HOOVER, ALA. — Did you know Herschel Walker flipped a coin to decide between playing college football or joining the Marines? Or that Archie Manning’s young sons Cooper and Peyton wanted to name their baby brother Eli, born two days after Georgia won the national title in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, Herschel Walker Manning? Or how about the fact Steve Spurrier thought about preceding Archie Manning to quarterback at Ole Miss instead of going to Florida?
The thread of college football is woven deeply into the fabric of the deep south. What becomes apparent through watching three sneak preview segments from the SEC Network’s sweeping documentary series, “Saturdays in the South: A History of SEC Football” is how interwoven those threads are despite the deep divisions and bitter rivalries among Southeastern Conference schools.
Walker, Manning and Spurrier were at SEC media days this week, taking questions here Tuesday from reporters and then attending that sneak preview of the documentary series that night at the historic Lyric Theatre in downtown Birmingham. The preview segments, about an hour’s worth in all from the 12 hours to be televised in eight weekly 90-minute shows premiering on the SEC Network on Sept. 3, focused on the three SEC legends.
There are so many more stories to tell other than theirs, though, according to director Fritz Mitchell. He spent more than a year crisscrossing SEC country to bring the documentary series to the screen.
“It’s chronological, which makes it a little easier,” Mitchell said. “You need some ease when you’re trying to put together 12 hours of television in a year and a half.
“You try to take an angle which is what makes people tick. Why are they the way they are? What drives them? What motivates them? What’s the conflict? If there’s no conflict, there’s no story. You figure out the four coaches who are the most important — Robert Neyland, Bear Bryant, Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban — and you work from there.”
The series is part of an overarching ESPN project to celebrate the 150th anniversary of college football. Along with “Saturdays in the South,” ESPN is rolling out two weekly series that also debut this fall: “The American Game” and “The Greatest,” which premier Sept. 17 and Sept. 19, respectively.
The first college game was played between visiting Princeton and Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on Nov. 6, 1869. Resembling something more like rugby than modern football, Rutgers prevailed 6-4.
While the game may have sprouted in the northeast, it grew to full maturity in the south. While places like New York and Chicago and Boston had the Yankees and Bears and Bruins to dominant their local sports scenes since the early 20th century, major league professional sports didn’t come to the deep south until the 1960s, while college football dug deep roots into the fertile soil. Even today, five of the 11 states in the SEC’s current footprint don’t have even one of the big four pro sports within their borders.
It starts said Manning, whose legend began playing in the tiny Delta town of Drew, Mississippi, with high school football.
“High school football is fantastic in the South,” Manning said. “We high school coaches that stay with it for their career. I admire that fraternity. Those men don’t coach high school football for the money. They do it because they love what they do.”
That love grows as players move to the college level.
“The SEC stands with a lot of power,” Walker said. “People know when you’re going to play a team from the SEC — I don’t care who it is, you better bring more than your lunch because it’s going to be a tough game. Guys are going to play extremely hard.”
How hard? As the documentary describes, Manning played part of his senior season in 1970 with a plate and screws in his broken left (non-throwing) arm. Walker played most of that 1981 Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame after separating his shoulder and having it shoved back into socket on the Bulldogs’ sideline.
“I thought it was easy,” Walker said, straight-faced. “Like Archie played with a broken arm. I didn’t go to the Sugar Bowl to dance or go down Bourbon Street. I didn’t drink. I came to play.
“If you come to play against Herschel Walker, you’re going to lose.”
Spurrier was one of the SEC’s most impactful figures as a player and as a coach. As a quarterback at Florida, he won the 1966 Heisman Trophy. As a coach of the Gators (and later South Carolina), he led two often down at heel programs to unprecedented success, including Florida’s first national title in 1996.
Asked by moderator Laura Rutledge on the Lyric Theatre stage about bringing the swagger back to Florida, Spurrier with customary brashness chortled and then asked, “Back?
“When I got to Florida (in 1990) we were loaded. I mentioned our goal was to win the SEC. It was like, ‘Who is this cocky kid from Duke (where he coached from 1987-89) saying he’s going to win the SEC his first year?’ Well, our goal wasn’t to finish third or fourth or just go to a bowl game.
“We got off to a good start.”
Florida finished first in the SEC in 1990, but was stripped of its conference title because of a previous staff’s recruiting violations. The Gators won six more SEC titles between 1991-2000 under Spurrier that would stick.
Rutledge then asked Spurrier, remembered for revolutionizing the SEC with the pass, what his offensive mind would have conjured up if he had Walker and Manning in the same backfield.
“Well,” Spurrier replied, “there’s only one ball.”
In other words, he would have given it to Herschel.
"Saturdays in the South: A History of SEC Football" premiers at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3 on the SEC Network.