The state of Alabama is known as the Heart of Dixie. But in the heart of every Alabamian lies the skin of a pig.

Call it tradition, religion or perhaps even the Last Guard of the Old Confederacy - football is the adorned livelihood of the South.Life moves at a lingering pace in West Alabama's emerald country far away from the bustle of a city metropolis.

In downtown Tuscaloosa, which hasn't changed much from the days when Joe Namath dated the cheerleaders, the buildings and shops seem to blend age and leisure all in the same humid breath.

But as the fuming heat of August reaches its height, so too does the hysteria for the first kickoff of the year. Historically there are many reasons for it.

"For one thing you have to look at Alabama as a state," explained Ron Ingram, a sportswriter for The Birmingham News. "There weren't a lot of positives to come about in the '60s. We were chastised about civil rights and we were poor. The only thing we could do was whip your butts in football."

From the moment the Union army burned down the University of Alabama campus in 1865, an us-against-them mentality has filtered the state's history.

"There was still a lot of hurt, anguish, ongoing hostility and animosity from the Northern and Western states toward Alabama that was connected to the war," explained Gilbert Nicholson, a business writer for Birmingham Business Journal. "Even before slavery there was a division between North and South."

Socially and economically, Alabama was a wasteland to most of the country after Reconstruction. For locals in Alabama, an identity was more important than prosperity.

When Wallace Wade took over the UA football team in 1923 he came with the idea to bolster Southern football against the evils of "Northern aggression."

Wade's teams won the school's first three national championships. His successor, Frank Thomas - a Knute Rockne assistant at Notre Dame, won two more.

Yet neither one equaled in stature to a coach who earned his nickname wrestling a bear in a carnival.

Paul W. "Bear" Bryant turned Alabama football into a Southern institution. A former player for the UA, he decided to return to his alma mater in 1958 from Texas A&M with an explanation that became a school mantra.

"Mama called."

Transforming the team in a style much like what LaVell Edwards would do at BYU in 1972, Bryant won 13 Southeastern Conference titles, 232 games and six NCAA titles.

Just like that, the poor, leather-tough coach, who learned football in an Arkansas cotton field, became the wizard prince of Dixie.

"The thing that made him so big was how he would say the same thing to you that he said to me," said Joey Jones, a star split end for Alabama in the '80s, who now coaches high school in Birmingham.

"He was the real thing to everybody. Anything he said, it was all him to the core. The next thing was the motivation factor. He could motive the average player to become a good one."

Tuscaloosa is autumn's equivalent of Graceland. Fans in the South make their pilgrimage to "T-Town" in Winnebagos the size of a Dairy Queen, draped with "Roll Tide" flags and banners.

As for football coaches, Bryant's spirit is more like Banquo's ghost. Since his death in 1983, one month after his retirement, fans keep expecting Bryantesque results each year.

It's the type of allegiance that makes Utahns' sanctity for the Jazz seem paltry. And with no pro sport teams in the state, football stays a year-round passion.

"Growing up you could do four things with your spare time," Ingram joked, "go to a football game, go to a wedding, go to a funeral or go to work."

High school coaches still use formations out of the Bear's playbook, mostly on defense. Defense is backbone of Alabama football. As author Nanci Kincaid says, "this is because people here are always more interested in stopping forward movement than they are in making any forward movement on their own."

As a state today, Alabama's education system ranks among the lowest in the country. The same steel factories that ran in Bryant's day power on in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Slowly, more people and businesses are moving into the state's growing market.

And yet all of it comes to a halt when the weekend comes.

"We can talk about academics and things that are important," Jones said, "but when Friday night comes around, nothing else is more important than the football game."

It is the Old South with new armies, and Dixie couldn't be prouder. As a co-worker so eloquently said to me at my first Alabama game, " you can stand for the national anthem, but when they play Sweet Home Alabama, you put your hand over your heart."