As last Saturday'smarquee matchups in Baton Rouge, Oxford, Fayetteville, Knoxville and Columbiashowed, nobody does it quite like the SEC, where speed-driven, bone-crunchingfootball is played in front of packed houses and is rivaled only by thehigh-spirited traditions surrounding the games
This is an article from the Oct. 19, 2009 issue
The LSU faithfulroasted an alligator on a spit outside Tiger Stadium before their game withtop-ranked Florida in Baton Rouge last Saturday. They made cardboard signs inthe shape of a hand with the middle finger sticking up and the words HEY,TEBOW, HOW MANY FINGERS AM I HOLDING UP? ¬∂ They appealed to whichever sainthandles brain injuries, hoping for heavenly intercession that would convincecollege football's poster boy to take more time to heal from the concussion hesuffered against Kentucky on Sept. 26. None of this worked, of course. Didanybody really expect Tim Tebow to sit out a nationally televised matchupbetween two top five teamsin college football's premier conference? Lestanybody forget, Tebow's "different than all of us," as Gators coachUrban Meyer would say when it was over.
Florida won 13--3before a record crowd of 93,129 at spooky old Tiger Stadium. The Gators won inall aspects of the game, even though Meyer admitted afterward that he employeda conservative game plan to protect his quarterback.
"It was liketwo sledgehammers going at each other," said Meyer, who still has one lesswin in Baton Rouge than he does in national championship games.
The same commentcould have been uttered in Fayetteville or Oxford or Knoxville or Columbia,where SEC powers went at each other on Saturday in part of the desperateseasonlong struggle for survival in the conference. The Gators, winners of 15straight games over the last two seasons, might be ranked No. 1 in the nation,but they might not even be the best team in the SEC. Or at least that's what 10voters in the AP poll thought on Sunday, when they voted for Alabama in the topspot following the Crimson Tide's 22--3 thumping of Ole Miss the day before.How dominant was 'Bama? The Rebels' first-half stat line read like this: fiverushing yards, 14 passing yards, one first down, two turnovers, one blockedpunt. Said Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, "We ran into a real walltoday."
Alabama'sperformance was impressive enough that the Tide jumped over Texas in the APpoll, giving the SEC the top two spots. But the Gators are still the team tobeat. The winner of the LSU-Florida game has won the national championship ineach of the last three seasons, and on Saturday the Gators looked like they hadevery intention of keeping the string going. Tebow has shown a theatrical flairduring his brilliant career, and the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner added to hislist of great performances against LSU. As Meyer gathered with his players onthe sideline before their first offensive series, fans trained their binocularson the huddle, anxious to see if number 15 was there. He was, all right, buteven without him, Florida most likely would've triumphed. Led by middlelinebacker Brandon Spikes, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles, 2½ sacksand a forced fumble, the Gators' relentless D sacked LSU quarterback JordanJefferson five times and held the Tigers to 162 total yards. "Defensively,it was one of the best efforts I've ever seen containing athletes," saidMeyer. "There's not a faster team you're going to face than [LSU]."
Unless that teamis Florida. Still, Tigers fans know how quickly things can change in thisconference. They'd like nothing better than a rematch with the Gators in theSEC championship game on Dec. 5. To get there LSU merely needs to knock offAuburn, beat 'Bama in Tuscaloosa and Ole Miss in Oxford, and close with avictory over Arkansas. Such is life in the loaded SEC. But they're called theTiger faithful because they believe.
If you suffer fromallergies and struggle with the scent of lavender or Passion by ElizabethTaylor, be warned. These people will knock you to your knees.
It's the daybefore the Florida game, and 650 of them have crowded into a downtown BatonRouge hotel. They are all wearing purple and gold. Purple-and-gold dresses,purple-and-gold pantsuits, purple-and-gold blazers. Some have purple-and-goldshoes. Still others wear diamond pins and brooches that say lsu. Their charmbracelets rattle with silver tiger heads.
You've seen thatglazed look before. Are they members of a cult?
In the hotelatrium vendors have loaded tables and kiosks all along the concourse, and thewomen are buying tiger handbags, tiger ice chests, tiger electric toothbrushes,tiger toothpaste, tiger umbrellas, tiger bath and dish towels, tiger flags andtiger picture frames. Need some tiger boxer shorts for that hard-to-please manin your life? You've come to the right place.
