ORLANDO, Fla. — George O’Leary is starting to wonder if the Southeastern Conference is being governed by league commissioner Mike Slive or Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
O’Leary, the blunt, straightforward coach of the UCF Knights, compares the SEC’s recent threat to break away from the rest of major college football and start its own division, to the Confederacy’s decision to break away from the United States and risk the sovereign unity of college football.
“They sound like the South during the Civil War,” O’Leary said of the SEC and the other saber-rattlers in the so-called Power 5 conferences. “If they don’t get their way, they’re going to secede and start their own country. . . . I think college football is in real trouble.”
Perhaps it’s not just coincidence that the first three letters of “secede” are S-E-C. When it comes to college football, it seems, the South truly has risen again.
O’Leary is certainly not the first to compare the SEC to the Confederacy during the Civil War. There are some historians who truly believe SEC football dominance emanates from the South’s loss to the North in the Civil War. They claim this provincial angst is why SEC schools so adamantly pursued excellence in college football; because it gave them a chance at a symbolic rematch with those “damn Yankees.” In 1935, the SEC became the first conference to offer athletic scholarships, which outraged Harvard, Yale and the other hoity-toity institutions of higher learning in the Northeast.
“The Civil War had crushed the ego of the South,” writes author Ray Glier in his recent book “How the SEC Became Goliath.” “The North was more urbanized and industrialized. It’s why the North won the war and the South wanted to raise the level of its game. ... Football was part of the formula. ... The South finished second once before. Ever since it has been determined to finish first.”
Now that the SEC dominates college football, it seems the league wants to make up its own rules. Even though there is a contract in place binding the current lineup of conferences at the FBS level, Slive said last week that if he and his brethren in the other Power Five leagues don’t get the autonomy to create their own by-laws, the next step would be to create their own division — “Division IV” — under the NCAA umbrella.
If this were to happen, it would be devastating for up-and-coming FBS schools like UCF, who have been building and investing for years in an attempt to get to the upper echelon of college football.
“The thing that’s disturbing is that college football has been fighting for years to create a level playing field and now they’re trying to go the other way and create an even wider gap between the haves and have-nots,” O’Leary says. “I think some of these schools have forgotten where they came from.”
O’Leary is right. If Slive and the current crop of conference commissioners had been in charge of college football 35 years ago, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech would be on the outside looking in. Those programs have emerged and blossomed over the last 30 or 40 years just as UCF is emerging and blossoming now.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Why should Mississippi State, Wake Forest, Purdue and Iowa State get to be part of the Power 5 when they bring nothing to the table? UCF, the second biggest school in the nation in the 18th-biggest TV market, has much more to offer in the form of growth potential, cable TV subscribers and recruiting base. But because Mississippi State was around 100 years ago when the SEC was formed and UCF wasn’t, it’s Mississippi State that is now part of college football’s most powerful league.
As O’Leary often says, “There are two or three good teams in each of the major conferences; the rest are just members. They get a paycheck just for being in the league.”
Unfortunately for UCF, those paychecks are big enough to fund the Power 5’s potential SECession from the rest of college football.
The most frightening thing about O’Leary’s historical comparison is this:
Unlike the real Civil War, this time the rebels have all the money, power and ammunition.