A show of hands, please, by those who had their fannies pulled out of the fire by Alabama's Antonio Langham last Saturday. Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer, Miami coach Dennis Erickson, you good ol' boys in the Sugar Bowl blazers, start grabbing air. All o' y'all, as they say in the South, were up the creek until the junior cornerback from Town Creek, Ala., bailed you out.
When Florida tailback Errict Rhett ran for the Gators' third touchdown, slicing two yards off left tackle to tie the SEC championship game at Birmingham's Legion Field at 21, with eight minutes remaining, a lot of stomachs began churning; a loss by 11-0, No. 2 Alabama to 8-3, No. 12 Florida would make a mockery of the inaugural SEC title game. It would deprive the Sugar Bowl, which is hosted by the SEC winner, of a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown on New Year's Day and hand the national championship game to the Fiesta Bowl, in which undefeated and top-ranked Miami would be forced to face the sizzling Florida State Seminoles in a rematch for which Erickson had already expressed his extreme distaste.
When Rhett scored, Sugar Bowl official Sam Zuric, who had been watching the game in the SEC commissioner's box, excused himself, saying, "I've gotta go to the bathroom." Quipped the Liberty Bowl's Bill McElroy once Zuric was out of earshot, "Betcha he already has."
After three changes of possession Florida had the ball and the momentum on its own 21 with 3:25 to go. Quarterback Shane Matthews took a five-step drop and threw to the right side. Langham, who had been lurking behind intended receiver Monty Duncan, got a good break on the ball, swiped it and returned it 26 yards for the winning touchdown.
As time expired on the Crimson Tide's 28-21 victory, the Sugar Bowl gang abandoned all pretense of neutrality, cheering like so many Alabama alumni. Kramer couldn't wipe the gap-toothed grin off his face. On the surface, at least, his grand experiment was a success. The right team had won, and the conference had reaped a cool $6 million from the game.
The SEC championship owes its existence to a Yankee and a bunch of Division II schools in Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. At the 1987 NCAA convention West Chester (Pa.) State athletic director Dick Yoder requested permission to hold season-ending playoff games in the 14-member Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and in the 12-member Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association to determine their respective champions. "I would like to point out," said Yoder at the time, "in all the country this amendment only affects these two conferences."
Not for long. The SEC recognized a juicy loophole when it saw one. In giving its blessing to the PSAC's and the CIAA's title games, the NCAA had decreed that a league with at least a dozen members could add a championship showdown to the schedule. In the summer of 1990 the SEC welcomed aboard its 11th and 12th members, Arkansas and South Carolina. In November of that year the league announced that starting with the '92 season, it would cleave into Eastern and Western divisions, with the conference winner to be decided by a title game.
To decide where to play the championship, the SEC's athletic directors did what athletic directors do best. They formed a committee and began visiting prospective sites: Atlanta, Tampa, Memphis and Orlando. On April 8, 1991, the four members of the site-selection committee flew into Birmingham Airport. They were ushered to limousines, where they could freshen their breaths with chocolate mints whose wrappers had been stamped with the salutation SEC, WELCOME TO BIRMINGHAM, YOU'RE GONNA LOVE IT! En route to downtown, the limos passed two billboards bearing the same eight words.
The limo doors were opened at the Alabama Power building, where 150 feet of red carpet had been rolled out. The rug bisected a crowd of 2,000 placard-waving locals and three high school bands. Awaiting the athletic directors at the end of the carpet was Miss Alabama, who bussed them and pinned orchids to their lapels.
Lunch was extravagant. While the other committee members lingered over coffee, LSU athletic director Joe Dean burst out of the rest room shouting, "You're not gonna believe this." He had encountered those same eight words embroidered on each wash towel. Says Alan Martin, president of the Birmingham Football Foundation, which staged the unsubtle production, "Thank God one of 'em had to go to the pot."
Landing the SEC championship would allow Birmingham to stake a valid claim to the title that the city had, in various signs around the city, already arrogated to itself: THE FOOTBALL CAPITAL OF THE SOUTH. A more accurate description would have been "the defunct-franchise capital of the cosmos." Three times Birmingham has been home to pro teams—the Vulcans of the World Football League, the Stallions of the USFL and the Fire of the World League—and three times its fans have been orphaned when those leagues folded.
Birmingham wanted this game. After all the mints and kisses and customized towels, landing it came down to dough. The Birmingham Football Foundation promised the SEC $4.5 million a year for five years to play the game at Legion Field. We're yours, said the SEC.
Having bought the game, the foundation had to figure out how to pay for it. The answer: sky-high ticket prices. On Saturday the cheapest seat at Legion Field went for $30. Prime 50-yard-line seats cost $30—plus a $750 "donation" to the SEC. That gouging led to widespread criticism, even though the stadium, which seats 83,091, was sold-out.
Martin makes no apology for the game's exorbitant prices. "Without that premium ticket plan," he says, "we'd be driving somewhere else to see the game."
Spectators weren't the only ones grumbling. Crimson Tide players complained about having to play for a championship that they felt they had already earned. If it weren't for this newfangled title game, groused defensive end John Copeland last week, "We could be sitting around playing cards, thinking about Miami."
But didn't making a small fortune for the SEC warm their hearts? "Money?" said linebacker Michael Rogers. "I don't know anything about any money. All I know is, we've got practice this week."
Indeed, Alabama's defense played the first five minutes of Saturday's game as if it wanted to be somewhere else. With Matthews mixing inside runs, shovel passes to Rhett and quick hitters to his wide receivers, the Gators marched 77 yards to a touchdown on their first possession. Fortunately for 'Bama, the only thing more shocking than the sudden pliability of its defense, which had come into the game leading the nation in four categories, was the potency of its theretofore lackluster offense.
The Tide answered immediately with a 72-yard scoring drive and then scored again on its fourth possession when sophomore Jay Barker, he of the scattershot arm, hit wideout "Downtown" Curtis Brown in full stride with a 30-yard TD pass. The key play of the Tide's third touchdown drive, which made the score 21-7 midway through the third quarter, was Barker's 39-yard heave to flanker David Palmer. Afterward, Barker, who is 16-0 as a starter, allowed himself a bit of self-congratulation. "It feels good to do well in a game this big," he said. "All year long it's been talk about the defense."
With excellent reason. Barker seemed to have forgotten that after the Tide's third touchdown the offense had stalled, leaving it to the defense, as usual, to win the game. Langham's interception of Matthews was a near duplicate of his steal for a game-winning touchdown against Auburn nine days earlier. "I hid behind [Duncan], where Matthews couldn't see me," said Langham. "He threw the ball, I made my break, the rest is history."
That might seem like an exaggeration anywhere other than the football capital of the South.