Count on a smiling Roy Kramer being somewhere in the Georgia Dome press box on Saturday.
The former Southeastern Conference commissioner will have a twinkle in his eye watching No. 1 and unbeaten Auburn and No. 19 South Carolina bounce across the green carpet below him.
This weekend is the 19th birthday of one of his favorite children, the league’s championship football game.
“It always culminates the intense, but spirited competition in this conference,” says Kramer, who rocketed the already-viable SEC into a financially lucrative and athletically competitive stratosphere from 1990-2002 when he sat in the league’s biggest chair. “This game really sets the championship apart, it makes it very special.”
The game is an event that started in December 1992 as a byproduct of the league expanding by two schools, adding Arkansas and South Carolina, and splitting into two six-team divisions. In the beginning, the conference championship game was somewhat of a curious experiment in Birmingham’s Legion Field, started over the objection of most of the league’s football coaches and old school media.
“They all thought it would be the end of the Southeastern Conference’s chances to play for a national championship, because you had to play this extra game that you might lose,” says Kramer, who isn’t shy about pointing out eight SEC teams (Florida three times, LSU and Alabama twice each, Tennessee once) that won the league title game continued on to win the national championship. “Alabama won the national championship the very first year we expanded the conference. Several times, playing that extra game for the SEC championship has gotten one of our teams in position to win the national championship.”
The conference championship game is more than a 60-minute battle to determine the king of a league that has produced the last four consecutive national champions with a fifth possible this season.
The game has evolved into a year-ending celebration of SEC football with a two-day Mardi Gras that also features Fanfare, an SEC county fair set up in the Georgia World Congress Center next to the Georgia Dome. It’s where you can grab a lemonade, eat a corn dog, meet neighboring fans, shake hands with the gregarious Chick-fil-A cow, watch a pep rally and then fling a pass at a moving target across a makeshift football field.
Kramer will quickly tell you it wasn’t his idea alone to create a championship game and the circus that grew with it when expansion talks heated between SEC presidents and athletic directors in 1990. But with an NCAA rule stating a league could have a championship game if it had 12 members – something that had applied before only to Division 2 and 3 – Kramer had faith such a game would be a rollicking success.
“I knew the emotion and passion toward football in the South,” says Kramer, who migrated to Nashville in 1978 and became Vanderbilt’s athletic director after 11 years as Central Michigan’s head football coach. “The only worry I had was that when we expanded to 12 teams and split into the Western and Eastern Divisions, it would take a long time to adapt to divisional play.
“A lot of people were used to those traditional games in late October and early November deciding who was going to win the conference championship. I didn’t think that somebody being a Western Division champion or an Eastern Division champion would catch on with the public or the fans.
“But the amazing thing is how that part, the divisional play, took off right from the beginning. All of a sudden, games became important because, `We can win this game, win the division and get to Atlanta.’ My last year as commissioner, we had probably seven teams with a shot to get to Atlanta as late as the first or second week of November, which is good for college football.”
Most of the gnashing of teeth and wailing about expanding the conference schedule to eight games (from seven) and adding a championship game came from veteran coaches like Auburn’s Pat Dye and Tennessee’s Johnny Majors. Both coaches coincidentally retired and resigned respectively after the ’92 season, the first year of expanded SEC.
''I don't know what a team will have left once they get through the SEC schedule and the championship game,'' Dye groused at the time.
Majors added, “You're going to have to have a whale of a team to win the league and possibly a mythical national championship. You've got to win two extra games just to get to the Sugar Bowl, and then the best you can win is a mythical national title because it's determined by poll voters. Sometimes, the best teams get outpolled.''
The city of Birmingham won the right to stage the first SEC title game for five years at Legion Field by submitting the highest bid of about $7 million per year, beating out Atlanta and Orlando. Income from ABC Sports for the title game television rights and concessions and souvenir sales figured to initially push the SEC's take to more than $10 million annually.
The first two SEC championship games had some built-in story lines.
The initial game between Alabama and Florida – in fact the Crimson Tide and the Gators played in four of the first five title games – was especially intriguing because Legion Field was 50 miles from Alabama’s campus in Tuscaloosa.
At that time, Legion Field still annually hosted several Crimson Tide home games. In fact, ’Bama was 3-0 at Legion Field that ’92 season prior to staging the SEC championship game.
During a pre-championship game teleconference, Chris Harry, then-Florida beat writer for the Orlando Sentinel, asked Alabama coach Gene Stallings if he thought his team had a sizeable home field advantage against the Gators.
