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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

On the Road

My reporting started last May, when I drove down from Tampa, Florida, to Gainesville to interview University of Florida Football Coach Steve Spurrier. Gator fans affectionately call him "The Head Ball Coach." Gator foes decry his "evil genius." The book ends in Atlanta Georgia (pronounced "JAW-ja), on the cusp of the millennium, when Florida and Alabama battled for the last SEC championship of the century.

Much happened in between. Georgia Coach Jim Donnan accused me of stealing plays while I was watching his team practice. I watched Tennessee slug it out with its two archrivals, Alabama and Florida. I hunkered down with Georgia Bulldogs when they visited Ole Miss; took a pre-game stroll through The Grove, where gentle Mississippi fans greet friends and eat marvelous food as part of southern football's best social tradition. I talked with Gerry DiNardo just after he was fired at LSU; interviewed two SEC presidents, several coaches, and numerous players before, during, and after the 1999 season. Among them: Florida's Jesse Palmer and Travis Taylor; Alabama's Shaun Alexander, Tennessee's Raynoch Thompson. With the help of reporting associates, I got a taste of two classic games: Auburn versus Alabama, and Georgia versus Florida. I made two trips to Tuscaloosa, two to Gainesville, wandered through Athens and Oxford, spent a few days in Knoxville and Baton Rouge. I met with two quirky SEC boosters, who were once friends but are now enemies (see Chapter six, The Memphis Avengers). I ventured into Memphis»the Mecca of southern sports-to track the controversial recruitment of Albert Means, one of the South's best high school players.

On my first night in Tuscaloosa, I met a former player for the University of Alabama at an on-campus pub. He was middle-aged but still as sturdy as an oak tree. One would not expect less from a guy who played for the Bear and won a national championship. When I was eating dinner, he sidled up beside me at the bar and began guzzling ice tea. After each long swallow, he'd run his tongue over his lips, lean back on his stool, and then explain why Alabama football had become such a "hellacious mess." He began most sentences by saying: "Now, I will tell you this . . ." or "Imma be truthful with ya . . ." You listen-attentively-to this confident, loquacious, sincere man. Should trouble break out in the restaurant, I thought, he would happily round up the miscreants and hustle them out the door. Like all Bama fans, he was troubled by the Crimson Tide's recent spiral into mediocrity. And yet, I'll be truthful with you, there was a firmness in his voice as he outlined the problems. One got the impression that, one way or another, they would be fixed.

Entering the 1999 season, Alabama football was on shaky ground. In 1997 the Crimson Tide had posted a rare losing record. There was improvement the following year (7-4), but by Bama standards it was unacceptable. The team was waxed by Virginia Tech in the Music City Bowl. The talent level had fallen off in recent years»the result of NCAA sanctions. Tennessee had beaten Alabama four straight years. In 1997 Mike DuBose»a squatty former star linebacker»was hired to replace the retiring Gene Stallings. DuBose did not at first inspire confidence. He seemed out of his element, over his head; a guy learning on the job. He needed to turn things around, and quickly, or he'd surely be trundled to the front of the Bear Bryant Museum-an impressive granite facility-and there guillotined in front of an angry mob.

Winning football games was only one of DuBose's problems. Just before the 1999 season started, it was revealed that he'd been having a long affair with his secretary. Worse, the woman was threatening to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the university. DuBose at first denied the rumors, lying publicly in a Bill Clinton»like performance. When the truth emerged-one month before the season was to start»the university found itself in a tricky situation. Should the administration fire DuBose and risk throwing the football program into chaos? Or should the university keep him as coach and open itself to charges that its ethical credibility had been sacrificed on the altar of football?

