By Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
We’re just gentle folks down here in the South.
Southerners say yes sir and no ma’am. Thank you and you’re welcome. We smile at strangers and ask, `How ’ya doin’?” Southerners open doors for women. Southerners don't give simple explanations, but recite their life stories before getting to the point.
Southerners believe their most significant contribution to the betterment of mankind is S. Truett Cathy inventing the chicken biscuit in 1946 at Hapeville, Georgia, and opening his first Chick-fil-A in 1967 in an Atlanta suburb mall.
Southerners invent words like “bofem” and “flustration,” two of my all-time favorites from Ole Miss football coach Billy Brewer.
Example of usage:
Me: "Billy, seemed like a tough day for both your quarterbacks, Russ Shows and Tommy Luke."
Billy: "Yeah, bofem had a lotta flustration out there.”
Translation: Both quarterbacks were flustered and frustrated.
And when Southerners like myself disagree with you, we smile as wide as possible until our cheeks hurt and say through gritted teeth, “God bless your little heart!”
So I respectfully say to Rick Neuheisel in my best late Dixie Carter soft, lilting Southern drawl:
“God bless your little heart, Rick!”
Rick, 51, a former college head football coach at Colorado, Washington and UCLA, is a Pac-12 network TV analyst and as guest host on Sirius XM radio’s College Football Playbook. He has taken it on himself lately to attack the Southeastern Conference’s unparalleled football success.
He apparently doesn’t like the fact the SEC has won six consecutive national championships. And he certainly isn’t thrilled that the SEC has three of the top four ranked teams in this week’s Associated Press Top 25, with LSU also in ninth.
Back in August, Rick, ignoring the fact the SEC has been in business for 79 years, said the following:
“You wonder how the SEC became so powerful? It’s a direct correlation to how ESPN has been talking them up over the years, because they have a financial interest in them. So all the sudden, it’s a monster conference.”
That’s astoundingly ironic. Because if you ask any Tennessee fan, they still swear ESPN stole the 1997 Heisman Trophy from Peyton Manning and awarded it to Michigan’s Charles Woodson, because the network so heavily hyped Woodson.
Earlier this week, Rick, in his weekly Sirius XM radio gig with Jack Arute, inferred that SEC teams basically tilted national rankings their way through scheduling. He said SEC schools playing weak non-conference schedules allow them to remain highly ranked when they play each other to boost their strength of schedule.
So I guess it’s my imagination that in the last couple of years Alabama didn’t pound No. 8 Michigan 41-14 to open this season, or won 27-11 at No. 23 Penn State last year. I guess I was dreaming that LSU leveled No. 3 Oregon 40-27, and polished off No. 16 West Virginia on the road, 47-21, in the first month of last season. I must have been hallucinating that Tennessee beat a North Carolina State team 35-21 to open this season, a Wolfpack squad that just beat previously unbeaten Florida State.
I’m thinking it was a mirage that SEC teams won 37 games in the last six seasons against non-conference Top 25 teams, with 10 of 12 league teams (before this year’s additions Texas A&M and Missouri) having at least one non-conference Top 25 win since 2006. In that same time frame, it must have been a typo that said the SEC is 9-3 in BCS bowls (with one of those losses LSU falling to Alabama in last season’s All-SEC BCS title game.
So to review, Rick believes the SEC is perceived as great, only because ESPN says so. And that the SEC doesn’t play anyone of consequence in non-conference games, resulting in skewed rankings.
God bless your little heart, Rick!
There’s a good reason that just a month or so ago that ESPN analyst Lee Corso said the SEC was the nation’s top conference because it had “the best players, the best coaches, the best stadiums, the best fans.”
That’s because down here in the South, from The Swamp in Gainesville over to Death Valley in Baton Rouge, up to Rocky Top Tennessee in Knoxville down to Bryant-Denny in T-Town, to behind the hedges in Athens, college football is what we’ve been raised on.
It’s like Georgia running back Frank Sinkwich, the SEC’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 1942 once said:
“I’m from Ohio. But if I’d known when I was two what it was like down South, I would have crawled here on my hands and knees.”
The South didn’t have NFL teams until the Dolphins and Falcons opened shop in Miami and Atlanta respectively in 1966. By that time, the 10-team SEC was 33 years old, so college teams were the South’s original rooting fan interest.
Traditions, like SEC coaches being escorted to midfield by Smokey the Bear-hatted state troopers and Mississippi State fans ringing cowbells and LSU playing night home games, had been established. Legends, like Alabama’s houndstooth-hatted coach Bear Bryant and a skinny Florida quarterback named Steve Spurrier who would win the ’66 Heisman Trophy, were being created.
Long before ESPN and other networks televised SEC games from morning until almost midnight, those traditions and legends were being described over the radio. It didn’t matter if you were sitting at home and driving in your car. The play-by-play announcer for your favorite SEC team was always discernable, even through the crackle, snap, and pop of the AM dial.
