SEC 360: 10 things I miss most in the SEC
I am more than a bit of a nostalgist.
My mind tends to drift backward rather than forward. Often I think about the things I miss more than the things I look forward to. I sometimes put on turtleneck sweaters and take long walks near ponds and think reflectively as I scoot stones across the water. Not really, but you get the point.
Call me crazy, but I abhor the way our lives are being gobbled up by technology. I yearn for a return of the 1980s. For a simpler time. For World Book Encyclopedia, rotary phones, Trapper Keepers, WWF wrestling, and dingy movie rental stores. For foldable maps and wood-grained JEEP Grand Wagoneers and scrapbooks chock-full of printed pictures spat out by Polaroid cameras.
At times I feel like Brooks Hatlen in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Yes, the world’s gotten itself in a big dang hurry.
My wife tells me I need to stop living in the past and start thinking ahead. She might be right. After all, wouldn’t it be sad if my best years were behind me?
So for a moment, let’s look ahead.
Hey, isn’t it thrilling that we have arrived at the doorstep of another college football season? I’ll admit: I’m looking forward to this fall as much as any other in recent memory.
Last year, if you remember (whoops, there I go again), the Jalen Hurts/Tua Tagovailoa battle for the starting QB in Tuscaloosa was the narrative leading up to Week 1. This year’s narrative seems to be a bit more multifaceted. Here’s what I have as important this season:
1. How will Alabama respond to the 44-16 woodshed spanking it took from Clemson?
2. Can Kirby Smart and Jake Fromm channel their inner Vince Dooley/Herschel Walker and finally put it all together to win Georgia’s first national title since Andy Gibb had a meaningful hit?
3. Now that Bo (Nix) is back, can Auburn get off the schneid and win 10 games like it’s supposed to every year?
4. How will Season 2 of “Two-a-Days,” er, the Jeremy Pruitt era in Knoxville turn out?
5. And what about Dan Mullen? Can he finally restore Florida to its Spurrier-like status or will we see the same flimflam of the past decade?
6. Lastly, will Texas A&M ever wake up from its SEC somnolence and do something significant — like win the West?
But then something comes over me, and I begin thinking nostalgically again. As football season approaches, I cannot help but retreat to my boyhood, when my father used to usher me to those iron-built, terrific coliseums, the gladiators inside them like gods to me.
SEC football has changed over the years, and there are some things I wish we could get back. Here are a few of them.
Games at Legion Field
Back in the day, all of Alabama’s “big” games were played at Legion Field. Alabama played Tennessee there. Alabama played Auburn there. If USC came to town, Alabama played them there, too.
As unbelievable as it might seem now, Bryant-Denny games were reserved for Mississippi State and its ilk. This evident bifurcation of games seemed to make the contests at Legion Field bigger. Playing Auburn or Tennessee was like playing Mother Russia or the Seljuk Turks.
Since the Iron Bowl moved away from Legion Field, there have been some incredible moments in the nation’s most heated rivalry. There was the Kick-6 game in 2013, there was McElroy to Upchurch in 2009, there was Jaret Holmes’ winning field goal in 1997, there was Cam Newton’s improbable comeback in 2010 … but that’s about it.
Growing up, we went to Legion Field for the Iron Bowl. Then in 1989, after 45 consecutive games in Birmingham, the powers-that-be (ahem, Pat Dye) decided that the game would be played in Auburn for the first time. It was a gut-shot to ‘Bama fans, but Auburn fans loved it. And who can blame them? Moving the game to Auburn and Tuscaloosa has overwhelmingly benefited Auburn and done virtually nothing for Alabama.
In my opinion, the game lost something when it was moved from Birmingham and Legion Field. There was a certain pageantry, an unparalleled history that playing at “The Old Gray Lady” brought to the game. Frankly, playing at Bryant-Denny or Jordan-Hare cannot offer this same atmosphere. It’s just not the same.
I’m not saying Alabama and Auburn should play at Legion Field again. The stadium is like 700 years old now and it has undergone a decapitation of the famous upper deck that once hailed “The Football Capital of the South.” I’m saying that I wish those days could come back. Maybe Birmingham can build a new stadium that could one day be the site of the Iron Bowl — at least every once in a while. There wouldn’t be any history, of course, but it would add back that uniqueness to the venue that I wish could somehow be revived.
The “JP” Game
Football personality Clay Travis once penned a hilarious ode to the Jefferson Pilot “JP” Game, and since this legendary piece cannot be replicated nor surmounted, I won’t attempt to do so at this time. What I will attempt to do is simply remind you of the bright-and-early 11:30 a.m. SEC game that once filled our monitors in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In many cases it was the worst matchup of the SEC slate — often Vandy or Kentucky or Ole Miss was the punching bag of the week — but nonetheless, the early telecast seemed to kick off the day’s action.
