Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two random items on Georgia Tech

In the earlier part of this decade I lived for two years on the campus of Georgia Tech (though not actually enrolled at the school). During those years I went to quite a few Tech football games. Most people outside of Atlanta don't know as much, but Georgia Tech has a lot of very fun and rather peculiar campus traditions. They are mostly there to keep the students from going insane because life is hard when the only pictures in your text books are diagrams involving Greek letters and squiggly lines and there are approximately three females to share between every seven males.

One of those traditions at football games is that after the third quarter the band always plays the music from the song in this totally awesome-tastic, old-timey Budweiser commercial:

While the band plays the students bob up and down on the alternate beat to the people either side of them. The visual effect is quite impressive, though it's hard to do if you have no rhythm. [Incidentally, the 'no rhythm' demographic accounts for somewhere around 98% of Tech undergraduates not actually in the band, dance squad or football team]. When the band plays the duh-duh-duh-daa the students all chant "Go Georgia Tech, go Georgia Tech, go Georgia Tech, go Georgia Tech... when you say Bud-weis-er, you've said it all."


It may sound lame, but it's fun. So much fun that while I was "at" Tech the students would stay until the end of the third period no matter how badly the Jackets were getting licked just to do that song/cheer before heading back to their dorm rooms to meet their online role playing game friends and complain about how badly Chan Gailey's play calling sucked. But no one ever explained to me why the band always did that song. I'm not sure anyone actually knew.

Then today I was listening to the ESPN U college football podcast and Beano Cook, who invariably fills his sentences with random, unprovoked pieces of invaluable information from days of yore, mentioned that back in the late 1960s when the NCAA finally allowed television broadcasters to sell advertising slots to alcohol distributors during college football games they had certain restrictions. Those restrictions included a stipulation that liquor commercials could only appear after the end of the third quarter [obviously to limit the amount of time alcohol advertisers could purchase]. Back in those days the average CFB game only ran around 18-20 commercials, took about 45 minutes less time than today's marathons (unless you count Notre Dame on NBC in which case they took about 8 hours less), and breaks generally only included a single ad. So back in the early 1970s it was likely that the third quarter break in most televised college football games consisted exclusively this awesome Bud commercial, nay, work of art. The GT band started playing the same tune at their own games as an amusing parody during the 1970 season when Bud Carson was their coach. And they never dropped it.

I think this is brilliant and so wonderfully Georgia Tech. Firstly, by the standards of your average football crowd joke, this is at least somewhat clever. Secondly, forty years later they're still doing the same thing even though most GT students have probably neither seen the commercial nor heard of Bud Carson. That's the way they roll in midtown Atlanta: nerdy and old-school.

Speaking of old-school... just how old-school is Paul Johnson? There are so many reasons to love what he's doing at Tech. This is a man who has made his career on the back of an offense that his contemporaries view as antiquated. Now Johnson is so out of style that he's all the way back in vogue as the flavor of the month. You also have to love that his offenses keep rolling up yards even though the other team knows exactly what is coming. But most of all, I just love to see Georgia Tech winning again. This is a school that was a national football power and perennial Notre Dame rival back when every school in the entire South sucked hard core except them, Bama and Tennessee.

Take a look at the box score from GT's recent home upset of the Hokies. One completed pass and an interception in only seven, count 'em VII - SEVEN - attempts passing for 51 yards with a whopping 309 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns. These numbers are so old school you pretty much have to go back to the fall of 1906 to find fans who wouldn't scratch their heads at them.

The forward pass was introduced by the NCAA rules committee after the public outcry following a brutal 1905 season. The rule was envisioned initially as a play that would be run behind the line of scrimmage laterally to remove bodies from the tackle box and prevent deadly scrum collapses. It surprised people when coaches tentatively, and at first infrequently, began to use the rule to advance the ball vertically down the field.

In his 1994 book The Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules, and the Men Who Made the Game David Nelson's book attributes the first collegiate forward pass to Bradbury Robinson of St. Louis University on September 5th 1906. Similar passing plays wowed fans across the nation on the rare occasion coaches plucked up the courage to try the move throughout the 1906 season. Most pundits felt the fad would not catch on.

On September 27th the New York Times reported forward passes in the Carlisle-Villanova game the preceding day and commented:

"The passing was more of the character of that familiar in basket ball than that which has hitherto characterized football. Apparently it is the intention of football coaches to try repeatedly these frequent long and risky passes. Well executed they are undoubtedly highly spectacular, but the risk of dropping the ball is so great as to make the practice extremely hazardous and its desirability doubtful."

This is no doubt similar to the kind of reception Tech's 51 yard completion must have received in the stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday. Concerned Tech alumni must have turned to one another and said:

"Golly-gosh darn it, friend. What the jimminy is that coach Johnson fellow playing at, having that poor Nesbitt chap attempt one of those risky, new-fangled forward passes!"

And quite right they are, too. When you can lay 309 yards on a VT rushing defense that had averaged only 95 ypg allowed against teams not named Alabama, why pass? GT clearly doesn't need to. So in the age of five-wide out, run-and-shoot, air-raid madness: crack open a nice cool Bud, Paul Johnson. You've bloody well earned it!


