A Wild Friday in the SEC Hours Before its Championship

A Wild Friday in the SEC Hours Before its Championship


In other words, it was business as usual.

“This is quintessential SEC,” said Paul Finebaum, the consummate SEC booster and author of the book “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference.”

Finebaum spoke by phone during a commercial break for his SEC Network show, broadcasting live Friday from Atlanta, the site of Saturday’s title game between Auburn and Georgia. “I’m looking down at our rundown on the program and the SEC game tomorrow is like the third, fourth, even fifth story. It’s hard to get to it.”

As college football geared up for a momentous weekend, featuring four matchups between top 10 teams that together will decide the composition of the four-team playoff, the chatter among the cognoscenti on Friday concerned booster meddling, recruiting violations and a Christmas tree put out on the curb.

In Knoxville, Tenn., the week began with angry Tennessee fans conscripting themselves in a successful battle to stymie the hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano as head coach. The Tennessee faithful raised objections to a disputed allegation that Schiano had knowledge of Jerry Sandusky abusing a child while Schiano was an assistant at Penn State. They also may have been concerned with his poor record as head coach at Rutgers and of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The week ended Friday afternoon with the suspension of Tennessee’s athletic director, John Currie, who began this year in the comparatively calm setting of Manhattan, Kan., where he was Kansas State’s athletic director.

Currie’s reported sins were to have tried to hire Schiano, then failed to hire Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy, and finally to have tried to hire Washington State Coach Mike Leach, the renegade Air Raider, apparently without (or with? even the rumors conflicted) the consultation of the powerful Tennessee booster Jimmy Haslam. Haslam owns the Cleveland Browns and also has a brother who is Tennessee’s governor.

Behind all of this, in more ways than one, was Phillip Fulmer, the last Tennessee head coach to win a national title. Fulmer was shown the door in 2008. By Friday afternoon, he was Tennessee’s athletic director

“Somebody joked earlier that it was like watching a ‘Game of Thrones’ episode,” said Finebaum (Tennessee ’78). “I’m not sure that does it justice.”

As if that were not enough, in Tallahassee, Fla., an intrepid reporter noticed a Christmas tree at the curb outside Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher’s house. Since it was only early December, the disregarded evergreen appeared to prove true the suspicions that Fisher, who led the Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference to the national title four seasons ago, had accepted an offer at Texas A&M, which joined the SEC five seasons ago. Subsequent reports have affirmed the news and specified that Fisher agreed to an impressive 10-year, $75 million contract, though neither university has announced it.

Fisher would become the third former assistant to Alabama Coach Nick Saban to hold a head-coaching position in the conference that Saban’s Crimson Tide have thoroughly dominated over the past decade. With a vacancy at Arkansas (which fired its athletic director, Jeff Long, on Nov. 15 and Coach Bret Bielema about a week later), there is still room and time to add to the count.

Also Friday, in a widely expected move, the N.C.A.A. came down hard on Mississippi’s football program for what it characterized as “an unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting,” including paying recruits $37,000 in cash and perks, largely during the tenure of former head coach Hugh Freeze.

Though charges were initially filed against Mississippi at the beginning of 2016, there were further suggestions of impropriety when, following the release of a suggestive video before the 2016 N.F.L. draft, rumors emerged that top offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil had received illicit payments.

The SEC’s waves could ripple through other leagues. Florida State now has an opening, which many predict will be filled by Oregon Coach Willie Taggart, which would in turn make another high-profile job available. And Nebraska is believed to be patiently waiting for Scott Frost to lead Central Florida to its conference championship Saturday, before hiring the former Cornhusker.

There was also that game to be played for the conference championship Saturday in Atlanta between Auburn and Georgia, with the winner all but assured of a playoff berth. And there was the tension that could boil over Sunday morning as Alabama, dormant this weekend and sitting one spot outside the playoff in the latest rankings, waits to see whether it will make its fourth consecutive postseason.

“There’s a little bit of Shakespearean tragedy involved, with a tinge of comedy,” Finebaum said. observed. “You mix it all together, and it’s like watching a train wreck in real time.”

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