When the thread "Tua-Language Barrier" appeared on the Alabama message board BamaOnLine last September, its poster, a user by the name of Chattown Tider, truly did believe he was onto something. He had just watched Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa play in his first college game against Fresno State and what he saw worried him. So he posed the question: What if Tagovailoa didn't understand English, seeing as he was from, you know, Hawaii?
He was, as he put it, only addressing the "elephant in the room."
"I thought I saw him point to receivers a couple of times," he wrote, "and defenses might catch on if he's pointing to who he's going to throw the ball to. The only time I've been out of the country is when I was shipped to Nam and I was as confused as a yankee learning to square dance."
For a moment, it was as if the entire internet had to pick its jaw up off the ground. If there was ever peak message board material, this was it. A screenshot of the post spread like wildfire across social media. "I can't tell if this is a serious post or not, but either way it's one of the greatest things I've ever read," Bleedcrimson wrote in the comments.
Welcome to the bizarre world of college football message boards. In the NBA, Twitter is the platform of choice for breaking news and trading gossip. In college football, it's the message board, where today's conversation can turn into tomorrow's scandal or internet meme.
"It's the corner pub that people go to at the end of work -- or, you know, a lot of times during work," Brandon Jones said. "And they're there to socialize and to talk about topics from politics to sports, to laugh sometimes and be crass."
Jones is the CEO of Texas A&M megasite TexAgs. He bought into the upstart in 1999, around the time football die-hards were making the final migration from faxed newsletters and 900 numbers to the internet. And while his site has expanded to include a studio and 24 full-time employees, Jones said that the message board remains the "soul of what we're doing."
"It's really like a pub in that there's probably people there you don't like, but that's OK because you know you're at the table with people you do like," he said. "It's this place where people go to blow off steam to escape the rigors of everyday life."
"It's the corner pub that people go to at the end of work -- or, you know, a lot of times during work. And they're there to socialize and to talk about topics from politics to sports, to laugh sometimes and be crass." TexAgs CEO Brandon Jones
Unlike the wide-open world of Twitter, message boards are self-contained communities; each FBS school has at least one, and powerhouses such as Alabama, Michigan and Texas have too many to keep track of. There, fans feed off one another's obsession year-round. The back-and-forth debate, the ribbing of one another, the almost blinding level of school pride and vitriol directed at rivals -- it's essentially a never-ending online tailgate, minus real names and possibly including a few keg stands.
Remember the car dealership scandal that rocked Oklahoma, resulting in the dismissal of starting quarterback Rhett Bomar in 2006? Six months before news broke, the boyfriend of someone working at the dealership posted on a Texas A&M board about what he described as "fishy" payroll checks. How about the time Mike Price was fired at Alabama before he had ever coached a game? No one knew about his fateful outing at a Florida strip club until it showed up on boards dedicated to Alabama and Auburn football. Steve Robertson, who uncovered former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze's phone calls to escorts, just so happens to be the co-publisher of a Mississippi State site and one of four moderators on its board.
Sometimes what's being talked about is serious. Other times it's so ridiculous you can't tell what's real and what's not, even among friendly fans. Initially, a number of Texas A&M fans shot down the OU car dealership rumor as false, telling the poster "dude go away" and "I hope your ip address gets banned" before everything ultimately came to light.
When reached via direct message on BamaOnLine, Chattown Tider declined to give his real name but said his friends call him "Bear Johnson." He said he was taken aback by the response to his post on Tagovailoa. Despite being hailed as a troll, he described himself as a 66-year-old retiree and lifetime Alabama fan living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he sells wood-crafting supplies part time. He credits a chance encounter with legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant for his obsession with the program.
"The Bear visited my high school my junior year when I was a backup linebacker," he recalled. "He told Coach I was the toughest player he has ever seen and would give me a scholarship just for my toughness, but I was better suited for the war.
"Bear sayin' that was the reason I joined the Army. I second-guessed that decision all the time overseas, but I imagined that was Bear's own way of making me tougher and a better man."
Months after his infamous post -- and Tagovailoa's star turn in the national championship game -- he is deeply apologetic.
"Boy, did I feel like an idiot," he said.
He went so far as to ask whether the reporter believed the Tagovailoa family was offended by what he wrote. If the reporter ever got the chance, he hoped he would let them know he was sorry.
But he isn't the first or the last person to get caught with a foot in their mouth on a message board. Even career intelligence officers can find themselves lured to the anonymity they offer.
When Robert Gates first logged on to TexAgs more than a decade ago, he knew he couldn't use his own name. Rather, he'd need a pseudonym that couldn't be traced, one that would allow him to interact freely with others without risk of divulging his identity.
After some time and thought, he picked the handle Ranger65. "Ranger" being the name of former Texas A&M president James Earl Rudder's beloved pet bulldog buried in the front yard of the president's home, and "65" for the year Gates graduated college.
