The Southeastern Conference gets its power from the people.
Good, bad or just plain weird, we Southerners — the SEC’s people — cling to our traditions like no other bunch. Whether it’s Sunday lunch at Mama’s or heading downtown for the 4th of July parade, we do what we we’ve always done. It takes a lot to change us. The fact that you can still spot images of the Confederate battle flag affixed to cars from South Carolina to Louisiana speaks to that fact. (Could a German-American put a Nazi bumper sticker on his car and explain it away by saying, “It’s heritage, not hate?” Best of luck to him.)
We are also a people known for our clannishness. Perhaps that comes from our Scotch-Irish ancestors who settled much of Appalachia and kept moving right on across the Deep South. If you’ve lived in the South for any number of years you’ve at some point probably heard someone say something to the effect of “Why, he’s dating one of those Jenkins girls,” or “Northing good ever came out of Washington County.” In the South, there’s yourn and there’s mine and the difference between the two cannot easily be bridged.
Two things that have bred passion in Southerners since the formation of our nation. And darn sure since the founding of the Southeastern Conference. If you think folks associated with Oregon and Oregon State don’t like each other, do a little studying up on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. If you believe nothing could be more important than a Notre Dame-Michigan football game, check out the attendance for a run of the mill SEC football game.
SEC athletic departments boast most of the biggest budgets in the country. That money rolls in from passionate fans who are willing to give an extra buck or two each year if it will help Georgia beat Florida or vice versa. The league’s football stadiums — as well as a couple of its basketball arenas — are among the nation’s largest. Those seats are filled by passionate fans who’ll drive from from near and far to see LSU battle Arkansas.
But now the SEC is toying with the idea of throwing away some of its traditions, dividing some of its clans. If it does so, the league will most assuredly suffer. Just as the Big 12 committed an original sin in disrupting the classic Oklahoma-Nebraska football game, Mike Slive seems hellbent on allowing men who care only for their own programs to end those games that have made the SEC special for its fans.
“Ah, they’ll come around,” many in Destin must be thinking.
But will they?
If the SEC thinks HD television is an issue now, wait’ll some of the conference’s oldest games are replaced with matchups between teams that share no real history. Interest and attendance and donations will wane… and the league will suffer. With new ESPN and CBS contracts — and a new SEC Network tossed in to boot — the league’s coffers won’t take a hit in the short-term, mind you. But over time — long after Slive has handed his gavel to a new commissioner — as interest and passion erode, troubles will arise. The next time the networks come looking to negotiate new contracts, will SEC stands be full? Will the passion that makes the SEC stand out still exist?
Sound over the top to you? Okay. Just know that 100 years ago horse racing and boxing were the country’s top sporting events. Fifty years ago no one dreamed that baseball could lose its claim on being “America’s Pastime.”
If the SEC wants to take what makes it strong for granted, it’s leaders have every right to do so. But they’re taking an awfully big risk.
We here at MrSEC.com were not anti-expansion last year. As we wrote a full year before Texas A&M joined the SEC, the Aggies are a match for the conference, had flirted with the league for decades, and would eventually make a perfect dance partner. After adding a 13th school, business interests took control. The league needed a 14th school and Missouri made business sense (for both parties). We still believe both schools will fit in just as well as Arkansas and South Carolina have.
But there is the difference. When Arkansas and South Carolina entered the SEC, despite a switch to divisional play and the addition of a conference championship game, the leaders of the SEC did their best to protect the league’s most-important rivalries in its two main sports — football and men’s basketball.
Though coaches wept over the decision, Roy Kramer and crew expanded the conference’s football schedule to insure more classic games could survive the inclusion of two new schools. What are the league’s caretakers doing today?
Just the opposite.
Instead of adding a ninth football game and saving extra rivalries — it’s good to hear Alabama’s Nick Saban trumpeted a nine-game slate yesterday — some in the league are pushing for the end to permanent cross-division rivalries altogether. LSU officials are suddenly scared to play Florida even though they’ve done so every year for four decades now. Amazingly, Tiger AD Joe Alleva said yesterday that some people aren’t doing what’s best for the league, but what’s best for their own schools by trying to keep classic rivalries alive.
We agree. The league best needs to protect games like Auburn-Georgia, Alabama-Tennessee, and even Ole Miss-Vanderbilt — three of the league’s oldest contests. It needs top notch television draws like LSU-Florida, too. In other words, anyone voting against those things — Alleva, for example — is a person who’s doing what’s best for himself and not for the league. Anyone voting like that is simply following in the footsteps of Big 12 leaders who destroyed a bit of old Big 8 soul when they said, “The league doesn’t need the Sooners and Cornhuskers to play ever year.” Seeds were sown and a message was sent in that action. The Big 12 would never become what the old Big 8 had been.
It seems the SEC is perilously close to deciding that the new SEC will never be what the old SEC has been.
