The national championship trophy has been in the South so long it has a sunburn. It is as much a fixture as the red, blue, and orange Solo cups that hold the tailgate drink and the $9.95 canvas-backed chair that holds the Southeastern Conference fan, who has no greater wish than to hold a winning lottery ticket and for his or her team to win on Saturday. The crystal Coaches’ Trophy has bivouacked here since January 2007, and the folks who populate these rattlesnake-mean message boards in the South claim success comes from playing something called Big Boy Football.
Well, they might have a point. It is big-boy football, as in really big players playing the game. Big people beat up little people. That’s what the SEC believes in; football that is played from the inside out, tackle to tackle, and coveting the defensive lineman over the wide receiver all day, every day. The Southeastern Conference has won six straight national championships in college football because it has size to go with speed.
Alabama and LSU of the SEC slugged it out for the national championship last January because they had 265-pound thumpers on defense that could scoot and 225-pound running backs that could plow. The 7-on-7 teams in the Big 12, ACC, Big East, and Pac-10—the programs in those leagues that highlight skill players, not brawlers—sat home. Big people have become the prerequisite in the SEC, particularly at Alabama, which will not recruit runts for anything but kicker, and even then those specialists are ordered to muscle up. The success of the Crimson Tide, which won national titles in 2009 and 2011, and LSU, which has won 24 games the last two seasons and a title in 2007, should have spread-offense gurus rethinking their approach. Big and fast beats small and fast. It’s why the SEC has not shared the road the last six seasons. It has big players who are fast, which is like a tractor trailer that rides down the middle of the highway stripe going 75 mph.
Bama uses an NFL-inspired formula to recruit. It wins from the inside out, which is with offensive and defensive linemen valued higher than wide receivers and quarterbacks. It builds muscle with a strenuous off-season program and finds high school recruits who can take tough coaching. Alabama takes the best athletes and puts them on defense, and NFL scouts have dubbed the Tide the thirty-third NFL franchise. LSU has the same rock-’em, sock-’em philosophy with Les Miles, the head coach; John Chavis, the defensive coordinator; and Greg Studrawa, the offensive coordinator. The Tigers hit you high where you live game after game after game and then run over you with cats such as the Honey Badger.
Now look at Auburn and Florida. Sure, they won national championships with some speed guys, and the SEC is known for fast players, but look closer. Who was really doing the heavy lifting for Auburn in 2010 and Florida in 2008? It was the Tigers’ senior-laden offensive line making a path for the son of a preacher man, Cam Newton, who is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. The other son of a preacher man, Tim Tebow, is 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, and built like a wishbone fullback, and he buckled defenses for important yards for the Gators in 2008 when they won the championship. Five players from that Florida offensive line that made the path easier for Jesus—that’s what the O-line called Tebow—are playing or have played in the NFL. So take note of these numbers: Florida rushed for 231.1 yards per game in 2008. Auburn went for 284.8 yards a game in 2010. That is nice work in a defense-first establishment such as the SEC.
People always talk about the speed of the SEC. It’s not just the speed. It’s the size and the speed and the versatility of the offense and defense. That’s why the SEC is Goliath. It has taken an imprint of the NFL and laid it over the top of its programs with NFL-type roster maestros called exactly what the NFL calls them: player personnel directors. Other conferences have personnel guys, but the SEC has personnel guys so skilled the NFL is hiring them. The Philadelphia Eagles plucked Ed Marynowitz off Alabama’s staff in May 2012.
The SEC led the NFL draft with the most players selected for the sixth straight year, so maybe it is no coincidence it has won six straight championships. It was the only conference with a player selected from every one of its teams in 2012. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, the former Florida coach, would tell people over and over when he was in Gainesville, “There are twelve teams in this league and ten of them think they can be big winners, so they pay their coaches and recruit like they are going to win the conference championship.”
So for six straight years the SEC has walked off with the big crystal prize, and they will not give it back. The talk of Big Boy Football grinds on the Buckeyes, or Sooners, or Longhorns, or Ducks, and all they can come back with is “Wait until next year,” and then next year comes and the SEC tribe is chanting in the closing minutes of the National Championship Game, “SEC, SEC, SEC,” even if they are the only ones in the building.
Goliath gets the biggest prize and some of the biggest checks, too. In the last six seasons of the Bowl Championship Series, the SEC has cashed more than $150 million worth of checks from appearing in eleven BCS games. The BCS games and the revenue from its CBS/ESPN deals helped the conference pay out $20.1 million to each of its schools in 2012. Now that Missouri and Texas A&M have joined the conference, the deals with CBS and ESPN will be renegotiated to push distribution to each school probably toward $23 million. When the SEC finally gets around to launching its own network to provide content from its marquee hoops team, Kentucky, and its cavalcade of top ten baseball teams, the payout per school could reach $25 to $28 million, which means more money for coaches’ salaries and recruiting and everything else that goes into keeping Goliath fed. Just add up the revenues pulled in by SEC schools. It’s more than a billion dollars in receipts, more than any conference in the country.
The median athletics spending per athlete in the SEC in 2009 was $156,833. Per student in the SEC the median spending was $13,471, according to a study by the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC. The median athletics spending per athlete in the Big 12 was $131,440 per athlete and $14,021 per student. In the ACC it was $106,238 for the athlete to $15,638 for the student. You look at those financials and wonder if the SEC has been a little too aggressive with the money grab. We’ll examine Goliath’s wallet in this book, too, right along with its Xs and Os.
Steve Berkowitz, who expertly investigates the finances of college athletics with a team of reporters for USA Today, simply says when explaining the SEC game of Monopoly with the national championship trophy, “Just follow the money.”
Here is a snapshot of the money.
