It used to be that getting your own statue was almost as difficult as having your face on a U.S. postage stamp.
You might not have had to be dead 10 years like with the stamps, but unless you were a dictator putting up your own monuments, the idea generally was that some time for historic appreciation had to elapse between whatever it was you did that was noteworthy and having your visage erected in bronze.
That was pretty much the case even in the sports world, where the words “all-time” and “greatest” get thrown around with abandon. Bobby Bowden had been head coach at Florida State for 28 years before the school erected a statue of him, and Joe Paterno didn’t become a target for pigeons at Penn State until 19 years after winning his first national championship.
In this Twitterized age of instant gratification, however, the bar for bronze immortality has been lowered considerably.
Consider Auburn University, which recently announced that in addition to previously planned statues of Heisman Trophy winners Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson, who won their honors in 1971 and 1985, the school also will be putting up a statue of Cam Newton, who spent all of about a year as a Tiger but who delivered a third Heisman and a BCS championship this past season.
No matter that there’s still the possibility an NCAA investigation could lead to one or possibly even both of those honors going away (and that USC is, no doubt, glad it didn’t rush to put up a statue of Reggie Bush in 2005). Auburn is, as they say, “all in” on Newton.
The news of the Newton statue came right on the heels of the unveiling of a couple of other hastily erected statues at SEC football powers, with Florida’s Tim Tebow having gotten a bronze likeness (along with the Gators’ other two Heisman winners, Danny Wuerffel and Steve Spurrier), just a little over a season after leaving the school. And Alabama recently put up a rather creepy looking 9-foot-tall bronze Nick Saban, despite the fact he’s only in his fifth year coaching there. A trifle premature, maybe? After all, five years into his coaching career at UGA some folks thought Mark Richt should be declared the school’s greatest coach ever; you don’t hear that as much now. But say this for Saban, he did win that national title.
All this bronzing in the SEC prompted quite a bit of media commentary about our region’s football obsession, most notably from HBO “Real Sports” host Bryant Gumbel, who noted, “it seems Southerners in particular have gone bronze bonkers of late. … It used to be you had to serve a lifetime and die for your country or some noble cause to be immortalized. Now, it seems, all you have to do is generate some cheers and win a few football games for those who live and breathe for such things. If nothing else, you’d think they’d wait at least awhile to see how events play out. Recent sports history has taught us that yesterday’s hero might quickly become tomorrow’s outcast.”
Knee-jerk assumptions about the South aside, it’s not just in our part of the country that football heroes get statues. Oklahoma put one up of Jason White four years after he won his Heisman, and the school has erected statues of three other Sooners, with another still to come. Oklahoma also plans statues of four of its coaches, including the current one, Bob Stoops. Notre Dame has statues of Knute Rockne and Lou Holtz (I wonder if they managed to capture the spittle in bronze). Syracuse has one of Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman winner, and Nebraska put up a statue of Tom Osborne (along with a player who died in a plane crash) in 2006.
There’s a lot to be said for statues. They honor achievement, celebrate a school’s past accomplishments and tradition, and make great backdrops for fan photos. And it’s hard to complain as long as public funding that could otherwise go for faculty or classrooms isn’t used to pay for them (most are either funded by private donations or athletic association money).
There’s the prestige factor, too. As Bama athletic director Mal Moore told the Wall Street Journal, “I’d just say that, right or wrong, the thing that brings a lot of immediate attention to a university is its athletic programs. It’s a way of recognizing that success.”
UGA has been rather slow about entering this new Bronze Age, with only the Vince Dooley statue on the South Campus athletic complex so far. But if putting up statues is going to become the latest weapon in the recruiting arms race along with fancy weight rooms and practice facilities, it probably won’t be long before someone’s talking about adding to the statuary in Athens.
As I wrote before on this subject, I recognize there are those who question whether a university campus perhaps ought to erect monuments to great scholars or distinguished alumni rather than athletes, and it’s worth noting that the UGA Alumni Association is raising funds now for a North Campus statue of Abraham Baldwin, the school’s illustrious founder.
But it seems almost inevitable that at the very least Heisman Trophy winners Frank Sinkwich and Herschel Walker will one day get bronzed on campus. And if that’s going to happen, I’d argue Maxwell Award winner and Heisman runner-up Charley Trippi ought to join them. Probably Wally Butts, too.
And how cool would it be to tell friends to meet you after the game at the Erk Russell statue?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg