Georgia on My Mind: The SEC
I have written a lot over the past season about how out of crisis can come opportunity. If I apply the example of my family navigating the pandemic, like many others living too far from our loved ones, then into focus ultimately for us came the opportunity to do something about that. I am delighted to share that we are moving the family tree from Seattle to Atlanta after five very happy years here. The Pacific Northwest Irishman will soon become the Georgia Irishman.
This blog is predominantly focused on the NFL, with college football featuring on occasion. A staple feature of the future of this blog will be college football: the game of the masses in the South. Today I’ll feature the SouthEastern (SEC) Football Conference - college football’s most dominant conference. The University of Georgia Bulldogs play in Athens, Georgia, just 50 minutes from Atlanta. They will get their fair share of mentions on here, and I hope to be able to see them play in person once it is safe to do so. The Bulldogs will play their part in the SEC story I have to tell.
Welcome to the SEC To understand college football's heritage and the powerhouse it has become, look no further than the SEC.
For the past twenty years, the SEC has become the default standard bearer of what the NFL craves most from college football. Bigger, stronger and faster players. It has the most dominant teams, players and head coaches. The SEC’s seminal days overlap with twentieth century American history.
Just before Christmas in 1932, the SEC was born. Two months prior, Babe Ruth hit his “called shot” home run in the World Series, with Franklin D. Roosevelt watching on. The SEC features some of college football’s football’s most decorated teams including Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee. In other words, the South. Naturally, race has played its part in shaping the conference. While Black college athletes were introduced all over the country in the 1960s, the SEC held out. Getting past Jim Crow laws - which enforced segregation - proved difficult. As late as 1969, most SEC teams were completely white. Alabama became the flagship for segregation. Coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant was friendly with Governor George Wallace: as Bryant pressed for integration of Black players, their friendship came under strain. When USC played Alabama in 1970 it was the first fully integrated team to ever play in Alabama. The game led to the recruitment of Black players throughout SEC teams. Bear Bryant views prevailed.
All Along The College Watchtower
Paul Bryant’s long trek up the 34 steps of a 30 feet high Tuscaloosa watchtower took 36 seconds. At 2:30 at every afternoon practice, the Alabama head coach would don his red jacket and white baseball cap and climb to his trusty perch. Surveying all his players on the field, he would occasionally lift up a bullhorn to send his rolling-thunder voice down: “Wilcox, you're standing around down there . . . Get more pressure on defense” . . . “Perfection now, perfection now. The fourth quarter.”
‘Bear’ Bryant, who became known as Bear when he wrestled a bear at a country fair, put the SEC and Alabama on the map. Before I stand accused of heaping too many accolades on the SEC, let’s go to someone who has won two national championships at Florida, before leaving for the Big Ten conference where he also guided Ohio State to a national championship. Urban Myer described the SEC as the best conference and explained why: “It's really not that close. The attitude was all about how to dominate. It starts and finishes with recruiting. Building towards national championships. They (the SEC) didn’t care about any other conference.” Myer is the former star college coach who came in from the cold in January 2021 to become head coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. With the considerable haul of draft picks at his disposal, he’ll be honing in on SEC targets when the NFL draft comes along in April. Why is the SEC so good? Well, it has the perfect combination of the best recruiting, coaching and competition, allied for the most part with tough schedules. In particular, the belief that running the ball and playing defense are the keys to winning trophies are central blocks of the philosophy. No wonder it has been lit up over generations by giants such as Don Hutson, Herschel Walker, Ozzie Newsome, Champ Bailey and Reggie White, who all enjoyed success in the NFL.
The levers of wealth have turbo-charged the conference. The SEC Television Network has helped endow the SEC and make Texas A&M the richest college of all. Several other top SEC schools feature in the Forbes college football top ten. The Old Ball Coach I mentioned SEC characters. One that immediately comes to mind is Steve Spurrier. He first established himself as a record setting passer in Florida as a player. When he took over as Florida head coach in 1990, he inherited a program dealing with NCAA penalties and a half-century without a SEC title. Spurrier, who refers to himself as the ‘Old Ball Coach’, was a polarizing, unorthodox character, whose Fun ‘n’ Gun offense enjoyed immense success in the 1990s and modernized the SEC.
Spurrier’s signature act of passion was throwing his visor. He out-coached others in the 1990’s and it took his competition a long time to catch up. Florida dominated the decade and convinced other teams that they should throw the football. This rocked the prevailing orthodoxy of running the football in the SEC.
Spurrier has a different way of thinking to other coaches. He was brash and wound up other coaches, no doubt. His beliefs sought to change norms and the consensus around how teams were run. Former defensive coordinator Bob Stoops told a story about Coach Spurrier taking him and their families to the Atlantic for three days on the beach in the lead up to a massive game against Tennessee. As they floated in the Atlantic Ocean, Spurrier mused whether the Tennessee coaches were in the ocean or training twice that day. That was the Old Ball Coach to a tee and the SEC is better for his long reign in Florida and South Carolina. Southern Heart
With the NFL season over, and as we move towards free agency and the draft, I wanted to feature some of the interesting stories that shaped the game at pro level and in college. Dealing with some of the central characters has allowed me to examine how the SEC reached the summit of college football and look at why when the NFL comes calling, SEC players are generally in their full gaze.
Like Bear Bryant, the SEC’s reputation has had its detractors, but it continues to flourish over time. History will record that Peyton Manning turned down the NFL and came back to college to win an SEC Championship with Tennessee. While all its players harbor NFL ambitions, the allure of winning with college teammates looms large for the many.
The right formula for a number of successful colleges, such as Georgia with Vince Dooley, Bear Bryant and Nick Saban at Alabama, has been to have coaches in charge over decades, who help win national championships. Saban has at least matched Bryant’s legacy at Alabama, which is in keeping with the SEC’s history of dominance and tradition.
As my family gets set to embrace a brave new world in Atlanta and the comfort of being closer to our families, I can see how fall Saturday’s will have Georgia, Alabama and Florida for company. Especially if my son and niece bring the cold beverages.