Monday, June 27, 2011

The Conference of Champions

About 20 years ago, I recall visiting my friends in my home state of Arkansas.

One evening while I was there, we all went out to visit a friend who lived in the country. We roasted hot dogs and drank beer. Some of my friends played their guitars. The rest of us talked.

At the time, the big topic of conversation was whether the University of Arkansas' athletic program should leave the Southwest Conference and join the Southeastern Conference.

For the previous two years, I had been living in Texas, the home state of all the other members of the SWC — but, before that, I had lived practically my entire life in Arkansas. I had grown up with the Southwest Conference, and I couldn't imagine the Razorbacks competing in any other conference

So, initially, I was against the idea. But my friends were all in favor of it, and I reluctantly embraced it. The move meant giving up some of my favorite annual sporting events — the football games against Texas and Texas A&M (and, because my parents were graduates of SMU and my grandparents had lived in Dallas all my life, I always enjoyed the Arkansas–SMU games, too — but SMU had fallen on hard times by then so that was a rivalry that was easy for me to give up) — but my friends assured me the move would mean more nationally televised games in every sport, hence more money for the athletic department.

In the end, it didn't really matter how I felt about it. Arkansas left the Southwest Conference after being a member for close to 80 years — and, a few years later, the remaining members of the SWC went their separate ways. Perhaps the SWC was already crumbling when Arkansas made its move.

As a graduate of Arkansas and a lifelong supporter of the Razorbacks, I have to say the move has paid off. Since moving to the SEC, Arkansas has played in two national championship games in basketball (and won one of them) and it has played in a couple of college World Series, too.

And the Razorbacks have enjoyed the reflected glory from other SEC teams who have won it all in their sports.

In basketball, SEC teams have won the national title five times since Arkansas left the SWC, starting with Arkansas' national championship in 1994 — and seven other SEC teams have advanced to the Final Four in that time.

SEC football teams have won five consecutive national titles, and three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners have come from the SEC.

And this week, either Florida or South Carolina will make it three straight national championships for the SEC in baseball.

The college world series, of course, is a double–elimination tournament. The finals, therefore, are best–of–three, with Game 1 to be played tonight, weather permitting (no rain in the forecast right now). Game 2 will be played tomorrow night and, if a third game is needed, it will be played Wednesday.

It should be exciting. Kirk Kenney reminds everyone in Sports Illustrated that South Carolina is the defending champion, and Florida is looking for its first national title — so South Carolina, by virtue of its experience, rates a slight edge.

But it is more than that, Kenney writes. Carolina went 2–1 in a series at Florida in March, and the Gamecocks have won their last 14 consecutive tournament games — "and there's no sign of the streak coming to an end."

Sounds like a daunting task, doesn't it?

But one thing I have learned from watching the SEC for the last couple of decades is that the teams that compete in it never give up until the game is over.

That's how the SEC has won all those championships.

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