(Sources: wiki, forward pass; David Nelson, Anatomy of a game)

Defense wins championships

Between 1922, when BYU football formally began its history, and 1971, when Tommy Hudspeth retired, the Cougars’ combined record was an underwhelming 174-235-22. Worst of all, the record head-to-head against hated rival University of Utah was an awful 7-37-4. A remote location and strict school behavioral codes made recruiting the best athletes a nearly impossible task. Even LaVell Edwards was not able to do that. After ten years as Hudspeth's assistant Edwards knew the BYU program and knew how to bring in the best players he could possibly attract to Provo. More importantly, he quickly proved that he knew how to coach intelligence, vision and maturity – on and off the field. Edwards didn’t care that Provo was remote, or that BYU is a church school, or that Utah is sparely populated. He told a reporter at the height of his career:

“Rather than worry about what we couldn’t do, I set out to concentrate on what we could do.”

Prior to the Edwars era BYU had only a single WAC conference championship, earned in 1965. LaVell was not intimidated. In his time he was a visionary coach and became the first in the modern era to use a pass-happy attack to minimize the effect of his inherent talent disadvantage. Edwards’ teams ran out of base offensive formations with four and five wide-outs decades before that approach became fashionable or even accepted. When Edwards started, Woody Hayes was still running the Split-T and did not have five wide-outs on his depth chart. Darrell Royal famously warned that of three possible outcomes when throwing the ball two are bad. Levell Edwards defied that conventional wisdom and always argued:

“I just don’t see down field passing as a high risk offense; the wishbone is high risk.”

Edwards coached his players to play with their eyes and brains. BYU moved the ball steadily with short gains taken when the quarterback saw his first opportunity. But Edwards always coached his players to read missed coverage and exploit numerical advantages down field if defenses offered the opportunity. They frequently did. As a result, BYU became known as “Quarterback U” with a string of stand-out all-America passers including Jim McMahon and Steve Young. Edwards’ system and his often underrated teams turned BYU football around, winning an amazing eighteen conference championships between 1974 and 1999. An outstanding twenty-eight year head coaching career reached the ultimate height in 1984 with an AP national championship that would have been unthinkable two decades earlier. Perhaps most importantly of all, Edwards went 22-7 against the Utes.

Understandably the memory of Edwards’ achievement is largely tied up with his eye-catching offenses. Celebrating offenses is always easier than recalling the great defensive names and plays. Fans and commentators alike love scoring, and obviously scoring wins games in the most literal sense. Edwards’ BYU teams rarely featured highly ranked defenses. They didn’t really need to. But in 1984, the crowning year of Edwards’ superb career, one defensive stand that required a single great defensive play changed the course of BYU football history. Without that one play, in that one stand, on that one day, BYU would never have posted its break through year. Kyle Morrell’s acrobatic goal-line tackle on third-and-goal from the one at Hawaii seemed very important even at the time. In retrospect, it was the single moment of defensive inspiration that preserved an ostensibly offense-driven legacy.

Through the 1984 season BYU averaged 340 passing and 479 yards total offense per game, leading the nation in both categories. Only twice in a perfect 13-0 campaign did the Cougars score below 24 points and never less than 18. They scored 30 or more on nine occasions. Robbie Bosco’s 283 of 458 passes for 3,875 yards and 33 TDs were second in efficiency only to Doug Flutie. But BYU was far from an offense only team that won gaudy shootouts. The defense at times gave up large chunks of yardage and only four opponents failed to score at least 13 points, but BYU only gave up more than 17 points twice and pitched two shut outs. It was actually the Cougar defense that got the magical campaign started, carrying BYU to a 20-14 win in a brutal season-opening slug-out at third ranked Pitt [ESPN’s first ever live televised college game, incidentally]. But even in that game, Edwards’ offense made the most memorable play. Despite a slow start, Bosco finally came to life late and hit receiver Adam Haysbert on a deep “go” route for a 50 yard TD to take the lead with only 1:40 remaining.

Three weeks later, thousands of miles from home in sunny Hawaii BYU needed its defense to deliver the team again. On that occasion a defensive play actually made the headlines that the unit as a whole deserved. Morrell again struggled to find his grove in an intimidating road environment and after three quarters BYU led only 12-10. Early in the fourth quarter Hawaii quarterback Rafael Cherry began a drive inside his own fifteen that ate ten minutes of clock and took his team to the BYU two yard line for first and goal. BYU was ranked #6 and national championship speculation was only just beginning. No one knew how much was ultimately on the line as Cherry ran two sneaks, both into punishing tackles from BYU linebacker Marv Allen. With the clock winding and BYU’s offense unimpressive a Hawaii touchdown seemed likely to decide the game. After gaining 18-inches on two sneaks Cherry’s chances of making 6 more on another looked good. Hawaii attempted the same play again. Defensive tackle Jim Herrmann surged forward, leading his unit to the crucial push they needed. Herrmann did not know that behind him safety Kyle Morrell had lept over the line, somersaulted in mid-air, flipped over Cherry's head and pulled him backwards by the jersey while landing.

Morrell said later that he saw Hawaii's running backs shuffling forward, unwittingly signaling to the defense that they were running the same play. With all the quick-thinking intelligence and commitment of an Edwards coached player Morrell moved almost on instinct. His grab pulled Cherry back for the split second it took for Herrmann and co. to fill the gap with a pile of bodies and kill the play. After failing to make two-yards on three plays Hawaii coach Dick Tomey panicked and sent out his field goal unit. Bouyed by the momentum of the inspirational stand Bosco finally found his rhythm and led the Cougars to a game-killing score.

BYU escaped 18-13 and never lost their offensive grove again the entire season. The Cougars became one of only two national champions to lead the nation in passing offense [the other is 1938 TCU]. Edwards’ offenses received much deserved accolades, but as is so often the case, the entire superstructure rested on defensive performances that garner far less praise. Without one play in particular, BYU’s national championship simply would not have happened.

