The first SEC championship game changed college football forever
Outside of the Southeastern United States, Roy Kramer is best known for creating the Bowl Championship Series.
Trivialized as “that darned computer formula,” the BCS system gave us the first true No. 1 vs. No. 2 national championship in college football history, gave us some great games and created a groundswell of support for a college football playoff. Sometimes it also left large swaths of the country immensely unsatisfied, like when the system excluded an unbeaten Auburn team in 2004.
It will be interesting to see how history remembers the BCS in 50 years: as a lovable, imperfect, controversy-inducing upgrade that made the sport hundreds of millions in revenue, or a quirky mistake that we somehow allowed to live for 16 years?
In any event, as remarkable as it sounds, inventing the BCS system probably isn’t the biggest-impact move Kramer made as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, or even the most controversial.
Kramer, who became SEC commissioner on Jan. 10, 1990, had coached Central Michigan to a Division II football national championship, a crucial piece of information. The conference added Arkansas and South Carolina soon after his appointment, a move that became official July 1, 1991.
Exploiting a little-known NCAA bylaw intended for Division II, Kramer divided the 12-member SEC into two divisions and oversaw the creation of a conference championship game, the first of its kind in college football. The winner of the newly-formed SEC East and SEC West divisions would meet at Birmingham’s Legion Field after the regular season to determine the conference champion.
The move was polarizing among fans and conference administrators from the outset. Under the headline “SEC Hits Jackpot With Title Game,” the Chicago Tribune described the game as “a one-day cash cow” that was expected to generate about $9 million in revenue, or three times what the league got from its most lucrative bowl affiliate, the Sugar Bowl, each year.
Opponents scrambled to pass legislation that would block the move, immediately realizing the financial advantage it would give the SEC. They failed, of course. The NCAA provision didn’t explicitly exclude Division I-A teams and conferences.
”It’s a broad piece of legislation, but I don’t know that it wasn’t meant to cover I-A football,” said Rich Evrard, a representative of the NCAA’s legislative services, according to the Orlando Sentinel. ”It’s silent on the issue. Since it doesn’t indicate anything to the contrary, you apply it across the board.”
Before the conference even staged the first championship, it expected to be able to dole out an additional $800,000 annually to its member institutions, which in the early 1990s was a huge sum.
”There’s got to be equality in college football,” University of Miami coach Dennis Erickson said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. ”To play a 12th game, that was not the intent of the rule. That gives them an advantage financially and an extra game. It’s almost like having an extra bowl game, which is an advantage to the league. I’m not against it, but let us all have 12 games.
“You’re going to see all kinds of conferences splitting up so they can have that type of thing. … It’s going to create a lot of problems, I guarantee that.”
Some criticized Kramer and the SEC for such a self-indulgent cash grab, decrying that it went against the spirit of amateur athletics. Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen speculated to the Chicago Tribune that unless UCLA and USC were involved, such a game would not sell out, calling himself skeptical that his own conference could follow suit. Still, he called himself a “curious onlooker” and said “that kind of money makes it very, very interesting.”
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said his conference would not “expand for the sake of format,” predicting the member institutions would be fine leaving millions of dollars on the table, if it came to that.
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese gave the strongest and most ominous statement to the Tribune: “When we talked about a conference playoff, I can’t begin to measure the adamant reaction against it. They gave me the message loud and clear.”
The idea drew all sorts of attention leading up to the first game, and many within the Southeastern Conference were skeptical. Kramer himself admitted to being nervous, as a Gene Stallings-coached Alabama rolled into the game at 11-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. In came an upstart Florida team that already had lost three times. If Steve Spurrier’s third Gators team could upset the Tide, it could deny the SEC a chance at a national championship and make Kramer look foolish.
An Alabama loss, Kramer worried, could forever stain the SEC championship game. Instead, Antonio Langham picked off Shane Matthews on the first play from scrimmage and returned it for a 21-yard touchdown. The Tide rolled to a 28-21 win, then upset heavily-favored Miami in the Sugar Bowl less than one month later.
(ESPN recently dubbed the Langham interception “The Play That Changed College Football,” though it’s hard to imagine the conference abandoning the revenue genius after just one year.)
There was some thought among national college football analysts in the early 1990s that SEC football was on a downward slope, one that could continue for years to come. Instead, the revenue and excitement of the first championship game — which moved to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome after a rainy ’93 contest in Birmingham — gave the SEC a huge head start.
Kramer negotiated the league’s first TV contract a few years later. The SEC championship game served as a de facto national semifinal for many years after the implementation of the BCS system in 1998, with the winner often advancing straight to the national title. The buildup of dollars, as well as the perfect dovetail of the SEC championship game and the BCS system, set up the conference’s unprecedented run of seven consecutive national titles in football beginning in 2006.
By then, other conferences were playing catch-up. The creation of the SEC championship game triggered what amounts to a massive earthquake in conference realignment, as the old Big Eight merged with the four Texas members of the dying Southwest Conference to form the Big 12.
Modeled after the SEC’s version, Texas beat No. 3 Nebraska in the first Big 12 championship game in 1996, preventing the Cornhuskers from playing for the national championship. (Ironic, considering the Big 12 is the only “power conference” without a championship game today, which may have cost Baylor and TCU a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.)
The ACC (2005), Pac-12 (2011) and Big Ten (2011) eventually followed suit, with another round of expansion coming after the creation of conference TV networks.
The so-called father of the BCS, Kramer got little peace during his time as SEC commissioner, but he deserves the “visionary” label. Often controversial, he was ahead of his time with the conference championship game, his game-changing TV deal and by incorporating analytics into how we determine the best football team.
Criticized for numerous moves then, Kramer is a college football legend.
“If you believe in what you’re doing, you don’t worry about that part of it,” Kramer said, according to the Sports Business Daily. “When you’re convinced that it’s the right thing, you don’t turn your back on it.”
Said then-Big East commissioner Mike Aresco, a former CBS and ESPN executive, in 2013: “(Kramer) did so much to make the SEC the dominant player it is and to make college football so popular. He’s absolutely one of the seminal figures in college athletics. He had a vision, he stuck to it and he never shied away from explaining exactly what he was doing. Any visionary takes shots, and some people didn’t like the BCS, but when you look at the history of his decisions, he was right.”