The vault for assistant coaches in college football, the area where many people thought the SEC lost all self-control, was opened up in 2009 by former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who paid new head coach Lane Kiffin $2 million and paid Kiffin’s father, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, $1.2 million. Recruiting coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Orgeron was knocking down $650,000, and offensive coordinator and line coach Jim Chaney received $380,000. The arms race in college football had entered a new era with these assistants’ salaries, and the SEC was out in front.
The former Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis signed a three-year contract that paid him $765,000 in 2011 and would have paid him $865,000 in 2012 and 2013 if he had not accepted the head coaching job at Kansas. Weis’s salary at the time was higher than that of forty-one Division I head coaches, according to data compiled by USA Today.
It was a pittance compared to the deal offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn had at Auburn before he left to become the head coach at Arkansas State. He was drawing $1.3 million per year to coach one side of the ball in 2010. John Chavis, the LSU defensive coordinator, will eventually make $1.1 million a season as his deal matures. Kirby Smart, the defensive coordinator at Alabama, is making $950,000.
Some strength and conditioning coaches in the SEC are making $300,000 and more. SEC schools do not talk about all the personnel they have hired in the last five years in football, but some staffs have as many as twelve people devoted to strength and conditioning. It really is an arms—and legs—race in the SEC.
“Two significant areas of spending escalation have been in salaries paid to football personnel, head and assistant football coaches, and an increasing number of noncoaching staff, such as strength and conditioning personnel and directors of recruiting, video services, player development, etc.,” said Amy Perko, the executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “SEC teams have been pacesetters in each of these areas. Big-time college football is like a high-stakes poker game, with the SEC upping the ante every year.
“The impact of the escalation is of great concern to presidents, who are also pessimistic about their ability to control these costs on their own campuses.”
So the SEC wins with big people who can run, but it also wins with an aggressive hunting of cash. Perko is correct. No conference is more responsible for escalating the arms race in college athletics in facilities and coaches’ contracts than the SEC. The presidents of the schools in the SEC have been pushed and pushed to win in football by millions of fans in the South, and now the rest of college football has taken up the chase with expansion, their own mega–TV deals, and coaches’ contracts. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, once the lone $3-million-a-year coach in the Big Ten, finally has some companions in the vault in Ohio State coach Urban Meyer ($4 million) and Michigan coach Brady Hoke ($3.2 million average over six years). The man the SEC has to worry about is the Pac-12 commissioner, Larry Scott, whose aggressive business deals are tripling the cash payouts to Pac-12 schools, which means more money to sign the best assistant coaches and build out facilities.
The SEC cash also provides for recruiting budgets. When the select SEC head coach says he is going recruiting for a week, it does not mean he is packing a suitcase and will be on the road enduring bedbugs and punch-drunk hotel clerks. Alabama, for instance, has a jet at the disposal of its head coach, just like a lot of other SEC coaches have. It takes the coach from town to town in the South. Most of the time he is back at night sleeping in his own bed.
The assistants, on the other hand, will drive miles and miles after spring practice in late April, from north Alabama to Florida. They can get on a jet, too, and be dropped off one by one in different locales, then be picked up one by one, but they also endure plenty of windshield time with the sixteen-hour days by car as they roll from school to school to school in their recruiting area.
Auburn’s head coach, Gene Chizik, and his assistant coaches traveled the state of Alabama in limousines to recruit. The former Tennessee coach Kiffin hopped around Atlanta one Friday night in a helicopter watching several high school games his prospects were playing in. Presidents are not the only luminaries skipping over traffic jams in copters.
The zeal and competitiveness in the South is why college football is thick with the acrimony, SEC vs. Everyone Else. The other conferences cannot match the fervor for football in the South. It is why the SEC fought the four-team play-off format that allowed only conference champions into the postseason. The rest of college football dreads the idea of another all-SEC National Championship Game because the second-place SEC team can be better than the other guy’s first-place team. So when will the rest of college football chase down the SEC?
Lane Kiffin, who coached a season at Tennessee, is making his way up the rankings at Southern Cal and has already proved he is more than a brash kid with a whistle; that he can call plays and rebuild a brand. Urban Meyer, the former Florida coach, is off to a great start at Ohio State. He is making enemies with his recruiting style. Now, that’s more like the SEC, which is the king of aggressive recruiting.
Jimbo Fisher, who comes off the Saban coaching tree, is refilling the tank at Florida State. He understands he is not competing with the ACC. He is competing with the SEC and pouring himself into the job like an SEC coach. Clemson is paying its offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, $1.3 million, which is in the style of the SEC.
The SEC should fear Kiffin, Meyer, and Fisher because they have seen the SEC up close. They are ardent recruiters and have sharp-minded staffs. All three can dominate their conferences and get into the National Championship Game, but their schools still don’t have quite enough loot, like the SEC, to sign up the top assistant coaches. Clemson chased LSU’s Chavis to be defensive coordinator, but could not outbid the Tigers in money or prestige or access to top players.
How did it all become so galvanized for the SEC?
Well, this book is not a celebration of the Southeastern Conference’s golden era and six milestones. It is about the passage to those titles. I’m not rooting for anybody in this book, just trying to explain a few things, from the SEC’s perspective, of course. Losers don’t write the history books.
The story does not start with Florida’s bludgeoning of Ohio State, 41–14, on January 8, 2007, which was the first title in the SEC six-pack. It has to start with the population quake in certain southern states—Georgia, South Carolina, Florida—which helps account for a deep pool of high school talent for SEC teams to choose from. Texas A&M and Missouri joined the SEC on July 1, 2012, which adds another ripple of muscle to the SEC footprint.
