A Season Inside the SEC,
College Football's Toughest Conference.
by Richard Ernsberger
Energy and Passion
The demand for tickets
to SEC games is overwhelming. At the more successful schools,
such as Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia, fans
must contribute roughly $2,000 to their university's athletic
department just to be eligible to buy two season tickets. And
those seats will be in the end zone. "The energy and passion
in the SEC is pretty amazing," says Florida Athletic Director
Jeremy Foley, who was raised in New Hampshire and went to Hobart
College. In mid-April, when football tickets go on sale at the
University of Florida, it's nearly impossible to get a telephone
call into the school's athletic department. For some reason, its
phone system is tangled up with the ticket office. The lines are
always busy. South Carolina was the SEC's worst team in 1998,
with a 1-10 record. Never very strong in football, the Gamecocks
have won only one bowl game in the school's history. Against such
a dreary backdrop, one might expect that South Carolinians would
be indifferent to their football program. Who wouldn't be after
years of mediocrity or worse? They are not. South Carolina has
one of the biggest stadiums in America, seating 85,000, and it
is filled for every home game. Despite being a conference rugmat,
South Carolina's total annual attendance ranks in the top ten
nationally. The Gamecocks have 55,000 season ticket holders! LSU
has been fairly awful for years. No matter: they're adding 11,000
seats to their stadium. Tennessee once drew 70,000 fans to its
spring intrasquad game.
No SEC team ever gives
up the quest for football glory. South Carolina hired Lou Holtz
to breathe life into its football program. Holtz, who seems to
be a cross between Woody Allen and Elmer Gantry, is one of the
best-ever coaches in college football. To get him, South Carolina
is paying Holtz about $600,000 annually, and that doesn't include
his house, which the university bought for him. The Gamecocks
got away cheap: this past year, LSU hired Nick Saban, the former
Michigan State coach, to save its faltering football team. His
pay package totals $1 million a year. It's hard to imagine that
happening at Indiana or Iowa State.
Most college football
fans are content to attend a game»to get out of the house
on a Saturday afternoon. They enjoy the weather, the food, the
color, the pageantry»and it's nice if the old school wins
one. Southern fans are a little more serious. Oh, they like the
fall foliage, the tailgating, hanging out with friends. Southern
fans don't merely watch games-they suffer through them until the
outcome is clear. There is too much at stake, sadly»too
much bone-deep state and personal pride, for it to be otherwise.
You soldier through the games-adrenaline surging, household furniture
flying (for those watching on TV).
Southerners like to
win»er, they almost have to win. SEC fans demand victories,
and when they come, they remember them as others might remember
a family wedding or a graduation. Big victories are chewed over
for months, relished for years. Most SEC fans aren't even graduates
of the schools to which they are so devoted. No matter: they are
state residents following a tradition that goes back for generations.
It is not uncommon for individual fans»nongraduates, no
less» to bequeath large portions of their estates to their
beloved football program. When I was in Alabama, I saw a wedding
picture in a Birmingham newspaper: the bride is wearing white,
the groom has an Alabama cap on his head. That's how much they
care about football in Alabama. "There is a lot of state
pride at work," says James Lindy Davis, a Birmingham resident
who publishes a popular, annual SEC football preview magazine
named Lindy's. He tailors his magazine's cover photographs to
individual states. All Lindy's magazines sold in Florida, for
example, have a Florida player on the cover; all of his Louisiana
copies have an LSU player on the cover, and so on. "You have
to do that," he says. "Florida fans love the SEC, but
they won't buy a magazine with a Georgia player on the front."
College football grew
in the South for a simple reason: there wasn't much else to do
for many years. Professional sports were late coming to the South,
and in their absence college football and stock-car racing flourished.
Until recently, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints were
the only two pro football teams in the region. In the pre and
post-war years, college fans would listen to games on the radio»if
they had them. Many people would walk miles from their rural homes
into town, or to a relative's house, to listen. And the SEC has
had some wonderful radio announcers. Larry Munson has been broadcasting
Georgia football games for thirty-three years. A Minnesota native,
Munson's got a voice like a dump truck. He makes no attempt to
be objective: he's a Bulldog announcer and a Bulldog fan»a
"homer." But his humorous, old-school style is often
a joy for listeners. Describing an opponent's powerful offensive
line a few years back, he said: "They've just got bigger
butts up front than we do." Describing an opponent's potent
offense, which was racking up points against the home team, he
said: "It's like they've got a big stick, and they just keeping
beating us over the head with it." Tennessee's longtime broadcaster,
John Ward, retired last year after describing the Vols national
championship victory in the Fiesta Bowl. Like Munson, Ward had
a very distinctive style, which he honed during thirty years behind
the microphone. He coined some expressions that every Vol fan
knows by heart. One example: ". . . Peerless Price DIVES
for the end zone . . ." Pause. "Did he get in?"
Pause. Then comes Ward's guttural, signature line: "GIVE
. . . HIM . . . SIX . . . Touchdown Tennessee!" Ward is revered
in Tennessee, and he perhaps thought of himself as an athlete
of sorts. He was fond of walking around the Tennessee athletic
complex with a rolled-up towel around his neck.
