There are three reasons why December might be my favorite month of the year.
The first, of course, is Christmas, and not because I need another new pair of underwear. It’s because it’s the time for families and friends to gather, people you may or may have not seen for awhile.
December also gives you pause to catch your breath, reflect on the past 12 months and set goals for the next 12. It’s like hitting a re-set button. It’s what keeps you living, that optimism for the future.
Finally, it’s football bowl season, and from here in Memphis all the way to Orlando over to New Orleans, back up to Dallas and this year way out in Glendale, it reminds me that we are family in the Southeastern Conference.
September through the league championship game in Atlanta on that first Saturday of December, there’s no love lost in SEC football. The competition is fierce, the storylines often unpredictable and the rivalries intense.
If you don’t believe that, stand around a coffee pot in any office in the South on a Monday morning in the fall. If your team lost following a full week of your smack talk to co-workers, it’s a good reason to call in sick.
But the one thing the average fan misses, because they are too busy trying to get out of the stadium are the postgame handshakes and in some cases hugs between teams.
I get to see these, because I have a press pass and I’m on the field when the final horn sounds. I see genuine handshakes and pats on the back between coaches and players, guys wishing each other luck the rest of the year, and the postgame prayers in which members of each team kneel side-by-side, giving thanks for the opportunity to play and pray for those who may have gotten hurt.
That’s my favorite part of the game, and here’s why. Because it shows a level of respect and civility that many of us – media and fans included – forget about.
There’s an overwhelming amount of verbal venom being spewed on radio talk shows and Internet message boards after every win and loss. The constant barrage of 24/7 attack dog mentality can be disheartening.
But those postgame handshakes and hugs remind me that if the participants in the games we love to watch and discuss have that level of respect for each other, maybe we shouldn’t be so jaded, so cynical, so hostile.
Now, I understand you can’t change tradition. You’re never going to get Alabama and Auburn fans, Mississippi State and Ole Miss fans, Georgia and Florida fans, to join hands and sing “We Are The World.”
But when it comes to bowl season, the NCAA basketball tournament, the College World Series and every other national championship event for men and women, you should make an attempt to be a united SEC family.
Something Mike Slive that loved (and still does) just months after he took over as SEC commissioner in July 2002 was walking into a football stadium or a basketball arena where a SEC team had just won a bowl game or a NCAA post-season contest and hearing the crowd chant “SEC! SEC! SEC!”
People nationally always want to know why the SEC is so athletically successful in the nine men’s and 11 women’s sports it sponsors.
Why is the SEC playing for a fifth straight BCS national football championship on Jan. 10?
Why has the SEC won back-to-back men’s College World Series and had a team in the CWS 25 of the last 26 years?
Why has the SEC men’s teams won at least one national championship for 22 straight years and women’s teams for 26 consecutive seasons?
Why has the SEC three times won national titles in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball all in the same year? And in ’96, the SEC won all of that, plus the College World Series in the year that the conference captured national championships in nine sports (four men, five women).
Why did the SEC have 150 athletes, both past and present at the time, competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics?
Why since league expansion to 12 teams in two divisions in 1991-92 has SEC schools won at least six national championships in a year 14 times?
Why has every school in the league (except one) won a national championship?
It’s pretty simple, actually. It’s the SEC’s family mentality and the quality people who’ve always been in the family.
Unlike some conferences where revenue sharing is skewed toward an elite school or two, everybody in the SEC gets a healthy piece of a financial pie that grows thicker every year ($209 million last academic year, an average of $17.3 million per school). All SEC schools, no matter the size of their athletic budgets, feel they have a chance to be nationally competitive in at least a handful of the 20 sports the league sponsors
Each school, while trying to protect its own interests, realizes the ultimate strength of the SEC is all members coming together and doing what’s best for the conference.
Such meeting-of-the-minds happen several times a year, not only when the league’s athletic directors meet, but especially in the first week of June every year when the SEC holds its annual business meetings in Sandestin, Fla.
