This past season was a great example of why SEC football is without equal.
Dramatic finishes every week. Florida at LSU, LSU at Kentucky, Auburn at Florida, Georgia at Alabama – the list goes on and on and on. There were at least a dozen "instant classic" games this fall. Not to mention the galaxy of great players. Tim Tebow, Glenn Dorsey, Knowshon Moreno, Darren McFadden.
Great games, great players. The national champion, LSU, the Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow, compelling, dramatic, gut-wrenching action every single week.
SEC football wasn't just the best in sports this past fall, it was the best show on TV – CSI, the Office, 30 Rock, whatever you like, for 3 hours on Saturday afternoon or Saturday night, SEC football was the best show on TV. Period.
But while last season was a great example of why SEC football is the best thing going, and why so many people around the country love watching SEC football, this off-season has been a great example why SEC football can also be the worst thing going and why so many people outside the South mock and ridicule the conference for its non-existent morality and total ethical bankruptcy.
When LSU suspends starting quarterback Ryan Perrilloux for the third time in a year only to lift the suspension so he can participate in the last week of spring practice, do you know what that looks like to the rest of the country?
When South Carolina suspends hot-shot quarterback Stephen Garcia after his third run in with the law in a little over a year – effective right up until the start of fall practice, do you know what sports fans outside the South are thinking and saying?
"Bunch of damn cheaters."
The phony baloney suspensions of Perrilloux and Garcia reinforce a fact of life about SEC football, a fact that makes the rest of the college football world loathe the SEC and that fact is winning is the only thing that matters in this conference and regardless of how rotten a player is, regardless of how reckless he is off the field, regardless of the trouble he gets in or the classes he doesn't show up for or the embarrassment he brings his university, if he can play, he's ok, in the SEC.
The SEC has no ethics, no shame, no problem whatsoever using bad guys to get football glory on Saturdays. I'm not saying the rest of the college football world is squeaky clean or that USC and FSU and Ohio State don't bend the rules to a similar degree, but taken as a whole, no conference has lower morality than the SEC when it comes to what it allows its players to get away with and still compete.
It's embarrassing as an SEC alum and I went to Auburn.
It's shady, it's ridiculous, it's scandalous, but it's also life in the SEC where football is everything.
Basketball, outside of Kentucky, largely means nothing in this conference. Spring football crowds are regularly in excess of 40,000. The public education system is a joke, incomes are the lowest in the nation, rate of heart disease is the highest and no where else does a group of people depend more on athletic success for its self-esteem.
There is nothing else in this conference, largely in this region of the country. South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky have no pro sports teams. Louisiana and Tennessee have two. There's almost nothing else going on that people care about in this nine-state footprint.
There's college football and nothing else.
If Michigan stinks, you've got the Lions and Pistons and Tigers and Red Wings to focus your attention on. If Texas struggles, there's always the Cowboys or Rangers or Astros or Mavs or Spurs. If Alabama's in the toilet there's… there's… Arena 2 football? If the Vols take it on the chin, what else is there for a UT fan? A pro football team that's been in existence for 10 years?
There's nothing else here.
College football is everything.
And because people in the South have nothing else to distract themselves with and because this is a region of the country with an inferiority complex – and rightly so in many cases – and because the college football teams in this part of the world have been so successful and given their fans something to be proud of in the face of better educated, more cosmopolitan, more wealthy Midwesterners, Northerners and West Coasters, all of the emphasis of this region is placed on college football.
And when you depend entirely on one aspect of your life for so much of your happiness and interest, you're more willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that part of your life succeeds. If you're obsessed with money and family and friends and religion doesn't mean all that much to you, you're much more likely to cut corners, break laws and steal than someone with a family and other interests.
When you're a sports fan in a state with no pro sports and a culture of winning in football and your basketball team wins 15 games a season, but from Seattle to Miami people recognize your logo for football success, you're much more likely to accept illiterate players, zero integrity and criminal behavior out of your players and team.
That's what you have in the SEC: a league with great success and no integrity. A conference that is the envy of the college football world on Saturday and the embarrassment of the college football world every other day of the year. A conference where winning comes first, nothing comes second, competition is cut-throat and if corners have to be lopped off to get ahead, so be it.
LSU suspends Ryan Perrilloux, but not long enough so that he can't get a little work in spring drills because the Tigers have no where else to turn at quarterback and with Perrilloux they're a national title contender.
South Carolina suspends QB Stephen Garcia, but not so long that he can't compete for the starting job in the fall, and he's easily the most talented quarterback on the roster.
As much as thrilling, captivating, fingernail munching play on Saturday with great teams and great players is a part of SEC football, so are bogus suspensions for bad kids who have no business being anywhere near a college campus without a mop in their hands.
Bar fights, bad checks, not showing up for meetings, that's the record for Ryan Perrilloux, but so is SEC Championship Game MVP. Which do you think speaks more loudly in Baton Rouge?
Stephen Garcia has been busted for underage drinking a couple times, he "keyed" one of his professor's cars after receiving a bad grade, but he was one of the top high school quarterback prospects two years ago, what does vandalism and drinking mean compared with that?
The rest of the country looks at you, looks at the SEC, and can admire the level of play and respect the passion and commitment, but it also realizes it plays a slightly different game than the SEC. A game where academics and ethics and respectability in the community mean at least a little bit.
The Big 10 and Big 12 and ACC look at the SEC and roll their eyes at the "suspensions" of Perrilloux and Garcia as typical SEC hanky-panky. Again letting talented players get away with deplorable behavior, again placing Saturday success above integrity.
SEC football – and this is from an Auburn guy who realizes the same thing goes on at my school – there's a lot to be proud of in the fall and on Saturday and national championships and huge stadiums and Heisman Trophies, but Perrillox's suspension, Garcia's suspension, what's gone on at Tennessee, guy busted at Arkansas for assault, players kicked off of Mississippi State, there's a lot to be ashamed of as well.
And that matters too. It has to.
Winning championships is great. It's what we've got here, but at some point the ethical debasement of this conference needs to be recognized and reversed at least a little bit.
But I'm not going to hold my breath.