Video Courtesy of

(Sources: Doug Looney, SI, It’s Possible; Deseret News, BYU survived close calls; cfb data warehouse; Wiki, Robbie Bosco)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The 1969 Red River Shootout

It took the Texas Longhorns just nine seconds to open the scoring in a home romp over an overmatched Navy team in Austin on Saturday October 4th 1969. Darrell Royal’s boys had not lost since a trip to Lubbock in September 1968. Senior quarterback James Street had not lost any of his ten games as a starter. Texas was already 2-0 after easy victories by a combined score of 66-7 at Cal and versus Texas Tech, two squads who would both finish the year 5-5. Standout halfback Jim Bertelsen fired off a 43-yard touchdown run on UT’s first play from scrimmage. As he burst from behind his blocker into the

Midshipmen secondary a defensive back had the inside angle for a tackle but Bertelsen stepped on the gas and disappeared. From that point on the game was only a matter of numbers.
Royal pulled his starters from the game permanently after only nineteen minutes. The Horns’ first string offense had been on the field only a totally of 6:29 but posted four touchdowns - all on the ground. Street ran for a score himself and threw only a single pass, which he completed to his favorite (and virtually only) target Cotton Speyrer. Texas’ other first team halfback Ted Koy also ran for two scores.

That was Texas football under Darrell Royal. An all-America selection as defensive back and quarter back at Oklahoma, Royal played for Bud Wilkinson from 1946 to 1949. He was present at the start of Wilkinson’s incredible run as head coach in Norman. The Sooners dominated not just Texas, but everybody during the 1950s. Of all things Texans dislike, being dominated generally and by Oklahomans in particular ranks first. A desperate University of Texas turned to an erstwhile rival in 1956 and hired Royal as head football coach. The Longhorns never looked back. Royal never had a losing season in two decades and delivered eleven Southwest conference championships, two AP titles and one UPI coaches poll title. His best years were powered by the success of an original formation he coauthored with his offensive assistant Emory Bellard.

The wishbone, like all offensive innovations, seems simple in retrospect. But when Royal implemented it early in the 1968 season in a desperation move with his team losing badly in Lubbock, Texas Tech had no answer. A triple option four-man backfield could rack up huge rushing numbers with a combination of complex inside blocking schemes, multiple fake handoffs and manpower mismatches. Defenses used to seeing much less complicated running schemes simply could not account for every runner, allowing the quarterback to hand the ball off to whichever back had no man reading him. The wishbone became the standard college offense by the late seventies and eventually, as is always the case, defenses caught up and made the formation obsolete. But in 1969 James Street was the first and only wishbone quarterback in the game and no defensive coordinator knew what to do about the Longhorns.

The Navy game was Royal’s 100th win at Texas. Heading into the Red River Shootout against Chuck Fairbanks’ sixth ranked Oklahoma Sooners the 3-0 second ranked Longhorns led the nation in rush yards per game, having racked up a combined 1,091 on 211 carries. Bertelsen’s 216 yards on 30 carries with 3 TDS for a 7.2 yard average ranked second in the Southwest conference. Texas’ total offense was also second in the conference despite standing dead last in passing offense with a worthless combined 12 completions in only 27 tries for 119 yards, zero TDs and three picks. Street was 6 of 17 on the year for only 59 yards and no scores. And the Longhorns were unstoppable. That was the wishbone.

Royal didn’t mind winning games convincingly, but he worried that his players might not be ready for OU. Royal acknowledged:

“Winning big has plusses and minuses…. I worry that we haven’t been in one of those old country gut checks.”

This is probably one of the better problems for coaches to face, as Royal readily admitted:
“A coach has got to have problems, and I like mine better this year than last.”

Texas’ problem was stamina and game readiness, so Royal increased the usual tempo and intensity of his game-week practices, attempting to simulate the fury of a Cotton Bowl clash. He hoped his players would be equal to the fever-pitch atmosphere, but felt confident enough to jokingly tell reports:

“If you can’t get up for this one, you must be dead.”

The Longhorns need to be up. Oklahoma had problems of their own, but Fairbanks’ Sooners were no slouches. The Wilkinson steamroller had sputtered somewhat in its later years, with two almost unthinkable campaigns in 1960-61 of a combined 8-11. When Bud finally retired in 1963 he handed off to his long standing assistant Gomer Jones. The job of following a legend is a hard one in any circumstance, but Jones never wanted the limelight. He could stand the heat for only two seasons in which OU went a disappointing 9-11-1. In 1966 things barely improved when new head coach Jim McKenzie went 6-4 before unexpectedly dying. His first year assistant Chuck Fairbanks was left holding the baby and in a very difficult and increasingly desperate environment engineered two conference championships in 1967 and 68. Only a loss to Texas in a 10-1 season kept Fairbanks from delivering a national title his first season. By 1969 Oklahoma sat where Texas had been in the late fifties with Royal’s first teams. Fairbanks’ Sooners were good and could win conference titles, but they were not doing what OU coaches are hired to do – beat Texas and win national championships. To do that, Oklahoma always needed to augment recruiting classes by cherry picking the best talent from south of the Red River.

