment to running the ball out of different formations.”
Most expected Justin Wilcox to immediately improve one of the nation’s flimsiest defenses at Cal. But few foresaw such a dramatic uptick in Wilcox’s first three games as Bears coach. Cal already has nine takeaways, tied for third nationally, and its points allowed average is down to 22 from 42.6 in 2016. “By far, our best football is in front of us,” Wilcox said. “They’re competing really hard and with toughness, and that’s great to see. We’ve just got to play cleaner. They’ve got a good overall understanding. It’s just details of the assignment and how detailed you can be, whether it’s alignment, eye control, execution of the technique.”