COLLEGE KNOWLEDGE In 1991, when mascot Smokey VI fell prey to heat exhaustion, the Vols listed the coonhound on the injury report.
AT ITS MOST BASIC, AN SEC FOOTBALL STADIUM IS BUT A PATCH of grass surrounded by stands of concrete, wood or steel. But for seven or eight Saturdays each fall—and in our minds forever—are layered in the cheers, the tears, the sun-dappled colors, the singing of the old alma mater, the taste of barbecue and brew, the romances (and marriage proposals) and the devotion of generations (some dearly departed, some yet unborn) to the Tide, the Dawgs, the Gators. As such, the buildings become community cathedrals. And we love them.
While each of these hallowed stadiums has its unique character, the most awe-inspiring among them have pretty near all of these ingredients.
• A sweet piece of real estate. "Georgia's been blessed with having a location set in a valley," says Vince Dooley, the Bulldogs' coach from 1964 to '88. "There's Tanyard Creek that flows under Sanford Stadium. The stadium itself was built on the side of two hills, so there's a natural, beautiful scene that blends into the environment."
Todd Ellis, South Carolina's quarterback from 1986 through '89 and now the Gamecocks' radio play-by-play man, rhapsodizes about the breathtaking sight in Knoxville when the floating fans in the Volunteer Navy approach on the Tennessee River. "To play a fall game in Neyland Stadium and see those boats come down there when the leaves have changed is just about as good as it gets," he says.
• A signature feature. Ole Miss boasts The Grove, the grandest tailgating spot in the land. Ringing Georgia's gridiron are its fabled hedges (as in, "between the ..."). "These are sacred to the Georgia people," says Dooley. Besides prettifying the place, he notes, "they also have a practical value—they keep people off the field after the games."
At LSU's Tiger Stadium, there are, simply, the lights. LSU pioneered their use, first playing night games in 1931. Even today the floodlights heighten every perception during a game at Death Valley, making an already gnarly road game almost spooky.
• Campus flavor. This is where the SEC sparkles. Almost all its stadiums are smack on campus, which makes for cramped parking but ensures a scenic, often nostalgic stroll to the game. "On Sundays a lot of people just drive around the campus," notes Dooley. "They see the same people every time they go—that's part of the tradition."
• Fear factor. "You can't have a great stadium without intimidation," declares Ellis. Rich Brooks, who has coached Kentucky, Oregon and the NFL's Rams, says the SEC sets the standard. "Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Auburn ... those stadiums are about the Christians being fed to the lions." The noise alone can unhinge a road team. Says Ellis, "The best third-down volume I've ever heard is in Gainesville. They are incredibly smart fans, and the stadium has those high, high walls that radiate the volume and keep the sound in there."