Fairbanks was able to do just that with the help of an assistant coach he hired to fill his former role after the 1966 season. The son of a prohibition era bootlegger former Arkansas standout Barry Switzer was as brash and country as they come. He made an immediate impact on the OU staff as a highly productive recruiter and superb offensive coordinator. In 1967 every school in the Southwest conference wanted Abilene prep star Jack Mildren. At the time conference recruiting regulations limited SWC coaches to two home visits. The Big Eight had no such rule and Switzer, OU’s West Texas recruiter, visited the Mildrens several times. The coach said later:

“You can’t get to know a kid in two visits. You’re doing all the talking and he’s still looking at his shoes.”

Switzer was always a joker with the press, a charmer with parents and school dignitaries, and an absolute hard-ass with his players. He told a reporter before the 1969 Texas games:

“[Mildren] is not a picture passer and he doesn’t look fast. He’s not a super athlete by any means. In fact he’s a little pigeon toed and … clumsy.”

But Switzer knew what he had in Mildren. In the 1967 Oil Bowl, the annual post-season clash between all-State prep selections from Oklahoma and Texas, the OU commit rubbed his decision in the faces of football fans from his home state by hitting 12 of 12 for 250 yards in the first half alone. That was the only time Mildren would represent the state of Texas on the gridiron. As a sophomore starter in 1969 he led the Sooners to a 2-0 start heading into Dallas for his first Red River Shootout. Mildren started as well in college as he had finished in High School. His first varsity play from scrimmage went for a 67 yard touch down.

Oklahoma had all the balance Texas seemed to lack. The Sooners, like most teams of the era, ran a backfield-heavy offense lineup with rarely more than one man wide. Their base offense was a diamond formation that in addidtion to the era's standard power runs also favored toss-sweeps and passing plays to men coming out of the backfield. That allowed a lot more passing yards than Royal’s system. Of course it helped that opposing defenses were keying in on all-American senior halfback Steve Owens. The tenacious back made over 4,000 yards in three seasons, invariably carrying the ball around 30 times a game. Owens’ work load would be unthinkable today. In one famous trip to Stillwater Owens carried the ball 36 times in the second half alone! He made yards after contact with apparent ease and frequently did work all on his own without sufficient forward blocking.

Offense would not be OU’s problem. In two big wins, 48-21 at Wisconsin and 37-8 vs. Pitt, OU had given up over 400 rush yards. Their starting defense was senior-heavy in the back field but made up of sophomores and juniors in the front seven. The OU middle had looked particularly suspect. That was bad news heading into a game against the nation’s leading rushing attack, and one that did almost everything between the tackles at that. Mildren admitted to reporters that he suspected his breakfast would taste quite awful on the morning of Saturday October 11th.

As events unfolded Mildren’s breakfast could hardly have settled before his Sooners led 14-0. Fairbanks committed to playing Texas at its own game. He loaded the box with an eight man front, daring Street to throw downfield and prove he could do better than 6 of 17 for 59 yards in three games. On offense, OU ran right up the middle, riding Owens’ power and vision. The eventual 1969 Heisman winner gained 123 yards on the day, 53 in the first quarter alone. Mildren capped a sixty yard drive answering a Texas three-and-out with a nine-yard end around TD run after only four minutes. Five minutes later Owens dived over a pile for a one yard score after a short 17-yard drive that followed an interception return. OU linebacker Steve Aycock reeled in a risky Street pass into the flat for excellent field position and the Sooners appeared to be cruising.

For once Texas was making nothing on the ground. OU’s defense refused to live up to its underwhelming billing, holding the Horns just 158 yard rushing on the day. The Sooners made a more impressive 198 team yards on ground in reply and also finished with a slight edge in first downs at 20-18. But in the end Royal’s Longhorns squeaked out a comeback win in a manner that characterized the now mythologized “cult of ‘69” Texas team. Like so many championship teams Royal’s boys did what they had to do when they had to do it, and they were lucky.

After two series that ended in a punt and a pick, trailing by fourteen, Street knew there was only one way to beat OU. He had to answer Fairbanks’ challenge and complete passes. He settled himself and did just that. On the first play of UT’s third possession Street hit Speyrer for a 35 yard strike and two plays later found the same receiver for a 24 yard touch down. On the Horns’ fourth possession he hit Bertelsen underneath and the halfback converted the catch for a 55 yard gain to the OU twenty. Bertelsen did the rest of the work, out racing OU safety Joe Pearce for 19 before converting himself from the one. Street was well on his way to a relatively impressive 9 of 18 for 215 yard passing performance and just like that Texas had leveled at 14-14.

The teams remained neck and neck in the third period. Texas opened with a 54 yard drive that resulted in a 27 yard field goal from the hilariously named Happy Feller, who despite only having attempted one previous three-pointer led the Southwest conference in scoring solely by virtue of converting PATs after UT’s many touchdowns. OU answered with a field goal from Bruce Derr after Vince LaRose picked of a James Street pass and ran the ball into a crowd of Longhorns before deftly handing off to Pearce who ran it back to the 24 before Street himself pushed the safety out of bounds.

With the two teams going blow for blow, each answering the strength of the other, a single moment seemed likely to change the game. Texas took a 20-17 lead early in the fourth period on a second Feller kick after a drive that began with another Street completion to Speyrer, this time for 49 yards, stalled. The teams then traded punts and OU had more than seven minutes remaining to retake the lead when safety Glenn King fielded UT’s kick at the OU 23. King said after the game:

“I was in the right position to field the ball, but that was about it. I took my eye off [it] for a split second. I was thinking about running with the ball before I caught it. I wanted to get us in good field position.”

