If you’re not a fan of the SEC, you may not want to read this column. It will make you nauseous.
Wait a minute! If you’re not a SEC fan, what are you doing on this website reading my column? Are you lost?
Maybe you just want to feel like a winner, because this column is all about winning. And it’s about SEC teams and athletes present and past, winning everything in sight this academic year.
I’ve covered the SEC for more than three decades and the conference has had some pretty good runs before.
Back in the winter of 1997, I interviewed for a job at the Dallas Morning News to cover the Big 12 Conference. I wasn’t exactly enamored with the guy interviewing me, and the way he was pitching me the job.
“You’ll be covering probably the best conference in America,” he said.
My reply: “I think I have a pretty good conference to cover right now where I work in Memphis (for The Commercial Appeal). Florida just won the national championship in football. Kentucky and Tennessee are the defending men’s and women’s national basketball champs. LSU’s baseball team, LSU’s outdoor and indoor track teams, Arkansas outdoors and indoor men’s track teams and Alabama’s women’s gymnastic teams are defending national champions. Is the Big 12 better than that?”
Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. And here I am, 15 years later, in the same job, in the same town, covering the same conference.
And as crazy as it sounds, the conference has gotten even better, and does so about every year. From last September to this point, what SEC men and women’s teams have done so far in 2011-12 is amazing.
When you include the exploits of former SEC athletes, it’s hard to wrap your arms around what the SEC has accomplished this year, and over the last two to three decades.
So with four national titles in the SEC trophy case this academic year to date – football, men’s basketball, men’s indoor track and women’s gymnastics – with eight national titles left to be decided, here’s a sport-by-sport breakdown of the nation’s best athletic conference.
Football: Two SEC teams played in January’s BCS national title game, guaranteeing the SEC a sixth straight national champion when Alabama beat LSU.
For the first time in history, four SEC teams finished in the top 10 in the final polls – Alabama No. 1, LSU No. 2, Arkansas No. 5 and South Carolina No. 9.
Then less than a month later, former Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning was named Super Bowl MVP for a second time as his New York Giants win the Super Bowl.
Follow that with the NFL draft a few weeks ago when the SEC had 42 players selected, the most of any conference, with Alabama’s nation-high eight draftees including four in the first round. And speaking of the first round, six of the first 12 players picked were from four different SEC schools.
Men and women’s basketball: Kentucky won 38 of 40 games, astounding even for the traditionally great Wildcats, and captured the men’s national title for the eighth time.
It was also the SEC’s third national men’s hoops title in seven seasons when you recall Florida’s back-to-back 2006 and 2007 titles.
Go beyond that and discover the effect of the Wildcats’ and Gators’ programs on the current NBA playoffs.
At the start of the playoffs two weeks ago, Kentucky and Florida accounted for 15 of the SEC’s 26 players playing 13 of the NBA’s 16 playoff teams. Nine different SEC teams have former stars on playoff teams, led by Kentucky’s eight and Florida’s seven.
And there’s this fact: The only player in NBA history to win seven league championship rings (and not play with the Boston Celtics) dynasty is former Alabama star Robert Horry.
One more backslap for the SEC: Former Auburn star Charles Barkley just won an Emmy award for his TV analyst work on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” a show that added former LSU star Shaquille O’Neal this year.
Then there’s the projection for July’s NBA draft that as many as four Kentucky players could be taken in the first round.
On the women’s side, the SEC is in a re-loading mode. The league hasn’t won a national championship since 2008 when recently retired Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt won the last of her eight national championships.
Baseball and softball: With back-to-back national baseball titles by South Carolina and LSU winning in 2009, the SEC is gunning for four straight College World Series championships. Last week’s polls had four SEC schools in the top 10 – LSU, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky – plus LSU’s Ralph Rhymes was leading the nation in hitting.
The SEC hasn’t won a softball national championship yet, but it’s getting closer. Three of the last five years, SEC teams have finished second nationally (Florida last year and 2009, Tennessee 2007).
Women’s volleyball: Perhaps the SEC’s weakest sport that has been dominated nationally West Coast teams (hey, they play in the sand all summer so it’s an advantage) and by Penn State. The SEC has had just one team – Florida in 2003 – reach the NCAA finals.
