By: Ron Higgins
New Orleans, La. --- When the scoreboard clock ticked to zeroes in New Orleans Tuesday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, three things were certain.
Alabama football coach Nick Saban was about to get his second BCS national championship Gatorade bath in three years, thanks to a 21-0 shutout of SEC champion LSU.
(Note: He was much happier about this one than almost getting knocked out two years ago by his players dumping the Gatorade cooler on him after beating Texas in Pasadena. “The players improved in terms of their ability to deliver, I improved on my ability to accept, and everybody was happy,” Saban said a smile.)
The SEC’s sixth consecutive national championship won by four different teams – Alabama and Florida two each, Auburn and LSU one each – was in the books.
And the end of a 20-year era – the SEC as a 12-school football conference was over – with the league adding Texas A&M and Missouri starting next season.
Granted, the SEC’s days with 12 members won’t be officially over until the College World Series in June, usually the last college national championship of the year.
But before then, at the league’s spring business meetings in Destin at the end of May, administrators and coaches from Texas A&M and Missouri will extensively break bread with the entire SEC family.
There are already questions of how the Aggies and the Tigers will fit in the SEC. Can they be competitive? What effect will they have on the conference?
These are the same questions posed two decades ago to then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer when the league expanded from 10 teams to 12 teams, splitting into the Western Division and Eastern Division.
“Adding Texas A&M and Missouri will make the conference more competitive,” says Kramer, retired and living in Maryville, Tenn., with his wife Sarah Jo. “It will create new rivalries and fans. It gives the league’s TV partners more exposure.
“But because of timing of when we expanded to 12 teams in 1992, this expansion won’t change the overall landscape of college athletics as we did with the previous expansion.
“Today you have other conferences expanding and growing, other conferences adding championship games. It doesn’t have the uniqueness the first one did.”
When the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina in ’92, no one could have predicted exactly what the effect of the expansion would be.
So now 20 years later, here’s how I think expansion affected the SEC. Since 1992, the league has won:
*Ten national championships in football, including a current string of six straight, by five different schools. And just this week, the SEC had three teams finish in the top three of the Associated Press poll simultaneously (No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 LSU, No. 5 Arkansas) for the second time in history
*Five men’s NCAA basketball titles by three schools, in addition to 13 teams in the Final Four including two in the same year three times (1994-96-2006).
*Seven College World Series, with 10 of 12 SEC schools playing in at least one CWS, and five CWS that had three or more SEC schools in the field.
*Five women’s NCAA basketball champions (all by Tennessee) with 22 Final Four appearances by six different school.
I could go on and on about Georgia and Alabama combining for seven NCAA women’s gymnastics titles since ’92, or how the SEC has won 59 national women’s team titles in 11 different sports since ’92, or 72 NCAA men’s team championships in nine sports.
My point is all this may not have happened if the SEC hadn’t broken away from its traditional 10-school that the league had maintained for 26 years since 1966 when Tulane left the league.
Adding Arkansas and South Carolina made the SEC a more desirable TV property. So when CBS signed its first contract with the SEC in 1994, league revenue sharing jumped from $16.3 million in 1990 to $40.3 million in 1995.
More revenue from each school meant more money being poured back into programs for better facilities and coaches. The more a school wins, the more money an athletic program can raise to feed the flame of excellence.
The more schools win national championships and compete on a national level, the more it can demand from TV networks an increase in revenue and number of exposures, the latter which accelerates recruiting to keep the product at a high level.
It’s why in August 2008 when the SEC signed 15-year agreements with CBS and ESPN starting in 2009-10, contracts worth a combined $3 billion more than 5,500 event on all the ESPN platforms, most of the other BCS conferences gulped.
Last June, the SEC broke its revenue-sharing record for the 21st consecutive year, distributing a record $220 million among its 12 schools, an average of $18.3 million per school.
