A show of hands, please, by those who had their fannies pulled out of the fire by Alabama's Antonio Langham last Saturday. Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer, Miami coach Dennis Erickson, you good ol' boys in the Sugar Bowl blazers, start grabbing air. All o' y'all, as they say in the South, were up the creek until the junior cornerback from Town Creek, Ala., bailed you out.
When Florida tailback Errict Rhett ran for the Gators' third touchdown, slicing two yards off left tackle to tie the SEC championship game at Birmingham's Legion Field at 21, with eight minutes remaining, a lot of stomachs began churning; a loss by 11-0, No. 2 Alabama to 8-3, No. 12 Florida would make a mockery of the inaugural SEC title game. It would deprive the Sugar Bowl, which is hosted by the SEC winner, of a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown on New Year's Day and hand the national championship game to the Fiesta Bowl, in which undefeated and top-ranked Miami would be forced to face the sizzling Florida State Seminoles in a rematch for which Erickson had already expressed his extreme distaste.
When Rhett scored, Sugar Bowl official Sam Zuric, who had been watching the game in the SEC commissioner's box, excused himself, saying, "I've gotta go to the bathroom." Quipped the Liberty Bowl's Bill McElroy once Zuric was out of earshot, "Betcha he already has."
After three changes of possession Florida had the ball and the momentum on its own 21 with 3:25 to go. Quarterback Shane Matthews took a five-step drop and threw to the right side. Langham, who had been lurking behind intended receiver Monty Duncan, got a good break on the ball, swiped it and returned it 26 yards for the winning touchdown.
As time expired on the Crimson Tide's 28-21 victory, the Sugar Bowl gang abandoned all pretense of neutrality, cheering like so many Alabama alumni. Kramer couldn't wipe the gap-toothed grin off his face. On the surface, at least, his grand experiment was a success. The right team had won, and the conference had reaped a cool $6 million from the game.
The SEC championship owes its existence to a Yankee and a bunch of Division II schools in Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. At the 1987 NCAA convention West Chester (Pa.) State athletic director Dick Yoder requested permission to hold season-ending playoff games in the 14-member Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and in the 12-member Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association to determine their respective champions. "I would like to point out," said Yoder at the time, "in all the country this amendment only affects these two conferences."
Not for long. The SEC recognized a juicy loophole when it saw one. In giving its blessing to the PSAC's and the CIAA's title games, the NCAA had decreed that a league with at least a dozen members could add a championship showdown to the schedule. In the summer of 1990 the SEC welcomed aboard its 11th and 12th members, Arkansas and South Carolina. In November of that year the league announced that starting with the '92 season, it would cleave into Eastern and Western divisions, with the conference winner to be decided by a title game.
To decide where to play the championship, the SEC's athletic directors did what athletic directors do best. They formed a committee and began visiting prospective sites: Atlanta, Tampa, Memphis and Orlando. On April 8, 1991, the four members of the site-selection committee flew into Birmingham Airport. They were ushered to limousines, where they could freshen their breaths with chocolate mints whose wrappers had been stamped with the salutation SEC, WELCOME TO BIRMINGHAM, YOU'RE GONNA LOVE IT! En route to downtown, the limos passed two billboards bearing the same eight words.
The limo doors were opened at the Alabama Power building, where 150 feet of red carpet had been rolled out. The rug bisected a crowd of 2,000 placard-waving locals and three high school bands. Awaiting the athletic directors at the end of the carpet was Miss Alabama, who bussed them and pinned orchids to their lapels.
Lunch was extravagant. While the other committee members lingered over coffee, LSU athletic director Joe Dean burst out of the rest room shouting, "You're not gonna believe this." He had encountered those same eight words embroidered on each wash towel. Says Alan Martin, president of the Birmingham Football Foundation, which staged the unsubtle production, "Thank God one of 'em had to go to the pot."