There’s an old movie – I’m not going to say how old from fear of severely dating myself – called “Yours, Mine and Ours.”
The storyline: A Navy officer and a nurse who are widowers, who have 10 and 8 children respectively, marry and try to mesh 18 kids under one household. The logistical problems are mindboggling, but somehow in the end, everyone accepts each other’s different personalities and viewpoints.
Last week on the first night at the annual SEC business meetings, which marks the unofficial end of the conference’s academic year, I was the league’s pool party social surveying the scene for the 28th straight year at the gathering held at the Sandestin (Fla.) Beach Hilton.
That’s when the movie popped in my head.
From year-to-year, because of the competitive nature of college athletics, there are personnel changes, whether forced or voluntary. So the family changes.
For instance, since the league meetings have been at Sandestin, there have been 65 football coaches in the SEC. Some were gone in a blink, so fast that you didn’t even have a chance to learn their wife’s name. Some stayed so long – anything longer than a decade is considered long – that you practically saw a coach’s young kids grow from year-to-year when you saw them at the pool party.
But the one thing you quickly learn at these business meetings – something the public never sees and would be surprised to learn – is the SEC truly is a family.
At the risk of upsetting the cynics who think every league coach in every major sport is at each other’s throats, or that every school’s athletic director is bound and determined to protect his turf, in the end every SEC school realizes what makes this conference a leader in so many ways is its cohesiveness.
So when you see Nick Saban of Alabama and Steve Spurrier of South Carolina – arguably two of the league’s top five all-time best football coaches – engaged in casual amicable conversation at the pool party, you understand the league’s “all-for-one and one-for-all” mentality.
I’ve covered the SEC for so many years, more than three decades, so sometimes that I take such exchanges for granted. But I was reminded how unique it might be at last week’s pool party by media members covering Missouri and Texas A&M’s, the SEC’s newest members that officially join the league.
Some of the writers told me how pleasantly surprised how well everybody in the league seemed to get along with each other.
Feeling the same way were some of the new coaches in attendance, such as football coach Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M and Gary Pinkel of Missouri
Sumlin, who has the double-whammy of taking over a new head coaching job at a school heading into a new league, has long admired SEC football, especially the offensive philosophies of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
When Sumlin was an assistant at Purdue from 1998-2000, he visited Spurrier at Florida in 1999.
“We spent three or four days in Gainesville,” Sumlin says. “As a young coach, why wouldn’t you study someone like him?”
Missouri’s Pinkel has intersected paths with Alabama’s Saban several times, starting with the fact they were college teammates at Kent State from 1970-72. Saban was a defensive back and Pinkel was a tight end – “He was a helluva lot better player than I was,” Saban says with a laugh.
In 1990 after Saban went 9-2 at Toledo in his first year as a college head coach, he left to become defensive coordinator of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. But on the way out the door at Toledo, Saban recommended Pinkel, then the University of Washington’s offensive coordinator, at his replacement.
Toledo hired Pinkel, who coached Toledo for 10 years before he became Mizzou’s head coach in 2001. After seven straight winning seasons and bowl appearances, thanks to one of the nation’s top high-powered offenses, Pinkel experienced something new in the off-season.
He’s had to prepare for an entire different conference.
“We’ve had to analyze every single SEC school we’re going to play against, all the personnel and all the schemes,” Pinkel says. “We’ve been doing that for months and we’ll be finishing that this summer.
“I have great respect for the SEC. The difference between the SEC and the Big 12 (Missouri and A&M’s former conference) is that there are a lot more good teams in the SEC.”
Texas A&M men’s basketball coach Billy Kennedy, a New Orleans native who played for and later became head coach at Southeastern Louisiana, knows the challenge of the ever-changing face of SEC men’s basketball.
“When I coached Murray State (from 2006 to 2011) and Southeastern (1999 to 2005), I used to play all those SEC teams for financial guarantees,” says Kennedy, whose Murray State squad also upset Vanderbilt in the first round of the 2011 NCAA tournament. “So I’m familiar with most of the coaches and know how they play.”
During alumni tour speeches, Missouri and A&M coaches have been peppered with questions on how their programs will fare in the ultra-competitive SEC.
Back in 1992 when the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina, the Razorbacks had an immediate impact in men’s basketball and men’s track. Men’s basketball won the 1994 national championship and men’s track won eight straight national outdoor titles starting in ’92 and seven of eight indoor championships.
It took South Carolina a bit longer, but the Gamecocks won a 2002 women’s NCAA outdoor track title. The last two years, South Carolina has won the men’s College World Series. Two years ago, Spurrier’s football team got South Carolina to the league championship game and last year’s Gamecocks won a school-record 11 games.
The one thing that Arkansas and South Carolina quickly discovered after joining the SEC – and it’s something that Texas A&M and Missouri will learn also – is that being in the league forces a school and their fans to either raise their expectations levels or get left behind.
Thanks to those expectations as well as the abundance of SEC revenue sharing – each league school will get an average of $20.1 million for 2011-12 – every SEC member can provide the best facilities and top-notch coaches in every sport.
It’s almost as if each SEC school has no choice but to be a national contender in one or several sports. And it’s a point of pride in the SEC when the league wins a national championship, especially in a sport that the conference has never done so.
That happened early Thursday morning when Alabama held on for a 5-4 victory over Oklahoma to give the SEC its first women’s NCAA softball championship ever.
Since 1997, the SEC has sent 23 teams to the women’s College World Series but never took home the big trophy until just past midnight Thursday.
Alabama’s victory sort of illustrates what the SEC is all about – persistent, consistent pursuit of excellence, accelerated by being surrounded by brothers and sisters always pushing to make you better.
That’s what Texas A&M and Missouri will soon discover about being in the SEC family.