SEC FOOTBALL: It's The Leadership, Stupid!

From the offseason buzz --- now kicking into high gear as teams begin the practices that will lead into this 2005 season --- one gets the sense that the SEC's hype-meter can be broken down into three categories: a bunch of programs seem to be awash in frenzied anticipation of this season; some others are quiet, both oddly and predictably; and a few other programs are optimistic in the long run.

The programs that seem to be reveling in the most buzz are LSU, Tennessee and the Gators. Yes, Steve Spurrier has generated a lot of personal buzz in Columbia, but it seems that folks are (sensibly) not ratcheting up the expectations too much for this one season in particular. Alabama could perhaps be put on this list, but there's too much pressure in Tuscaloosa to rate "excitement" as the prevailing feeling.

The programs that are quiet --- relatively speaking, of course; no fan base outside of Lexington or Nashville is truly quiet in any deeper sense --- are Georgia, Kentucky and Vandy in the East, followed by Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State in the West.

That leaves two programs that have been injected with a long-term feeling of optimism that might not spill forth this year, but which (fans feel) will be rewarded in the not-too-distant future: Ole Miss and South Carolina.

So, with those lists having been made, what is the ingredient that makes for varying levels of buzz? It's leadership. And in every case but one, this awareness of leadership is properly applied.

Leadership is a quality that winning football teams simply must have. With a large group of men, you need to have glue guys that emotionally inspire and hold the team together when stormy seas threaten to knock the ship off course. Think Al Wilson for Tennessee in 1998's title run. Think Danny Wuerffel. Think Matt Mauck, a man who was not a specimen, but filled the role of the character guy who, at the college level, could be a championship quarterback in a way he never could be in the NFL. And in perhaps the ultimate profile of leadership, think Jay Barker, the ultimate icon for the leader of men who won with less than top-shelf talent in his own body. Leaders win in college; combine-ready bodies, if not accompanied by brains and resilience, don't get it done in this sport --- not when it matters most.

Aside of on-field leadership, there's the matter of off-field leadership. Anyone reading this piece --- being a college football fan as you are --- wouldn't hesitate for a second in agreeing with me that no other team sport in America demands excellent coaching the way college football does. No sport can expose deficient coaching or magnify great coaching than college football. Florida Gator fans --- on both sides of the divide, the good and the bad --- have seen how coaching matters over the past 15 seasons, twelve with the right man, and three with the wrong man. You need the right guy to tap into on-field talent; otherwise, that talent remains potential energy and not unleashed kinetic energy. The point should be obvious enough.

With all this as prelude, then, it's wise for Tennessee and Florida fans to be stoked this season. The Vols have the off-field leader in Phil Fulmer (say what you want about his reputation in the state of Alabama, or the team's police blotter-dominated offseason, but he's gotten substantial results in his lengthy career in Knoxville), and a quarterback in Erik Ainge who was cool as a cucumber before getting injured last year. Gator fans saw the string-bean quarterback execute in pressure-cooker situations... they saw it all too well.

But speaking of the Gators, they have a man in Urban Meyer who has already proven himself to be a commanding presence at the head of the program. He hasn't tasted an SEC gameday yet, but Meyer acts like a man ready to make the most of this job. And while Chris Leak has underperformed in his first two seasons, no one would even begin to question his leadership skills. Given that Meyer will coach him up better than previous staffs ever would or could, there's no deficiency in leadership around the Gators, particularly the all-important coach-quarterback combo. Thus, it's justified to have big expectations for 2005 in Gainesville.

The one SEC locale where leadership's centrality, primacy and essentialness are being overlooked is Baton Rouge. No one would dare say that LSU isn't anything other than loaded. But look at the coaching slot, and look at the quarterback position. The level of proven leadership and experience is not that high for either Les Miles or JaMarcus Russell. It could prove to become high as the season progresses, but it sure doesn't exist right now --- it will have to be forged in the heat of high-stakes battles, and more often than not, it usually takes a biting loss to truly shape a strong mental framework for the remainder of a football man's career. There should be confidence in LSU' ability to win nine games and the SEC West, but not anything beyond that. Rose Bowl-level giddiness is a byproduct of ignoring the role of leadership in college football. LSU's biggest key is for leaders to emerge on the field, with Russell being one of them.

In surveying the other programs that are comparably quiet, there's good reason for each fan base's tensions in the weeks before this season kicks off. Mike Shula's leadership is in question at Alabama, so judgment is being reserved or withheld for later. Auburn isn't generating buzz because so many of its leaders-Jason Campbell and Cadillac Williams in particular --- are gone. Arkansas won't miss Matt Jones' blunders, but the Jekyll-and-Hyde athlete was nevertheless the playmaking captain of the offense for four years, who did lift the Hogs out of some memorable overtime foxholes (at Ole Miss and Kentucky) during his tenure in Fayetteville. And in Athens, everyone is waiting in hushed anticipation to see if D.J. Shockley --- no, not how well he'll throw the ball --- can be one fourth of the leader David Greene was.

It's all about leadership, can't you see? Sure, you must have dynamic athleticism, but without dynamic leadership, it's just bodies hurtling around a gridiron. With leaders, it's a team on a mission that won't fold when adversity inevitably strikes on several select occasions during the season.

Ole Miss and South Carolina lack great quarterbacks at the moment, but with take-charge coaches in place --- Ed Orgeron and Steve Spurrier --- these two programs are optimistic that the prevailing culture of their programs can be overturned... overturned by leadership. And at Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, it will take leaders --- players who can rise above the past and find new levels of effort within themselves --- to lift those programs out of the SEC cellar. Sylvester Croom's encouragement, Rich Brooks' expertise as a football lifer, and Bobby Johnson's dignified, no-profanity teaching methods won't spring to life unless players straight out of the Junction Boys mold emerge to rewrite the narratives of those three sagging programs.

Leadership. It's just as much a football necessity as talent. Remember that as the SEC swings into gear this year.


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