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30 years ago: How May of 1990 reshaped the SEC

17 days ago
SEC Staff
Photo: SEC Staff

On January 10, 1990, the Southeastern Conference hired its sixth commissioner when Roy Kramer, who was then the athletic director at Vanderbilt, joined the SEC and initiated what would become a historically defining 24-month span, one that would shape the SEC and the college football landscape for the next 30 years.

Kramer, who as a head football coach won a national championship at Central Michigan in 1974, had led the Vanderbilt athletics department since 1978. As the College Football Association began to deteriorate nationally in the spring of 1990, the SEC Presidents and Chancellor's voted at SEC Spring Meetings in May of that year for the league to identify schools to expand the SEC membership for the first time since its founding in 1933.

No invitations were extended. The SEC simply announced that it intended to expand and should any schools around the country have an interest in being part of that expansion, they should reach out.

In August of 1990, The University of Arkansas voted to join the SEC, with South Carolina following suit a month later, with both becoming official members of the SEC on July 1, 1991. The two schools were a perfect fit for the SEC and its footprint with both having vast similarities to the current SEC institutions, were both large state universities with broad based programs, well supported and highly successful athletic programs and both were contiguous to current SEC states.

Throughout the expansion process, Kramer was thinking about the future. He knew of a NCAA rule that allowed conferences with 12 or more members to split into divisions and hold a championship game, which at that point had only been utilized on the Division II and III level, where Kramer had previously won a national title with CMU.

While the first season of SEC competition for Arkansas and South Carolina was the 1991-92 school year, due to various scheduling conflicts among both schools, within the SEC and the implementation process of creating divisions and a SEC Championship Game, it was the 1992 season before the SEC's newest two members could represent the SEC on the gridiron.

Not only did the 1992 season introduce two new league members to the SEC, but it was historic in that the league would feature for the first time two divisions, with the winners meeting in the first SEC Championship Game at the conclusion of the regular season. The 1992 season was also the first of the 8-game conference scheduling model, which has stood the test of time and continues to be utilized today. At the time, this would add one SEC game to all schedules, as conference teams played seven league games from 1988-1991, which had been added after the 1987 season concluded, up from six previously.

The addition of two teams, the creation of divisions and the SEC Championship Game also helped initiate a move toward a clearer and more seamless postseason picture throughout the country. The Bowl Coalition was created and existed 1992-1994, with the Bowl Alliance in 1995-97 preceding the creation of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998. Those postseason arrangements from 1992-97 were vastly important, as seen by the Florida-Florida State Sugar Bowl for the national championship following the 1996 season which would not have been possible without the creation of the Bowl Alliance. Those decisions from 1992-97 were the beginning of a national push for the postseason to be led by conference champions and the driving factor among the conferences that led to the creation of the BCS and ultimately the College Football Playoff.

Kramer is one of many in college athletics circles who believes the SEC expansion 30 years ago was the impetus nationally of the widely popular college sports landscape that exists today.

"Looking back, it all seemed to start when we went to 12 teams and had the motivation to create a championship game," said Kramer. "At first there was some chatter across the country to maybe change the rule that would allow us to do so. But then some of the other leagues realized they might want to do the same one day as well. I'm not sure all of this happens across the college football landscape the way it did had we not expanded and created the SEC Championship Game when we did."

When asked if he could have envisioned what has transpired in the SEC and nationally since so many impactful and historical decisions in the SEC were made 30 years ago, his response was firmly focused on the league he guided from 1990-2002.

"I was 100 percent convinced the move to divisions and creation of the SEC Championship Game would be a success. I had no doubt about it. What did surprise me, and I admittedly did not foresee, was the enormous positive impact that it had on the regular season. The move to divisions kept more teams - and the excitement that comes with it - in the championship race much longer. We had seasons after expansion when we were two or three weeks into November and six or seven teams were still in the running for Atlanta. Prior to 1992, many games later in the season simply were not viewed as having as much impact as they do now."

It didn't take long for the rest of the country to take notice and quickly follow suit. Since the SEC Championship Game was founded, all of the other nine FBS conferences have staged their own championship game as well.

Kramer, however, did have one group in particular to win over with his idea initially in 1992 - the SEC head football coaches. When asked previously how many SEC coaches were against the idea, Kramer always quickly - and with a grin - responds 'all of them'. From Gene Stallings to Steve Spurrier to Pat Dye, the overwhelming thought was it added too much difficulty to what was already the toughest conference schedule in the country. Some were quoted in the media that the SEC would never win the national championship again under this format.

If anything, the SEC Championship Game only enhanced the SEC's presence in the national championship picture. During the debut season in 1992, Alabama started the season ranked No. 9 and slowly climbed in the polls all season. With a victory over Florida in the inaugural SEC Championship Game, Alabama cemented itself with a national championship opportunity, which it made the most of by defeating No. 1 Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl. It was the first national championship for the SEC since Georgia in 1980 and helped to catapult the SEC into the most successful era in the history of college football.

The SEC has won 14 national championships since the implementation of the SEC Championship Game in 1992, including three in the 1990s after the game's creation. In what is perhaps the most telling indication of Kramer's vision when such groundbreaking decisions first began to develop 30 years ago - only once since 2006 (2014) has the winner of the SEC Championship Game failed to advance to the national championship game.

Chuck Dunlap is a 20-year veteran of the SEC and currently serves as the Director of Communications for SEC Football. Follow him on Twitter at @SEC_Chuck