Last Wednesday, Braves & Birds made some interesting observations about the Mark Richt era, one of which was this:
Richt benefited from a weak SEC. . . .
Richt's heyday corresponds with the conference's weakest period. Steve Spurrier had been replaced by Ron Zook, Phil Fulmer and Lou Holtz were in decline, Arkansas was in between Houston Nutt's two strong periods (the Clint Stoerner teams at the start of his tenure and the McFadden/Jones teams at the end), and Alabama was adrift under Mike Shula. The only SEC power programs that were not suffering were Auburn and LSU and Richt batted .500 against them during the glory years, including the two worst losses of the period: the 2003 SEC Championship Game against LSU and the 2004 game at Auburn.
That, in conjunction with podunkdawg’s assessment of a Southeastern Conference in transition, got me thinking about something that is so obvious it often gets overlooked. Simply stated, sustained success in sports almost always is at least partially dependent upon the weakness of the opposition.
That is not to say great teams cannot coexist in the same league at the same time; they can, although rarely for very long. Show me a program that is dominant to the point of becoming dynastic, though, and I probably will be able to show you one or more rival schools enduring downcycles.
Bear Bryant took over a moribund Alabama program in 1958. He had the Crimson Tide in the Liberty Bowl in 1959 and won a national championship in 1961. There is no disputing the Bear’s ability as a coach . . . but he returned ‘Bama to prominence in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when Georgia was in a period of decline under Wally Butts and Johnny Griffith, Auburn was feeling the effects of probation following a 19-0-1 run in 1957 and ‘58, and Tennessee was going through a series of four-, five-, and six-win seasons after ending the 1956 and 1957 campaigns in the Sugar and Gator Bowls, respectively. LSU remained strong under Paul Dietzel and Charlie McClendon, but Coach Bryant’s teams did not face the Bayou Bengals for a five-year stretch from 1959 to 1963.
Something similar occurred at the end of Coach Bryant’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. Alabama struggled to replace the Bear and went through some comparatively lean years under Ray Perkins and Bill Curry beginning in 1983. During that same period, the Bulldogs were descending from their high water mark under Vince Dooley in the early part of the decade and Louisiana State was on a roller-coaster ride of peaks and valleys under Jerry Stovall, Bill Arnsparger, and Mike Archer. It was against that backdrop that Pat Dye was able to guide Auburn to the top of the SEC.
In between (and, to some extent, overlapping with) those periods of Alabama and Auburn dominance, Coach Dooley’s Bulldogs captured four conference championships in the seven years from 1976 to 1982. Between 1975 and 1983, the Red and Black sustained no league losses four times and suffered only one setback in SEC play on four other occasions. This stretch of Southeastern Conference success for Georgia coincided with a period during which the Plainsmen were plainly mediocre under Doug Barfield and the Gators were merely good but not great under Doug Dickey and Charley Pell. During the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when both the Bulldogs and the Tide were strong simultaneously, Alabama and Georgia rarely played, as the fallout from the Saturday Evening Post scandal in the ‘60s had caused the two teams to stop scheduling one another annually.
To some extent, the 1990s cast the reliability of this trend into doubt, as that decade saw extended runs of high-level performance from Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee simultaneously. During this period, the Volunteers faced both the Gators and the Tide each autumn, while ‘Bama ran up against the Sunshine State Saurians in the SEC championship game with regularity. Even so, though, there is little doubt that the Tide benefited from Louisiana State’s struggles under Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo, or that Florida and Tennessee profited from the Bulldogs’ mediocrity under Ray Goff and Jim Donnan.
As we survey the Southeastern Conference landscape in 2010, we see a surfeit of stable staffs in the West and an abundance of uncertainty in the East. Rich Brooks, Lane Kiffin, Willie Martinez, and Charlie Strong are gone. That probably points to the Western Division being the stronger of the two next fall, although playing in the stronger division of the National League didn’t help the Atlanta Braves when they survived their regular-season marathon against the San Francisco Giants in 1993 and fell to the Philadelphia Filthies in the league championship series.
Derek Dooley, George Edwards, Todd Grantham, and Joker Phillips are relatively unknown quantities at this point, and we cannot accurately anticipate how rapidly these coaches will have an impact and how beneficial they will prove to be. For all our hope that our team’s change will prove the most positive the most quickly, though, history suggests that a combination of factors is necessary to success.
We need our team to get better, but we should not underestimate the corresponding need for our rivals to get worse. While our first priority is for the Georgia defense to improve under Coach Grantham, it sure wouldn’t hurt for Derek to prove to be the lesser of two Dooleys or for the kinder, gentler Gator skipper to turn out to be Suburban Meyer. A new dynasty will not simply arise; we must root for the old ones to decline.