There’s nothing like firing a pre-emptive strike a week before Thanksgiving.
For me, Turkey Day is not so much about drumsticks and dressing, but rather about taking stock of my blessings. When it comes to Southeastern Conference football, here’s what I’m thankful for:
1. Pregame shows – Whether it’s the Golden Band from Tigerland saluting all sides of LSU’s Tiger Stadium to the opening notes of “Hold that Tiger”, to Alabama’s Million Dollar Band cranking out “Yea Alabama,” pregame shows really get the juices flowing. Not nearly enough credit is given to band members, majorettes and dancing groups for their incredible long hours of preparation.
2. Video replay screens: Go back 15 years in this league, and there weren’t that many, if any, replay screens in SEC stadiums. But thanks to Arkansas leading the way in 2000 by constructing one of the world’s largest and certainly widest video screens – lovingly nicknamed “Frank’s Drive-In” in honor of former Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles – most of the rest of the SEC now have big boy screens in their stadium. Mississippi State’s video replay screen is so big (6,896 square feet, the second largest in college football behind the University of Texas’ Godzillatron) that lights must flicker in Starkviille when they flip the switch to fire up that huge sucker.
3. Icons forever known by their first names – Bear. Archie. Herschel. Bo. Mention any of their names to a SEC fan 35 years or older and they can complete the entire name, list the school, the position and tell you something they know about him. And speaking of Archie. . .
4. The Mannings – The first family of SEC football that produced three of the best quarterbacks in league history. Archie (the father at Ole Miss) and sons (Peyton at Tennessee and Eli at Ole Miss) each were named the SEC’s Most Valuable Player, all were picked No. 1 or No. 2 overall in the NFL draft (Peyton and Eli were No. 1s, Archie a No. 2) and Peyton and Eli have each won a Super Bowl. The entire Manning family, including Archie’s wife Olivia (a former Ole Miss Homecoming queen) and the oldest Manning son Cooper (an Ole Miss grad) all exhibit a class and grace that many times isn’t associated with extraordinarily successful people.
5. Plays that stand the test of time: Billy Cannon’s 89-yard TD punt return on a foggy Halloween night in 1959 that gave LSU a 7-3 win over Ole Miss. Georgia quarterback Buck Belue’s seemingly harmless crossing route completion to Lindsay Scott against Florida in 1990 that Scott turned into a game-winning 93-yard touchdown. Alabama linebacker Barry Krause knocking himself silly on a goal line tackle of Penn State’s Matt Guman to preserve a Crimson Tide Sugar Bowl win and giving ’Bama the 1978 national championship. The list of unforgettable plays grows longer each year.
6. Legendary play-by-play announcers – Long before you could see college games on TV, distinctive radio voices from the past like Larry Munson (Georgia), Jack Cristil (Mississippi State), John Ferguson (LSU), John Ward (Tennessee), Cawood Ledford (Kentucky), John Forney (Alabama), Otis Boggs (Florida), Jim Fyffe (Auburn), Stan Torgerson (Ole Miss), Paul Eells (Vanderbilt, Arkansas) and Charlie McAlexander (Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, South Carolina) painted beautiful pictures with their words. Whether it was unabashed partisan Munson imploring the Bulldogs to “hunker down,” Ward screaming “Give. . .him. . .Six. . .Touchdown, Tennessee” or Cristil confirming a Mississippi State win with his catchphrase “Wrap it in Maroon and White” they connected fans emotionally with their schools.
7. The SEC’s CBS and ESPN-TV packages and satellite radio: Isn’t it awesome to sit in a SEC stadium, watch one game live and them flip open your phone to catch glimpses of another SEC game being broadcast? Isn’t it wonderful that you can watch every SEC team play each football Saturday from 11 CT in the morning until 10:30 or 11 at night? And how cool is it that you can listen to every SEC team on satellite radio with crystal clear reception? I can be in the Ozarks listening to Alabama’s Eli Gold or driving between Atlanta and Columbia, S.C. hearing LSU’s Jim Hawthorne.
8. Influx of new head coaches bringing fresh styles – Once upon a time in the SEC, there were hardly any head football coaches that didn’t have some sort of SEC background. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, 32-of-38 head coaching hires (84.2 percent) in the SEC went to men who had played in the league or coached in it. In the 1990s, SEC schools began shopping for more coaches without SEC backgrounds. Since ’90, 46 new head coaches have been hired, 27 with SEC ties and 19 without (58.6 percent). And since 2000, it’s 14-10, favoring head coaches with previous SEC ties over coaches without such an affiliation.
Think how Nick Saban came to LSU in 2000, bringing pro-style defensive schemes that featured physical cornerbacks locking up wide receivers. Or how Urban Meyer brought the spread option offense to Florida in 2005, re-introducing the quarterback into SEC running games.
The changing landscape of the league’s head coaching hires is reflected in the SEC’s championship teams.
In a 37-year stretch from 1964 through 2000, just two SEC championship teams were coached by men with no previous SEC ties – Kentucky’s Fran Curci in 1976 and Alabama’s Bill Curry in 1989.
Yet in the last 10 seasons, eight title teams had coaches with no SEC ties when they were hired at those schools. The lone exceptions were Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville (who previously was Ole Miss’ head coach for four seasons) in 2004 and last year with Auburn’s Gene Chizik (who had been Tuberville’s defensive coordinator in 2002-04).
“The nature of coaching now is that schools look for whoever can do the job,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier says. “You don’t even have had to play college football to be a successful coach. It’s a bit different than the old days.”