There were unforgettable voices like Larry Munson (Georgia), Otis Boggs (Florida), John Ferguson (LSU), Jack Cristil (Mississippi State), Stan Torgersen (Ole Miss), John Ward (Tennessee), Jim Fyffe (Auburn), Paul Eells (Vanderbilt/Arkansas), John Forney (Alabama), Bob Fulton (South Carolina), and Cawood Ledford (Kentucky). They all painted beautiful verbal pictures, punctuating their audio canvases with their time-tested catchphrases.
You could always hear Ward’s “Give. . .him. . .six. . .Touchdown, Tennessee.” Or Cristil’s “You can wrap it in maroon and white” after each Mississippi State victory. Or Munson’s unabashed over-the-top homerism, delivered with such passion and emotion that every Georgia game could evolve into a Greek tragedy at any moment.
Before long as stadiums grew bigger, edging into the 70,000-seat range and headed to 90,000 to 100,000 in a couple of decades later, college football became religion in the SEC and the South. Stadiums became our churches and the radio play-by-play voices delivered the gospel.
SEC football Saturdays in the fall, especially as more technologically advanced tailgating equipment became available, evolved into family gatherings. No longer did you just park an hour or two before a game and go to you seat.
You found a favorite spot to set up your tailgate and that was your place until infinity. Just like my brother Johnny, who has tailgated in the same spot at LSU games for years. His friends always know where they can find him.
And it doesn’t matter whether you’re 70 or 7 years old, because sometimes in your life you’ve played pitch-and-catch with a football at a tailgate. While pretending to be your favorite player, you’ve dodged that linebacker disguised a barbecue pit and that defensive tackle that looks like an ice chest, before being gang tackled at the goal line bouncing off the side of an RV.
Soon, SEC fans didn’t care if they had a ticket to the game. They just had to be in the atmosphere outside of the stadium. It’s not unusual these days at particularly huge SEC games, like Alabama vs. LSU, to have 20,000 to 40,000 ticketless fans partying outside Tiger Stadium or Bryant-Denny watching the game on big-screen TVs.
THAT is the SEC, Rick.
Because of those fans creating a gushing enthusiasm that lasts 365/24/7 – football season doesn’t end in the SEC. It merely extends to recruiting season, spring practice and waiting until the preseason magazines hit the newsstands just past June 1.
And that’s why the best high school recruits in the South want to play at SEC schools, which is a very good thing. Since the warmer Southern climate allows athletes to train outside almost year-round, it’s a given Southern high schools annually produce the most athletically gifted athletes in the nation, the best combination of big and fast.
An ESPN story this past February cited the fact that a third of ESPN's top 25 recruiting classes have been from SEC schools. Even more remarkable is 92 percent of the players in those highly ranked SEC classes are from the South.
The SEC had a tremendous product long before it signed its first major national network deal with CBS to televise league games on a weekly basis starting in 1996.
What the CBS contract did was take the SEC product nationally. Suddenly, a young quarterback in Oregon named Erik Ainge could sit in his living room and imagine what it would be like to travel halfway across the country and be the eye of an orange-tinged hurricane with fans up to 105,000 that hovered over Neyland Stadium.
The latest lucrative TV deals from CBS and ESPN have financially fueled schools to hire the best coaches and build the finest facilities in all sports. But the league’s continued success, especially in football, is based on the unwavering passion of its loyal fans.
To the rest of the country, to people like Rick Neuheisel, we might be a bit over the top down here in grits and gravy country.
In the SEC, beautiful Southern belles call the Hogs and scream “How ‘bout them Dawgs.” Kids are taught to say “Roll Tide”, “War Eagle” and Hotty Toddy even before they are potty trained. Kindly old grandmas beat on the side of opposing team buses and yell, “Tiger Bait, Tiger Bait, Tiger Bait.”
Like Elvis or Madonna, we don’t need last names in the SEC for Herschel or Bear or Bo, or a first name for Tebow. In the SEC, we believe the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are Archie Manning, Peyton Manning and Johnny Vaught.
We have on-campus statues in the SEC of national championship coaches and Heisman Trophy winners. We name streets after great players (Danny Wuerffel Way, Peyton Manning Pass) and coaches (Bryant Drive).
Only in the SEC are we convinced college football signing day on the first Wednesday in February should be declared a national holiday since no one really works that day anyway. Hey, that’s why we throw signing day parties.
We understand that if you go through a football season unbeaten or even with one-loss in the SEC, you’ve earned the right to play for the national championship.
Conference play in the SEC is eight weeks locked in a psychological and physical sauna, draining you bit by bit, to the point at the end of the season you just want lock yourself in a dark, cool quiet room for several days.
Maybe that’s why, Rick, that SEC teams don’t play killer non-conference schedules. You’ve got to catch your breath good and plenty before navigating a tortuous track en route to the league title game in the Georgia Dome.
And yes, the SEC created that championship game before any other BCS league, and it has stood the test of time. Sold-out every year. Bigger than ever. Now, it’s practically a BCS national championship semi-final game.
Finally Rick, you and the astute Mr. Arute were laughing earlier this week that SEC fans think the SEC invented college football.
Wrong. We just think the SEC perfected it.
God bless your little heart, Rick! You too, Jack.