Book Review: How the SEC Became Goliath

The SEC is playing in its ninth BCS Championship Game, the most of any conference in the history of the modern championship game. The only time that an SEC team lost in the national championship game was to another SEC team. What is it about this underdog conference in Dixie, in a land away from bi-coastal media loci, with pedestrianly populated states that has them dominating the rest of America? How the SEC Became Goliath by Ray Glier explains this college football reality.

Author Ray Glier has covered the SEC for over twenty-five years as the former executive sports editor for The Knoxville Journal and now as a contributor to The USA Today among other publications. His sources in the book come from colleagues in football’s fourth estate, which is to whom he dedicates his book.

Glier shows in How the SEC Became Goliath the origins of SEC pride. Like most things in the South, it was borne out of losing the Civil War and wanting to show those Yankees north of the Mason-Dickson Line how equal Southerners were to their Northern American counterparts. Another part of it was regional pride, as Glier explains in a 1910 story of Vanderbilt playing Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Vanderbilt coach Dan McGugin told his players their grandfathers were buried in military cemeteries in the North, and that, over on the Yale sideline, “There are the grandsons of the damn Yankees who put them there.”

For a young white man playing in the SEC, it’s about Southern pride. Glier also shows, in an interview with former LSU receiver Michael Clayton, that the same notion of equality resonated with African American athletes. By performing well in football and in the SEC, black athletes could transcend the race barrier and be seen as equals. As Clayton states: “If you were a normal black kid, you were judged in communities. You were racially profiled. To the African American community, being accepted was motivation to try harder. Being an athlete gave you a chance to be the first in your family to get an education and then to take care of your family.”

The SEC used to have problems keeping its surfeit of local talent “in house.” Glier shows how all of that changed at LSU when Nick Saban arrived on the scene and started to recruit and be more courteous towards local Baton Rouge talent. Under the status quo at the time, local talent like Michael Clayton, notably a wide receiver with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2004-09, and Marcus Spears, current Cowboys defensive end since 2005, would go to Florida State because the old LSU regimes saw local talent as beneath the pale. Nick Saban changed that in LSU.

One of the ways Nick Saban changed things in LSU, and subsequently at Alabama, was by implementing a draft system devised in 1991 by Bill Belichick and Michael Lombardi while with the Cleveland Browns (and former Cowboys pro personnel director Gil Brandt had strong consulting input into this system). Rather than having different assistant coaches fighting for “their guy,” all players have to meet the Saban criteria: height, weight, speed, athletic ability, and strength/explosion. Anyone can spot the top 10% and bottom 10%, but Saban’s system helps evaluate the middle 80%. The fruits of this system are evident. Since 2000, Bill Belichick has coached in five Super Bowls and Nick Saban will be coaching in his fourth national championship game.

How the SEC Became Goliath isn’t a total laudation of Nick Saban and his successes at LSU and Alabama. Glier also goes on to show how Les Miles has done more than be a diligent steward of what Saban left behind. Les Miles put a heavy emphasis on strength and conditioning, such to the point that strength and conditioning coaches now make a lucrative living in college football programs.

The book also exposes some of the shady sides of the SEC. Glier does a cursory review of what happened with Lane Kiffin’s tenure at Tennessee, and Glier also talks about the arrival of super conferences and pay-for-play players. Like with Lane Kiffin’s scandal in the SEC, Glier only gives an overview of the Cam Newton allegations.

Glier predicted in his twelfth chapter, “Next,” that the Georgia Bulldogs would overtake Alabama and Florida to win the SEC Championship. The Bulldogs were only 9 seconds and 8 yards away from making Glier’s prediction come true. But Glier’s prediction was soundly based upon the culture change Mark Richt had been employing and also the fiery determination and swagger of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Cowboys fans should remember Grantham as Dallas’ defensive line coach from 2008-09, and whose work helped Jay Ratliff have consecutive 5+ sacks a season (and hasn’t had over 3 since).

There are some criticisms I have with the book, but they are mostly minor, nit-picky things on par to the kinds of complaints your mother has when you take her out to eat. Firstly, the tone of the book seems too laid back. It doesn’t feel like Glier really tried. It just doesn’t have that feel like he exhaustively researched the subject, though what he says is accurate and articulate. When one reads Peter Golenbock’s Landry’s Boys or Jeff Pearlman’s Boys Will Be Boys, one gets the sense of the time and effort it took to create those Persian miniatures of grid iron literature. Admittedly, Glier wrote the book in 62 days. It is an impressive piece written so quickly, but it’s not going to stand time’s test because there is still a lot more depth that other football historians will fill in as time passes.

Another thing Glier does is overstate Phil Savage’s qualifications. It’s too bad I don’t have a digital version of the book so I could count the instances. But it felt like Glier was writing, “Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl in Mobile, and former general manager of the Cleveland Browns” just about every time he introduced Savage into a chapter. Yes, it’s plausible the reader forgets. But aren’t there other ways to combine Phil Savage’s qualifications without making it seem like the chorus verse in this football analysis epic?

Even if the Alabama Crimson Tide fall on Monday night, even if Nick Saban loses, even if the SEC falls for the first time to a Fighting Irish David in the title game, Glier wrote a great survey in How the SEC Became Goliath to show how the Southeastern Conference has become a grid iron behemoth in the BCS era.

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