At a similargathering recently, one of the women, Machita Eyre of Baton Rouge, strolledthrough the crowd decked out in a large purple hat and a purple taffeta dressover a tiger unitard. She was twirling a purple parasol. A mask, made of whatlooks like real tiger fur, covered her face. She lit up when somebody told hershe looked like a character in Cats. "Oh, good," she said. "BecauseI'm the mascot for the Belles."
Ah, of course. TheBengal Belles. The event had been billed as a luncheon, but it's clear thatnobody had come to eat. The Belles were waiting for a group of LSU footballplayers to address them. Each and every one of them is crazy sick in love withher team. LSU makes them goofy. "I was a little bitty girl in 1959 and saton my back porch and cried one Saturday night after LSU lost a game," saidMary Lou Eckert from Baker, La. "My brother saw how much I loved theTigers, and he started calling me L.S. Lou. I've been going by L.S. Lou eversince."
Booster clubsacross the country routinely gather in support of sports teams, but at LSU, acharter member of the Southeastern Conference, it seems almost unfair. That'sbecause LSU has the Belles. The Tigers are the best team there is, they tellyou. And the SEC is the best conference around. The Pac-10? Isn't that aconvenience store out on Highland Road? The ACC? Isn't that what you turn onwhen the house gets too warm?
"More playersare invited to the NFL combine each year from the SEC than from any otherconference," Ole Miss's Nutt says when asked about the quality of theathletes who compete in the league. "The most players drafted just aboutevery year going back 10 years come from the SEC." Indeed, dating to the2000 NFL draft, the conference has had 400 players selected; the next-bestleague is the ACC, with 364.
It's no mystery toNutt why an SEC team has won the BCS national championship each of the lastthree years (Florida in 2006 and 2008, LSU in 2007) and is favored to producethe champ again this season. "I watch [teams in] other conferences all thetime and I think, Boy, I'd like to play them," Nutt says.
Nutt knows wellthe kind of person who becomes a Bengal Belle. They're not unlike those whotailgate at the Grove in Oxford and reach out to touch him and the Ole Missplayers as they stride down the Walk of Champions in that nervous time beforekickoff. They crowd the riverfront outside Neyland Stadium in Knoxville andpack the Swamp in Gainesville and make the hedges in Athens frighteningly morethan just some well-kept privet. They're the ones who think Bear Bryant, ShugJordan and Charlie McClendon should be deified and named patron saints ofcollege football. And they're the kind of people who make nighttime a nightmareat Tiger Stadium.
"Anybody who'shonest and objective will agree that there's no more exciting football event inthe world than a game at LSU at night," a man named Robert Khayat saidonce. Was Khayat the husband of a Belle? The proud father of an LSUquarterback? No, until this past summer he was the chancellor atMississippi.
"Nothing likeit," said Khayat, a former Ole Miss kicker who played in the NFL and earnedlaw degrees from Ole Miss and Yale. "Nothing in this whole, entireworld."
Of course, thatkind of objectivity is rare in the SEC. You'll surely get an argument from thefrenzied folks who stream into Knoxville on game day in cars and trucks andboats festooned with orange. Tennessee, which was 2--3 going into Saturday'smeeting with Georgia, probably had no realistic shot at dominating Georgia lastweekend, yet the Volunteers humiliated the Bulldogs 45--19 before a crowd of103,261 at Neyland Stadium and gave first-year Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin hisfirst league win.
That traditionalpowers Georgia and Tennessee are unranked and fighting to get back among theSEC's elite speaks to the depth of the conference. So does what happened lastSaturday in Fayetteville, where coach Bobby Petrino is building a formidableprogram. Arkansas, which surrendered 87 points in its first two conferencegames, slowed the high-scoring Auburn spread offense in a 44--23 victory,knocking the Tigers from the ranks of the undefeated in a meeting that mightwell determine who finishes fourth in the SEC West.
Your USCs, yourOhio States, sure, they're all great teams, but as far as a league, I don'tthink you can compete with the guys we have to go against each week," LSUsenior tight end Richard Dickson was saying the other day. "Every player onour team will tell you that the toughest game of the year is the SECchampionship game. It's probably tougher than the game for the nationalchampionship." He knows, because the Tigers dispatched Ohio State in theBCS title game at the end of the 2007 season more easily than they didTennessee for the SEC championship. "The SEC rivalries are so intense,"says Dickson. "Auburn-Alabama, Mississippi State--Ole Miss,Florida-Georgia. And it's easy to see how things got to be that way. In theSouth it starts early for the players. In your hometown, football is thebiggest thing there is. You play a game on Friday night, and the whole townturns out to see you. I can remember being seven, eight years old and lookingup to high school kids the same way I looked up to college players when I wasin high school."
