The Southeastern Conference is a strange and superior college football landscape where a 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound “Football Jesus’’ (Tim Tebow) and a 5-foot-9-inch, 175-pound “Honey Badger’’ (Tyrann Mathieu) have sat at the same table. It’s where Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge possess the same kind of mythic resonance as Pompei, Tanis, Machu Picchu. And above all, it’s where the college football champions of the past six years reside.
How the SEC came to dominate college football is a question every other conference is trying to answer. Enter Ray Glier, a longtime journalist who has covered the SEC since 1986. Glier’s book, “How The SEC Became Goliath,” takes a historical, analytical, and highly anecdotal look at the past half-dozen seasons. Clearly written for those with their eyes already fixed on SEC football, at times it’s an exhaustive, clear-eyed study of the conference’s calculated college-football takeover; other times it’s a love letter to the sexiest conference in college sports.
The book itself is organized chronologically, but Glier’s argument breaks down into themes. So, how do I love thee, SEC? Let me count the ways.
■ There’s the money.
Five of the 14 schools have annual athletic revenue of more than $100 million, mostly from football. No conference spends more on coaches or facilities. Its schools are willing to go to lengths most schools aren’t and a lot can’t. In 1997, Florida paid star coach Steve Spurrier $1.94 million, Glier writes. There were only two coaches who made more — they were in the NFL. Now more than half of SEC coaches earn $3 million a year. The campuses are football factories in the most literal sense. Teams keep as many as 12 strength and conditioning experts on staff, many making salaries in the deep six figures, some topping out at $1 million.
■ There’s the pride — Southern Pride.
“The South finished second once before,” Glier writes of the region’s inherited angst. “Ever since, it’s been determined to finish first.” That explains the spending, but of course, the South is a head-scratching web of racial, cultural, and historical complexity. Football’s a part of it. It’s isn’t easy to sort through the relationship, but Glier examines the way the South’s inferiority complex fuels its never-ending football arms race and also the different motivations blacks (social and economic opportunity) and whites (“win one for the south’’) have for playing in the South.
■ There’s the winning tradition.
Florida won the national championship in 2006 and 2009; Alabama in 2010 and 2012; LSU in 2008; and Auburn in 2011. Every other conference is on the outside steaming up the showroom glass. The winning breeds bitterness from the competition (a common joke is that SEC stands for Surely Everyone’s Cheating and when the recent idea of a national playoff series came up, part of it was to curb the SEC’s supremacy). And more often than not Glier comes off as a defense attorney, peppering his case for the SEC with catchphrases like “rock ’em, sock ’em” and “Big Boy Football.”
But those cliches undermine the most interesting parts of the narrative. He draws sketches of the most important characters in the conference’s six-year run, and those mini-profiles are the meat of the story.
The cast starts with Nick Saban, a Cleveland Browns assistant under Bill Belichick in the early ’90s credited with bringing NFL mentality to the SEC and turning LSU and Alabama into monsters. Les Miles is the fiercely loyal, ever-poised, if sometimes quirky, LSU head coach. Ron Zook was the maniacal recruiter who laid the foundation for Florida’s two titles; Urban Meyer, the coach who brought them home. Michael Clayton was a kid who grew up in Louisiana distrusting LSU and it’s Good Ol’ Boy ways until Saban came along and changed the culture.
They’re all parts of the super-system that’s rolled championships out on assembly lines.
Glier says he hammered out the book in two months with a lot of 2 a.m. writing sessions. But looking at the BCS standings — five of the top 10 are from the conference, including No. 1 Alabama — he could have taken his time. The SEC isn’t going anywhere.