Women’s gymnastics: Alabama repeated as national champs for the second straight year, edging Florida. SEC teams (mostly Alabama and Georgia) have finished first or second in the national championships 23 of the last 26 years, with six seasons of the SEC having teams finish 1-2 for the national title.
Men and women’s indoor track: Florida’s men’s indoor track won its third straight national title, edging Arkansas. A SEC team has won the men’s indoor track national championship or finished second 18 of the last 21 years. In nine of those years, the SEC has had teams finish 1-2 in the national championship meet.
On the women’s side, LSU finished third in this year’s national championships, a sport that the SEC has basically owned. In the 30 years that the NCAA sponsored the sport, five different SEC schools have won the title or finished second 24 times with 14 national titles and six years in which the SEC finished 1-2.
Men’s and women’s outdoor track: There has been a dry spell for the SEC winning national titles in this sport, Arkansas doing it last for the men in 2005 and Tennessee in 2009 for the women.
But here’s how expansion will raise the level of track in the SEC. Texas A&M, which becomes a SEC member for the 2011-12 school year, has won three straight national titles in men’s and women’s track. The Aggies’ coach is Pat Henry, LSU’s former head coach, who won 28 national championships with the Tigers – 12 indoors (10 women’s, two men’s) and 16 outdoors (13 women’s, three men’s).
Men and women’s golf: The SEC has been tiptoeing around a men’s golf national championship for a while, with three different schools finishing second in NCAA tourney four of the last six years. Georgia did it last year and in 2007, Florida in 2008 and Arkansas in 2009.
SEC women haven’t won a NCAA golf championship since Georgia in 2001, but seven SEC teams were ranked last week in the top 15 of the national polls.
And there’s this added bonus: Three former SEC golfers – Bubba Watson (Georgia), Brandt Snedeker (Vanderbilt) and Jason Dufner (Auburn) already have one PGA tour event win this year. To make it more impressive, Watson won The Masters.
Men and women’s tennis: Eight SEC men’s teams are currently ranked in the top 25, led by No. 2 Georgia, which back-to-back national titles in 2007 and 2008 after finishing second in 2006. Florida’s women, currently ranked No. 2, are trying to repeat as national champs after finishing second in 2010. The University of Georgia hosts both the 2012 men’s and women’s NCAA championships starting Thursday.
Men’s and women’s swimming: Though SEC men’s teams have finished first or second in the national championships 11 of the last 17 years led by Auburn’s eight national titles, the league has been shut out of the top two spots the last three years since Auburn won its last championship in 2009.
But Georgia’s Martin Grodzki was a double national champ in this year’s NCAA championships, winning the 500 and 1,650 freestyle.
On the women’s side, Georgia has finished second behind California the last two years in the national championship after Florida won its second team title ever in 2010. For 14 straight years since 1999, Auburn, Georgia and Florida have finished first or second in the national meet.
Even after the NCAA championships in various sports conclude in June, don’t forget that the 2012 London Summer Olympics begin July 25. In the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, 150 former and then-current SEC athletes competed and won 51 medals. If the SEC were considered a country, it would have finished fourth in the world in the medal count.
Okay, now that I dropped this Titanic load of SEC dominance on you, the obvious question is how this league maintains such a high level of consistency in almost every sport.
In some ways, it starts with what happens every year at the SEC business meetings in Destin, which are coming up at the end of this month.
When all 12 schools. . .no make that 14 (better find some more hotel rooms for newest members Texas A&M and Missouri) schools gather to discuss issues and make decisions that will govern the conference, there’s spirited and healthy discussion behind closed doors.
Or as SEC commissioner Mike Slive likes to say, “The First Amendment is alive and well.”
But the one thing that is never forgotten – by the school presidents, the athletic directors and senior women’s administrators, the football coaches, the men’s and women’s basketball coaches, the faculty reps and even the sports information directors – is that every decision is made with the student-athlete in mind.
That sounds corny, but that’s the truth.
If it weren’t, the SEC would fall off the face of the athletic world because talented student-athletes would want to go elsewhere to school.
But because of the league’s commitment to excellence, starting with the student-athlete – something that has been passed down through all seven league commissioners through the league’s history – the SEC never seems to slow down.
It doesn’t want to. It rather enjoys the view on the mountaintop.