An incredulous Stallings sputtered, “The tickets are evenly divided and we're going to be dressing in the visitors' locker room. I don't consider it (Legion Field) a home field. I can't make it any plainer than that.''
Then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier and his players weren’t buying it. Though Alabama and Florida each received 12,000 tickets, the vast majority of the stadium's 83,091 seats were sold to Birmingham corporations and the public.
About the only concession to Florida was SEC officials had Legion Field groundskeepers remove the ''Alabama'' logos in each end zone and replace them with a different Alabama logo in one end zone and a Florida logo in the other.
''The league office felt it was best to play the game there, but it's not exactly neutral,'' Spurrier said a few days before the game. ''We football coaches don't get a voice on where the game should be played.''
The site of the game and the fact that if the No. 2 and unbeaten Crimson Tide beat No. 19 Florida it would likely advance to the Sugar Bowl to play No. 1 Miami for the national championship fit perfectly into the Florida “nobody likes us” mentality.
''It's definitely a home game for Alabama,'' Florida quarterback Shane Matthews said in the days leading up to the game. ''Everybody in the world wants to see Alabama-Miami play for the national title. SEC officials want Alabama to win. Basically, everybody's against us. We like it like that.''
Florida had relished the us-against-the-world role. Twice in 1984 and 1990 it had the best conference record, but wasn't awarded the league championship because the Gators were on NCAA probation.
''We've never been very welcome in this conference,'' Florida receiver Tre Everett said before facing Alabama. ''I guess when you're beating people, nobody really loves you much anyway. But I wouldn't want to lose games just to make friends.''
Alabama all-America defensive end Eric Curry heard Florida’s fightin’ words and countered that it didn't matter where the Tide played the game.
''I don't care if we play in Birmingham or in Switzerland - we feel at home anywhere, and we're going to go out and play ball,'' Curry said.
The game, won 28-21 by 10 ½-point favorite Alabama, turned out to be magnificent. In fact, to this day, no team has scored the game-winning touchdown as late in the game as the Tide did on cornerback Antonio Langham’s 27-yard TD interception return of a pass by Florida quarterback Shane Matthews with 3:16 left to play.
Alabama surely didn’t think the game was going to come down to the final moments. After all, the No. 2 ranked Tide had probably the best defense in school history, having allowed just 183 yards and 9 points per game while going through its schedule unscathed at 11-0 overall and 8-0 in the Western Division.
That’s why it was a stunner that after Alabama jumped to 21-7 lead on the Gators with 5:14 left in the third quarter, the 83,091 in attendance assumed the Crimson Tide could start sizing their SEC championship rings.
But just less than 12 minutes later, the game was tied at 21-21. Why? Spurrier, the master playcaller, was dialing up plays that even mystified Alabama defensive coordinator Bill “Brother” Oliver, one of college football’s best defensive minds.
For instance, Alabama's defense was baffled by five shovel passes thrown by Matthews to running back Errict Rhett. The quick inside flips countered Alabama's intense outside pass rush.
''We looked at probably six of their game films and we saw them throw that pass only once,'' Oliver said. ''But that's Steve. He did what you least expect. He had a great gameplan. He did a nice job of mixing things up and changing the tempo of the game.''
As the game wound inside four minutes left with the score tied – and remember this was before college football had an overtime rule – the outcome was ultimately decided by an excellent quarterback (Matthews) getting baited by a wily cornerback (Langham) to make an ill-advised throw.
Instead of respecting the fact Florida receiver Monty Duncan might fake the short sideline pattern and fly deep, Langham played off Duncan just enough to where Matthews was confident he could zip a 6-yard pass to him.
''We told ourselves (before Florida’s possession), 'They're going to get the ball back, so someone has to do something,' '' Langham said afterwards. ''I decided I would.
''They'd run that pattern the whole game. This time instead of backpedaling, I sort of squatted in the gap. I didn't look at the receiver. I just looked at Matthews the whole way. Once I got the ball, all I saw was the goal line.'' ''
The week before, Langham had a TD interception return of Auburn's Stan White in the third quarter of 'Bama's 17-0 victory Thanksgiving Day. He said after the victory one of his dreams was to pick off Matthews in the SEC title game for a game-winning TD.
He just didn’t know it would happen, since Matthews ripped Alabama’s stout defense for 287 yards passing and two touchdowns.