The story has to include the migration of black athletes from baseball to football in the 1970s and 1980s. The eighty-five scholarships offered by a Division I program and the allure of adoring crowds on Saturday sure beat a bus ride to Bristol, Tennessee, or a frosty college baseball game played in late February. The SEC story includes the bold move to include a conference championship game twenty years ago, which has given the SEC champion a boost toward the BCS title game.
The SEC success story has to talk about Mobile, Alabama, the baseball home of Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, and Ozzie Smith, among others, and how that southern city has turned into a stronghold of football with first-round picks such as Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley, LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Alabama safety Mark Barron, and on and on.
This book offers a good dose of Nick Saban, but it does not start with Saban’s first contribution to the title streak, his 2009 championship team at Alabama. It starts with his 2001 recruiting class at LSU, which awakened an on-again, off-again program and led to the 2003 LSU title and then the 2007 championship. The Tigers have been on an eleven-year roll. The deliberate Saban then did for Alabama (2009, 2011) what he did for LSU.
The dominance of the SEC has a lot more to do with the South’s culture than just the rock-’em, sock-’em of football played one day a week. The South lost the Civil War, and sociologists will tell you that there is still a regional angst and an “us against them,” a spirit of “those damn Yankees,” 147 years following the end of the war.
While white players are more wrapped up in the mythological aspect—win one for the South—black players see opportunity in the game, and a chance to shine in their communities. The cult of SEC football gets at the consciousness of the South, and that has to be part of this book. What it means to be a man and tough.
So, do you write this book and have to hold your nose at the same time? Did the SEC get here by kicking the dog, being home wreckers, crashing their motorcycles, behaving as general badasses, and cheating? I thought about that. According to the NCAA Major Infractions database, the SEC has had eight major infractions in football since 2002, which was just before it started building rosters for this six-year run. There were many other secondary violations, which the conference office and schools do their best to keep from public view. It sounded as if the SEC should not be in jail, but under it.
I looked at the recent college football scandal sheet: North Carolina, Miami, Ohio State, Boise State, Oregon, and Penn State. A couple of years ago it was Michigan and Southern California.
Also, since 2002, the Pac-12 has had eight major infractions. The Atlantic Coast Conference had five. The Big 12 and Big Ten have had four each. The NCAA bill has not come due for Oregon and its relationship with player broker Willie Lyles, but when it does, the Pac-12 will be the clubhouse leader with nine major infractions since 2002.
When Yahoo! or the New York Times look under rocks, do they find just the SEC slithering away? Hardly. Many schools have loopholes and shortcuts written in the margins of their NCAA manual. Let’s get that squared away right now. The SEC has not won six titles by outcheating people. The other conferences can’t run that rap on the SEC.
But they try.
Right after Alabama defeated LSU in the all-SEC National Championship Game, John Cooper, the former Ohio State football coach (1988–2000), told a Cleveland radio station, according to the Birmingham News:
I see some of these teams, the Auburns. I’m told, I don’t know and I haven’t coached in that league, but I’m told that down South the Alabamas and LSUs and some of these teams that have these great players, that maybe the NCAA needs to look into their situation. Those teams have been on probation. As you know, Alabama’s certainly one of the most penalized teams in college football, as is the Southeastern Conference. We say the SEC’s the best and they are the best, but they’ve also had more NCAA violations than probably all the other leagues put together the last ten years.
That is not true, but it is part of the perception of the SEC. Since 2002, the SEC has had eight major violations. The Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC had twenty-one combined, soon to be twenty-two with Oregon’s mess. Do the math, Coop.
In March, after the NCAA sentenced North Carolina’s football program to a one-year bowl ban and other sanctions for nine violations, former Carolina safety Deunta Williams told the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer, “What happened at Carolina is child’s play compared to what happens at the SEC. The SEC pays for players. I’m not afraid to say it, but the NCAA doesn’t go after them.”
He offered no examples of infractions to chase down. I tried to contact him. In August 2011, I was in Chapel Hill, and athletes in other sports talked about a glistening SUV driven by a Carolina defensive lineman who was bumping to the machine’s music while cruising through campus. That’s child’s play? How about the academic cheating at Carolina and Florida State? More child’s play, I suppose.
Consider the two southern schools that prevented the SEC from a greater haul of titles ten to fifteen years ago. They cheated. Florida State and Miami have been pushed into the margins of the game by scandals, and they have had to deal with the fallout, which was to lose a few games and push aside an icon (Bobby Bowden).
“It’s stupid to say everyone is doing it, and it’s stupid to say only the SEC is doing it,” said Mike Oriard, former player at Notre Dame, retired professor at Oregon State, and author of Bowled Over, a book on the culture of college football.
It is true that when Alabama and LSU played the National Championship Game in January 2012, both schools were still on probation for NCAA violations in football. That had to be a first. You know the old taunt: SEC stands for Surely Everyone’s Cheating. The SEC has its issues, no question about it. Alabama banned a clothing salesman from its sidelines because memorabilia signed by players was showing up in his store with price tags. LSU fired an assistant coach for improper recruiting. And you know about Cam Newton’s father, Cecil, who was shopping Auburn’s former quarterback down the SEC aisle at Mississippi State.
Fans of rival conferences want to read about the dark secrets of the SEC. The business of the SEC does look shameless with the coaching contracts, the stadiums stuffed with blind, obedient revelers, the decaying classroom across the street from the modern locker room, the polished steel in the weight rooms, the manipulation of academics, and the oversigning and the managing of rosters, as if the NFL had been transplanted to the SEC. The resources that go into the cultivation of an SEC football program are mind-bending, and rival conferences claim overindulgence 24-7.
But if you look at the bank account of an Ohio State, can you really accuse the SEC of buying titles? If all it took was money, the Buckeyes ($131 million athletic department budget) would have interrupted this SEC run by now. What about Texas, the last non-SEC team to win the national championship ($150 million in revenue)?
