As the SEC celebrates its 75th anniversary, NPR Sports Editor Uri Berliner joined Sports correspondent Tom Goldman on a road trip to explore the devotion, excess and football excellence on display in the days leading up to the big game between traditional rivals LSU and Ole Miss. Read Berliner's road diary.
College football is a game of regional rivalries, tradition and remarkable fan loyalty. All of which is evident in extreme form in the Southeastern Conference — which encompasses 12 teams, including the Florida Gators, Alabama's Crimson Tide, Ole Miss, LSU and the Georgia Bulldogs.
Any attempt to assess passion is, of course, subjective. But there's enough evidence to make a case that fans in the Southeast are the most college football-crazy people in the country. Attendance in the SEC is the highest of any conference, and has been for 26 consecutive seasons. Crowds average more than 75,000 per game. According to the most recent figures, five of the top 10 football revenue-producing schools hail from the SEC. The money pours in, even though SEC schools are located in some of the least-affluent states, such as Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Kentucky.
SEC country is rural or Southern suburban, without a whiff of the big city. Saturday — not Sunday — is football day. On game days, fans converge by the tens of thousands on college towns like Tuscaloosa, Ala., (pop. 100,052) Athens, Ga.,(100,266) and Oxford, Miss.(11,756) — temporarily converting them into some of the largest cities in their states.
The SEC is marinated in tradition: Generations of the same family attend the same school, sing the same fight songs, hate the same opponents. Such rivalries fuel SEC football as much as rooting for your own team.
Rivalry games have their own names, starting with the heated Auburn-Alabama match-up known as the "Iron Bowl." (A book about the rivalry perhaps more aptly calls it "The Uncivil War.") Florida versus Georgia is "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." Mississippi against Mississippi State, "The Battle for the Golden Egg" (it's a trophy). And Georgia against Georgia Tech (which is in the Atlantic Coast Conference) is simply called "Clean Old-Fashioned Hate."
Even so, SEC football serves as a bond throughout the Southeast. It wasn't always that way. The conference didn't have a black player until 1966. The push toward integration on the gridiron accelerated after the University of Southern California trounced Bear Bryant's Alabama team in 1970. Stung by the loss, the legendary coach started fielding teams with black players. The rest of the conference followed suit.
Today, a majority of SEC players on the field are black. The conference was much slower to put African-Americans into leadership positions. It hired its first black head coach, Sylvester Croom of Mississippi State, in 2003 — the last major conference to do so.
Croom played and coached under Bear Bryant and was a finalist for the Alabama head coaching job in 2003. Now that story has come full circle. On Nov. 10, Croom's Mississippi State beat Alabama, making his team eligible for a post-season bowl game for the first time since 2000.