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One reason for the recruiting success is that the conference, the last to fully embrace integration, has improved its record on race. The league lost its only black head coach last year when Sylvester Croom resigned at Mississippi State after five seasons, but black assistants hold key positions on every staff in the league. One of college football's most respected young coaches, Tyrone Nix, is the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss. "I went to a coaches' convention, and it was brought to my attention that I had quite a few black coaches," says Nutt. "But I never really noticed before. I've known Ty because I had to coach against him. I've never had a moment when I said, 'O.K., I'm going to have six black coaches on my staff.' There's no quota. I just want the best coach."
One curiosity about the league's coaches is how often they move around within the conference. It's a confederacy of vagabonds, and a coach's loyalty depends largely on which athletic business office is cutting his paycheck. Spurrier and Nutt are the only two current head coaches who had the same job title in the SEC a decade ago, but in 1999 Spurrier was still at Florida and Nutt was at Arkansas. For 14 years John Chavis was the defensive coordinator at Tennessee; this year he has the same position at LSU. Fired as Ole Miss's coach after the 2007 season, Ed Orgeron spent a year with the New Orleans Saints before returning to the SEC as Kiffin's assistant head coach. Last January, Alabama's ace recruiter, Lance Thompson, said goodbye to head coach Nick Saban and Tuscaloosa and headed north to Knoxville, another Kiffin hire. During the first half of the decade Randy Sanders coached the quarterbacks and ran the offense at Tennessee; now he coaches the quarterbacks and coordinates the offense at Kentucky. For four seasons starting in 2005, Dan Mullen dutifully served as Florida's offensive coordinator; now he's the head coach at Mississippi State.
That so many of college football's top coaches work in the SEC should be no surprise. The conference generously rewards those who deliver wins (Meyer, Saban and LSU coach Les Miles pull down in the neighborhood of $4 million a year, while top assistants earn annual salaries in the middle to high six-figure range), and you can't beat the competition on the field. In what other conference do you see a team such as LSU escaping at Mississippi State with a last-minute goal line stand, then coming back the next week to rally past Georgia between the hedges? "The quality of the programs from the highest-ranked teams to the lowest-ranked teams, there's really not all that much separating them," says Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. "So you can never let up. The Number 1s who are starting aren't that much different than the Number 2s who don't start. Across the board the talent's that great."
While school loyalty among SEC coaches might change from year to year, family loyalty never seems to waiver. Kiffin famously hired his father, Monte, away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to work for him as defensive coordinator, but less publicized was his decision to bring in David Reaves, the brother of Lane's wife, Layla, to coach the quarterbacks. Kiffin got Reaves from Spurrier, who had his own family member on staff: Steve Jr., the Gamecocks' receivers coach, who has in his corps of playmakers a 5'6", 160-pound senior walk-on named Scott Spurrier. Scott is the head coach's son and the assistant coach's brother, and lo and behold if he didn't recently announce his intention to become a football coach when his playing days are done.
At Ole Miss, Nutt has his brother Danny on the payroll as the program's assistant athletic director for player development. "When I was at Murray State, somebody told me there was a law against nepotism," says Houston. "It was the first time I'd ever heard the word. Nepotism? What's that? 'Well,' they told me, 'that's when you hire your brother,' 'Yeah,' I said, 'I hired my brother. But my brother's the best running backs coach I could get for $22,000 a year.'"
The South long ago grew accustomed to crude jokes about incestuous relationships, and any criticism aimed at its coaches is sure to be ignored. Kramer says SEC schools have had an "us against the nation" attitude since 1926, when a team from the South, Alabama, finally received an invitation to appear in the Rose Bowl and compete on a national stage. Until that day every other college team in the region regarded Wallace Wade's squad as the enemy, but as the Crimson Tide made its way back to Tuscaloosa after a 20--19 victory over Washington, fans crowded train depots in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to salute the team. That spirit is alive today in the league's diehards, who attend games with nonconference opponents and shout, "SEC! SEC! SEC!" when the right team wins.
The crowd was decidedly less collegial in Baton Rouge as Tim Tebow faced a deafening din that could only have given him more headaches. His Gators, though, silenced the LSU faithful, including all those purple-and-gold-clad ladies with their purple-and-gold noisemakers, handing the Tigers their first Saturday-night loss at Death Valley in 33 games. Tebow was wise enough to not get too carried away over the victory afterward. He's been around the SEC long enough to not ask for whom the Belles toll.
John Ed Bradley played center at LSU from 1976 through '79 and wrote about his playing days in his memoir, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. He now lives in Mandeville, La.
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