On or off campus, it was a carouser’s nightmare: Had you gone out that previous evening, you were liable to miss kickoff. After an evening of making acquaintances with brown liquor and Southpaw beer, students struggled to fill the various stadiums at such an ungodly hour. The JP game also gave codgers sitting at home a good reason to crack open their first cold one. Either way, your Saturday was going to begin with conference mediocrity.
I don’t remember much about the broadcast, but inevitably it seemed there some announcer named Dave (Neal, Rowe, or Baker) as well as the omnipresent Bob Kesling, who was by no means Erin Andrews or Tracy Wolfson in the looks department. Yes, the graphics were bad and sometimes the analysis and camerawork wasn’t the best, but I think most remembrances of the JP Game will necessarily include a bit of hyperbole.
It wasn’t quite as awful as everyone says it was, and most of us old folks, if given the option, would bring it back.
Coaches’ sideline garb
No offense to modern coaching outfits, but coaches had more sartorial flair in the 1980s and 1990s, donning a plethora of costume: tight, polyester pants made by Bike; cleats; visors; tweed jackets; diagonal-striped ties with short-sleeve dress shirts; sweaters; sport coats; and shirts with “STAFF” stitched on them.
Often their raiment was punctuated with the newest cap manufactured by a company called The Game. Two principal designs existed: the “circle” cap, and the “bar” cap. Forget all of this acid-washed, low profile construction stuff that’s going on with today’s caps. In the 1980s, the hat sat high on the head, often cocked back above the hairline, as if it might fall off at any moment.
In my opinion, coaches need to be able to express themselves, unabated by the commercialization of coaching wear. We need to bring back the sideline garb exhibited by guys like Florida’s Charley Pell, who kept his pack of Vantage cigarettes tucked neatly into his shirt pocket.
Here’s one thing we haven’t thought about: Saban dressing like Bear. Can you imagine Saban leaning against the goalposts in all that plaid? Can you imagine a chilly Saban wearing that furry Liberty Bowl coat Bryant sported in Memphis circa 1982?
My stars … make it happen Nick. For just one game, go full costume with a nod to Bryant. All of us will thank you.
Tennessee being good
For the past few years, the SEC East is like that guy at the gym who works out his upper body all the time and has little bitty legs: top-heavy with not much foundational support.
Tennessee has been atrocious, Florida has existed south of the Mendoza line, and, well, there’s been no one else that has brought any legitimacy to the table until Kirby Smart lifted Georgia out of the Richtian 9-3 vortex.
I miss Tennessee being good. I grew up in the Johnny Majors era, when the annual head-knocking known as the “Third Saturday in October” meant something. Gosh, it was such a big game. So big that some Alabama fans even debated whether they hated Tennessee or Auburn more. As an Alabama fan, I detested Phil Fulmer and anything in that garish shade of orange.
Now that extreme odium has all but dissipated. Winning has cured my Tennessee hate.
But honestly, I’m tired of feeling a sense of numbness in mid-October. I want to fear again. I want to wake up to the cold-sweat nightmares of Peyton Manning and Tee Martin and Al Wilson.
As the folk rock band The Lumineers once wrote, “It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all.”
Am I right that coaches seemed to be wackier back in the day? Maybe a better word is colorful, but dovetailing off of my earlier thought I do miss guys like Billy “Dog” Brewer, Pat Dye, Jackie Sherrill, Gene Stallings, Mike Archer and Vince Dooley. I miss their panache, their quips, their elan, if you will.
Even the names seemed to be wackier. There was Joe Lee Dunn, Curley Hallman, Gerry DiNardo, Woody Widenhofer, Rocky Felker and Erk Russell (who once brought a rattlesnake to a team meeting to make a point about drugs).
And what about the impactful tenure of John L. Smith at Arkansas. Smile!
Houston Nutt? Come on. A buddy has a Houston Nutt impersonation that’ll make you split your side.
And who could forget former Alabama assistant Joe Kines’ jumbled halftime rant that harkened back to Gabby Johnson on the movie Blazing Saddles? (Rerund!)
Has the man upstairs stopped making wacky people? Of course not. Pair social media with big salaries and everyone being offended by everything and the result is buttoned-up coaches. Back in the day, head ball coaches made about 30 grand and if they got fired for saying something controversial, they could go sell insurance or work at a furniture store and not skip a beat.
Now coaches can’t afford to say anything even mildly controversial. Lose a $4 million gig for a silly comment? I think not.
