- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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THE SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE was created in December 1932 when 13 schools west of the Appalachians split from the Southern Conference in search of their own athletic identity. About 12 years later, Stephen Orr Spurrier was born in Miami Beach, Fla., and his father, Presbyterian minister Graham Spurrier, moved the family to the western edge of those mountains, hopping from town to town on a quest to save souls. The reverend's little boy was baptized in the waters of the SEC.
"I remember seeing those head coaches all around the conference and thinking, man, I'll never be one of those old guys telling stories about how it used to be," says Spurrier, who at 67 is entering his 23rd season as an FBS head coach. "I guess to some people I am, even if I don't feel like I am. But yes, I have seen some things."
The Head Ball Coach and the SEC have grown up together, sometimes hand-in-hand, other times toe-to-toe. But no one has a better perspective on the league's rise from sleepy Southern athletic union to the most powerful force in college sports. Here's what that emergence has looked like from behind a face mask and beneath the visor, a commentary compiled from multiple conversations with the South Carolina Gamecocks' head coach.
IN 1963, SPURRIER was a three-sport senior star at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn., where the family finally settled when he was 12. Nearly every high school in the state emulated the Vols by running General Robert Neyland's single wing, ground-only offense. But the Science Hill Hilltoppers let Spurrier throw it around a bit, which got him noticed throughout college football, particularly around the SEC. The conference was beginning its rise: Bear Bryant had won his first national title at Alabama in 1961 and was on the cusp of adding two more during the decade. Johnny Vaught had just won his sixth SEC crown at Ole Miss. Shug Jordan prowled the sidelines at Auburn, and "Cholly Mac" Mclendon was taking the reins at LSU. All were future College Football Hall of Famers.
"There weren't any rules on recruiting visits," Spurrier says. "You could go anywhere you wanted, whenever you wanted. So I'd grab a teammate, get in the car and go. What you would find out is how each place felt about itself. Alabama was the best because Bear Bryant expected to be the best. Then another coach would say, 'Well, you know we're not Alabama, but...' What do they say next? Do they say, 'We're finally going to beat them this fall and get to that level' or do they say, 'Well, we know we can't ever beat them, but by gosh we're going to work hard anyway.' That second coach, he's already done. He's not trying to build something. He's just trying not to upset the natural pecking order of everything. I had no interest in that.
"The last visit I made was to Gainesville, where Ray Graves had started in 1960. He was an East Tennessee guy like me. He played at Tennessee for General Neyland, but he wasn't satisfied just to let places like Alabama and Tennessee do their thing while everyone else laid down because they were supposed to. He was attracted to the Florida Gators program because it had never done much, and he wanted to shake things up. He also wanted to throw the ball and see what happened. It's not that he didn't want to run it all the time and play defense like everyone else. He just knew Florida couldn't. He wanted to do something different. I liked the sound of that."
When Spurrier arrived in 1964, SEC teams played in single-deck, concrete-and-brick bowl stadiums with corner end zone scoreboards and cheerleaders in wool skirts. The conference was still lily white, four years away from welcoming its first African-American letterman, Tennessee's Lester McClain. But for a youthful quarterback, the electric firsthand experiences of football in the South had a lifelong impact, especially from the perspective of an underdog.
"Most of the SEC had beaten up on Florida over the years, so maybe they took us lightly," says Spurrier. "But we'd come in there throwing it around the field, and you could see them thinking, What is this? Everyone had been running the single wing for 100 years, so we looked radical. Whenever another team beats you with something new, it's natural to take that back to the office and say, Do you think we might could do some of that? I'm not saying the SEC suddenly became a place where people started passing all the time. But it got them thinking.
"At Florida the stadium was undergoing some big work. They added about 10,000 seats, and then my senior year we brought in some more seating. We went from 40-something-thousand to more than 60,000. The demand was up because we were winning. And the school made sure to keep up with that demand. I learned something right there about facilities. If you want to catch the big boys, then you have to look like them. Nice facilities make kids want to play there, they make them better players and students while they are there, and it makes the whole campus stand up a little straighter. It's a pride and perception thing.
"Those were two big lessons I learned during college that I still live by, and I really think that they apply to how the SEC has become what it has become. First, if you don't evolve, someone else is going to and you're going to fall behind. Second, there's something to be said for taking things in a new direction. Everyone else is running it, try throwing it. Everyone else is playing the same defense, try something their offense doesn't ever see."