King only succeeded in getting the Horns into good position. He spilled the kick and Texas cover man Bob McKay quickly covered it. Steve Worster, Bertelsen and Koy’s less flashy but highly efficient colleague dove in from the one to cap a short drive and put Texas ahead 27-17 with barely six minutes to play. The decisive moment had come and gone. Oklahoma never crossed their thirty yard line in the remaining minutes.

King acknowledged after the game:

“Being from Texas makes losing to them hurt all the more. I had special reason, too. Texas didn’t offer me a scholarship… and I wanted to get them back for that. I guess that’s why I messed up… I was too keyed up.”
Oklahoma had given everything on the day. Despite losing by ten it had been a close contest. The Red River Shootout turned out to be their best effort of the year. OU finished just 6-4, losing by thirty to eventual Big Eight champion Nebraska. Texas, on the other hand, went from strength to strength. The nation’s leading rushing offense blew out every opponent until their season finale showdown in Fayetteville vs. second ranked, unbeaten Arkansas. Once again, James Street threw winning completions when Texas needed him to, and once again Speyrer was on the other end. Royal’s charmed Horns posted one of College Football’s all-time great comeback wins with one of the all-time great clutch plays. Unbeaten Texas was voted national champion and went on to defeat Ara Parseghian’s 8-1- Fighting Irish in the 1970 Cotton Bowl. James Street started 19 games as Texas’s first wishbone quarterback. He won all of them.

The 1969 Red River Shootout was everything that makes the OU-Texas series one of the game’s great rivalries. Though Texas’ victory was the eleventh win for the Horns in twelve years Cotton Bowl games was always a hard fought, close affair. OU dominated the fifties and Texas the sixties, but overall, this series is as even as they come. Since 1950 the record is a dead heat. It is also important to remember that for most of its history the series was an inter-conference rivalry. OU has seven national titles since 1950 under three coaches. Texas has four under two. In the modern era OU and Texas are two of the game’s half-dozen great powers and yet every year they voluntarily risked a loss against the other purely for spirit of competition.

So in this 40th anniversary season of the great 1969 national championship winning Longhorns and the irrepressible Steven Owens’ hard won Heisman Trophy, here’s to OU-Texas. May the sacred Crimson-Burnt Orange line never be crossed!

(Sources: Fort worth Star-Telegram; Terry Frei, Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

SEC coaching rivalries: Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer, in context

My last few posts have considered five of the most thrilling coaching rivalries in SEC history: Frank Thomas and Robert Neyland *, Johnny Vaught and Paul Dietzel *, Ralph Jordan and Paul Bryant *, Vince Dooley and Pat Dye *, and Phillip Fulmer and Steve Spurrier *.

I came up with the idea of surveying this question because I was wondering about the historical context of the current titanic Urban Meyer-Nick Saban death struggle. It seemed to me that the SEC has a richer, or at least broader, coaching tradition than other conferences, which have often been dominated for almost their entire history by two or three powers (the Michigan-Ohio State, OU-Nebraska, and Texas-Texas A&M/Arkansas rivalries spring to mind). But in the SEC Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Auburn, LSU and, more recently, Florida have all had one or more great coach who built regionally and nationally prominent programs. Even Kentucky, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have enjoyed brief moments of regional significance. Through all that long and rich history, one pattern emerges. In every generation of SEC football two coaches seem destined to rise above their peers and wrestle for conference dominance (and usually with it national supremacy).

At present the SEC boasts the best group of coaches in college football. But amongst them all the resumes of two stand out. Heading into the 2009 season Urban Meyer's overall record as a head coach stood at 82-17 and 43-9 at Florida. He has won two BCS championships and has one undefeated season. Between Utah and Florida his teams are unbeaten in three BCS bowl appearances. His teams have won two Mountain West Conference titles (in two years) and two SEC titles. At the time of writing, Meyer's winning percentage at UF is significantly better even than Steve Spurrier's (even discounting shameless trouncings of the occasional rent-a-victim non-conference foe).

Nick Saban has a BCS championship of his own. His record heading into 2009 was 110-50-1. At LSU he went 48-16 with two conference titles. His Toledo team won the MAC in his only year as head coach, and his best Michigan State team finished second in the Big Ten (no mean feat at MSU - ask anyone who's tried).

Though Saban and Meyer between them have dominated the SEC since 2000 it was not until Saban took the Alabama job in 2007 that the two coaches' careers actually collided. Fittingly it was not until last year's SEC championship game that they actually coached against one another. After a 7-6 campaign in which much wheat and chaff were separated Saban's Tide went 12-0 in the 2008 regular season. When #1 Alabama and #2 Florida met in Atlanta the teams went blow for blow through three quarters before the stamina of the younger Crimson Tide waned. In the final analysis, three third down plays inside the Alabama ten-yard line that Tim Tebow completed for touchdowns in tight coverage made the difference.

Webster's dictionary defines the word monomania with this picture
This also reflects a long standing trend in SEC coaching rivalries. The difference between two giant programs is often made by the presence of a special player who rises above the crowd. That was true for Paul Deitzel with Billy Cannon, Johnny Vaught with Archie Manning, Pat Dye with Bo Jackson, Vince Dooley with Herschel Walker amongst others. With every consensus top 3 recruiting class Meyer and Saban rein in, the chances that they rather than another SEC coach will find the next generation's special talent increases.

At the time of writing Florida and Alabama are first and second in the AP poll. Both are undefeated. The chances that Saban and Meyer's next bout will come this December in Atlanta seem high. It seems equally likely that this ongoing battle will define SEC football for the foreseeable future.

