Wednesday, April 13, 2011

another random thought: on SEC coaches & the next ...

One of the best things about summer: It becomes necessary to cut grass again. And for reasons I can't explain, that's when I come up with a number of my favorite blog entries.
(Note: I say "my favorite blog entries" instead of "my best" because that's absolutely a matter for subjective debate. I know which ones I think are the best. And I can tell which ones received the most hits, although that doesn't mean the two are necessarily the same. None of this has any relation to anything.)

In any case, it occurred to me the other day that, ever since the retirement and subsequent death of coach Bryant at Alabama, various coaches in the SEC have been tabbed as a successor to Bryant. It wasn't always about wins, as you'll note in a moment, and it wasn't always in Tuscaloosa that this occurred.
I don't need to sell you on Bryant's merits as the Greatest Coach Who Ever Lived: his career 323 wins over 37 seasons (a .780 percentage), 15 conference titles and six national titles should probably do the trick. Considering that spans several markedly different eras — the integration of more offense and the integration of black people, to be specific — it's pretty much an untouchable mark.
Moreover, Bryant was the G.O.A.T. in a time before media proliferation and the current back-stabbing climate that exists in college football. He was a legend when legends were allowed to be legends. And living his life the way he did — leaving at the absolute zenith of his powers, then dying a few weeks later — meant neither he nor anyone else got the chance to soil his legacy. It's doubtful we'll ever see anyone quite like that again.

But that hasn't stopped us from trying. In fact, since he died in 1983, we've been attempting to pass the title of "Bryant's successor" to a steady stream of different coaches. Please feel free to comment on this, as I'm sure I'm missing something here or there.

Pat Dye. Yes, I know. You're tired of Dye at this point — between the way he's embarrassed himself repeatedly on Paul Finebaum's radio program (and for some reason is always available to do so) and his incessant need to interject himself into everything going on at Auburn on a weekly basis, Dye's made himself into a punchline these days.
What that has made us all forget, unfortunately, is how brightly Dye's star was burning in the late 1980s at Auburn.

That Auburn program was about as low as it could've been when Dye took it over after the days of Doug Barfield (a guy who mysteriously re-appeared as the head coach at Opelika High School in the 1990s, where my dad delighted in calling him "Barf Dougfield"). After wresting the state conch away from Bryant in '82 (the famous "Bo Over the Top" game), Dye went on to win four conference titles over the next seven seasons (and probably should've won the '83 national title). I actually wrote a column which I can no longer find, that said Dye's Auburn program in the '80s measured favorably against Steve Spurrier's dominant Florida program in the 1990s. With a conference championship game like Spurrier had in the '90s, Dye would probably be remembered differently.
And you forget this now, but Dye was widely compared to Bryant from a personality standpoint, as well. A former assistant of Bryant's at 'Bama in the 60s and 70s, Dye made Auburn the toughest, meanest football team around (it was particularly painful to watch Dye's much more physical Auburn team manhandle Bill Curry's "soft" Tide teams from '87-'89). In Geoffrey Norman's book "Alabama Showdown," set around the 1985 Iron Bowl, the author quotes multiple fans who discuss Dye as the successor to Bryant's mantle, even saying he sounds and looks like Bryant.
What stopped him? Well, for one thing, he never went unbeaten at Auburn — even in his best years, something tripped the Tigers up. And then the NCAA wolves came back, in the form of Eric Ramsey allegations and such. A sick and very tired Dye didn't seem to have the energy to fight back, ultimately resigning the night before the 1992 Iron Bowl, in the midst of his second straight losing season.
Of course, by then, everyone had given his mantle as Bryant's successor over to ...

Gene Stallings. Like Dye, a former Bryant assistant. In Stallings' case, just about everyone agreed at some point or another that the coach should have been the man who got the call after coach Bryant stepped down in '82. Legend has it The Man wanted it that way. Nobody really knows for sure, and to be honest it doesn't really matter anymore.
In any case, Stallings quickly made everybody at Alabama forget what happened under his predecessor: in addition to being a Bryant guy, Stallings was also a football traditionalist. He'd scowl and say things people could barely understand, then his teams would go out and crack skulls. Go back and watch a tape of a Stallings defense ... if you can take it. They whooped people.
Culturally, it was the kind of football Alabama fans wanted their teams to play. And it was successful: 70 wins in 7 seasons, four division championships, an SEC championship and a national championship.

We'll pretty much do anything to re-live that game around here.

It might be fair to argue that Stallings was the last vestige of "the old way" of winning football: score 17 points and we'll beat most everybody.
Two things hurt that era: first, Alabama was by all accounts one of the most boring good teams to watch in the nation; only a football purist could find beauty in a 17-3 win over Southern Miss. Moreover, 'Bama never could own the conference, partially because of the division format and partially because of Steve Spurrier (more on him in a second).
The NCAA wolves came to 'Bama's door under Stallings as well, eventually forcing a power struggle that the coach lost to athletic director Bob Bockrath and president Andrew Sorensen. He resigned after the Auburn game in '96, and to his unending credit has remained visible and active, but always in a dignified manner (Stallings also appears on Finebaum, but the host is always deferential to him and even allows him to take calls, a staunch difference from his repeated run-ins with Dye).