That has not stopped the sniping. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema told the Sporting News, “We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC in any way, shape, or form.”
The Big Ten is not like the SEC in any way, shape, or form. The crystal trophies on SEC campuses attest to that. More proof is the Big Ten’s 1-10 record versus the SEC in bowl games. The Big Ten was also the conference that rode Maurice Clarett to its last national championship. Everyone remembers the Ohio State running back. Jailed for armed robbery. Given preferential treatment by a professor at Ohio State, and on and on. How does Bielema claim overindulgence by the SEC when the other quarterbacks in his program, slaving through off-season workouts, were pushed aside by the one-year hire of quarterback Russell Wilson? Sure, Auburn hired a quarterback (Cam Newton) for a season, but the Tigers did not turn around and act sanctimonious toward other programs. They also thought they would have Newton two years.
So what don’t we see? What’s in this book that also speaks to the essence of the SEC?
• Nick Saban walking across the hot coals of mistrust in south Baton Rouge to recruit a star to help awaken LSU.
• The SEC schools that petition the conference office to allow the school to remove a player from the roster and its scholarship count for medical reasons and the conference office saying, “No, you can’t do this. Kids are not disposable. You have to prove it.”
• The Tennessee athletic department members e-mailing athletic director Mike Hamilton pleading for him to corral Lane Kiffin, who was trying to cut in line in the SEC’s championship parade with questionable tactics. Kiffin was tearing down some traditions at Tennessee, and it was good for him that he made a quick exit because former players were about fed up.
• The private eyes on the SEC looking for rule-bending or rule-breaking so they could shake down the league and slow down the SEC’s dominance. For example, it was a booster from a Big 12 school who called the NCAA and said a former NFL star was recruiting Foley, Alabama, star Julio Jones for his alma mater, which is Alabama. The former star explained it as innocent contact and the NCAA dismissed it.
What else about the SEC do we have to see to explain this six-year run?
• Urban Meyer walking with his head down in the darkened tunnel at Bryant-Denny Stadium, his spread offense humiliated by Alabama on October 1, 2005, 31–3, while reporters trashed his scheme up in the press box. The determined Meyer didn’t punt; he won a title in 2006 with big-back adjustments to the spread—and a ferocious defense. Meyer then recruited the ultimate spread quarterback, Tim Tebow, and won another championship in 2008 with one of the best teams in the history of college football.
• How two missed field goals by an NFL-caliber kicker in a non-SEC game—Pitt vs. West Virginia—helped determine the SEC’s fate in 2007. Pitt stunned West Virginia 13–9 in that game to open the door for LSU to win the 2007 title. The season before, UCLA stunned Southern California 13–9 to open the door for Florida. Luck happens even for the mighty SEC.
• The coach who turned down LSU and its head coaching offer in November 1999, which opened the door for the Tigers to hire Nick Saban. The hiring of Saban helped the SEC achieve the status it enjoys today in college football.
Sure, there are excesses in SEC football. You can’t alibi those away. You cannot cover your eyes to the oversigning of recruits, which the SEC office and decent athletic directors such as Georgia’s Greg McGarity finally had to step in and stop. Some coaches fought against the oversigning legislation and lost. The official vote by schools to put in some checks against oversigning was reported as 12–0, but that was polish at the end of contentious meetings, which did not start with a 12–0 vote. One reason SEC coaches were signing more than twenty-five high school players per year to scholarships was because they were handing out scholarships to kids with risky academic backgrounds. The coaches didn’t know if the high school senior was going to qualify academically, and the coaches wanted to be covered with an extra recruit, or two, or five. The second reason is they wanted some extra players ready to step in when they ran off players who were underperforming or not holding up their end of the scholarship bargain by skipping class or getting busted for marijuana use.
The SEC office has lately been active in policing the integrity of the conference, but that has not stopped some from outside the SEC from wondering how certain players get on the field for SEC teams. A coach from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which includes schools such as Grambling State and Alcorn State, once lamented to an NFL scout about a player at an SEC school, “We couldn’t get him in here. How did they get him in there?”
To be clear, the SEC follows the minimum NCAA academic guidelines for admitting athletes. Besides, if it was so automatic to get into SEC schools, would there be so many prospects tucked away in prep school or junior college?
Plenty of barbs have been heaved at the SEC during this six-year stretch of championships, but it is important to consider one statistic. In the second annual “Adjusted Graduation Gap Report” done by the College Sport Research Institute (CCRI) at the University of North Carolina, SEC schools graduated football players 18 percent less than the general full-time student body (2000–03 four-class cohort). That’s nothing to be proud of, except when it is put side by side with other conferences, the conferences that claim the SEC is a den of cheaters. The Big Ten, which has created the biggest stink about SEC football and academics, graduated football players 21 percent less than the general full-time student body. The Atlantic Coast Conference graduated athletes 20 percent less. The Pac-12 was last among Division I conferences, graduating players at 26 percent less than the full-time student body. The SEC has more restraint when it comes to athletics vis-à-vis academics than other conferences would want you to believe.
Perhaps we should consider the background of some of the football players who are signed into the SEC. The city of Atlanta, Georgia, public schools are dealing with one of the worst cases of standardized-test cheating in the history of US education. Put your kid in one of these deplorable public school systems in the South and see how he turns out. Why not give a kid free access to tutors, paid for by the athletic department, and see what he does with the opportunity? The players pour money into the pockets of the professional sports managers in the conferences, but SEC schools do put a significant amount of money back into tutoring programs in the SEC, and that’s a good thing.
