Remembering the first SEC championship game

Kris Mangum and his wife Mary Ellen. (Photo submitted)

Magnolia State Bank president Mangum suited up for unbeaten Alabama in 1992 game in Birmingham

The 26th Southeastern Conference football championship will be played today (Saturday) as Auburn will take on Georgia in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

One of the participants in the first game of the newly formatted Southeastern Conference — the brainchild of then-Commissioner Roy Kramer — was Magnolia State Bank CEO Kris Mangum. He was a freshman tight end and special teams player for the Crimson Tide, who played Florida in the inaugural game in 1992. Mangum said that it was just another game to him.

“The game was in Birmingham, and we had played three games already at Legion Field and felt like it was just another home game. We felt comfortable in the venue,” said Mangum.

His coach, Gene Stallings, was not at all comfortable with the first championship game. Stallings actually called Commissioner Kramer.

“We are 11-0, and we have not won anything. Why are we playing this game?” said Stallings in his rant to Kramer. Many of the veteran Tide players also questioned why they were singled out when no other conference had this setup.

That was before the SEC championship game became a fixture that millions tune into every year, for the SEC is considered the most elite football conference in college football. The league, however, almost never got off the ground but for the persistence of Kramer.

He was like most college football fans at the time and he wanted to pit the best two teams in a final bowl game every year to give the fans a true national champion.

For the previous 50 years in college football, only eight times had the top two teams actually met in a bowl game. Kramer had a vision for college football from the time he entered office in 1990 as SEC commissioner. His first step in making his plan come true was to expand the 10-team SEC to 12 schools by adding South Carolina and Arkansas.

This expansion broadened the SEC fan base in two more Southern states. After securing the two new members, he then made a pitch to host an SEC title game to the league presidents. Change is tough for many, and playing another game that in the end could cost them a possible national championship was not to the liking of the SEC head coaches. Most of the college football experts outside of the SEC thought the change was absurd.

Kramer was truly trying to promote the SEC and college football together. He thought that the money generated from this one game would help his conference members pay for several of the non-revenue sports that were required by Title IX. He went ahead and made a deal with ABC-TV to air the game. The game would generate three times as much money as the Sugar Bowl ever did. Last year, the SEC gave each school $40.4 million while back in 1991 the schools were given only $1.5 million.

Another of Kramer’s ideas was a new league format of divisions. The SEC would be split into an Eastern and Western Division, with six teams in each league. Auburn coach Pat Dye wanted his Tigers to be located in the Eastern Division away from Alabama, but Kramer did not want Alabama and Auburn to play back-to-back weeks since both played each other in the final regular-season game.

Even though the SEC game was played in Birmingham for the first couple years, Kramer made another bold move by changing the venue to Atlanta and the recently demolished Georgia Dome.

The college football experts around the country chimed in, questioning why the SEC would choose to play an extra game when nobody else was.

Kramer risked his reputation on this one game. Thankfully for him, Alabama won the game in the final three minutes, 28-21, as Antonio Langham intercepted a Shane Matthews pass and returned it for the winning points. The game still has the largest attendance record in SEC Championship history and is still one of the five most watched games. Florida and Alabama are regulars at the SEC championship game with a dozen appearances between them.

Alabama went on to defeat top-ranked Miami, 34-13, in the Sugar Bowl to become the first 13-0 national champion in its 100th year of football. The Canes came into the game with a 29-game winning streak and were heavily favored, although Alabama had itsown 21-game winning streak.

“The SEC championship game really prepared us for the Sugar Bowl because we were prepared for the media hype,” said Mangum.

Mangum says what stood out about the 1992 Alabama team was the Tide’s defensive unit.

“I think it was one of the best ever in college football. We had two first-round draft picks and several others drafted by the NFL,” Mangum said. The team allowed only 9.2 points per game. Mangum says the George Teague defensive play against Lamar Thomas in the Sugar Bowl defined the season. It is still one of the top plays in Crimson Tide history.

Mangum played for the Tide only one season before transferring to Ole Miss to complete his eligibility. He finished his career as an All-American tight end. At Ole Miss he was voted the best offensive lineman in the SEC. The Magee native went on to play 10 years in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers. Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the first SEC championship game, he represented Ole Miss last year as its SEC Legend.

“It came full circle for me. Seeing how the event has changed was a wonderful experience,” said Mangum.

He and wife Mary Ellen have four children: Ally, Molly, Macy, and Kris Junior. They live in Petal.

After a standout college career, he played in the 2004 Super Bowl. His Panthers lost to Tom Brady and New England, 32-29, in the final seconds.

He led all SEC tight ends in catches his senior year.

Mangum started his banking career in 2009 with Magnolia State Bank in Petal.

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