9. State trooper escorts for head coaches: Seems like this tradition likely started in the South with Alabama coach Bear Bryant and spread to other SEC schools. It wasn’t just about security. It seemed like it was a “my entourage is bigger than your entourage deal.” Heck, every year at the Iron Bowl when the Alabama and Auburn coaches du jour meet at midfield for a postgame handshake, they are surrounded by so many state troopers it looks like a prison breakout. It’s like during those four hours, the rest of the state is unguarded. That sounds risky until you realize everybody in the state is in front of a TV set watching the game.
I’m thinking SEC coaches need to start voting on annual All-SEC state trooper escorts team.
10. Being there at the beginning of something great: It’s January 1994, a month from college football signing day and I’m sitting in the New Orleans living room of high school hotshot quarterback Peyton Manning. Everybody has a guess where he might end up in college. Peyton’s father Archie thinks it’s Michigan “because he really likes the coaching staff.” Mother Olivia says, “Why not Ole Miss? Older brother Cooper jokes that Peyton “really likes the Banana Slugs of Sana Cruz.” Nate Stibbs, Peyton’s favorite target in high school says, “Florida, because it’s a quarterback school and he’s close to Steve Spurrier than any other coach right now.”
The only people around Peyton who correctly picked Tennessee? His high school coach Frank Gendusa (“They need a quarterback to replace Heath Shuler” he said) and Peyton’s 13-year old brother Eli (“They always have great receivers,” he said).
The rest, they say, is history.
11. Technological advancements in tailgating: Once upon a time, tailgating was as primitive as packing a hibachi, a Styrofoam cooler and a TV set with a screen the size of a Q-tip box that you could plug in your cigarette lighter. Now, you don’t have to be rolling in bucks and have an RV the size of a luxury yacht to have an outstanding tailgate experience. All you need is a small, portable generator, a huge yet light flatscreen TV and there are even propane grills that you can hitch to your vehicle and attach to a swing arm.
The advent of flat screens, in particular, has been a nice social connection between tailgaters from opposing schools.
This is something I realized before last year’s LSU-Miss. State game in Baton Rouge. It’s where for the first time in my 30-plus years of sportswriting, I actually tailgated for a few hours with my wife, her former LSU sorority girlfriends and their spouses.
In the tents next to us, there were some LSU fans and Mississippi State fans, and both tents had flat screen TVs tuned to the Vanderbilt at Ole Miss game.
When Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman broke loose on an 80-yard TD run that gave Vandy the lead for good with about eight minutes left in the third quarter, the LSU and State fans around us erupted. Brothers-in-arms over their shared dislike for rival Ole Miss, they high-five each other and hugged like World War II had just ended.
Truly a SEC kumbaya moment, made possible by tailgating in the new millennium.
12. Bowl games: I might be the only sportswriter left in America who still loves bowl games. Yes, I wouldn’t mind seeing a playoff, but not at the expense of the bowls.
While an increasing majority of fans deem bowl games as meaningless because they all think only the BCS championship game matters, I’ve been to too many bowls and watched players on the teams enjoy bowl events with their teammates, experiences they’ll never forget.
Only two teams can play for a national championship. It still means something to a football player who has put in hours of work to get to a bowl, to receive bowl gifts, to get that bowl watch that they’ll more often than not keep or give to a loved one who helped them along the way in their career.
“I’ve never forget when we were in the Cotton Bowl for the first time (in 2008),” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “They gave TV sets as gifts to our players. I remember some of our freshmen coming to me and saying, `Coach, is this really my TV set? It’s my set?’ I said, `Yes, it’s your TV set.’
“I wouldn’t trade that experience for nothing.”
Agreed. Love the bowls. All 35 of ’em.
13. Unique live mascots – The SEC has live mascots galore, from LSU’s Mike the Tiger which is strategically placed in a cage for a few moments every pregame next to the visiting team’s field entrance, to Georgia’s bulldog UGA to Auburn’s live war eagle swooping and soaring at each home game shortly before kickoff.
14. Roy Kramer and Mike Slive – Back-to-back, the best commissioners in the SEC’s 79-year history. Kramer oversaw the expansion to 12 teams, weathered the storm over the creation of the SEC championship football game, tastefully acquired corporate partners and found ways they could financially fund academic scholarship and enhancement programs as well as youth clinics and negotiated the first TV contracts with CBS and ESPN.
Slive created a task force for compliance and enforcement, formed the league’s first academic consortium and has pushed to the SEC to forefront as the leader on national legislative issues. Just more than three years ago, he negotiated concurrent 15-year deals with CBS and ESPN, giving the SEC more exposure than any college conference in America. And just to prove he was slacking, he quietly did his due diligence in adding Texas A&M and Missouri as the SEC’s 13th and 14th members beginning next football season.
Slive had big shoes to fill when he replaced Kramer. But whoever eventually replaces Slive better wear something like a size 23 shoe.
Shaquille O’Neal for commissioner, anyone?
15. New road trips, new rivalries: Because of expansion, SEC fans will get introduced to College Station, Texas, and Columbia, Missouri. You get to see the famous Fightin’ Texas Aggie band of Texas A&M, its 300-plus members marching with military precision. You’ll stand in front of the six stand-alone columns of the University of Missouri campus, columns that originally supported the school’s first building on campus built in the early 1840s.
You’ll get to see the best conference around get bigger and better. I’m thankful that I’m still right in the middle of the SEC moving on and up again.