Probably the first of many.

[Update: The Meyer-Saban coaching rivalry will not be deciding the near future of SEC football greatness so much as the Myer-Miles rivalry. Who saw that coming? Look for Bama and Ohio State to renew this rivalry in a major post-season game sometime soon.]

SEC coaching rivalries: Phillip Fulmer vs. Steve Spurrier, 1993-2001

It seems unlikely in the current climate of high-pressure SEC coaching that there will be another lifer who serves his alma mater for decades on end. Philip Fulmer was almost certainly the last of his breed.

Born and raised in Winchester, Tennessee in the south-central part of the state just across the Alabama state line Fulmer grew up in the very geometric center of the UT-Bama rivalry. Though Fulmer was quite talented enough as a prep lineman to earn high level interest as a college recruit there was only one choice for him and he would not be dissuaded. Fulmer matriculated at UT in 1968 and walked on to Doug Dickey’s team. His hard work and commitment to UT football earned him a scholarship and established him on the offensive line. He played on an SEC championship winning team as a sophomore in 1969 and an 11-1 Sugar Bowl winning team in 1970. The Vols lost only five games in Fulmer’s three years as a player. He loved Tennessee and he loved football. When he graduated he could only envision one career. Fulmer had to coach. Needless to say, when it came to his coaching ambitions there was, as always, only one school.

Immediately after graduating, Fulmer coached Tennessee’s freshman linebackers. After six years coaching various positions at Vanderbilt and Wichita State he returned to Knoxville as an assistant coach in 1980. He would serve continuously as a football coach at UT for the next twenty-eight years. Fulmer worked faithfully as an assistant to Johnny Majors, the legendry former Volunteer running back, from 1980 until 1992. Over half way into the 1992 season the University controversially let Majors go due to health problems. Feelings on the move ran high and at a difficult time for the school Fulmer was a wise and reliable choice as successor.

Apart from keeping the peace, Fulmer's mandate was simple: arrest the meteoric rise of upstart rival Florida. Majors' SEC championships in 1985, ‘89 and ’90 appeared to put the Vols back in the big time after decades of subservience to Paul Bryant's hated Crimson Tide. But in 1990 and ’91 a hot young head coaching commodity named Steve Spurrier arrived in Gainesville and immediately began turning UF into a football giant.

Fulmer worked every bit as hard as any rival to build his Tennessee program. He even began to do what no UT coach had done in decades by stealing recruits from the back yards of conference rivals. Some of the greatest Vols of the 1990s hailed from states that rarely if ever sent a coveted prep star to Knoxville before Fulmer. Jamal Lewis came from Georgia, Darwin Walker from South Carolina, Travis Henry from Florida, Tee Martin from Alabama. Fulmer even drew national talent from areas beyond the south, including the phenomenal receiver Peerless Price from right under Buckeye noses in Ohio.

While SEC rivals other than Florida suffered through periods of coaching mediocrity (Ray Goff and Jim Donnan at Georgia, Billy Brewer at Mississippi, Mike DuBose at Alabama, Terry Bowden at Auburn) Fulmer’s teams reflected his own consistent, methodical, efficient and unflappable style. His first full season in charge coincided with the SEC divisional split and new championship game format. From 1993 to 2001 Tennessee never finished lower than second in the SEC east. Seven of those nine seasons the eastern divisional champion won the conference. Almost every year during the 1990s Florida vs. Tennessee constituted a de facto SEC title game. And for all Fulmer’s effort, Florida generally won.

Fulmer faced Steve Spurrier as a head coach nine times. His unimpressive record of 2-7 does not adequately reflect his work and accomplishments as UT head coach. From 1995 through 1998 the Vols went an amazing 45-5. Three of those losses came against Florida. Tennessee fans hated Spurrier. As Fulmer steadily built his program during the mid-nineties around his most prominent recruiting coup, Payton Manning, the Vols dropped five straight to Florida. Fulmer’s first clash with the Gators came on the road in mid-September 1993. Florida was ranked 3-0 and Spurrier had yet to lose a home game.

For a man apparently able to accomplish whatever he desired Steve Spurrier behaved with more public displays of emotion than almost any southern coach before him. At one point drawing a 15-yard unsportsman-like conduct penalty for protesting a holding call too vigorously and flinging his trademark visor toward a referee. Such displayed seemed totally unnecessary. Freshman quarterback Danny Wuerffel threw for 231 yards and three touchdowns with apparent ease. The game remained close, finishing 34-41, but UT made crucial mistakes. On the opening kick of the second half return man Nilo Silvan fumbled and gave Florida only 30 yards to drive for a TD. After the game Tennessee receiver admitted to a reporter that the Vols could not get over the ‘big game’ hump. In contrast Spurrier was yet to lose to Georgia, Tennessee or Auburn in three seasons as head coach.

In the end it all came at once for Fulmer. He beat Spurrier and earned Tennessee’s first national championship in half a century all in the same year. Before the 1998 meeting Fulmer answered media questions about the Gators with chagrin, saying:

“We’ve lost three SEC games in three years but people only want to talk about Florida. I share their passion, but it gets frustrating.”

