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
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?