Surely, Texas A&M and Missouri are looking forward to that kind of cash flow. But former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles says the benefits of being in the SEC extended far past his imagination when he quietly sought to get the Razorbacks out of the Southwest Conference in the late 1980s.
“I hate to even think where we’d be had we not joined the SEC,” says Broyles, 87, who retired in December 2007 after 16 years as head football coach, three as head coach and athletic director and 31 as athletic director. “We knew the Southwest Conference was about to become a thing of the past. All the pro teams in various sports in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio were getting all the media coverage and eroding the college fan base.
“The Big 12 was going to expand, but we wouldn’t have been included in its expansion, therefore we would have been a low-class independent playing school with no national rankings.
“So 2½ years before the SEC expanded, I went down to Birmingham to talk to the conference office. I told the SEC I had gotten permission from my Board of Regents that we would accept on the spot. The SEC took a chance on us and we’re very grateful because the league just mushroomed to what it has become today.
“That’s because there’s not selfish program in the conference. We’re what you call `team players.’ We recognize when you’re team players, everybody prospers.”
Broyles says the fervor for SEC sports is unrivaled, a combination of the South’s love for college sports, and simple geography.
For instance, Arkansas touches the borders of Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee. Such location, location, location amps up the SEC, says Broyles. All of the states with SEC schools are connected to each other.
“When you’re neighbors with each other, competition is natural,” Broyles says. “You don’t have to build competition interest, because there’s built-in arguing already. The people next door don’t like you. The SEC has border rivalries, and border rivalries are bitter. They argue and compete year-round.”
Bitter rivals don’t mind visiting you, especially on football weekends. Broyles says that being in the SEC has no doubt been a huge boost to the Fayetteville economy, with drastically more hotels and restaurants being built the last two decades to accommodate the horde of visiting fans.
And it’s no coincidence that I-540, the 55-mile stretch of interstate cut through the mountains from I-10 north to Fayetteville opened in the mid ‘90s after the Razorbacks joined the SEC.
“I saw a survey that Northwest Arkansas was one of the fastest growing parts of the country and the SEC played a part in that,” Broyles says. “Visiting teams take every allotted ticket and the impact on our economy is huge.
“But we also helped the SEC when we joined. When we joined the league, I was told there had never been a sellout for the conference basketball tournament. We took every ticket to the tournament we could get. That’s when tickets got scarce. More people want scarce tickets.”
Considering that Texas A&M and Missouri are coming from a league with six of 10 members having home football stadiums with 62,000 seats or fewer, to a conference with eight schools playing on home fields with 80,000 seats or more, there might be an adjustment period for the newbies.
“There will be some instant cultural growing up, because that’s a flavor of the Southeast,” Kramer says. “I think there will be some of that, because it is unique, it is different. There’s a passion in this part of the country I’m not sure they’ve seen. I’m sure Texas A&M has seen it to a degree in Texas, but I think it’s significantly different than where Missouri has been, because they’ve been on the edge of that conference. They have not seen it as much.
“But that will come very quickly. Once you’ve played a game in The Swamp or at Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night, you quickly learn what the SEC is all about. It happened to Arkansas and South Carolina.”
Broyles says the one piece of advice he has for Texas A&M and Missouri administrators is to rally their fans around the prestige of being in the SEC.
“Broaden, broaden broaden your fan base,” Broyles says. “The more fan base you have, the better recruits you’ll have. The better recruits you have, the more you win, the more your attendance grows and the more success you’ll have.”
Since Broyles is an old football coach, his nose is always to the wind about recruiting. Which is why he’s ecstatic about Texas A&M and Missouri joining the SEC, because those schools border Arkansas from the southwest and north.
“Arkansas is happier about Texas A&M and Missouri coming in the league than anyone,” Broyles says. “It opens up East Texas recruiting and Kansas City and south Missouri to us as family, not foreigners.”
So buckle the chinstraps and tie the shoelaces tight, Aggies and Tigers. You have 12 new brothers fighting for the last piece of chicken on the dinner plate.