There is a trend in Division I athletics for schools to hire learning specialists to work with the low-functioning football/basketball players when they get on campus. My contention is that this is exactly what universities should be expected to do. That football money is being used for learning specialists is more than appropriate. Cynics might say it is merely to keep kids eligible for the next game, and that certainly has something to do with it. But legitimate students are on the two-deep, more than you think, who take advantage of the extra help and thrive. Maybe these bloggers should walk on campus, stop a player, and ask about the tutoring and its value. Dig a little. Sniping is easy.
Most of the schools in the SEC are land-grant institutions. They were established to educate the masses, not the elite. They are not supposed to be overly selective, and, yes, SEC schools have academic entrance requirements so that high school players who can only fog a piece of glass are not routinely given scholarships.
You can count on one hand the BCS schools who have remained 100 percent true to the mission of academics first. Northwestern, Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt. The back door to the admissions office is usually locked at those schools. They pay the most attention to the twenty-hour rule for athletes, which is a joke in the SEC. Football is a full-time job in the SEC—forty hours a week—but it’s that way at a lot of schools in other conferences, and it’s that way in baseball, swimming, volleyball, soccer, and some country-club sports, too.
Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, who is spearheading new academic guidelines for athletics, toasts the SEC and its run of titles. The man who hired Nick Saban at LSU did not swipe at Goliath over academics versus football.
“I think it’s a pretty remarkable run,” he said. “If the universities are using that success to advance their academic agenda, then it’s a great thing. What’s to be unhappy about that? From our experience at LSU, we were able to elevate academics and athletics simultaneously.”
But the reporter’s task is to get as close to the truth as possible and ask, “Is there more?”
There is more. It is not just about buying championships. The SEC is about culture, climate, and competitiveness.
It is about players.
Six of the top ten states with the most players in the NFL, per capita, are within the SEC footprint, according to former Dallas Cowboys executive and NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt. You won’t believe which state ranks first in players per capita in the SEC. You won’t believe which state ranks second. The SEC states not only have more players, they have better players where it counts in today’s game of the quarterback-centric spread offense: defensive linemen.
The SEC produces more NFL defensive linemen than any other BCS league, and that is a big deal as the game, in other conferences and the NFL, shifts more and more into the hands of the quarterback. Defenses win by affecting the quarterback, not just with sacks, but with pressures, and SEC defenses are good at sending marauders, such as Alabama’s Marcell Dareus, LSU’s Glenn Dorsey, and Florida’s Derrick Harvey, at the quarterback. Ask Ohio State, Oregon, and Texas, all losers to the SEC in the National Championship Game, about the pressure created by the SEC defensive fronts.
It is about coaches.
In six seasons at Florida, Urban Meyer was 65-15. In five seasons at Alabama, Nick Saban is 50-12. In seven seasons at LSU, Les Miles is 75-17. In eleven seasons at Georgia, Mark Richt is 106-38. In seven seasons at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier is 55-35. No other BCS conference could roll out more accomplished coaches in the six-year title streak.
We might not hit every note in this book, but at least we are going to give you something else to consider besides the SEC’s fat wallet.
Once upon a time, Johnny Majors, the Tennessee football coach and former Vols all-American, shook his head from side to side in despair and declared in his raspy voice that the SEC was too good for its own good. It was 1989 and Auburn had defensive linemen of freakish size and speed, Tennessee was stamping out NFL-caliber receivers and running backs, Alabama was about to flex its muscle again with Gene Stallings in 1990, and Florida had just hired an inventive coach named Steve Spurrier. The SEC was in the middle of an eleven-season run (1981 to 1991) without winning a national title, and Majors said it had to do with the fierceness of conference play.
“We beat each other up too much now,” Majors said. “An SEC team can’t win a national championship.”
He was wrong, of course. Six times wrong in the last six years.
THE EARLY SEC
Eighty years ago, the SEC did not have an issue with student-athletes transferring here and there, but it had trouble with migrants. The SEC did not have to unearth scandals about players being paid, but there were investigations of players being subsidized. There were no issues with alumni providing extra benefits to players, but there was a problem with scholarships being provided under unauthorized programs. There was no issue with ineligible players, but there was an issue with tramp athletes.
You don’t recognize the language? It’s all the same, of course. The issues today with college football were the same issues in 1932 when the SEC was formed; there were just different labels put on misdeeds. Transfers were migrants. Subsidies were illegal payoffs. Unauthorized programs were more illegal payoffs. Tramp athletes were ineligible players, hired hands who came out of the hills September to November, then went home after the final whistle.
Your ears are filled up today with the high jinks of college football and the expansion of conferences and the money grab. This is new? You think there are problems now with bad actors in college football and conference realignment and schools looking for the best deal? The same issues that existed a hundred years ago continue to spill over into the academic side of campus today.
In fact, the insults to the academic mission of universities nationally are nothing compared to what happened a hundred years ago. Some players in the 1890s played for three or four schools. Some college football players didn’t even attend the college they played for, according to author John D. McCallum, who wrote Southeastern Conference Football: America’s Most Competitive Conference.
You think fourteen is too many schools for one conference? How about twenty-three schools in one league?
Try blaming TV for that. There was no TV.
The evolution of the SEC and other conferences has come a long way, but it has also gone nowhere. The issues of 1932 are still the issues of today. You resist a focus on the negative—the recruiting, the paying of players, eligibility issues—in a great game such as college football, but that is why the conference office and the office of the commissioner were created in the first place: oversight and regulation. Considering the severity of issues eighty years ago, the conference office has done a credible job cleaning up college football. At least, I don’t think there are any more tramp athletes.
So who had the bright idea to corral college athletics a hundred years ago? Just the people who should have had the idea. The teachers. It was not athletic directors and presidents who organized the first response to the controversies and quarrels in college athletics, it was faculty. There were no athletic directors, and coaches were part-time employees at some schools. Presidents had a university to operate and football was not a major budget concern. Imagine that.
