This correspondent spoke with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on Tuesday, two hours after the conference had announced it had contracted Mike Tranghese, who served as the commissioner of the Big East when it was really big, as a consultant for basketball. Given that the SEC had — for the third time in four seasons, as Sankey noted without prompting — garnered only three bids to the NCAA tournament, something needed to happen. Tranghese qualifies as something.
I’m not sure, however, that he’ll be enough. Sankey and I spoke for 10 minutes, and he made the points he wanted to make: That he thinks SEC hoops are improving; that coaches must be allowed to build their programs; that the conference keeps urging schools to play tough non-conference schedules — as Georgia and Florida did but South Carolina did not; none of the three made the Big Dance — but that teams must win some of those tough games. And this above all: That three NCAA bids weren’t enough.
Toward the end of our phone session, I asked about the elephant in the room. (Yes, Alabama’s mascot is an elephant.) Has SEC football grown so massive — seven national titles in nine seasons — that basketball cannot flourish in its shadow? Sankey said what I expected he’d say: That the SEC just sent nine teams to the women’s NCAA tournament, that the conference’s baseball and softball teams are thriving, that there’s no reason the conference can’t be good at everything. (Did not Florida, under Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer, win two basketball titles and a BCS championship in the span of 12 months?)
I’ve heard that before, from other SEC commissioners, and I’ve seconded the emotion. Just because a school is great at something is no reason for it to be bad at something else — not when money and manpower are being supplied. The SEC now has its own ESPN-affiliated network, which means, as Sankey noted, that every basketball game “is on TV.” (No more griping that the ACC and the Big East get all the attention. Indeed, the nation’s most-hyped player this season was Ben Simmons, not that it availed LSU much.)
But, not to sound like Fredi Gonzalez, you know what? I’ve begun to doubt what I once believed deeply. I do wonder if SEC basketball will ever be as good at it could/should be. Sankey mentioned the conference’s “resources” — he even cited the weather as a selling point — and he’s not wrong. But I’m not sure money and climate and even ESPN can override human nature.
SEC fans see SEC football as part of themselves — their birthright, their 24/7/365 passion, their DNA. Only one SEC school regards basketball that way, and it’s the one that plays the SEC’s best basketball but not very good football. I don’t know that, say, Georgia fans will ever embrace basketball the way Kentucky fans do.
Actually, that’s a lie. I do know. Georgia fans seem to take a perverse pride in disliking basketball. I’ve never understood it — Do they think cheering for guys in sneakers during the winter will sap their ardor for the team that plays on autumnal Saturdays? — but I’ve worked in this state for 32 years and I believe it to be true. (Indeed, I’ve had more than one UGA basketball coach ask in frustration, “What will it take for these people to care?” My unenlightening response: I really don’t know.)
Having covered the SEC since 1976, I’ve seen schools get excited about basketball. Vanderbilt is second to Kentucky in its enthusiasm for the indoor sport, which is surely no coincidence: Like UK, Vandy stinks at football. Tennessee and Florida fans can be made to care about hoops. LSU was pumped when Dale Brown was coaching. (Not so much when John Brady was.) Arkansas was crazy about hoops when the Hogs were rollin’ with Nolan Richardson.
Mississippi State has had very good teams. Even Auburn has had its moments, and not just when Charles Barkley was an undergrad. The Cliff Ellis teams at the turn of the century were a happening thing in the Loveliest Village. Missouri figured to bring more to the conference in basketball than football, though somehow that got turned around and now Mizzou is lousy at both.
The point being: It can and has happened in basketball at most every SEC outpost — though, at some of them, not for long. In football, the fervor almost never fades. (Kentucky and Vandy being the exceptions, which is understandable.)
As noted elsewhere, the SEC went through a bad patch of basketball coaching this century. That has been corrected most places. Three SEC coaches (Barnes, Calipari, Howland) have taken teams to the Final Four. Three more (M. Anderson, Martin, Pearl) have reached the Elite Eight. One (Stallings) has made the Sweet Sixteen. One (Johnson) took a team to the NBA finals. One (K. Anderson) won a Division II championship. Of the 14 league coaches, only LSU’s Johnny Jones seems overmatched.
Still, it’s worth noting: Mike Anderson has won only one NCAA game at Arkansas, though he won four at Missouri when it was based in the Big 12; Mark Fox won an NCAA game at Nevada but hasn’t at Georgia; Frank Martin won NCAA games at Kansas State but, in four years, hasn’t gotten South Carolina to the Big Dance. Rick Barnes, Ben Howland and Avery Johnson just completed their first seasons at Tennessee, Mississippi State and Alabama, and the best any of them could do was Alabama’s NIT bid.
Coaching basketball in the SEC isn’t the same as working in the Big 12 or the ACC or the Pac-12. (Or the NBA.) Here you can’t just coach. The aforementioned Dale Brown traveled the length and breadth of Louisiana handing out purple-and-gold basketball nets. The great Ray Mears had his Tennessee teams take the court behind a guy dribbling a basketball while riding a unicycle. But if even if you promote like crazy and have good teams and great players — Brown had Shaq and Chris Jackson; Mears had Bernie & Ernie — eventually you realize: You’re still not football.
I have great respect for Mike Tranghese. I believe he’ll afford some help. But if he can turn the SEC into a Basketball League, he should be more than a consultant. He should be King of the World.