Then, after a few keystrokes, Gates was ready to go.
"It was an old CIA thing," he explained in a recent interview. "I never went on it in true name."
Gates, who served in the foreign intelligence service for nearly two decades before becoming director in 1991, understood the first rule of information gathering: Go where the information is. And in 2002, in his new role as president of Texas A&M, that meant spying on a popular message board devoted primarily to discussing college football.
"I got on TexAgs because that's where the most fervent Aggie fans live," Gates said. "It was a way to see how they were reacting to changes we were making in the athletic program. It was a way to gain insight into how the sort of hardest core Aggies felt."
Before Kevin Durant and former 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo allegedly created fake identities on social media, Gates concocted his own anonymous account to take the temperature of his constituents and, at times, engage in debate.
When a thread to save the Memorial Student Center Hotel claimed that Gates had been given bad information, Ranger65 shot back.
"You wouldn't want any facts to get in the way of a good rant," he wrote. Later, he dipped into the third person, "Let's hear from all of you all who ***** all the time about diminishing Spirit on campus. Gates is going to test your pucker factor because he announced yesterday he will sell deluxe rooms ... for $200,000."
It wasn't Gates' proudest moment. Later, he said he'd ask himself, "Oh, my God, what have I written?" But mostly, his interactions were positive. Over time, he learned which users to take seriously and when to pick his battles. And, overall, he said he was struck by the board's "sense of community."
Because users talk to one another so often -- and because so often it's not even about sports -- real relationships are formed. It's not unusual for people to meet up offline at a tailgate, for instance. There are countless examples of charity and assistance.
"It really takes the campus experience of everybody being friends and takes it globally," said TexAgs user Rob Woodruff, who saw his fellow posters donate their time and money when his daughter contracted superior mesenteric artery (SMA) syndrome. He added, "It's more than just signing day and recruiting."
"I got on TexAgs because that's where the most fervent Aggie fans live. It was a way to see how they were reacting to changes we were making in the athletic program. It was a way to gain insight into how the sort of hardest core Aggies felt." Robert Gates
When it came time for Gates to leave A&M, he even felt compelled to say goodbye. Less than two weeks before he took over as secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, Ranger65 started the thread "Dr. Gates Breaks Cover." In it, he wrote that it was "time for true confessions."
"I have enjoyed reading you all for the past four and a half years -- well, at least most of you," it read. "You are all hard core Aggies, and I have listened and paid more attention to you than you might imagine. Good luck to all of you in the future. Bob Gates."
Gates, who never really left the board, said of the decision to out himself: "I just thought it'd be a hell of a lot of fun -- and create quite a stir. And it did. I will tell you, the blog absolutely blew up."
The thread, which is still accessible today, has more than 400,000 views and 2,000 comments.
That a former director of the CIA, president of a major university and soon-to-be secretary of defense would post on a message board devoted primarily to college athletics shattered the popularly held notion that most users lived in their mother's basement with nothing better to do than obsess over sports. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite, with at least one study finding the average poster to be upper middle class and college educated.
On the popular LSU message board TigerDroppings, you never know who you'll run into, whether it's lawyers, doctors or engineers. Before longtime Arkansas circuit court judge Michael Maggio was jailed on bribery charges, it was discovered that he had posted using the handle "geauxjudge." According to Brian Fiegel, the site's founder, Louisiana native Stormy Daniels also was once a member.
The connections don't stop there. According to BuzzFeed, Brett Talley, a judicial nominee by President Donald Trump, made several inflammatory posts on TideFans.com under the handle "BamainBoston."
And it's not just fans, either. Whether it's an actual coach or member of the support staff at large, most football programs monitor message boards either to track rumors or simply to stay on top of the conversation.
Early in Jones' tenure at TexAgs, he watched a news conference featuring R.C. Slocum in disbelief as the then-head football coach went off on a tangent about the negative impact of message boards. Jones said he knew exactly whom he was talking about.
"So I called his office, left a message and he called me back and we talked for an hour," Jones recalled. "His complaint was about anonymous users and stuff like that and how information wasn't always correct or half-true. And the number of ongoing topics he was familiar with was impressive. He knew what people were saying about him on TexAgs in-depth.
"And I was just thinking, Look, it's just not good for you to be on there. You could tell that he'd spent a lot of time on TexAgs."
Fiegel had similar stories of hearing from LSU officials about certain posts that appeared on TigerDroppings. The same was true for TiderInsider founder Rodney Orr, who once had coach Dennis Franchione call him the Friday before the Iron Bowl to personally refute a rumor that he was leaving Alabama for Texas A&M.
Within a minute of Orr posting the news, the entire page was flooded with responses. And a few days later, when Franchione did in fact leave, the board went into a full-on meltdown.
Whether it's good news or bad, whether it's any news at all, the same fact always holds true of college football fans and their message boards, Orr said.
"People want to talk, man."