The Southeastern Conference used to be solid basketball league. From 1997 through 2008 the league consistently earned a large number of NCAA Tournament bids. Each year of that streak the conference received either five or six bids. Only the ACC and Big East did better on a regular basis.
But something changed in the late-2000s. Suddenly the league started dropping in the conference RPI ratings. This past season computer formulas ranked the SEC as just the seventh-best league in America. NCAA Tournament bids began to drop as well — three in 2009, four in 2010, five in 2011, four in 2012, three in 2013 and again this year.
Those who don’t want to admit a problem need look only as far as the league office where Mark Whitworth was placed in the freshly created role of associate commissioner for basketball last July. (That move came just two weeks after we suggested the SEC hire a “hoops czar,” by the way.) Athletic directors and presidents across the conference recognized that they needed a person to aid in basketball scheduling and marketing. At the time, Mike Slive said Whitworth would “effectively manage our efforts to promote and enhance SEC basketball.”
So what was it that happened in the late-2000s that led to a downturn in SEC hoops and the need for a new basketball “fixer?”
We believe five things are at play. And all five can in some way be tied back to the sport that SEC schools do best — football.
The SEC has always been a dominant football conference. But not until an unprecedented run of national championships in the mid- to late-2000s did the crown of “King Football” go unchallenged to the SEC each year. Florida won the BCS title game in January of 2007. LSU followed in 2008, then it was Florida again in January 2009. Three titles in a row. An enormous wave of media attention on SEC football.
At the very same time that the SEC was kicking off its seven-year run of championships, there was an explosion in television coverage for the sport. Which conference cut the best deals in terms of exposure? Take a guess. Mike Slive’s twin contracts with CBS and ESPN ensured that darn near every SEC football game would be seen by a national audience. The Big Ten was making money with its own network, but the Southeastern Conference was passing right by Jim Delany’s league in terms of national exposure. And when did those new contracts pushing SEC football into every American living room kick in to place? In 2009.
That’s the background. Since those two things (championship run, increased television exposure) took place, five other changes have come to pass as a result…
1. Salaries for SEC football coaches have boomed. Alabama’s 2007 hire of Nick Saban for eight years and $32 million raised the bar inside the league and across the nation. Other SEC schools have since followed suit — Florida, LSU, etc. Seven years after Saban’s hire there isn’t a single football coach in the SEC making less than $2.2 million per season. Eleven of the 14 coaches in the league make $2.9 million or more. South Carolina — long a doormat in the college football world — now boasts a national championship-winning coach who makes $3.5 million per season. No league pays more money for football coaches than the SEC. In contrast, the SEC most certainly does not lead the nation when it comes to basketball salaries. The by-product, of course, is that SEC football jobs are “destination” jobs. The same can’t be said for basketball. How many top name basketball coaches have been hired into the SEC as proven stars? John Calipari. Mike Anderson. Anthony Grant if you consider “hot” up-and-comers. Now turn it around. How many SEC football coaches are coveted by other leagues? Saban, Miles, Mark Richt, Steve Spurrier, Kevin Sumlin, etc, etc. How many hoops coaches are coveted? Calipari, Billy Donovan, and who? The bottom line is this: The SEC has a better group of expensive, proven football coaches than it does expensive, proven basketball coaches. Better coaches make for a better product.
2. SEC schools spend more money on football facilities. Texas A&M is increasing the size of Kyle Field to make it the largest venue in the conference. Tennessee recently opened a new $45 million football training facility that is state of the art. Alabama has expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium and boasts a world-class football facility of its own. Name any other SEC school and you’re likely to find that either its stadium is being upgraded or a new training facility is being built — Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and so on. Now compare those football digs to the league’s basketball venues. Auburn just opened a new arena… that seats all of 9,000 fans. Ole Miss is finally replacing decrepit Tad Smith Coliseum with a new arena… that will seat 9,500 fans. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Tennessee built its own basketball practice facility and upgraded Thompson-Boling Arena in recent years. Kentucky has been making plans to renovate Rupp Arena. Arkansas has made improvements to Bud-Walton Arena. Mizzou Arena went up in 2004, but that was before the Tigers joined the SEC. Outside of that handful of schools — schools that traditionally have supported hoops better than any others in the SEC — where do basketball venues outshine football venues in the SEC? Not at LSU. Or Florida. Or Alabama. Or Auburn, Georgia, and so on. Better facilities equal better recruiting.
3. The SEC has a reputation for being a football conference. Put yourself in the size 18 Nikes of a top basketball prospect. You can sign to play ball for one of America’s highest-paid coaches in a conference that puts basketball first and earns seven or eight NCAA tournament bids per season or you can sign with an SEC team and probably play for an up-and-coming coach in a so-so arena in front of a fanbase that’s more interested in football recruiting than basketball results. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Perhaps. But at most SEC schools we do believe it’s a reality that there are as many eyes on spring football as there are on college hoops. This issue also feeds itself, unfortunately. The more people refer to the SEC as a “football conference” the more people believe it to be a football conference. And don’t think recruits aren’t told that when they’re considering SEC scholarship offers. ”You don’t want to go there, that’s a football school.”
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