Dickson grew up inMoss Point, Miss., near the Gulf Coast. His paternal grandfather played at OleMiss, and his father, Dick, played at Mississippi State. By the time he was ajunior at Ocean Springs High, Richard was entertaining offers from Miami,Michigan, Texas and Oklahoma. He also received offers from every school in theSEC, but something happened to him on Oct. 22, 2005, when he saw LSU beatAuburn in overtime in Tiger Stadium. "I was sitting in the studentsection," he says. "As loud as the stadium was for the whole game, youcould hear a pin drop from the time when Auburn's kicker kicked the ball towhen it hit an upright. The kick was no good, and everybody in the place wentberserk. But it was the silence between the kick and the ball hitting theupright that stayed with me. I knew I had to be there."
South Carolinacoach Steve Spurrier had a similar experience growing up near the Blue RidgeMountains, in Johnson City, Tenn. "I was pretty open about where I wantedto play college ball," says Spurrier, "as long as it was in theSEC." He ended up at Florida, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966.
The players'interest in the league is exceeded only by the fans' interest in the players.In 2008 the conference had six schools among the top 10 in the country inattendance. At No. 4 nationally, Tennessee drew an average of 101,448 for sevenhome games, even though the Volunteers finished a disappointing 5--7. SECstadiums were at 95% capacity, with an average attendance of 76,844, a numberthat will most likely be higher this year. The big programs such as Florida andGeorgia pack the crowds in, but the smaller ones do too. Ole Miss, forinstance, has an enrollment of about 17,000, but more than 50,000 seasontickets were sold this season. According to a Sports Business Journal analysis,six programs—Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, LSU and South Carolina—wereamong the top 11 producers in football revenue for the 2007--08 school year.The league shares revenue from the conference title game, bowl appearances andtelevision deals among its 12 member schools, and last year the pot forfootball was a whopping $91.7 million. Of course SEC officials are not thatforthcoming about what each program spends. But the conference only figures toget richer, as contracts with CBS and ESPN to televise football and other SECsports will pay out more than $3 billion over the next 15 years.
"If you wantto be in the fast lane, this is the league," says Alabama athletic directorMal Moore.
Until Kiffin tookover at Tennessee after the 2008 season, Spurrier, 64, was arguably theleague's most colorful personality. He coached the Gators to their firstnational championship, in 1996, and had a talent for getting under opponents'skin. It was Spurrier who once called in-state rival Florida State "FreeShoes University" and who said, "Call me arrogant, cocky, crybaby,whiner or whatever names you like. At least they're not calling us losersanymore."
Spurrier hasfinally built a contender in Columbia. The Gamecocks (5--1) beat Kentucky28--26 last Saturday and jumped to No. 22, but even when they were strugglingthey played before sellout crowds of more than 80,000. Programs in SouthCarolina, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama don't have to compete with a proteam for the attention of sports fans in their markets, and as a result eachschool's football coach lords over a fiefdom that reveres his every move."There's an NFL presence in the South, but it's college football thatdominates the culture," says Roy Kramer, who retired after 12 years as SECcommissioner in 2002. "As a result, the marquee representative in yourstate is the head football coach, and that individual takes on a presence thatrivals—whether it's right or wrong—your elected political leaders. Footballcoaches become the persona of the state. That's an enormous responsibility, andit brings enormous pressure."
It all starts withrecruiting. Nutt says that players from the South, particularly those whoreside in Florida, become better college players than kids from other parts ofthe country, though he can't explain why. "Maybe it's the sunshine," hesays. "In any given year an average of 335 young men [from Florida] signwith Division I schools. When I was coaching at Murray State [in Kentucky], Iremember going to Florida and seeing, maybe, coaches from Wake Forest downthere. But now? You've got Wisconsin, Minnesota, Purdue, Virginia, VirginiaTech. You've got schools from North Carolina. They're all down there, andthey're coming for the speed. We signed nine from Florida this year.Nine!"
One reason for therecruiting success is that the conference, the last to fully embraceintegration, has improved its record on race. The league lost its only blackhead coach last year when Sylvester Croom resigned at Mississippi State afterfive seasons, but black assistants hold key positions on every staff in theleague. One of college football's most respected young coaches, Tyrone Nix, isthe defensive coordinator at Ole Miss. "I went to a coaches' convention,and it was brought to my attention that I had quite a few black coaches,"says Nutt. "But I never really noticed before. I've known Ty because I hadto coach against him. I've never had a moment when I said, 'O.K., I'm going tohave six black coaches on my staff.' There's no quota. I just want the bestcoach."
