One of the biggest games in college sports will occur on January 10th in Arizona. The BCS Championship Bowl, the culmination of a long season, between #1 Auburn and #2 Oregon will be watched by millions and a national champion will be crowned.
To many not only the location but the teams will have nothing to do with Ireland or Irish America. Yet looked at a little closer, the teams have more to do with Ireland than many things described as such.
The teams are also from areas of the country not usually on the well worn paths of the Irish such as Boston and New York, and lately Atlanta and Silicon Valley. One, Auburn University, is from the once rural plains of Alabama. The other, the University of Oregon, is from the great northwest, both areas which are not known for their Irish connections. Again, we are wrong.
Taking that second look, the impact of the worldwide Irish Diaspora has had a lasting effect on these very different teams. Although Auburn is currently known for its engineering, teacher training, communications and flight schools it started as a farming school in the then agrarian south. Herein lays the genesis of the connection to Ireland. The name Auburn University, and the town it resides in, are taken directly from a mid 18th century poem by Oliver Goldsmith.
“The Deserted Village” about an abandoned village in the west of Ireland after everyone left or died of malnutrition and disease during the great famine. This connection is proudly announced on the Auburn website. Judge John J. Harper, who founded the city of Auburn in 1836, was inspired to name the city, “Auburn” because of a line from Goldsmith’s poem. The line reads: “Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the Plain.” The Auburn football teams nickname “The Tigers” comes from another line in the poem: “where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey….”
When a team goes to play Notre Dame they seem to feel the eyes of 'Touchdown Jesus' looking down upon them painted on a nearby building. When opposing teams enter Auburn’s Jordan-Hare stadium they are welcomed to the 'The Plains' of Auburn by the student body called ‘The Plainsman’. The Oregon University ‘Ducks’ will be coming up against these same ‘Tigers’ on January 10th.
That one of our sons, Sean, attended Auburn as a Communications Major, and was assigned to help the broadcast of the home games, does have something to do with my knowledge of the university. Additionally, I have been travelling throughout Alabama for years on sales calls and while with BellSouth we used offices throughout the state. These business connections later led to me serving on the Board of Advisors at Samford University’s Brock School of Business located in Birmingham.
So how is Oregon tied in with the Irish Diaspora? Well it starts with their coach for one. Chip Kelly, who grew up in New Hampshire, is Irish through and throug and very proud of it.
Recently, Kelly had the whole team watch an advance copy of the movie ‘The Fighter’, the true life story of the Irish boxer Micky Ward, as a motivational tool. Then just as the lights were turned back on and the team was discussing it and how it related to their unexpected season the boxer, an old New England buddy of Kelly’s, burst into the room. Ward is from Lowell, Mass, about 20 minutes from where Kelly grew up.
In making the comparison to their demanding, undefeated season he described the historic fight depicted in the movie as "Two warriors who just stood there and battled toe to toe''. In comparing the team to Ward and his opponents, he said "I think our kids understood the message.''
The Ducks Green jersey's with angel wings on their shoulders sounds kind of Irish to me as well.
So like Ireland and Micky Ward Oregon is beginning to box above its weight in its relations with Ireland. With the advent of a Kelly at the national college BCS Championship level could closer relations be far behind.
Jim Gaffey is President of the Gaffey Group, an international trade consultancy firm, based in Atlanta, who was responsible for bringing the first every Irish trade mission to Atlanta in 2004, he co-led the first ever business mission from Georgia to the island of Ireland. He is first generation Irish. See more on their focused work at www.thegaffeygroup.com.