So when a meeting was convened at the Kimball House, a hotel in downtown Atlanta, on December 22, 1894, to address concerns about athletics on some southern campuses, it was a chemistry professor, Dr. William L. Dudley, who led the meeting of faculty representatives. The faculty reps had worries about the campus-wide emphases on college football and other intercollegiate sports.
Dudley was from Vanderbilt, which is still regarded as the most pure academically among SEC schools. The other schools with representatives present were Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Georgia School of Technology, University of Alabama, University of Georgia, University of North Carolina, and the University of the South. They created the SIAA, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which did not have enforcement power and was largely impotent, but it served a significant purpose.
The faculty reps set some guidelines, even though they could not penalize programs. There were to be no players who were not students at the school where they played. They could not play under assumed names and could not receive gifts to play for a particular school. Students who were failing classes could not play in the games, and the college teams could not play professional teams. The SIAA barred coaches from playing, which had been standard practice.
“It got a foundation in place,” said Andy Doyle, an associate professor of history at Winthrop University, who specializes in southern history and is a native of Birmingham, Alabama. “It got schools accustomed to there being some sort of sanctioning body; it brought people around to accepting the notion that ceding some sort of university autonomy was a necessary part of creating a functioning system of competition.
“The early conferences had very little authority because the schools do not want to concede power to any administrative body, but the conferences gradually accumulated enforcement power.”
Soon after it was formed, the SIAA immediately attempted to apply some handcuffs to the overreaching of players and coaches. It requested that schools limit participation to five years, prohibited pay to athletes, and said “migratory” athletes had to remain in residence for a year before they could play, which is exactly the stipulation that exists today regarding transfers. There were no birds of flight from one school to the next. The SIAA was the first conference for the South, the early forerunner of today’s SEC, whose office is located on Twenty-Second Street in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. It all started in that hotel in Atlanta, which has since been demolished.
The early faculty representatives of the SIAA did not hover over football as much as they did baseball. The exact phrase used in their early work was to “correct the evils of baseball,” according to Melvin Henry Gruensfelder, whose thesis in 1964 for the University of Illinois was “A History of the Origin and Development of the Southeastern Conference.” Imagine that, a Big Ten scholar writing on the history of the SEC. The thick, hardbound copy of the thesis is in the archives of the SEC office in Birmingham. In 1895, twelve more schools sent faculty representatives to an SIAA meeting, and membership eventually reached thirty schools. It was the original Super Conference.
But something more cultural, more deeply rooted to the South led to the creation of a conference of schools. Doyle said the new southern man wanted to be seen as an equal to the northern man. The Civil War had crushed the ego of the South. The North was more urbanized and industrialized. It’s why the North won the war, and the South wanted to raise the level of its game, so to speak. Football was part of the formula.
“In the 1880s a new generation of southerners, white southerners, want to urbanize, industrialize, basically create the same bourgeoisie capitalism system in the South that existed in the North, which was one of the primary reasons the Confederates lost the Civil War,” Doyle said. “Football was a part of this. Football was an elite sport. It was played by university students when less than five percent of that age cohort [eighteen to twenty-two] went to college.
“It was the way of defining yourself as elite, and more especially for southerners, it was a way of identifying with the most progressive elements in the North.”
The whole concept was labeled elite regeneration, and the South dove headfirst into football to get even with the North. Nothing could turn back the southern surge for the game, not even tragedy.
In 1897, a University of Georgia player, Richard Von Gammon, suffered a fatal head injury in a game against Virginia. Georgia lawmakers passed a bill that made playing football a criminal offense punishable by a year on the chain gang. Governor William Yates Atkinson vetoed the measure following a plea from Von Gammon’s mother (she did not want the sport banned because her son loved the game), but that wasn’t all there was to Atkinson’s veto. Doyle said Atkinson’s message in his veto also included, “What will the Yankees think of us?” Doyle said Atkinson vetoed the bill because of southern pride as much as anything else. If the South could not navigate through a controversy presented by football, the Yankees might think the southerners inept and a bunch of rubes. After all, the North had seen tragedy from football, particularly at the hands of the brutal “flying wedge,” and the North was still playing the game.
Dudley, whom Doyle described as a decent and honorable man, believed in Walter Camp’s creed that football could build a better man. Camp, a coach at Yale and considered the father of American football, defined football as a way of training executives and building leadership abilities. That is exactly what Dudley wanted for the South’s new generation of leaders.
The creation of the SIAA, Doyle said, was also part of Dudley’s personal crusade to enforce the ideals of amateur competition. “He truly believed in what he was doing,” Doyle said.
In January 1895, three weeks after the SIAA meeting in Atlanta, at a meeting in the Palmer House in Chicago, the Big Ten was born. Called the Western Conference, it had seven members: the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, Purdue University, and the University of Wisconsin. Indiana University and the State University of Iowa were admitted in 1899.
While SIAA had its first organizational meeting the month before the Western Conference schools, Doyle said the SIAA is not regarded as the first “official” conference because its schools were not willing to cede authority like the schools in the Western Conference.
The Big Ten, which currently has twelve members, had nine members at the turn of the century. The Big Ten started with its own ideals and goals on how to corral big-time athletics: freshmen and graduate students were not allowed to play. There were no training tables, or meal tables, for athletes. Coaches were appointed by the schools, and according to the Big Ten website, they were appointed “at modest salaries.”
The Big Ten created an office of the commissioner in 1922, and it has been quite stable. There have been just five commissioners of the Big Ten. The current commissioner, Jim Delany, has held the office since 1989 and has taken personal responsibility in trying to keep the SEC honest in football. Delany has also brought the Big Ten its windfall of money with the Big Network, which has almost evened the playing field with the SEC in money to pay coaches, among other benefits.