For four days, all of the league’s presidents and chancellors, athletic directors, women’s administrators, football coaches, men’s and women’s basketball coaches, faculty reps and sports information directors gather to discuss league policy and direction.
The goals for all those people in those few days aren’t complicated. How can we make this league better? How can we help our student-athletes?
It’s the heart-and-soul SEC coaches and administrators, some still in the league, some retired, some in the spotlight, some behind the scenes, who’ve spent most of their lives promoting the strength of the family.
Listing such special people could go on and on since the SEC is 78 years old. So with apologies to anyone outside of my sportswriting career jurisdiction dating back 30 years, here’s some recent names you need to know such as:
Jeremy Foley – Began his University of Florida administrative career in 1976 with an internship in the Gators’ ticket office and now his 19th year as athletic director. He’s the only AD in Division 1 history to supervise a program that has won multiple national titles in football (1996, 2006, 2008) and men’s basketball (2006, 2007), but he has never taken his eye of the true definition of success.
“This is a league that develops a lot of good citizens, a lot of good people," Foley said. “The people we've graduated, the championships we've won, are successes that far outweigh the negatives."
David Housel – Came out of tiny Gordo, Ala., graduated from Auburn in 1969 and has never left the place, working as a journalism professor, in the ticket office, as sports information director, then athletic director for almost 12 years until January 2005 when he retired.
It’s Housel who accurately noted in June 2000, “This conference has always been made up of people who adapt to change. It's always been a conference of champions, but after this past decade it's simply about expectations becoming reality.”
Larry Templeton – A ’69 Mississippi State graduate born in Starkville 50 yards from the football stadium, he worked in the State athletic department all but two years since graduation. He ended a 21-year run as athletic director in 2008.
“I’ve been fortunate to live my dream and not many people can say that,” said Templeton, who still lives in Starkville and now serves as consultant for the SEC.
Langston Rogers – Retired this past April after 29 years as Ole Miss’ athletic media relations director. Numerous Rebels’ athletes over the years, especially those who never dreamed they’d play in the NFL like Wesley Walls, credit Rogers for getting them discovered.
“I switched to tight end my senior year (in 1988), Langston got my name out there and NFL scouts started looking at me,” said Walls, who enjoyed a 15-year NFL career. “If Langston believed in you, he made sure people knew about you.”
D-D Breaux – Has been LSU women’s gymnastics coach for 34 years, with the Tigers placed among the nation's top 10 teams 22 times in the previous 33 seasons, finishing a program-best fourth in 1988, fifth in 2008 and sixth on four separate occasions. Better yet, her continued emphasis on community service for her athletes produces well-rounded citizens translating to post-college, real-life success.
Mark Womack – The executive associate commissioner of the SEC has worked in the league office longer than anybody, joining the SEC staff in 1978 after graduating from the University of Alabama. He has been interim commissioner several times and no one knows the nuts-and-bolts and inner-workings of the league than Womack. Slive and his predecessor Roy Kramer have never failed to say Womack was and is their right-hand man.
Again, these are just a few notable names on a list of considerably longer than a Cam Newton touchdown run who have contributed to the growth and success of the SEC through the decades.
But the bottom line is no matter their allegiance, no matter if they graduated from one SEC school and working at another (a common occurrence such as former Florida Heisman Trophy winning quarterback and national championship winning coach Steve Spurrier currently coaching South Carolina), they all understand the pride of being in the SEC family.
Think about that this bowl season.
Think about that if you’re an Alabama fan not wanting to pull for Auburn to beat Oregon in the BCS national championship game.
Pull for Auburn because hopefully you can say next season you’re aiming to beat the defending national champ. Just like Auburn fans said this year their team was trying to beat the '09 national champ Alabama.
In bowl season, we’re all family in the SEC. Even some of the crazy cousins you may not like on selected Saturdays during the fall.