A Season Inside the SEC,
College Football's Toughest Conference.
by Richard Ernsberger
A Secret Weapon
Maybe it all started
with Harold "War Eagle" Ketron. In the early 1900s,
Ketron came out of the north Georgia mountains to become one of
Georgia's most notorious football stars. When the ball was snapped,
Ketron would spit tobacco juice in his opponent's eye and then
make the tackle. Spitting tobacco was his secret weapon. Nowadays,
Georgia is still looking for advantages in the rough-and-tumble
SEC. Eager to win the conference title, which it has not won since
1982, Georgia Coach Jim Donnan has been pulling out all the stops.
Having lost to Tennessee nine straight years, Donnan started raiding
the Vols' coaching staff for talent. He first hired away Rodney
Garner»considered the best recruiter in the South»and
then a year later lured Kevin Ramsey, Tennessee's defensive back
coach, to Athens to be his defensive coordinator. A year after
hiring Ramsey, Donnan fired him and brought in Gary Gibbs, formerly
the head coach at Oklahoma, to run the defense. (Ramsey was livid
about the way Donnan handled his demotion. He confronted the head
coach in his office; the two men had a heated argument and reportedly
scuffled.) For teams on the lower or middle rungs of the SEC ladder,
sitting still is not an option. "Football is important in
the SEC, and the standards are high," says Georgia Athletic
Director (and former coach) Vince Dooley. "We can be ranked
fourteenth in the nation but still be in thirrd in the SEC East
Division. It's a tough conference."
Football fans in Ohio,
Pennsylvania, and Michigan would disagree, but it's hard to dispute
the opinion that, top to bottom, year in and year out, the SEC
plays the best football in the land. Seven SEC schools have won
national championships. Three SEC teams won the national title
in the 1990s (Alabama in 1992, Florida in 1996, and Tennessee
in 1998.) SEC teams win more bowl games, and more out-of-conference
contests, than any other conference. There are lots of great college
football players around the country, but the SEC arguably has
more than anybody. In 2000 NFL draft, fourty-one SEC players were
picked by the pros»the best conference showing to date.
The Big Ten Conference came next with thirty-six. Good players
attract attention: for the last eighteen years, the SEC has led
the nation in total attendance. More than 5.5 million fans watched
SEC games, in person, last year. That's an average of more than
70,000 per game. Nearly every conference game, at every stadium,
was a sell-out.
Here is a league that
has produced some of the brightest lights in the football firmament:
Joe Namath, John Hannah, Dwight Stephenson, Kenny Stabler, Herschel
Walker, Bo Jackson, Doug Atkins, Johnnie Majors, Archie Manning,
Fran Tarkenton, Peyton Manning, Emmitt Smith, Wilber Marshall,
Jack Youngblood, Lee Roy Jordan, Cornelius Bennett, Reggie White,
Stanley Morgan, Pat Sullivan, Terry Beasley, Tracy Rocker, Danny
Wuerffel, Billy Cannon, Steve Spurrier, and Terrell Davis»to
name a handful of its stars.
There have been a few, starting with Paul "Bear" Bryant,
who won six national championships and more college football games
than anybody (though Joe Paterno and Bobby "Aw Shucks"
Bowden could soon overtake him). Nobody could motivate young men
quite like Bryant. For old timers, the image of him leaning against
a goal post before every game, dragging on a cigarette, is indelible.
His craggy face seldom showed little except his tough Arkansas
roots. "He was a crusty fucker," says Jimmy Bryan, a
retired sportswriter for the Birmingham News. "When he first
got to town, if you asked him a stupid question, Bryant would
say: 'I don't answer shit like that.' He came to Alabama and made
it number one." Shug Jordan (1951-1975) was a true Southern
gentleman who built the formidable Auburn program; John Vaught
(1947-1970) led Ole Miss to six SEC titles in the 1950s and 1960s.
General Robert Neyland, an innovative, tough-minded West Point
grad, is synonymous with Tennessee football. He was a master of
the single-wing offense. Between 1926 and 1952, he won 173 games,
lost 31. Wallace Wade (1922-1930) was the other great coach at
Alabama; Wally Butts (1939-1960) and Vince Dooley (1964-1988)
won all ten of Georgia's SEC titles; Charlie McClendon (1962-1979)
coached LSU longer than anybody. Those are a few of the men who
created the SEC mystique.
In the South, as elsewhere,
college football is a high-stakes, high-pressure business. Revenues
from the football program have become vitally important»so
much so that practically every school in the conference has recently
expanded their stadium and added scores of luxury boxes for well-heeled
boosters. Nowadays, football revenues fund the lion's share of
all athletic department operations-including scholarships for
women's sports. Partly for that reason, SEC football programs
function almost like autonomous kingdoms. They are big, rich private
corporations»nearly separate from the university itself.
That has made it difficult for the universities to harness their
ambitions. While some university administrators are in thrall
to the football program, others have fought mostly losing battles
to reign in overzealous boosters or coaches who've cut ethical
corners to keep the football team on the fast track. The business
side of the sports is repugnant to a few people. When I asked
Janet McNair Cook, a middle-aged woman who works at a Holiday
Inn in Athens, Georgia, if she was a football fan, she frowned.
"I don't care for it," she said. "This is a big
football town, but I don't understand why old men want to pay
thousands of dollars to sit in glass boxes four stories high and
watch twenty year olds run around on a field below."
Auburn President William
Muse has threatened to resign because a powerful booster, Montgomery
banker Bobby Lowder, controls the university's board of directors
and has a disturbing tendency to meddle in the football program.
Other presidents have resigned, tired of standing in the shadow
of the football program. According to Vanderbilt Chancellor Joe
B.Wyatt, the average SEC president holds his office for just over
four years. The turnover rate is high, he suggests, because the
presidents get tired of working in the shadow of the football
programs. Andy Kozar was an All America football player for Tennessee
in the 1950s. He later worked as a longtime assistant to the UT
president. He's been on both sides of the fence. Sitting in his
isolated office in the bowels of a UT academic building, where
he now writes books, Kozar describes the dominance of football
over academics as "crazy." He adds: "Football is
bigger than the university now»it's the tail that wags the
dog. That wasn't the case when we played."