Quarterback Payton Manning, running back Jay Graham, and stand-out defensive end Leonard Little had all graduated. After five straight losses to UF and rebuilding after graduating such stars, few gave Tennessee a prayer. But the Vols did exactly what the situation called for, playing a careful, conservative game. Tee Martin threw only twenty times, completing a paltry seven for 64 yards – not Manning-like numbers to say the least. Fortunately senior receiver Peerless Price converted one of those completions for a twenty-nine yard touchdown. Senior linebacker Al Wilson was everywhere, forcing three fumbles – one from the quarterback in the backfield, one from a receiver in open space, and one from a running back at the line of scrimmage. Dave Cutcliff’s supremely organized offense put together 170 yards on the ground; much by a young back and future star named Jamal Lewis who gained 81 yards on 20 carries. But even giving up four turnovers the Gators still took the affair to overtime. The Vols were desperate and the atmosphere could not have been tenser. When Florida came away with nothing from the first overtime possession victory became almost palpable for the home fans. Neyland roared, but again victory seemed destined to slip away when the Vols lost ten yards on their first two downs. Fortunately Tee Martin remained calm and showed enough presence of mind to take a 14 yard rushing gain with Florida back in deep pass coverage. That gave his kicker a manageable distance for a narrow 20-17 victory.

The relief in Knoxville was so great that the difference felt so much bigger than one overtime kick. With the monkey finally off their collective backs the Volunteers sailed to a 13-0 year and claimed the first ever BCS championship crown. Fulmer's program continued to compete at the highest level of SEC play but if surpassing Florida was the ultimate measure of success, 1998 was an aberration.

Bear Bryant always said that the University of Florida was the one SEC school he feared could become a dominant power with the right coach. He never lived to see that coach take the reigns in Gainesville, though his Crimson Tide did face and beat him once as a player. That loss, by three points in Tuscaloosa as a sophomore, was one of only nine games the Gators lost in Steve Spurrier’s three seasons as quarterback. He was a winner, plain and simple. Even growing up in Johnson City, Tennessee, a small mountain town in the far north-eastern corner of the state, Spurrier’s extraordinary talents garnered national attention. He not only lettered in three sports, but starred on a national scale. In three seasons pitching for Science Hill Prep he never lost a game and led his team to two consecutive state championships. Somehow Spurrier was even better at football and earned Prep All-America honors as a senior.

Though he grew up in the heart of Volunteer country Steve Spurrier decided to accept Ray Grave's scholarship offer and matriculated at the University of Florida in 1963. Like all Florida coaches during the first nine decades of Gator football Graves never fielded outstanding teams. That his .685 winning percentage ranks as second amongst UF coaches in the modern era not called Spurrier or Myer significantly reflects the fact that he enjoyed the benefits of having Spurrier as a player three of his ten seasons.

Spurrier and Fulmer in more recent times

Spurrier was, and still is, an amusing blend of utterly old-school and assertively innovative. His three-sport letterman, all-American, small-town High School career and his dual contribution passing-punting exploits in football possess something of a 1930s feel. Late on in a home date against Shug Jordan’s Auburn Tigers on October 29th 1966 Spurrier famously waved off Florida’s kicker on fourth down and booted the game winning points himself. The Gators triumphed 30-27 and the next week Heisman ballots were mailed out to voters. With Florida then 7-0 and ranked ninth, a 27 of 40 passing performance for a then SEC record 259 yards probably tipped the balance in his favor. Punting six times with a 47 yard average and converting the game winning place kick can't have hurt, either.

Jordan had warned his Tiger team all week that with a wild-card like Spurrier in the backfield Florida might well attempt a fake field goal. As Spurrier waved his kicker off with time expiring Jordan told his players:

“You’d better hope this is a fake because Spurrier kicks this he’ll make it.”

That was Steve Spurrier. Things went his way. His talent seemed to always make the difference. But if his multi-sport home-town heroism and quarterback/punter role were old-school, his rushing yards out of a vertical passing offense were more futuristic than the other running quarterbacks of his generation, most of whom played from the wishbone. In three seasons at Florida Spurrier went 392 of 692 through the air for 4,848 yards and 87 touchdowns. He added 442 yards on the ground. For the mid 1960s those figures were extremely impressive. Great quarterbacks at Texas, Nebraska or Oklahoma were more likely to make 4,000 yards rushing and 400 through the air.

Spurrier’s talent-driven Midas touch continued into his coaching career. So too did his love of flashy, innovative offense. Beginning with one season as Florida quarterbacks coach in 1978 he moved through various college and pro jobs before taking his first head coaching position at Duke in 1987. Since William Murray retired in 1965 no Duke coach had achieved a better win percentage than .440 and a few 6-5 seasons constituted the high water marks of Blue Devil football. Duke had not been to a bowl since 1961 and had no ACC championship since 1962. In Spurrier's second and third seasons Duke finished 7-4-1 and 8-4, winning the ACC that latter year. The Blue Devils have not won a championship or had a coach better than .330 since. Spurrier was obviously a hot commodity and when Galen Hall’s tenure in Gainesville came to a tumultuous end amidst NCAA rule violation accusation mid-season in 1989 it was no surprise who UF named as successor.

In some ways Spurrier's coaching was old-school. He could be gruff and was often aloof with his players. He ran a very tight ship. But he was also outspoken and not infrequently made public inflammatory comments or jokes. He told students at a prep rally before playing Auburn in 1991 that a fire had ravaged the AU library and burnt all twenty books. He finished:

“The real tragedy is that fifteen had not yet been colored yet!”

That kind of cocky self-assurance brought a new era to SEC football. It came as quite a surprise from a man coaching at Florida, which had never won a championship of any kind prior to his arrival. Spurrier changed that in two seasons.