The answer came from President Theodore Sorenson and Athletic Director Bob Bockrath: DuBose would keep his job, but be severely punished. The university gave the secretary, Debbie Gibson, $350,000 to settle her lawsuit»but the money would be deducted from DuBose's salary over time. In addition, two years were lopped off his contract, and he was put on probation. Alabama fans largely supported the decision. The consensus was that the team was poised to rally in 1999»and that was the first priority. The collective attitude was, "Let's play the season and see how we fare. If the team plays poorly, then we'll fire DuBose." On an Alabama Web sit, a self-described preacher weighed in on the issue: DuBose had made a mistake, committed a sin, wrote the minister-but he deserved the prayers of the faithful because without him, who would rebuild Alabama football?

DuBose was in a spot»but he's not one to shrink from a challenge. Here is a man who wore Lee Roy Jordan's number (a high honor at Bama) and once made twenty tackles in a game against Tennessee. As Bama's coach, he had upgraded the talent level. As he told me, "We've got a chance to be a better football team. We're more intense»young but hungry." Alabama's goal was to play its usual solid defense and, above all, to add some wrinkles to an offense that had been one-dimensional for years. Mind you, that one-dimension in 1999 would be formidable: running back Shaun Alexander was a 'hoss-arguably the SEC's best offensive player. DuBose would certainly try to ride his thoroughbred. At stake was Alabama's good name-and his own.

Soon after my first Tuscaloosa visit, I visited the president of Auburn University, William Muse. He kicked me out of his office. Muse had agreed to talk to me about the Auburn football program, and we did. But shortly into the interview, I violated an Auburn University taboo, apparently: I asked Muse about Lowder, the powerful Auburn banker-booster who is a lightening rod for controversy. Muse got red in the face when I brought up Lowder's name; he stammered for a moment or two, then politely ushered me out of his office. He wouldn't talk about Lowder, or anything else for that matter. It was a real 60 Minutes moment.

The last few years have been tough in the state of Alabama. While Alabama was struggling to win games, Auburn was rocked by a string of problems. Terry Bowden, Auburn's coach and the son of Bobby Bowden, quit midway through the 1998 season. Bowden had fashioned two tremendous years in 1993 and 1994, winning 20 games and losing only 1. But the program was on probation»and after the auspicious start, there was only one way to go. In the late 1990s, the program steadily lost altitude. Auburn's talent pool dried up, and there were numerous player problems. For example, the team's best wide receiver was arrested and sent to prison for drug trafficking. Bowden fell out of favor with Lowder and other Auburn mandarins. Fearing he would be fired at season's end, Bowden quit. There was chaos on the pretty brick Auburn campus. Only in sports can getting fired, or even quitting, be so lucrative. Bowden got a $650,000 settlement package from Auburn.

To replace Bowden, Auburn Athletic Director David Housel wanted to hire Bill Oliver, the team's defensive coordinator. Housel may have expressed that intention to Oliver. But Bobby Lowder had other ideas; he liked Tommy Tuberville, the head coach at Ole Miss. Tuberville had done a good job in Oxford, but had only been there four years. When rumors surfaced that he might run off to Auburn, Mississippi folks got nervous. They naturally didn't want to lose a talented coach. Tuberville moved quickly to allay any fears. He assured the Mississippi chancellor that he was not interested in the Ole Miss job. He also reaffirmed publicly his allegiance to Oxford, saying: "They'll have to carry me out of here in a pine box." It meant nothing: two days after making that melodramatic statement, he accepted the job at Auburn. Tuberville is, in fact, a good fit for Auburn. Like all football coaches,Tuberville wants very much to win. An Arkansas native who once managed a catfish restaurant, Tuberville pulled scholarships from six Auburn players deemed of little athletic value to the team. Tuberville was legally within his bounds»athletic grants are renewed annually»but the action was ethically questionable. It's one way that programs stretch rules (or traditions) to gain competitive advantage.

