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Bragging Rights: A Season Inside the SEC

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Bragging Rights:
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 heritage.

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 orange clothes.

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 licensing company.

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 10.)

A Secret Weapon

Bragging Rights
by Richard Ernsberger

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Excerpt Sections

Roughnecks and Romance: An Introduction to the SEC

Energy and Passion

A Secret Weapon

Downgrade Football?

Pressure Cauldron

On the Road

Fathers and Sons





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