by Patrick Snow
With the football season fast approaching, we thought it was time to take a State-by-State look at the schools and traditions that make up the religion that is college football in our Swampland footprint.
Texas – We have to start in Austin where the Longhorns’ four national titles and the 3rd most wins in college football history reside. They were the class of the old Southwest Conference before moving on to the Big 12. Their massive stadium is named after legendary coach Darrell Royal, and Mack Brown is currently having a Royal-like run. There have been tons of great players at Texas from Tommy Nobis to Earl Campbell to Ricky Williams to Vince Young, and their tradition can match up with any school.
Texas A&M has quite the tradition (12th Man) as well, and they have an amazing gameday presentation at historic Kyle Field. The Aggies won 17 Southwest Conference championships under great coaches like Dana Bible (who finished his Hall of Fame career at Texas), Bear Bryant, and R.C. Slocum, as well as Hall of Fame players John David Crow (’57 Heisman winner) and Charlie Krueger. TCU (Sammy Baugh, Bob Lilly, LaDainian Tomlinson) and Baylor (Coach Grant Teaff, Mike Singletary) have both had some periods of success, while Texas Tech has come on lately with their high-caliber offense.
We can’t leave the Longhorn State without mentioning the mammoth high-school tradition - great crowds and great players. Every school in the nation recruits the state of Texas, and those players become the lifeblood of our favorite college programs.
Florida – While the long-term tradition is not quite there in the Sunshine State, Florida has become the juggernaut of college football over the last 25-30 years. During that span, three different universities-Florida, Florida State, and Miami- have won multiple national titles and have had multiple Heisman winners. No other state in the country can come anywhere close to that achievement. I think much of the credit for all of the success goes to three legendary coaches in Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier, and Jimmy Johnson (with an assist to Howard Schnellenberger). Those men and the great recruits (much like Texas) in the Sunshine State have turned Florida into the powerhouse it is today. In fact, the number and quality of high school football players in Florida has led to the evolution of other successful programs in the state like South Florida, Florida Atlantic and UCF.
Top Notch Twin Traditions
Alabama - What I consider the best rivalry in college football lies in the Heart of Dixie with the Iron Bowl. We’ll start in Tuscaloosa with the storied tradition of Alabama, and that means Coach Bear Bryant. His shadow still looms over the program as he ended his career in 1982 as college football’s winningest coach (since surpassed by Bobby Bowden).Before Bryant, Hall of Fame coaches Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas established the Tide tradition that has seen Alabama win many (6-8 for most analysts; 12 for Tide fans) National titles. Many great players have worn the crimson over the years, with Don Hutson, Lee Roy Jordan, Joe Namath, John Hannah, Derrick Thomas, and Shaun Alexander leading the way. Current coach Nick Saban has been ultra-compensated to restore the Tide tradition. His financial package shows what it meant to Bama alums to be on top of the SEC again, and Saban was even named the most powerful coach in the game in a 2008 Forbes article.
The other half of the Iron Bowl rivalry– a game probably discussed more than any other in America- plays at famed Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Auburn Tigers have had many great coaches in Hall of Famers Shug Jordan and Pat Dye, as well as current boss Tommy Tuberville. When you think of the “Loveliest Village on the Plains” or Toomer’s Corner, football greats like Pat Sullivan, Bo Jackson, and Tracy Rocker come to mind first. While sometimes overshadowed by the hated Tide, Auburn has beaten Alabama six times in a row and has had the upper hand in the state for the better part of a decade now.
Georgia - From Charley Trippi and Frank Sinkwich in the ‘40s to modern stars like Herschel Walker to Champ Bailey, the Bulldogs have won multiple national championships and 12 SEC titles. Athens has been a home for coaching excellence as both Wally Butts and Vince Dooley won on the sidelines of Sanford Stadium for over two decades – and current boss Mark Richt seems to be headed for a similar legacy. There are many traditions associated with Georgia football with Uga the Bulldog, playing games “Between the Hedges”, and the neutral site rivalry with Florida (“World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party”) heading the list.
Georgia Tech has been in both the SEC and ACC and has won conference and national titles in both. The Yellow Jackets boast three Hall of Fame coaches in John Heisman, Bill Alexander and Bobby Dodd (for whom the Stadium is named). Dodd’s feud with Alabama was the one of the primary reasons for Tech leaving the SEC in the ‘60s. In 1916, Heisman was responsible for one of the most famous-or infamous- games in college football history when he had the Yellow Jackets run it up on Cumberland College to the tune of 222-0.