The Pac-12 has its roots back to 1959, but was then called the Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU). For years it was the Pac-8, then it became the Pac-10 in 1978 when it added Arizona and Arizona State. Now with the addition of Colorado and Utah, it is the Pac-12. Its flagship football team through the years has been the University of Southern California.
The Pac-12’s key figure is currently businessman Larry Scott, the commissioner, who has reeled in money for the SEC with TV and marketing deals. It used to be the western schools had to make up for their athletic departments’ deficits to play sports, but Scott’s leadership in TV deals is making more Pac-12 schools self-sufficient.
The most shamed conference was the old Southwest Conference because Southern Methodist University was hit by the NCAA’s death penalty in 1987 and had its football program shut down. The SWC was one of the oldest athletic conferences in college sports, created on December 8, 1914, in Houston. The charter members of the conference were Baylor, Oklahoma A&M (Oklahoma State), Rice, Southwestern University, Texas A&M, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
The SWC lasted until 1996, finally blown apart by NCAA scandals and realignment. Some members went to the Big 12, which was officially formed in 1996.
The SEC actually had a hand in the creation of the Big 12. When Roy Kramer, the commissioner of the SEC, took the SEC into a contract with CBS, it essentially ruined the television pact of the College Football Association, which had included the SEC, Big Eight, and Southwest Conference. When the SEC left, the Big Eight and Southwest Conference started exploring a joint deal in 1994 with ABC. Negotiations moved along, and Texas debated joining the Pac-10. Finally, four Southwest Conference schools—Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech—joined the Big Eight to create the Big 12.
Colorado has since left the Big 12 to join the Pac-10, and Nebraska left the Big 12 to join the Big Ten, and the Big 12 went to ten teams. It went back to twelve teams in July 2012 with the addition of West Virginia and TCU. Got all that?
Realignment is nothing new in college athletics, but the era eighty years ago and today are distinct. While football and television money drives all realignment now, baseball, geography, and freshman eligibility had the biggest impact on schools’ partnering up one hundred, ninety, and eighty years ago. The other issue in realignments back in the day was what to do with the tramp athlete, the big, countryside farm laborer who arrived for the start of the season in September and left right after the Thanksgiving Day game, the last contest of the season. He was not there to attend class; just win games. Many cynics today claim the practice continues on the modern campus, with players stringing along a class schedule just long enough to get trained up and eligible for the NFL.
One of the earliest issues that broke apart confederations of schools was the “one-year rule.” Smaller schools said they could not compete with bigger schools and wanted their freshmen eligible so they could have a greater number of players, according to Gruensfelder. The big schools in the South back in the early 1900s had just five hundred to six hundred students, while the smaller schools had two hundred students.
At a December 1920 meeting of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, some of the larger schools, Alabama, Kentucky, and North Carolina, among others, proposed a rule change making freshmen ineligible. Another issue was a workable schedule, with schools scattered so far apart, but the real issue, freshman eligibility, was more thorny. In a vote, the big schools were defeated. Freshmen could play. The big schools broke away, but they did not have to wait long to find a new home.
In a February 25–26, 1921, meeting in Atlanta, fourteen former members from the SIAA formed the Southern Conference. These were Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Washington and Lee. Dr. S. V. Sanford of Georgia was made acting chairman.
Six more schools were added in 1922. Three more schools were added between 1923 and 1929, and the Southern Conference swelled to twenty-three members. During this time, public interest in college athletics swept the country in an improved post–World War I economy. The faculty representatives were starting to lose some of their control as the sport grew more popular.
“In the midst of the dilemma stood the faculty representative and the organization he created to extend his control—the athletic association,” wrote Gruensfelder. “His primary purpose was to keep intercollegiate athletics within the bounds of educational objectives.
“Athletic conferences were in constant search for the one formula that retained the advantages of athletics while eliminating the many faults inherent in its conduct.”
Then, in 1932, the modern SEC was born, in Knoxville, Tennessee, on December 8 and 9. Ten schools east of the Appalachian Mountains became the Southern Conference, which would later split again and become the Atlantic Coast Conference. The other thirteen schools, those west of the mountains, became the Southeastern Conference. In February 1933, the Southern Conference treasurer transferred the funds of the thirteen SEC schools to the SEC treasurer, a princely sum of $2,077.78.
The SEC also devised its mission statement at a February 27, 1933, meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta:
The Southeastern Conference is organized to form a more compact group of institutions with similar educational ideals in order that they may by joint action increase their ability to render the services for which they were founded and for which they are maintained, by making athletics a part of the educational plan and by making them subservient to the great aims and objects of education and placing them under the same administrative control.
Some rules were established. The season would not last longer than ten weeks. There was to be no scouting. Equipment could not be issued before the first Monday in September. Transfers were not permitted.
What happened next was monumental for college athletics, and the SEC got there first. The large southern schools decided to get payment of players out in the open and to award athletic scholarships, which would cover tuition, books, and room and board. A national uproar occurred, particularly from the schools of the Big Ten and in the West. Today the SEC is seen as too aggressive in college athletics, but in 1935 the SEC was regarded as pure evil for pushing forward the idea of paying players.
The same hypocrites from the Midwest and the East who poke at the SEC today existed eighty years ago.
“In the thirties when the SEC was giving scholarships, the Big Ten and West Coast schools accused the southern schools of being openly professional. The southern schools accused them of being hypocritical because they were paying players by other means,” said Mike Oriard, who played football at Notre Dame and is a retired English professor at Oregon State and has written several books on the culture of college football. “The Big Ten and West Coast schools weren’t giving outright scholarships, but they were giving jobs sweeping the snow off the front walkway of the Coliseum in Los Angeles [where it doesn’t snow].”
