published Sunday, July 24th, 2011

Wiedmer: Signs clear in South: Football season near

The grease board sits just outside the entrance to the Sports Stop shop in Hamilton Place mall. Large, red letters proclaim “40 Days Till Kickoff.” At least they did Saturday.

The number of days until the first Southeastern Conference football team kicks it off will drop to 39 today, then 38 on Monday.

“We’ve been doing it six or seven years,” said store manager Don Gilman, whose store is smartly heavy on merchandise catering to SEC schools, especially Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

“You can already see business picking up. Once the sign drops below 30 days, business really picks up.”

The Sports Station rents space at the other end of the mall. In its window is a white University of Tennessee at Chattanooga cap signed by football coach Russ Huesman, who added the school’s marketing slogan, “Restore the glory,” with a black Sharpie.

“I don’t think that cap’s for sale,” store clerk Ray Billingsley said with a grin from behind the cash resister. “But almost everything else is.”

Billingsley said business starting gaining momentum in his store two weeks ago. He said the trend will continue through the SEC title game in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 3.

“By September we’re probably doubling, if not tripling, our business from the non-football part of the year,” he said. “You can just feel it this time of year. Football just gets in the air.”

As Billingsley spoke, Northwest Whitfield offensive line coach John Linder walked through the Sports Station with his 11-year-old daughter Maggie and 14-year-old son Tyler.

A lifelong Tennessee fan, Linder said of the upcoming Big Orange season, “I’m excited. I know there are lots of question marks, but I like the coach. Hopefully, we’ll do a little better than last year.”

But isn’t it tough getting excited about football when the temperature is in the mid-90s and the humidity’s almost as bad?

“Even though it’s hot, you can just feel it in the air,” Linder said. “You’re just waiting for that first nip in the air.”

Linder got the fever while still in high school in 1984. A close friend, Gary Woodall, took him to Neyland Stadium to see the Vols tie Army, 24-24.

“I was almost immediately caught up in the excitement,” Linder recalled. “Walking down the Strip. A sea of orange everywhere you turned. I was hooked as soon as I saw them run through the ‘T.’”

If you’re reading this sports section today, odds are you long ago fell under a similar spell, even if your school of choice might be different. It’s college football in the South, its addictive powers as strong as heroin or meth.

Or as Georgia coach Mark Richt said during this past week’s SEC Football Media Days, the event now covered by more than 900 writers, broadcasters and bloggers: “I really would say what separates us from everybody is ‘passion’ — the passion of the coaches, players and fans especially. There’s nothing like it.

“When you line up to play, you’re going to play a supremely talented team, a supremely well-coached team and a team that is supremely supported by their fan base. It is a huge, big-game atmosphere every time we hook it up in our league. Every game is just so meaningful.”

Some may reasonably say that it’s become too meaningful. Georgia State coach Bill Curry recalls his wife Carolyn attending church in Tuscaloosa when he was the head coach at Alabama.

She commented to the minister, “Football is like a religion down here.”

He replied, possibly in jest, though no one was certain: “No, it’s much more important than that.”

So instead of Auburn joyously celebrating last year’s national championship, the War Eagle Nation grimly grits its teeth, justifiably nervous the NCAA has yet to announce the close of its investigation into 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton’s recruitment.

At this same time, LSU officially is on NCAA probation and Tennessee likely is headed there, especially since it already placed itself on probation. Other investigations could unfold at any time.

But the SEC is also the league that’s won five straight BCS titles, with some experts believing Alabama or LSU capable of delivering the league a sixth straight crown.

No wonder Friday morning found Bama boss Nick Saban gushing about the SEC’s coast-to-coast TV coverage on ESPN making the SEC “the national league of college football.”

Or as 42-year-old Glen Youell noted Saturday, a UTC cap on his head and a West Virginia diploma in his home: “I heard someone on the radio say it best the other day. He said, ‘There are three major football conferences — the NFC, the AFC and the SEC.’ I don’t think he’s too far off.”

And we’re now just 39 days from proving it. Again.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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