Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How Tim Tebow Created The Modern SEC

“You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season.”
Tim Tebow, “Promise” speech, 2008

Play hard. Two words. One cliché.

Play hard has almost become an insult. The undersized middle linebacker, the point guard with no ups, the utility second baseman – they may not be great talents, but they “play hard,” says the announcer.

tim tebow sec champion
But what happens when you combine with an overwhelming sense of pride – the desire to play hard – with sublime talent?

You get Tim Tebow. You get Alabama over Notre Dame. You get domination. You get the Southeastern Conference in football. You get “S-E-C!” chants until your ears hurt.

Is it any coincidence the SEC’s dominance coincided with the arrival of Tim Tebow to Gainesville?

The SEC trumpets itself as the leader of college football, which is should. It wasn’t always that way though. While the SEC had great players and great teams, it never dominated the entire landscape of the sport until recently. The 1980s were dominated by the Big 8 – Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado – and the independents – Notre Dame, Penn State, Florida State and Miami.

The 1990’s and the early 2000’s gave rise to powerhouses in the Big 12, Big 10 and Pac-10, but the SEC was usually obscured from the spotlight unless Florida or Tennessee made noise.

It seems almost comical to travel back in time to 2006 and realize there was a significant portion of college football fans that wanted two Big Ten teams – 2 Big Ten teams!! – to play in the BCS title game. For many, the 2006 version of Florida was unworthy.

Instead, the team changed college football forever.

Motivated by the slight, Florida took their frustrations out on Ohio State and introduced the world to a new brand of college football. It was mean. It was tough. It was determined. It was destructive.

By the time Tim Tebow made his famous speech after his team’s lone 2008 loss against Ole Miss, the tide was already turning. The SEC was bubbling up and prepared to pounce. The SEC’s rise to prominence was a confluence of events – a nation migrating South, coaches flocking to the conference and CBS giving the conference a weekly, national platform.

But every moment needs its flashpoint. The SEC got Tim Tebow.

Tebow’s 30 seconds at the podium immediately changed the perception of college football in the South for a nation of fans, myself included, who didn’t truly get it. We knew they cared about college football. We didn’t know how much. Tebow crystallized it.

It came to fruition at the 2008 SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Florida, a de facto semifinal game that changed the way college football felt. It felt more important. It felt bigger. It felt like an NFC Championship game.

With the tension jumping off the screen, Florida and Alabama played a classic – punctuated by a determined, jubilant and violently motivating Tim Tebow running up and down the sidelines like a maniac.

It was at that moment the modern SEC was born.

Great athletes live for competition. They want to be the best, which means they must play and defeat the best. To go elsewhere is an admission that you’re not good enough.

Following the 2008 season and its third-straight national title, the SEC had stamped its claim to the best. Since then, the great talents have followed. Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, heck even Ole Miss – you name the SEC school, and you’ll see the stars pile up.

They had to sell their school. They did not have to sell the conference. The best players want to play in the best conference. Half the battle was already won.

But while programs can suffer from complacency – think of Oregon smashing opponent after opponent or Oklahoma running over Kansas – the SEC conference does not allow that to happen. It is not Michigan, Ohio State and 10 other programs. It’s 12, now 14, football programs that are all good enough to beat you on any given Saturday.

When you play in the SEC, you must play hard or you don’t play.

When Alabama opened up its season against Michigan, it looked like the teams were playing at different speeds. That’s because they were. Michigan was unprepared for the onslaught, much like Notre Dame would be four months later. The real national championship game for 2012 came in Atlanta at the SEC Championship, which has seemingly evolved from de facto semifinal game to de facto title game.

It wasn’t always like this and, for that, the SEC can thank Tim Tebow.

They say at all levels of sports that players respond to their leader – how he acts, is how they act. Tim Tebow set the template for the SEC. He was the #1 QB coming out of high school. He was a Heisman Trophy winner. He would be set for life regardless of how his 2008 team finished. Yet, he cared deeply.

It sent a message to the conference – if you want to win, you need to care that much.

You will rarely see an SEC team come out flat and unprepared. You never see a top SEC team dominated by a non-conference foe. You see, week in and week out, year in and year out, the SEC winning games and championships.

Is there any end in sight? As long as the players continue to echo Tim Tebow’s statement – no.

Play hard. Two words. One defining characteristic. 

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