Steve Spurrier. No one could argue that the 1990s belonged to the man in the visor: the Gators won 6 of 10 conference championships from 1991-2000, including four straight from 93-96; they also won their division two other times ('92 and '99). In 1996, they won the national championship, as well.
Moreover, Spurrier is probably the closest thing this era could ever have to a Bryant-like myth: the mere sight of him on the sidelines in the 1990s, smugly calling plays into his headset, was enough to infuriate and terrify every opposing fan in the building (unlike Bryant, who was generally regarded by most people as their grandfather in the twilight of his career, Spurrier is loathed by nearly every SEC fan from that era, even now). And the coach never shied away from media controversy, whether it was needling Peyton Manning for his inability to beat him (the famous "Citrus Bowl" joke), calling FSU "Free Shoes University" or even firing off an angry letter to Mike Dubose in 1999 for improper recruiting. The Spurrier Myth was as powerful as Spurrier himself.
Comparisons to Bryant don't work, though, for two reasons: first, Spurrier never really owned even his own state; FSU gave as good as it got in the '90s and even won an extra national championship ('93 and '99). And second, Spurrier apparently got bored after losing out on a championship shot in 2001; he signed a big contract with the Washington Redskins and took a shot at professional football.
(One note that no one ever really discussed when this happened: In 1970, after 10 years at 'Bama, Bryant himself was ready to take a shot at the pros, signing a contract with the expansion Miami Dolphins, then recanting soon after. I've always found the notion of Bryant as a pro coach somewhat fascinating — could he have won? The NFL in 1970 wasn't so starkly different from college as it is in 2011, right? And what if he had failed? Would he have gone the Spurrier route and come back to the SEC? Worked in television? Retired completely? I have no idea and neither do you, and it's probably better that way.)
As for his South Carolina tenure ... it's been interesting, to say the least. The Gamecocks did finally break through and win their division last season (albeit a watered down division that wasn't very good), but you often get the sense that Spurrier seems frustrated, like he expects his current roster to morph into 1995 Florida, just because he says. Further, as this Dr. Saturday post from two years ago noted, coaches no longer back up from Spurrier as a strategist.
Famously, Spurrier was nearly blitzed right out of the NFL. This did not come as a shock to many in the coaching cognoscenti. I had a friend sit in on a clinic Spurrier gave while at Florida. He diagrammed a play, showed a route, and showed what the QB's read was. Another coach in the room, while pointing to one of the symbols on the whiteboard, meekly asked, "Coach, what if they blitz that guy?" The second-hand report was that the OBC kind of scowled and said, "They'll never do that." And that was that. Except it wasn't: In the NFL, that guy blitzed, and defenses since have never forgotten.

Nick Saban/Urban Meyer. While working on this blog post, I considered both Phil Fulmer and Mark Richt for inclusion here. The thing is, both guys just kind of filled a void between Spurrier and these two, and both of their programs immediately went back to the second tier when Saban/Meyer took over the league. So we can argue about this if you want, but it's my blog, so we're skipping over them. Sorry.
Anyway, the Meyer/Saban rivalry should have been the defining SEC feud going into the coming decade: Saban, a defensive guru marshaling his forces at Alabama; Meyer, an offensive mastermind, doing the same at Florida, with the SEC Championship Game each year to decide which is the rightful heir to the throne (a miniature version of Celtics-Lakers, if you will).
Saban is the more tenured of the two, with national championships at LSU and 'Bama, and three SEC titles and four division titles in all (his last 3 Tide teams have won 12, 14 and 10 games, respectively). We've written before about how Saban's 'Bama teams are reminiscent of the Stallings era: tough, physical and kind of boring to watch.
Meyer is more Spurrier than Stallings, in keeping with the identity of his fan base: at their best (2008-2009), the Gators were a fleet of speed merchants playing in an offense based around two premises: first, if anybody is out of position, it's a touchdown; and second, if anybody misses a tackle, it's a touchdown. One of the most interesting games in recent history was the '08 SEC Championship Game pitting Saban's defense — predicated on never being out of position and never missing tackles — against Meyer and all-everything quarterback Tim Tebow. Florida won the game, and one of the Florida media's leading columnists penned a subsequent column that identified Meyer as "The Next Bear Bryant."
Of course, what happened in the 2009 season — Saban's undefeated 'Bama team trashing Florida in Atlanta — put that talk to bed for a while.

Yeah ... too easy.

And after Meyer's Florida team flopped this past fall, his ongoing health problems caused him to reevaluate his life's priorities. Meaning? He dumped football for TV.
Which is no good for us as football fans, obviously. While no one in his right mind would call Nick Saban "The Next Bryant," the rivalry between him and Meyer had no equal in the league.
At least not for now.

As always (assuming you've read this far) please feel free to comment here or find me on Twitter.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

"While no one in his right mind would call Nick Saban "The Next Bryant," " ...
In my mind, this is exactly why he really is the closest thing to it. No one in their right mind would have called Bear Bryant "the next" anything either.