AUBURN, Ala. – It’s different down here.
Not just in Alabama, where college football is nearly synonymous with church for some fans. But in all geographical locations associated with the Southeastern Conference, which has established itself during the last decade as college football’s premier league in nearly every way.
Proof of this claim can be acquired by watching for any period of time a segment on ESPN or SportsCenter dedicated to the game, for that network in particular serves as the SEC’s primary propaganda arm.
But is it propaganda if it’s true? SEC teams have won nine of 15 championships since the debut of the Bowl Championship Series, and are on an unprecedented 7-year winning streak in that regard.
In fact, no team outside this state has won a national title since the 2008 season, with Alabama winning three of the last four, and Auburn, Washington State’s opponent Saturday, claiming the hardware after an undefeated season in 2010.
There are few things more important in this part of the country than football, and winning, and winning more than everyone else. That’s something WSU special teams coordinator Eric Russell learned during his time as an assistant at Tennessee, even though the Volunteers – winners of the first BCS championship game in the 1998-99 season – were experiencing a downfall.
“It’s football season 365 days out of the year, and it doesn’t matter who you are in that city,” Russell said, asked what struck him the most about coaching in the SEC. “They’re bleeding it, and the loyalties are deep and I think how knowledgeable really a lot of the people were.
“During some of our camps, we let some of the campers and parents or whoever go in the locker room in Neyland Stadium, and for some of those 65-year-old grandpas to be inside the locker room at Neyland Stadium, it was a life event. Their reactions and just their passion, that was what was eye-opening. Football is football. But also just that aura of, ‘we are the SEC’ and it’s all about the SEC and them. You don’t spend a lot of time analyzing the other conferences. It’s all about that little group.”
It soon became obvious to Russell that stop-and-talks at the grocery store or interview sessions with reporters were not going to involve many platitudes or softball questions.
“They’d watch tape, they’d question you on something schematically or they’d notice this or that,” Russell said. “There was never a breather. It was every day. There was no summer. There was no spring.”
That’s because, in many SEC communities, there is little other entertainment to serve as an alternative to spending weekends tailgating and watching football.
“You’re talking about kind of smaller communities that are consumed with it,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Because there’s not a bunch of other things … you take some of the urban areas. Take Seattle, take the Bay Area, take Los Angeles. There’s a lot of things people can be doing. Auburn plays a game, it commands attention in the whole region and all the state. So I think that’s an exciting thing and I think they’ve done a great job of building on it.”
Then again, Leach is one of the last people on earth who will express awe of an opponent or the atmosphere created by one of its home games. Respect, yes. Always. But no matter how daunting the environment – and Leach has seen a few, with coaching experience in the SEC and Big 12 – he doesn’t want his players focusing on it.
The Cougars are 1-5 against SEC opponents, beating Tennessee in 1988 and most recently losing at Auburn in 2006. No player on WSU’s current roster has played against an SEC opponent. Walk-on receiver Tyler Baker transferred after spending a season at Ole Miss, but sat out there while redshirting.
So there might be some wide eyes Saturday when the Cougars enter Jordan-Hare Stadium, which came just short of selling out by filling the seats with 83,401 fans for its last game – the team’s intra-squad spring game in April.
“You’ll work on silent count,” Leach said. “And then your communication skills, you try to refine those as good as you can. But once a place is loud enough that it’s difficult to hear, it’s kind of the same in a way. It’s cool to see the magnitude of a lot of people, but once it’s too loud to hear, if it gets louder it’s still too loud to hear.”