When talking Georgia football, we should also mention Coach Erk Russell. He was Georgia’s defensive coordinator for 17 years where his stingy defenses came to be known as “Junkyard Dawgs”. Russell then went on to win three I-AA national titles in the ‘80s at Georgia Southern.
Single Power States
Oklahoma – The Boomer Sooner tradition was started by Hall of Fame Coach Bennie Owens over a century ago and was perfected by legendary coach Bud Wilkinson during his seventeen years as the boss in Norman. Among the multiple national titles and Big 8 dominance under Wilkinson, there is one accomplishment that still stands at the top of the college football mountain to this day-the Sooners’ amazing 47-game winning streak from 1953-1957. Barry Switzer and his wishbone offense carried on that excellence in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and current coach Bob Stoops has Oklahoma positioned as one of the top programs in the country. Half of the famed Red River rivalry, Oklahoma has earned its reputation as a Swampland area superpower thanks to greats like Tommy McDonald, Steve Owens, Lee Roy Selmon, Billy Sims, and Adrian Peterson.
Tennessee – Most football fans know about the South’s largest gridiron palace- Neyland Stadium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River- but not as many know enough about its namesake. Robert Neyland posted a 173-31-12 record and won multiple national titles during his time in Knoxville that included four different stints as head coach in between his military duties as a General in the U.S. Army. Tennessee players to this day still recite the “Seven Maxims” of the General, a man Knute Rockne once called “football’s greatest coach”. The Volunteer legacy has been carried on by coaches Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer as well as All-American players like Doug Atkins, Reggie White, and Peyton Manning. From the Vol Navy to singing Rocky Top to the checkerboard end zones, Tennessee seems to lead the way in the gameday traditions that rule college football in our Swampland footprint.
Louisiana – LSU is the only school to win multiple BCS National Championships, and that fact has just added to the long tradition in Baton Rouge. Coach Charlie McClendon had over 130 victories in the ‘60s and ‘70s while the last two coaches-Nick Saban and Les Miles- have elevated the Tigers to the top of the college game. Top players like Billy Cannon, Tommy Casanova, and Glenn Dorsey have created an atmosphere at Tiger Stadium that is famous throughout the South-especially during night games. The most famed of those night games took place in 1988 and became known as the “Earthquake Game”. As the legend goes, the crowd reaction to the winning touchdown pass by Tommy Hodson in the last two minutes to beat Auburn caused an earthquake to register on the seismograph located in LSU’s Geoscience Complex.
We should also mention the amazing 56-year tenure of Coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling State. He had over 400 wins at the school while sending over 200 players to the professional ranks, including NFL Hall of Famers Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown, and Charlie Joiner.
Arkansas – The Razorbacks have a unique identity in our Swampland region as they have been a big part of both the old Southwest Conference and the SEC. Any discussion of Arkansas football has to start with Frank Broyles. The legendary coach won seven SWC Championships in his 19 years on the sidelines, and then as athletic director, he hired successful Arkansas coaches Lou Holtz, Ken Hatfield, and Houston Nutt. Broyles was so well known for developing young coaches (Barry Switzer, Johnny Majors, Jimmy Johnson) that the award for the nation’s best assistant each season bears his name. The Razorbacks play homes games in both Fayetteville and Little Rock where greats like Lance Alworth, Billy Ray Smith, and Darren McFadden have starred.
Multiple Solid Programs
Mississippi – While most fans probably think of the name Manning when Ole Miss football come up, I believe any conversation on the Rebels has to start with legendary coach Johnny Vaught. He was the head man in Oxford from 1947-1970, and during that time, Ole Miss won all six of their SEC titles and earned parts of three national championships. While Charlie Conerly starred during Vaught’s first year, fellow Hall of Fame quarterback Archie Manning became a Southern legend in the late ‘60s. The standards that he and Coach Vaught reached in Oxford have been very difficult for the Rebels-including Archie’s son Eli-of the last 35 years to repeat.
The other half of the Egg Bowl rivalry, Mississippi State, does not have as much tradition as they won their only SEC title in 1941. However, the athletic administration in Starkville made a very significant coaching hire in late 2003, when Sylvester Croom became the first African-American head football coach in SEC history.
We should also recognize that the Magnolia State has produced some of the greatest players in NFL history in Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State), and Brett Favre (Southern Miss).