By the early 1990s the state of Florida had transformed from a sparsely inhabited swampy region with an unlivable climate into an economic hotspot with an exploding population. Young athletic talent was now plentiful enough to sustain winning college football programs. Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles and Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes made Florida the college football state of the decade in the 1980s and left the state’s flagship public university behind. Galen Hall recruited well against in-state rivals but couldn’t seem to coach those players up to the highest level. Spurrier took over Hall's squad and brought a confidence to Gainesville that affected a sea change. He brought Florida’s offensive up to Miami’s speed and Florida State’s aggressiveness. The Gators went 9-2 in his first season and topped the SEC standing but could not claim the conference crown or appear in any bowl because of NCAA probation. That mattered little. Florida fans only had one more year to wait. Junior quarterback Shane Matthews broke the SEC total passing offense record with almost 4,000 passing yards the next season and won the SEC officially for the first time ever.

Florida failed to win ten games only two times during Spurrier’s tenure. From 1990 to 2001 he went a staggering 122-27-1. His teams won six SEC titles and a national championship. He was named SEC coach of the year five times. After the conference split to two divisions in 1992 Florida failed to win the East Division only twice under Spurrier, coming second both times. Spurrier took UF to eleven straight bowls, winning six including two Sugar Bowls and two Orange Bowls. What he accomplished in a single decade as a coach during the 1990s can only be compared to Bear Bryant’s achievements in the 1970s and Bud Wilkinson’s run in the 1950s. That is hallowed company.

Florida's national championship did not come with complete ease. After the Gators romped to an unbeaten 12-0 record in 1995 they faced Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. 11 point victories over Auburn and Florida State had been UF’s closest wins by a considerable margin and blowing opponents out of the water had become routine. But on New Year's Day 1996 Tom Osbourne’s Huskers gave UF a taste of their own medicine in a lopsided 24-62 thrashing. Spurrier highlighted 1996 as the year for Gator redemption. Florida’s key players returned, led by Danny Wuerffel who had claimed both the Davey O’Brien and Sam Baugh awards as a junior the previous year. Off the field Wuerffel was humility incarnate. Quiet, unassuming, impeccably polite and deeply religious he lacked his coach’s cocky assertiveness. On it, he was more like his mentor. Though perhaps less flashy, he was equally unhesitant, ruthless, and intelligent as a down-field passer. Wuerffel was always crushingly reliable in the clutch moments. He claimed the Heisman trophy in 1996 - another sore spot for Volunteer fans who felt that Payton manning deserved the award in 1997 when he lost out to Michigan's Charles Woodson. It just seemed Tennessee c
ould never top Florida during the 1990s.

No game show cased Florida’s quick striking and potent offense like the 1996 trip to Neyland stadium. A close Tennessee-Florida game in Gainesville the previous year had gotten out of hand in the second half and ended 62-37. Tennessee players, coaches and fans salivated at the prospect of getting the Gators on their turf. The Volunteers worked for a year to prepare for thier chance at revenge, but once again the upstart rival refused to take come-uppance. Wuerffel threw four touchdowns to four receivers in the first twenty minutes while the Gator defense forced three turnovers in reply. UF led 35-0 almost before Tennessee fans could find their seats. So thorough was Florida’s whirlwind start and so total the trauma that even after Wuerffel finished only 11 of 22 while Manning threw for over 400 yards and closed the final tally to 35-29 the affair still had the feel of an unambiguous Gator rampage.

If there is one word to describe Spurrier’s teams it must be complete. They possessed everything on offense that he had shown in his own playing career: the gambler’s abandon combined with the expert’s skill; the pace and absolute shock-and-awe explosiveness; the innovation and disregard for the institutional habits of southern football. They also had a young guru as defensive coordinator whose confidence and productivity matched Spurrier’s own. Bob Stoops would go on to make a fine head coach himself in due course. For the time being, his punishing defensive style did more than enough to give Spurrier’s offenses room to work.

The Gators’ only loss in 1996 came in a 3 point nail-biter in Tallahassee. Fortunately for Spurrier, the Sugar Bowl committee invited FSU to face the SEC champion and gave Spurrier a second shot. The game quickly became personal after a Florida State player told reporters that the Seminoles had attempted to knock Wuerffel out of the game in Tallahasee. A public war of words ensued and in New Orleans January 1st 1997 the animosity was palpable. But the emotion and tension did not cloud Spurrier’s mind. He put FSU completely off balance with several new wrinkles. Firstly the Gators implemented a silent count with center Jeff Mitchell snapping the ball at his own discretion after receiving a ‘ready’ signal from his quarterback. Secondly, Florida ran almost exclusively from the shotgun. Wuerffel even scrambled 16 yards late in the third quarter for an uncharacteristic rushing touchdown. It seemed that every Gator produced the game of his life. Even punter Robbie Stevenson kicked for an average of 48 yards. Everything went Florida’s way. FSU couldn’t adjust and UF avenged a three point loss with a crushing 52-20 win. When Ohio State knocked off the Sun Devils in Pasadena later that day Florida had its national championship. Steve Spurrier, Florida’s chosen son had led the SEC’s perennial also-ran to the Promised Land in only six years. UF has never looked back.

Phillip Fulmer performed admirably as head coach in Knoxville at a difficult time. No other team even came close to matching Florida's records, offensive production, and championships. Fulmer's Tennessee teams did everything they could. But, as Bear Bryant prophesied, Florida's time had come.

Fulmer's pre-game talk from his last head-to-head UT-UF game vs. Spurrier