“The guy is just a great quarterback,'' said Langham, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. ''He made good reads and rarely made a bad throw.''
Except for one.
''I'd let them chop off my toe if I could have the victory,'' said Matthews in the losing locker room, who at the time became the SEC's all-time leading passer despite an aching big toe that kept him in constant pain. ''On the (Langham) interception, it was one of those things where the split-second decision was the wrong one.''
Spurrier hated that the win slipped from his grasp.
''It hurt that we lost, but it hurt more the way we lost,'' Spurrier said. ''We didn't want to give them any cheap touchdowns, and we did.''
Spurrier would get over his heartache the next four years when his Gators won an unprecedented four straight SEC championship games, three over Alabama (including a 24-23 thriller in ’94) and one over Arkansas. He won one more in 2000.
Kramer recalls the drama of the first SEC championship game couldn’t have been better timed, since the league hoped to get the neophyte event national acceptance.
“I don’t think anybody could have anticipated the atmosphere for that first game and it got bigger and bigger closer as the season progressed,” Kramer says. “I was nervous, because of all the details around staging the game.
“But it turned out to be one of the great college games that I’ve ever seen. Because of the way it ended, it elevated the excitement immediately and we were fortunate to have some great games those first few years. The championship game took on a life of its own, particularly after it moved to Atlanta. Regardless if your team is in the game or not, you want to be in Atlanta.”
The move to Atlanta was a logical one. It was a true neutral site, with a new domed stadium to alleviate weather problems, with plenty of nearby hotels and restaurants within walking distance, and convention center space for the proposed Fanfare.
Still, it was a sticky decision because the SEC offices were and still are located in Birmingham. Kramer remembers it was a tough move, but he has never regretted taking the game to Atlanta.
“The `Road to Atlanta’ has a ring to it, to have a permanent site that doesn’t move around has been a great plus,” Kramer says. “The atmosphere around it is hard to match in college football. A lot of people who can’t get a ticket to the game go to Fanfare just to feel the excitement.
“It’s always great to have a team in the game that hasn’t been there before, because their fans are especially excited and it’s fun to see a new program experience that atmosphere for the first time. But even for teams that have been there two and three years in-a-row, they and their fans are just as excited.”
Florida’s Urban Meyer and Georgia’s Mark Richt, a couple of current SEC coaches who are 2-1 in the championship game, couldn’t agree more.
“With all due respect to the national championship game, it’s hard to say if there’s any difference between that and the SEC championship game, which is like our Super Bowl,” said Meyer, who won the BCS national championship and SEC title games in 2006 and 2008. “It’s special getting that ring saying `SEC champs’.”
Richt, whose Bulldogs won league championship games in 2002 and 2005, said playing for the SEC title is huge on so many levels.
“It’s big because you know what’s on the line, you know the nation is watching, you know you have a chance to make history, and you understand what you’ve got to go through to get there is special,” Richt said.
“If you win the SEC, it doesn’t matter that if you’re 9-3 or undefeated. More than any other conference, fans in this league, even if you don’t win the national championship, appreciate winning the conference championship.”
The SEC doesn’t need or seek validation after all these years to understand that its championship game is a rousing success. The fact it generated $14.5 million in revenue for the league last year, has a $30 million economic impact on Atlanta and sells out every spring as soon as tickets are placed on sale is evidence.
But the fact that the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences are finally adding championship games next year is a nod to the SEC’s foresight almost two decades ago.
“I think it’s a compliment to our conference and our schools that they (the Big Ten and Pac-10) saw how significant the event is, how much it can help promote their conference and brand of football,” Kramer says proudly. “It has been a lightning rod. The conference championship game Saturday is a great Saturday in college football.”
And it doesn’t get any greater than when the ball gets put on the tee at 4 p.m. ET this Saturday in Atlanta.
That’s when the opening kickoff will float downfield and thousands of flashes will light the Georgia Dome from many of the 72,000 fans clicking cameras to capture the moment for posterity.
At that very moment, Spurrier, now guiding South Carolina as the oldest coach at age 65 to ever lead a team in the SEC championship game, will get the familiar and welcomed feeling of nervous excitement and anticipation he had 19 years ago in Legion Field.
“To me, this game is like a playoff system,” Spurrier says. “You don’t have to worry about people voting. You don’t have to worry about who you schedule.
“When you have a chance to play for your conference championship, that gives every team in the country hope it can have a championship year.”