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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Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Conversation Between Two People About That America 12 Conference Rumor

“So do you still think UConn should say no to the ACC?”

“Shutup.”

american mike aresco
“You’re the one who told me about it. That some blogger was the voice of a generation or something.”

“No, that was when he wrote about the ESPN killing the Big East. Which I still stand by.”

“But UConn and the ACC?”

“Yeah, UConn should be on its hands and knees every night praying to whatever God that state universities believe in that the ACC expands and takes them. Or that the Big Ten raids the ACC. Or any possible scenario that ends up with UConn not playing in the Metro Conference or whatever they end up naming it.”

“Ah yes, funny you bring that up. That’s why I called.”

“Dammit, they actually went with the Metro Conference, didn’t they? Nothing says ‘Dead Conference Walking’ more than naming it after a conference that is actually dead. Great work Mike Aresco, the state of Connecticut thanks you again for your stellar work.”

“Are you done?”

“I feel like Rory McIlroy done in by the pressure of being too rich and famous. I just want to walk away.”

“You know Rory is pulling a Chappelle right now.”

“Oh definitely, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. You know that blonde tennis chick he’s dating will dump her. Tiger is becoming his friend and that can’t be a good thing. I don’t think he’s ready for the mental anguish that comes with ESPN talking heads debating your mental health. He’s too into Twitter and the such.”

“And the such? When did you start talking like that?”

“It’s what all the cool kids say.”

“Yeah, so, whatever. It’s not called the Metro Conference.”

“Thank God! Finally some good news.”

“Well, that’s debatable.”

“Oh shit, the name is worse?”

“Well…”

“Oh God, what did they do? Did they really take the Jersey Guy’s suggestion and name it the Big Metro American Conference? Good lord, he even suggested they call it the Big MAC and do a deal with McDonald’s. Oh geez, I’m freaking out, please tell me that’s not…”

“Calm down, it’s not the Big Mac conference. That would be better. Or at least tastier.”

“Better?”

“The new conference is going to be called the America 12.”

“The America 12 what?”

“I think just the America 12”

“What the fuck does America 12 mean? Aren’t there only 10 teams?”

“I don’t know, and yes.”

“Why did you call and ruin my day?”

“Because I knew you were in meetings all day and not religiously checking Twitter. So surprise, everything sucks again.”

“I’m so angry.”

“You don’t sound it.”

“I’m the Hulk pre-turning green. I’m the guy in Me, Myself and Irene before he goes nuts. I’m Jack Donaghy just crushing the anger into a ball.”

“That doesn’t sound healthy at all. Besides, it’s more fun when you get made, like when you were all ticked off about that Jack Swagger video.”

“Okay, seriously, I can’t take double anger right now. Let’s focus on doing whatever we can do as UConn fans to rid UConn of the America 12 Conference. The A-12? That’s the best they could come up it.”

“You have a better suggestion?”

“Literally, any other name. I mean, damn, the Metro Conference revival sounds heavenly compared to that. Can you imagine selling that to recruits? Yeah, sure you could play in the Big Ten or SEC, but wouldn’t you rather play in the America 12?”

“Adding a number is just opening yourself up for jokes.”

“Yeah, because the Big East West jokes with San Diego State and Boise weren’t enough. I bet they still have visions of expanding further west and creating a true national conference.”

“Could they?”

“Shutup. I don’t like when you call just to get me riled up. I have better things to do right now.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, something!”

“Don’t be so angry, it’s Thursday.”

“So?”

“Archer’s on tonight.”

“Finally, some good news.”

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Everyone, Let's Not Panic, UConn Will Be Fine

Connecticut can be forgiven if it thinks the sky is falling – it’s been falling for 25 years.

Since the Insurance Capital of the World heyday of the mid-1980’s, the state and its cities have been in a constant state of decline. With two of the world’s greatest cities within a 2-hour drive, it can be very easy to get lost in the mix. Our inferiority complex is ingrained in who we are.

Our state government has conspired, at times in a corrupt manner, to whittle away at what made our state great. Bridgeport is now one of the saddest cities in America. New Haven is not a place you want to walk alone in past sunset. Hartford is now a relic – a sad, empty reminder of what was and what could have been. The former Hartford Civic Center stands renamed as the XL Center and as arguably the worst arena in any major city in this country.