Big, bruising fullbacks
Sure, it’s fun to watch modern-day offenses pitch it around and post scores in the 40s, 50, and even 60s against feathery defenses, but I prefer the rough-and-tumble of I-formation, smashmouth football punctuated with the presence of a big, bruising fullback.
I’m talking about the dude who slept on beds made of nails and snorted ammonia in brown bottles wrapped in duct tape. I miss their broken fingers, their toothless grins. I miss the manchildren who wrapped bandages around their elbows and forearms so they could get away with felonies and smashing your face in. I miss guys like Kevin Turner and Peyton Hillis and Tommy Agee.
I want to hear Miami’s Rohan Marley run his mouth one more time and get upended by Alabama’s street paver of a fullback, Martin Houston. I want to hear the crunch of linebackers being blocked by an overfed backfield beefeater. I miss the bedlam, the carnage of the fullback.
Bring it back, Saban. Bring it back, Jimbo. Bring it back, Arkansas guy.
The young kids won’t appreciate this one. Back in the day, there was this guy named Leonard Postero, a University of Georgia grad, who syndicated a radio show called “Leonard’s Losers.” Saturday mornings in fall, radios were filled with Leonard’s corny predictions. There was little analysis, but instead Leonard cleverly patched together a short narrative for each game. Here was one sample prediction:
“Tennessee versus Kentucky. The Lexington felines make their final pigskin journey of the season to Knoxville’s Shootin’ Gallery run by Johnny Majors. And more than likely, they’ll be used as targets by the resident riflemen. It’s been a long road for the Big Blue, and I know that Bill Curry is glad it’s over, so that he can get ready for next year. Leonard’s Loser? Kentucky!”
Can you believe that at its pinnacle over 1400 radio stations carried Leonard’s Losers? Guy must have been printing money (and please tell me America is not the land of opportunity!)
I remember picking up a Leonard’s Losers brochure at a place called the Kopper Kettle Kafeteria in my hometown of Jasper, Alabama. On the cover, it read, “Raise Your Pigskin I.Q.” and “Football Prognostications” and “Get your weekly load of smart picks here.”
It was heaven.
Yeah, I mentioned wacky coaches earlier, but let’s face it: Leslie Edwin Miles needs his own segment.
Who doesn’t miss the exuberance and goofiness of Les Miles? Watching an interview with him was almost like watching that first interview with Ricky Bobby on the movie Talladega Nights. He never seemed to know what to do with his hands.
It’s hard to believe we are entering our third season at a Miles-less LSU. The conference, while still great, is not the same.
Transport yourself to the years 2005-16 and there he was, eating grass and saying things that were almost unintelligible. But we loved watching him. We loved the bumbling analysis after the games, the white hat, the mumbo-jumbo, the faux anger (or was it?).
Once, describing the arrival of the team bus, he said, “as we drove in, there was a big thong of people.”
Larry Munson. John Ward. Jack Cristil. At every school in the SEC in the 1980s and ’90s, there seemed to be an iconoclast in the radio booth. They were vibrant. They were creative. And they painted pictures for us with their tongues.
Who can forget Georgia’s Munson and his calls (“we just stepped on ’em with a hobnail boot … we just crushed their face! or “My God, a freshman!), the incredulity of which would make you fall out of your chair.
And Cristil, who capped off a Missa-sippi-state win with, “Wrap that in Maroon and White!”
And Ward, “The Voice of the Vols,” who announced proudly “It’s Football Time in Tennessee!”
Goodness sakes alive do I miss the duo of Ron Franklin and Mike Gottfried, who covered the SEC for years and years with ESPN.
And then, of course, there was the voice of Keith Jackson. Staccatoing and Whoa, Nellie-ing his way through the broadcast, Jackson was simply The Voice of College Football. He, my friends, was the best.
Verne and Gary
Allow me to begin this segment by saying I really, really like and respect Brad Nessler. I think he is a very capable play-by-play commentator, but honestly, I miss the kookiness of Verne Lundquist in the CBS broadcast booth. There, I said it.
People — Alabama fans especially — loved to rail on college football’s version of the Odd Couple: Gary Danielson and Verne Lundquist. They detested Danielson’s critical, curmudgeon-like nature and were maddened by Verne’s propensity to bungle names and just say the wrong thing.
But the weekly train wreck brought intrigue and discussion to the weekly SEC slate, did it not? In other words, Lundquist brought a Vaudevillian ether to the broadcast that gave fans something to talk about and a reason to generate memes.
Does it say something about our society that we have less and less toleration for things we don’t like? Sometimes, the things that get under our skin — those mild annoyances — are precisely what adds richness to life.
So enjoy your retirement, Vince Lundquist. Or whatever your name is.
So there you have it. Ten things I miss about the Southeastern Conference. What say you? What do you miss most?