Things were much different in Knoxville as the 1999 season approached. Tennessee was riding high from its national championship and perfect 13-0 season. Vol Coach Phillip Fulmer had strengthened Tennessee since taking over in 1993. But until the Vols whipped Florida State in Tempe, Arizona, to cap an undefeated 1998 season, there were still plenty of people who doubted the Vols. With good reason: the Vols had a good football program for a long time, but had a well-deserved bridesmaid reputation. They played poorly in big games, often losing to archrivals Alabama and Florida. The 1998 national title, Tennessee's first since 1951, validated Fulmer. Could the Vols repeat as national champs in 1999? It was certainly a possibility. The Vols were top-heavy with talent»seven guys would later be drafted in the first two rounds of the 2000 NFL draft-and more experienced than the year before. But, as always, Steve Spurrier stood in Fulmer's way.

Spurrier needed no validation heading into the last year of the millennium. His pass-happy teams had dominated the SEC for most of the decade»won five SEC titles and set a passel of scoring records. The Florida coach has a reputation for being cocky, but he's really a bit enigmatic. He seems to like keeping everyone (his team, the media, Florida fans, maybe even himself) a little off balance. "He's got a peculiar side," says Finebaum of the Birmingham Post Herald. "Most coaches get hung up on the opposition. He's only concerned about his offense." Spurrier is often cocksure when there are question marks about his team. And then, when the Gators are rolling along, he is quick to fret about team weaknesses. His 1998 squad was a showcase team, featuring talented defensive player Jevon Kearse. But the Gators lost a heartbreaker to Tennessee, lost also to Florida State, and fell out of the title hunt. After the season, it was learned that three Florida players-among them Kearse-had accepted money from an agent during the season. The revelation didn't affect the program-all three had either decided to turn pro or had used up all of their college eligibility. But it was embarrassing, and Spurrier was so angered by the news he banished the three former Gator players from the Florida campus.

Spurrier was excited about the 1999 team. It would be young but hungry, and eager to learn. The coach seemed pleased that the stars were gone, and with them the egos that can disrupt the fragile harmony of a football team. And there was no shortage of talent»especially on offense. The only question, seemingly, was how the Gators would fare in their two biggest games against Tennessee and Florida State. Spurrier enjoys playing headgames with his rivals. When I left him in August, he rolled a verbal grenade at Fulmer and Tennessee. "You tell Coach Fulmer that the Swamp is going to be loud this year," he said. "As loud as it's ever been." He was not joking. I did, in fact, pass that message along to Fulmer in a phone conversation just before the season. The silence at the end of the line was deafening.

That was the status of four of the SEC's high-profile teams as the 1999 season drew near. And what of the others? Georgia, the perennial number three team in the SEC's Eastern Division, was determined once again to break free of the chains thrown around it by Florida and Tennessee. How can it when its division foes, the Gators and Vols, are two of the best teams in America? Asked before the season why Georgia played such a soft nonconference schedule, Coach Jim Donnan made a clever allusion to the strength of the SEC. "It would be tough to play eleven what we call 'Ben Hurs," he said. "They're epic games." Mississippi was ready to rally behind its new head coach, David Cutcliffe, the former offensive coordinator at Tennessee. Kentucky would be entertaining»throw the ball sixty times a game and hope for the best. South Carolina, which had won a single game in 1998, was pitiable. Before the season, Lou Holtz joked about his team's lack of depth: "We wouldn't be allowed on Noah's Ark," he said, "because we don't have two of everything."

Mississippi State was one of the favorites to win the Western conference. The Bulldogs were returning a stout defense and their typically massive group of offensive linemen, who must surely be majoring in Burger King. (Cheap shot!) They would be a favorite to win the SEC West. Vanderbilt, the SEC's intellectual citadel, had not had a winning season since 1982. But, in another example of just how competitive the conference is, the Commodores might have the very best coach in the league. Woody Widenhofer coached the Pittsburgh Steelers, "steel curtain" defense in its prime, and his tough Vandy defense was certain to scare opponents. But would the brainiacs score any points? At LSU, Gerry DiNardo, who'd made a name for himself at Vandy, was girding for a make-or-break season. Yea, the crayfish and whiskey are fun»but what dey gonna do about the bad mojo in Baton Rouge?

Fathers and Sons

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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