The University of Connecticut and its sports programs have provided a stark contrast. Over the past two decades, our basketball teams have combined to win 10 national championships, our football team has risen to play in a Fiesta Bowl from I-AA and our non-revenue sports, including baseball and soccer, are some of the top programs in the country.

Yet even UConn hasn’t been immune to poor decision-making and a lack of foresight. The very publicly feud with Boston College, along with the resulting litigation from the ACC raid in 2003, likely kept UConn from joining the conference in 2011.

Former athletic director Jeff Hathaway inherited a robust, firing on all cylinders athletic program and managed to push Randy Edsall out the door by failing to pay market rate for him or his assistant coaches. While Edsall’s inexcusable manner of departure shaped public opinion, he built up a middle of the road Yankee Conference team into one that played Oklahoma on New Year’s Night.

In a twist that could only happen in Connecticut, Hathaway’s best move was undercut by our state government. A 10-game series with Notre Dame, with UConn “home” games being played in NYC and Boston was shot down by a government convinced Notre Dame should visit the Rent, our 40,000-seat stadium. The taxpayers, they said, deserved it. Notre Dame laughed and moved on. UConn’s football program would now kill for that type of exposure.

On Thursday night, it was announced the Catholic 7 of the Big East is moving on by next fall. In the wake of this news, the story took a UConn slant. The biggest losers in conference realignment? UConn. The athletic program most likely to fall off the face of the map? UConn. The end of the world? UConn.

So with that prologue out of the way, let’s get to the heart of the matter – UConn athletics will be absolutely fine.

The Hartford/New Haven television market is one of the biggest in the United States, standing above other “major” metros such as Kansas City, Memphis, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City.

The UConn women continue to be the gold standard in women’s basketball, routinely drawing five-figure crowds and proving to be a cash cow. Did you know SNY pays UConn more than $1 million annually to televise the UConn women in the world’s largest media market?

The retirement of Jim Calhoun was feared for years as many thought it could end the historic run for the men’s team. Instead, Kevin Ollie took over, reinvigorated a fan base and has led a short-handed team through an exciting season that would make them a lock for the NCAA Tournament if not for a one-year academic ban. When it comes to producing NBA talent, UConn shares the same altitude as Kentucky, UNC and Duke.

The football team has admittedly been in a rut thanks to the George DeLeone reign of terror and Coach Gramps’ inability to win football games. Despite that, UConn was one of the stories during last week’s NFL Scouting Combine with 4 defensive players making waves and all will likely be drafted. UConn football is not Alabama football – but we’re not Memphis football either.

It always comes down to money and perception in college sports and right now, UConn is lacking both. The new television deal for whatever its conference will be called is sad and pathetic – the UConn women’s team makes almost as much by itself. The rivalries with Syracuse, Georgetown, Louisville and Rutgers are about to go the way of the dodo bird.

It can be tough for anyone with ties to Connecticut to see the positives. But they are there. The UConn brand is strong. The UConn brand is renowned. The UConn brand will survive.

Whether UConn remains in its new conference for a year or a decade, it all comes back to winning. As long as UConn’s programs continue to win, they will be fine. No other women’s program can boast 7 national titles. No other men’s program can boast 3 title since 1999. No other program has had a former basketball star play the leading role in a Spike Lee movie – okay, less important, but still significant.

I know UConn will remain strong because I’ve felt what it could be at its height.

Every time Notre Dame hosts an opponent, the visiting fans try to infiltrate the stands to see a game in college football’s most historic and mythic venue. In 2000, Nebraska and its famous “Sea of Red” took over the stadium, much to the disgust of Domers.

But nothing compares to what happened in 2009. After 3 straight heart-breaking losses by a total of 10 points in the wake of Jasper Howard’s murder, UConn finally broke through in double overtime on a glorious, sun-splashed afternoon into unseasonably warm November night. As Randy Edsall gave his emotional post-game interview to NBC, Notre Dame Stadium was engulfed by UConn fans, myself included, letting the world know how we felt.

Watch. Learn. Love.



UConn will be fine. Panic is not necessary at this time.

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