Every SEC fan has his
(or her) hero»that one player who represents all that is
great and good about the state football team, whose achievements
are frozen in time. For Georgia, it is Herschel Walker-as pure
and as powerful a college football player as ever was. He beat
Tennessee almost by himself the first time he ever set foot on
the field, as a freshman. Late in the game, Walker bowled over
Tennessee defensive back Jim Bates (who would later have a long
professional career with the Dallas Cowboys) and rumbled into
the end zone to give the Dawgs (as Georgia fans refer to themselves)
the win. At Auburn, Bo Jackson will always be the standard-bearer.
He, like Walker, won the Heisman Trophy. At Tennessee, Peyton
Manning was revered for his talent and humility; at Florida, quarterback
Danny Wuerffel helped Spurrier claim his national championship;
at Alabama»well, they've had more than a few great players.
Specific plays live
on in the collective memory. Ask a Georgia fan about the dramatic
1980 win over Florida»made famous by a 79-yard touchdown
pass from quarterback Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott in the waning
moments of the game»and he might very well get teary-eyed.
On a Georgia Web site, one fan recently recalled being in the
Jacksonville, Florida, stadium when Scott scored that touchdown.
His dominant memory is of gold-hued whiskey flying through the
air as fans suddenly lurched out of their seats and threw their
arms in the air as the play unfolded. It was a big play, paving
the way for Georgia's national championship. Whiskey is something
that southern football fans enjoy with their games. At the annual
Georgia-Florida clash, fans sneak it into the stadium in ziplock
bags»which are easy to stash in pockets, socks, and purses.
Alabama fans get nostalgic
at the mere mention of "the goal line stand" or any
number of other storied moments in the history of the Crimson
Tide. For the initiated, The Goal Line Stand needs no elaboration.
For everybody else, it is the Alabama defense, led by linebacker
Barry Krauss, stopping a Penn State running back just short of
the goal line in the 1978 Sugar Bowl. The play won the game for
Alabama, and with it the national championship.
Thanks to Daniel Moore,
that play is etched in the collective memory of all 'Bama fans.
Moore is a painter in Birmingham who's grown wealthy commemorating
great moments in Alabama football. Moore produced an oil painting
showing Krauss and the Alabama defense holding back Penn State
in that '78 Sugar Bowl. He titled the painting The Goal Line Stand.
Moore then, wisely, produced prints. He's since sold thousands
of prints of The Goal Line Stand, many of which are elaborately
framed and hang like Picassos in living rooms, restaurants, and
hotel meeting rooms all over Alabama.
Moore's the college
football equivalent of Norman Rockwell. (Picture a massive painting
of young boy asleep on a couch in front of a roaring fire, a football
in his arms; a Bama jersey draped over an easy chair.) No dummy,
he has painted numerous other winning moments in Bama's football
history, which have titles such as The Kick and The Interception.
Hard-core fans»which means just about everybody in Alabama
who's not affiliated with archrival Auburn»snatch them up.
A typical Moore print costs about $2,000. He reckons he's sold
about 60,000 Alabama prints over the last twenty years. It is
no exaggeration to say that his prints are part of Alabama's cultural
Losses do not get talked
about much in the SEC. Fans bristle when the unthinkable happens,
take a defeat to heart. It sticks in the craw. No good-natured,
"wait-'til-next-year" bonhomie in this neck of the woods,
nosiree. That's for the Western Athletic Conference or the Pacific
Ten, by damn. When Tennessee lost a crucial game to Georgia in
1972»a game the Vols seemed to have well in hand-Tennessee
fans fell into a very foul mood. On the way out of Neyland Stadium,
home of the Vols, the daughter of Georgia Coach Vince Dooley let
loose a joyous "Go Dawgs!" Her timing was bad: she was
promptly punched in the face by an irate individual whom witnesses
could not identify, although he was said to be wearing bright
Dooley's daughter may
have been bruised after that '72 Tennessee game, but Vol Coach
Bill Battle was humiliated. On the Sunday morning after that loss,
he was awakened at home by the sound of heavy wheels and grinding
gears: somebody had hired a moving van and sent it to his house.
It was cruel but prescient. Tennessee soon fired Battle. He had
taken the job at age twenty-eight, if you can believe it. But
Battle's inexperience»and the competition-soon caught up
with him. He now runs a successful Atlanta-based sports merchandise
The SEC is special
for many reasons. But at the top of the list is this: it is a
ferociously competitive football conference. Nearly every school
in the conference has a winning tradition, and everyone strives
mightily to maintain it. If Ole Miss expands its stadium, Mississippi
State boosters will call a hurried meeting and start raising money
to do the same. If Auburn renovates its weight room, be assured
that Alabama won't be far behind. If Kentucky adds luxury boxes,
all other SEC schools will quickly follow. Everybody seeks the
slightest competitive advantage. Those found are quickly emulated.
The biggest computer at the University of Tennessee is used by
the football team to run its million-dollar video system. (See
Chapter 14, The Video Guy.) Alabama's football players live in
swanky apartments, with queen-size beds. Alabama doesn't care
that much about the comforts of its athletes: the queen-size beds
are a recruiting advantage.(Read more about recruiting in Chapter