Even in basketball, rather than using a simple 4-1-8 plan that we proposed months ago to protect those games that have been played most often, the league is looking instead at a 1-4-8 plan because, well, just because. Some of the most important SEC hoops games will no longer be played twice a year under such an unnecessarily stupid plan.
LSU and Ole Miss have played more than 200 times in basketball. So have LSU and Mississippi State. So have Tennessee and Kentucky. So have Florida and Georgia.
But under the needless abomination that is a 1-4-8 plan (one permanent home-and-away foe, four rotating home-and-away foes, eight one-game-per-year foes), those rivalries would all cease to be annual home-and-away series. There’s no need for that, of course. Expansion hasn’t caused that. We’ve shown you how the league can protect those games if it so wanted.
Unfortunately, the people running the league have no sense of its history. Kentucky’s John Calipari — for example — has proven himself to the be an absolute perfect match for Wildcat basketball. He’s make UK the nation’s top program and helped earn the SEC more hoops respect in the process.
But he could give a damn about tradition.
Calipari isn’t worried about playing UK’s rivals. He’s shown he’s not interested in playing big games at Rupp Arena in front of his own fans, either. He’s a new man for a new age with a new kind of program. Neutral sites, big games. College basketball’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
But what price will Kentucky’s athletic department have to pay for those decisions five, 10 or 20 years from now?
Cat fans will love to win — something that Calipari will continue to do — but will they eventually stop forking over huge dollars for so-so games at Rupp Arena? Can an annual game with Florida — because that’s who’s hot in the league right now — really replace the SEC’s most-heated basketball rivalry of UK-UT? (I spent eight years as a boy on the Kentucky/Tennessee state line and I can assure you that no two groups are more passionate in their hatred for one another or more clannish.) And if children grow up watching UK on television rather than at Rupp, won’t there be some type of decline in fan passion and interest?
This isn’t to pick on Calipari. Slive and most of the current coaches and ADs and presidents don’t know or care as much about SEC history as the fans who breathe life into their league and programs with their throats and wallets. That’s the problem. They’re focused first, second and third on revenue, revenue and revenue. Hey, in this economy, it’s hard to blame them.
But the SEC can schedule wisely, protect those games that mean the most to its fans and have meant the most to the conference long-term, and make money. The focus on who’s good now is folly. Check the league’s record books and you’ll find that success and failure are cyclical.
How good was Florida basketball before Billy Donovan? How bad was Kentucky basketball with Billy Gillispie on hand? How good was Alabama or LSU football before Saban rode into Baton Rouge and then Tuscaloosa? How bad was South Carolina before Steve Spurrier?
That’s why we say point blank: To hell with the current state of Kentucky basketball. And Alabama football. And Tennessee women’s basketball. And Florida baseball. All will rise and fall and rise and fall again.
Tradition should be protected at all costs with no regard paid to who’ll have a tougher schedule this year or the next. As we said, that stuff’s cyclical and the cream rises. I’m pretty sure LSU went undefeated against an unbelievably brutal football schedule last year, whether they were quaking in their boots about playing Florida or not. And as Dan Mullen so ruthlessly and correctly pointed out yesterday: “I’ve been in this league for a while and I have a national championship ring from when my crossover games at the University of Florida that year were Auburn, Alabama and LSU. Is that fair? But we still won a national title… it all balances out.”
Hopefully Mullen then dropped a microphone and walked off stage a la Randy Watson from “Coming To America.”
If Slive and the people in charge of protecting the SEC’s legacy are wise, they will do whatever it takes over the next two days to protect as many important, historic rivalry games as possible. The Southeastern Conference was built on those types of games. They are most important to the fans who have helped fuel an SEC arms race that helped lead directly to its current fat cat state. And though expansion will require the end of some rivalry games, there’s absolutely no reason those games ended can’t be some of the youngest rivalries as opposed to some of the most tradition-rich.
The SEC is at a crossroads. This website supported expansion into Missouri and Texas because it made business sense and because we had faith in Slive and his fellow leaders to bring those schools in while keeping the best interest of the league — not the individual schools — in focus.
Unfortunately, we might have placed our faith in the wrong men. It’s one thing to make a buck. It’s another to remember who gave you your first buck and why. The fans made the SEC. They deserve their most precious games. And they deserve them a hell of a lot more than millionaire coaches and self-centered athletic directors deserve what in the short-term look to be easier schedules.
Commissioner Slive is fond of saying “the First Amendment is alive and well in the SEC.” In fact, he says it every time there’s a mic placed anywhere near his lips. We’ve all heard him say it. We at MrSEC.com are tired of hearing him say it.
Instead of saying the same tired line, we at this site — on behalf of all those faceless fans who are on the verge of being forgotten in the race for simpler schedules and bigger bucks — would prefer him do something instead.