One curiosityabout the league's coaches is how often they move around within the conference.It's a confederacy of vagabonds, and a coach's loyalty depends largely on whichathletic business office is cutting his paycheck. Spurrier and Nutt are theonly two current head coaches who had the same job title in the SEC a decadeago, but in 1999 Spurrier was still at Florida and Nutt was at Arkansas. For 14years John Chavis was the defensive coordinator at Tennessee; this year he hasthe same position at LSU. Fired as Ole Miss's coach after the 2007 season, EdOrgeron spent a year with the New Orleans Saints before returning to the SEC asKiffin's assistant head coach. Last January, Alabama's ace recruiter, LanceThompson, said goodbye to head coach Nick Saban and Tuscaloosa and headed northto Knoxville, another Kiffin hire. During the first half of the decade RandySanders coached the quarterbacks and ran the offense at Tennessee; now hecoaches the quarterbacks and coordinates the offense at Kentucky. For fourseasons starting in 2005, Dan Mullen dutifully served as Florida's offensivecoordinator; now he's the head coach at Mississippi State.
That so many ofcollege football's top coaches work in the SEC should be no surprise. Theconference generously rewards those who deliver wins (Meyer, Saban and LSUcoach Les Miles pull down in the neighborhood of $4 million a year, while topassistants earn annual salaries in the middle to high six-figure range), andyou can't beat the competition on the field. In what other conference do yousee a team such as LSU escaping at Mississippi State with a last-minute goalline stand, then coming back the next week to rally past Georgia between thehedges? "The quality of the programs from the highest-ranked teams to thelowest-ranked teams, there's really not all that much separating them,"says Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. "So you can never let up. The Number1s who are starting aren't that much different than the Number 2s who don'tstart. Across the board the talent's that great."
While schoolloyalty among SEC coaches might change from year to year, family loyalty neverseems to waiver. Kiffin famously hired his father, Monte, away from the TampaBay Buccaneers to work for him as defensive coordinator, but less publicizedwas his decision to bring in David Reaves, the brother of Lane's wife, Layla,to coach the quarterbacks. Kiffin got Reaves from Spurrier, who had his ownfamily member on staff: Steve Jr., the Gamecocks' receivers coach, who has inhis corps of playmakers a 5'6", 160-pound senior walk-on named ScottSpurrier. Scott is the head coach's son and the assistant coach's brother, andlo and behold if he didn't recently announce his intention to become a footballcoach when his playing days are done.
At Ole Miss, Nutthas his brother Danny on the payroll as the program's assistant athleticdirector for player development. "When I was at Murray State, somebody toldme there was a law against nepotism," says Houston. "It was the firsttime I'd ever heard the word. Nepotism? What's that? 'Well,' they told me,'that's when you hire your brother,' 'Yeah,' I said, 'I hired my brother. Butmy brother's the best running backs coach I could get for $22,000 ayear.'"
The South long agogrew accustomed to crude jokes about incestuous relationships, and anycriticism aimed at its coaches is sure to be ignored. Kramer says SEC schoolshave had an "us against the nation" attitude since 1926, when a teamfrom the South, Alabama, finally received an invitation to appear in the RoseBowl and compete on a national stage. Until that day every other college teamin the region regarded Wallace Wade's squad as the enemy, but as the CrimsonTide made its way back to Tuscaloosa after a 20--19 victory over Washington,fans crowded train depots in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to salute theteam. That spirit is alive today in the league's diehards, who attend gameswith nonconference opponents and shout, "SEC! SEC! SEC!" when the rightteam wins.
The crowd wasdecidedly less collegial in Baton Rouge as Tim Tebow faced a deafening din thatcould only have given him more headaches. His Gators, though, silenced the LSUfaithful, including all those purple-and-gold-clad ladies with theirpurple-and-gold noisemakers, handing the Tigers their first Saturday-night lossat Death Valley in 33 games. Tebow was wise enough to not get too carried awayover the victory afterward. He's been around the SEC long enough to not ask forwhom the Belles toll.
John Ed Bradleyplayed center at LSU from 1976 through '79 and wrote about his playing days inhis memoir, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. He now lives in Mandeville,La.
Now on SI.com
Bill Frakescaptures the scene at the Grove in a multimedia video at SI.com/bonus