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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

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.

Legendary coaches? 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."

Downgrade Football?

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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