South Carolina – We’ll start in Clemson, and that discussion has to begin with the legendary Frank Howard. The Hall of Fame coach ruled the Tigers’ sideline for amazing 30 years (1940-69), and Clemson won two Southern Conference and six ACC titles during his tenure. The Tigers also had quite a decade in the ‘80s when Danny Ford was the head man. Ford led Clemson to their only national championship in 1981, but then saw the program put on probation after the 1982 season. The Tigers won five ACC titles under Ford before he fell out of favor with the administration over his controversial recruiting methods. The Tigers have had a successful, yet inconsistent run under current boss Tommy Bowden.
South Carolina has not had the on-field success of their rivals at Clemson despite great fan support, as they routinely draw over 80,000 fans per game to Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecocks won one ACC title in 1969, and George Rogers had the individual accolade of winning the 1980 Heisman trophy. It became even tougher for South Carolina to win a conference title in 1992 when they joined the SEC, but they did make a huge hire when they brought SEC legend Steve Spurrier back to the league in 2005.
Virginia – Over the last two decades, Frank Beamer has built Virginia Tech into the most significant program in the Commonwealth. The Hokies have won three Big East and two ACC championships during Beamer’s time in Blacksburg. Even with offensive standouts like Michael Vick and Antonio Freeman, Beamer’s teams have been known for winning (over 160 victories in 20 years) with defense and special teams.
The most successful era for University of Virginia football came under Hall of Fame coach George Welsh from 1982-2000. The Cavaliers shared two ACC titles during that time that featured individual greats like Jim Dombrowski, Herman Moore, Anthony Poindexter, and the Barber brothers-Ronde and Tiki.
West Virginia – During his 21 seasons in Morgantown, Don Nehlen accumulated the most wins in West Virginia history with 149. He won one Big East title in 1993, but probably had his best squad in 1988 when the school was still independent. It would be one of Nehlen’s former players that would take the Mountaineer program to its highest level in the last decade. Rich Rodriguez led West Virginia to four Big East championships in five years from 2003-07, including 11-win seasons in ’05 and ’06. With all of that success and the fact that he was an alum, it was especially hard for many West Virginia backers to accept Rodriguez’s departure to Michigan after the ’07 season.
Marshall enjoyed great success at the I-AA level (two national titles in 1992 and 1996) before making the move to Division I with great players like Randy Moss and Chad Pennington. Unfortunately, the most well-known moment in Thundering Herd history was the plane crash in 1970 where 75 people-including 37 players- were tragically killed. The incident inspired the 2006 film We Are Marshall, which showed the strength of the Huntington community in trying to deal with the tragedy.
Climbing Out Of Basketball's Shadow
Kentucky – The Wildcats have had some big name coaches (Bear Bryant, Jerry Claiborne, Bill Curry) in Lexington despite their relative lack of success. It has always been a tough challenge competing in the SEC, especially when playing second fiddle to the monstrous popularity of the Big Blue basketball program. Current coach Rich Brooks has led the Wildcats to two consecutive bowl wins. Louisville had some winning years during the Frank Camp era (including an undefeated season in 1947 with Johnny Unitas), but the best results for the Cardinals have come in the current decade. John L. Smith had over 40 wins in five seasons, and then Bobby Petrino had an amazing four seasons (41-9) where he led Louisville to both a Conference USA and Big East title.
North Carolina – There just hasn’t been that much success over the long term in the Tar Heel State, even though it has four ACC teams. The University of North Carolina won three ACC titles in the ‘70s, but their best era on the gridiron was probably during Mack Brown’s stay in Chapel Hill. After enduring two 10-loss seasons while rebuilding, Brown’s Tar Heels won 10 games in three of the next eight seasons. Duke won six of the first ten ACC championships under Coach Bill Murray, but the most storied chapter in Blue Devil football was in the late ‘30s under the legendary Wallace Wade. The Hall of Fame coach shockingly left Alabama in 1931 to head up a Duke program that he would lead to 110 wins and two Rose Bowls. Wake Forest won the ACC Title in 2006 and became the smallest school to ever play in a BCS game. N.C. State has won or shared seven ACC crowns, with their most success coming in the ‘60s under the school’s winningest coach, Earle Edwards.
Missouri – The ‘60s were the last time that the Missouri Tigers had a sustained run of success when they were led by Coach Dan Devine. Current boss Gary Pinkel may have Mizzou ready for their best era since Devine won two Big Eight titles in 1960 and 1969. The Tigers made it to the Big 12 Championship game in 2007 and have most of that team back for the 2008 campaign.