These no-show jobs were part of the culture of the Big Ten and eastern schools, yet southern schools were criticized when the SEC started to award scholarships in 1935.
“There were schools in this era who thought it was more ethical to have the athletes sponsored by alumni rather than being paid by institutional resources,” Oriard said. “The Big Ten and the Pacific Coast schools had no problem with alumni providing jobs for young men. Somehow these young men would be tainted if they used institutional money.”
Doyle said the South at the turn of the century and early in the twentieth century did not have the economic kingpins in communities who could pay players like the schools in the North. The universities finally had to pitch in if they wanted to grow their programs. Soon, the rest of college football followed the SEC and awarded athletic scholarships.
The SEC had a much more modest existence in the 1930s. Dues to join the SEC were $50. The one-day, one-night cost to attend the conference meeting was $9. It is a very different environment today. In May 2012, the SEC announced it was paying each of its members $20 million. Who needs dues?
The SEC in its first twenty years attempted to monitor and enforce eligibility rules and the illegal subsidizing of players, but on occasion misdeeds never got past the front gates of the university and ended up in the hands of the conference office. Take the issue of Bob Neyland, better known as General Robert Neyland, the legendary Tennessee football coach.
Ronald A. Smith, a professor emeritus of sports history at Penn State, told the Washington Post in November 2011 that he found in his search of University of Tennessee archives a “slush fund” Neyland used to pay players. When Tennessee president Cloide Brehm found out about the fund in the early 1950s, he called a meeting of his advisers. Smith said that in the transcript of the two-hour meeting, Brehm stated that Neyland “will resort to devious techniques to get what he wants and will give you the run-around and that makes it a difficult situation.” Neyland retired as coach in 1952, but Brehm said evidence of the fund dated back to Neyland’s first tenure as coach (1926 to 1934).
Brehm seemed terrified of his trustees and said that covering up for Neyland was essential. The trustees of the university would have “cut his throat” if news of the Neyland slush fund got out. Brehm was not about to let that happen. Many people feel the powerful football coach—the one who wins—has too much authority on campus today, but it was that way sixty, seventy, eighty years ago. It is not a new phenomenon.
The men who shaped the modern SEC were larger-than-life in eras gone by, and they are still with us. You see their names every day. Dudley is the name on the Vanderbilt football stadium. Sanford’s name is on the University of Georgia stadium. Mike Donahue, the Auburn coach from 1904 to 1906 and 1908 to 1922, has a street named after him that cuts through campus. Neyland’s name is on the Tennessee stadium.
Oriard said the conferences have gone from monitoring eligibility and settling disputes among rivals to becoming the driver of the economic engine. Oriard said the Pac-12 rather conspicuously turned away from maintaining academic standards to a stance of “We need to cash in on big bucks.” It hired a businessman, Scott, to chase television deals and bring the money train into the Pac-12. The SEC was already at the station, of course.
Oriard said the university always had to backfill the Oregon State athletic department, but Scott’s deals mean the Beavers can get $20 million a year from the Pac-12 as their share and depend less on university funds.
“The conferences, all of them, have gone from overseeing athletics, monitoring eligibility, to a position of maximizing revenues,” Oriard said.
It seems only fitting that seventy-seven years later the SEC is making the most noise again for compensating the breadwinners of the athletic department. Steve Spurrier, the South Carolina coach, first proposed the idea of giving players a stipend in 2011. He brought it back to the other thirteen SEC coaches in May 2012 at the SEC’s annual meeting, and the coaches voted unanimously, 14–0, to pay their players. Spurrier is proposing $3,000 to $4,000 for each player.
“We as coaches believe they’re entitled to a little more than room, books, board, and tuition,” Spurrier said. “Again, we as coaches would be willing to pay it if they were to approve it to where our guys could get approximately three thousand to four thousand bucks a year. It wouldn’t be that much, but enough to allow them to live like normal student-athletes. We think they need more and deserve more. It’s as simple as that.”
The coaches, of course, do not want to make it possible for their athletes to have jobs, which is what “normal” students do when they need walk-around money, or money to go home for an emergency. Football is a full-time job at SEC schools, and in other conferences, and their training continues through the off-season (January to May) and picks up again in June and July. Some players do get part-time jobs, but their time is limited. The rest of college football is exploring the idea of paying players, but the sums the SEC is talking about dwarf what the rest of the country is considering.
That only figures. The South finished second once before. Ever since, it has been determined to finish first. Pride and football are not two separate things.
The Making of College Football's Most Dominant Conference
How the SEC Became Goliath
The Making of College Football's Most Dominant Conference
Size matters. That’s why the SEC is Goliath, because the Southeastern Conference, top to bottom, has better coaches, better stadiums, better bank accounts, and better weather, but the difference maker is the bigger and better players.
The SEC has walked off with the big crystal prize in college football for seven straight years and will not give it back. The talk of “big boy football” grinds on the Buckeyes, Sooners, Longhorns, and Ducks. All they can come back with is “Wait until next year.” Then next year comes and the SEC tribe is chanting in the closing minutes of the National Championship Game, “SEC, SEC, SEC!”
The national championship trophy has been in the South for so long it has sunburn. That is why college football is thick with the acrimony: SEC vs. Everyone Else. The dominance of the SEC has a lot more to do with the South’s culture than just the rock-’em, sock-’em of football played one day a week. The South lost the Civil War, and sociologists will tell you that there is still a regional angst, an “us against them” mentality, a spirit of “those damn Yankees.” It is not just about championships. The SEC is about culture and competitiveness. . . . It is about players.