Senior College Football Columnist

Strength Everywhere Conference, er, SEC out NCAA-ing NCAA these days


In this age of scandal, there is one place to turn in college athletics. A place that has been in a constant leadership position lately. A place that oozes excellence and shows vision. A place that can lead us out of these troubled times.

The SEC.

OK, so a significant portion of you don't know whether to laugh or post another Instagram. Mine is a straight face as the conference's annual media circus kicks off Tuesday -- aka SEC media days.

In case you haven't noticed, the Strength Everywhere Conference has quietly become the new NCAA. Not in any official capacity, but it might as well be. Without all the, ahem, baggage that has weighed down college sports' governing body.

The SEC long ago came in from the backyard, wiped its feet and donned a suit. Despite keeping the past seven glass footballs below the Mason-Dixon Line, it has become more than rich. It is worldly and sophisticated. It has coaches from both Ohio (Les Miles) and Michigan (Butch Jones).

While moving the ball it also moves ratings. ESPN, CBS and a new conference network are ready to pump the positive message directly into your brain stem.

The SEC is a leader in football, yes, but the league has done more for college athletics as a whole in the past decade than the NCAA. It has had better ideas, been more decisive and stayed largely untainted -- which is more than we can say about the kingdom in Indianapolis.

Start with stability. This will be commissioner Mike Slive's 12th football season. His conference has never been better, playing the best football and paying its coaches the most money. Those don't necessarily have to be negatives. The league has deftly shaped itself as a monster business with heart. And for the love of Chick-Fil-A, ya'll, college athletics could use some heart.

The coming college football playoff will have to go some to match the spectacle of the SEC Championship Same. That December Saturday in Atlanta has become more than an event, it is a piece of Americana. There is something to that Southern hospitality -- even if it is as simple as a conference official greeting you in the hall this week at the Wynfrey Hotel.

The league has achieved it all lately with a certain amount of, well, class; a simple human quality in short supply these days. The idea of those BCS leagues breaking off to form their own organization suddenly doesn't seem so radical. The SEC arguably has lapped the field, owning the best football and, arguably, the most progressive and admired commissioner.

Why not let SEC success be a big reason the five power leagues (with the Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12) break off from their non-BCS brethren? They have more money, their own distinct issues and probably a need for their own rules.

As it is, only three BCS schools have been slapped with a bowl ban as well as lack of institutional control since 2000 -- Southern California, California and Kentucky.

The Wildcats have cleaned up their act enough to lure a Stoops brother (Mark, Florida State's former defensive coordinator) as well as Rachel Newman-Baker, a 12-year NCAA veteran, as its new senior associate AD for compliance.

Before that, longtime enforcement director Dave Didion recently left the association, returning to Auburn. There used to be a time when working for the NCAA was the pinnacle. Now the SEC lures Indy's best and brightest.

When Slive came into office in 2002, he immediately established a mandate to rid the league of any existing major violations within five years. He essentially did it, an accomplishment once thought to be impossible.

Three SEC schools (Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee) will be on probation when the season kicks off. That's a smaller percentage than, say, the Big Ten. One third of that league (four schools) is currently enduring NCAA sanctions. That includes Penn State, which you may have heard one or two things about lately.

If the worst thing coaches can say about Nick Saban is by way of some snide remarks at a booster outing, well, that comes under the "hater" category. The Process is the standard.

Outside the conference, they're not so much worried about recruiting rule changes, they're worried how Saban will use those changes to his advantage. Inside the conference, when SEC coaches voted 13-1 against the idea of a ninth conference game, Saban won the argument by being the '1.' With that ninth game to show the playoff selection committee, the SEC will become even stronger.

The league is getting damn close to having to create an associate commissioner's position in charge of Heismans. If Jadeveon Clowney, AJ McCarron or Aaron Murray wins the trophy for the upcoming season, that would make it four Stiff Arms in five years for the conference.

Speaking of those best and brightest, former SEC supervisor of officials Rogers Redding is leading the charge for player safety as the secretary-editor of the NCAA rules committee. Executive associate commissioner Greg Sankey -- many think he will be Slive's successor -- sits on the NCAA's most powerful body: the infractions committee.

Slive has achieved it all with a kind of understated agenda. He was the one who adamantly favored a playoff structure that included as many SEC teams as possible. Why wouldn't he? Any playoff that didn't include the possibility of two, three, four(?) SEC teams wasn't worth staging.

Slive quietly looked around the landscape, expanded to Missouri and Texas A&M, then launched the SEC Network that threatens to blow away the competition. After working on the subject for years, it was the SEC that recently put the concussion issue in the NCAA's lap.

There is a legal term called "duty of care." While everyone has a moral obligation to help an injured person on the street, there is also the issue of the legal obligation to do so. The NCAA was founded more than 100 years ago essentially on the premise of protecting players against life-threatening injuries.

One conference source called concussions the "Teddy Roosevelt-type moment" of our time. That's possibly why Slive said the league will make a formal request "that the NCAA take the lead in organizing and spearheading a national research effort and examining possible revisions to playing rules in football and other sports."

In other words, let the liability be the NCAA's.

At the 2011 media days, NCAA president Mark Emmert texted Slive with congratulations after the commissioner's annual state of the conference speech. Slive had called for multiyear scholarships, higher academic standards and a smaller NCAA Manual.

The commissioner has also been out front on cracking down on unscrupulous agents and supporting full cost of tuition. This is not the look of a league running rampant over the student-athlete on the way to deposit revenue checks.

It is said that winners write history. Why not let evolve what is happening before our eyes? That would be the SEC becoming the de facto NCAA.

Without all the baggage.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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