SPURRIER WON THE Heisman in 1966 and played in the NFL for 10 seasons (nine as a backup for the 49ers and one with Tampa Bay). That decade on the sideline cemented the fact that he never wanted to leave it. Tours of duty as an assistant (Florida, Georgia Tech, Duke) would follow. In 1983, he became the youngest head coach in pro football with the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits before returning to Duke as head coach in 1987.
Meanwhile, the SEC, while still strong, lost ground as the nation's pre-eminent football powerhouse. Herschel Walker led Georgia to the conference's only national title of the decade in 1980, and Bryant died three years later.
"My first season at Florida was 1990," Spurrier says. "When I looked around the SEC it was a lot of the same; everyone was just older. Even if a place had a new coach, he was usually someone who had worked under the old coach. The good teams were still pretty good, but the rest of the nation had caught up and in a lot of ways passed us.
"What surprised me was that the same mentality was still there: You gotta run the ball and play defense to win the SEC. But everywhere I'd been before we proved that if you could throw the ball -- but also still play good defense and special teams -- then you could win. So I worked really hard not to act like those other coaches, especially how I talked. Coaches like to use the word 'great' all the time. We practiced great, he's a great kid, that was a great win … I made it a point never to use that word. I would say practice went superb or he's an outstanding kid or that win was spectacular. Little stuff like that, the kids and the fans and alumni would just love it. And it kind of got under the skin of some old-timers. But I was trying to change our mentality. That's where the nickname of the Swamp came from. It gave the place an intimidating image. Plus, that's just a fun word to say."
At the same time Spurrier was moving back to Gainesville, the conference hired a new commissioner, Roy Kramer, who would shake up the SEC and college football. He issued membership invitations to Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992, expanding the league to 12, and then exercised a provision buried deep within the NCAA football handbook, one intended for Division III. With a dozen members, he could split into two divisions and institute a conference championship game. On Dec. 5, 1992, Florida met Alabama in the inaugural contest.
"It was just timing, but everyone in the conference kind of woke up all at once," Spurrier says. "Alabama hired Gene Stallings. Phillip Fulmer took over at Tennessee. Coach [Vince] Dooley retired at Georgia. South Carolina and Arkansas came in. We played that first championship game, and that's when the TV deal got real big. But divisions and a championship game? I wasn't real happy about it at the time. I don't think any of the coaches were. We all thought it was going to make a national championship impossible because we were all going to beat each other up. If we won the SEC East, we were going to have to go play in Birmingham ... against Alabama? But we did it. Should have won it. Alabama did and went on to win the national championship. That set the whole thing in stone. Immediately all the other conferences started looking into a championship game, but there's something to be said about being the first."
Spurrier's Florida teams won the next four SEC title games and a national title in 1996. Two years later, Tennessee won the inaugural BCS championship. An arms war escalated within the conference in the form of multimillion-dollar stadium and facilities upgrades. Friendly trash talk, an art perfected by Spurrier, grew into wars of words. That eventually degenerated into genuinely hateful mudslinging, underlined by a slew of NCAA violations (none against Florida) and accusations of ratting out fellow SEC schools to investigators.
In January 2002, Spurrier abruptly announced that he was leaving Florida to become head coach of the Washington Redskins, another crack to capture the NFL success that eluded him as a player. That summer the SEC hired Mike Slive as its new commissioner. Among his first acts was to gather his membership and demand that their public infighting stop, and it did.
When Spurrier returned to coach lovable loser South Carolina in 2005, the conference was already a radically different place. It has won eight of the 14 BCS titles, including the past six, and there's nary a single wing or wishbone to be found.
"I get flak for some of the things I said about other schools, but I think other coaches realize it is all in good fun," says Spurrier. "Whenever I say that kind of stuff it's always in the summer. Something to get the fans and the alumni excited about. I get along well with most of the coaches now. I only say good things about them and they only say good things about me. At least that I know of [laughs].
"We all want to beat each other, but I think we all understand the big picture. There aren't any weekends off. You see different offenses, different defenses, really good young coaches and coordinators. You used to joke about Vanderbilt, but they give you all you want.
"What I've found at South Carolina is kind of like Florida when I got there as player and as a coach. Great fans and so much talent right in the home state. But we had to get over saying, 'oh, other teams win championships, we just are who we are.' That's gone now. Our facilities were just about the worst in the conference; now they're so much better.
"We haven't won a conference championship here since South Carolina won the ACC in 1969. That's what will make winning the SEC so special. It's more fun when you had a hand in building something from the ground up."
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier has seen the SEC from several vantage points. He sits down with Ryan McGee from ESPN The Magazine to discuss them all.