The reward for patience: SEC football
You can ascribe any number of virtues to Southeastern Conference football. (Vices sold separately.)
Excellence and abundance spring to mind.
Patience does not.
This is the conference in which Gene Chizik won a national championship with Auburn on Jan. 10, 2011, and lost his job on Nov. 25, 2012 - 22 months and 25 games later. Most stakeholders and bystanders, present company included, understood.
It's the conference in which Jeremy Pruitt, on the cusp of his third season at Tennessee, just received a $400,000 annual raise and a two-year contract extension for an additional $9.6 million in new money - with a 13-12 record. He's trending well but still has to prove he can get closer than three touchdowns against Alabama, Florida or Georgia.
Whether it's losing faith in a hurry or rewarding potential too soon, in SEC circles, patience has long been more virgin than virtue. Until the college football world fell into panic, in lockstep with the larger globe, and Greg Sankey and company decided it was simply time to breathe.
See? SEC speed isn't always what the SEC needs. In this case, caution, deliberation and careful consideration have brought the conference a long way, all the way to opening day.
Everyone from the commissioner and his home-office colleagues to the league's presidents and chancellors, ADs and staffers, doctors and trainers, coaches and players has seemed to grasp the shortcomings of a rush to judgment. While other conferences shut down too soon with too little information or started too soon with too little space between the first game and the first day of class, the SEC took its good, old, sweet-tea time. It listened and learned. It gathered data and informed opinion to construct the most logical, practical, workable plan to play a football season when football should be played.
That steadfast refusal to bow to panic or pressure allowed the conference to proceed with caution in pursuit of its historic mission to provide opportunity for its athletes while doing everything in its considerable power to protect their health and safety against an unprecedented threat. Yes, money mattered, too, but to suggest playing a season during a pandemic is nothing more than a money grab is to miss the point Sankey made in March entirely. Players want to play. It's the responsibility of everyone else in College Football Inc. to give them that chance. The SEC showed the way.
The process hasn't been perfect with positive tests here and quarantines there, but here we are at the entrance to the first Saturday of SEC football, masks and hand sanitizer at the ready. Regardless of what happens in any of those seven games, no matter how much disdain you have for participation trophies, every kickoff alone is a victory.
If it's not the most anticipated season in SEC history, it may be the most appreciated, at least until your favorite quarterback throws a pick-six, your favorite cornerback turns to toast and your favorite coach forgets how to tell time. It's inevitable that the patience that allowed the conference to get here is sure to vanish as the sweet promise of a Saturday morning is crushed by a Rocky Block or a Prayer in Jordan-Hare.
Fans will lose patience with their players. Boosters will lose patience with their coaches. Opponents will have no patience for the real or perceived shenanigans of their rivals, especially if they result in a late, long field goal at the end of the half or a game-clinching penalty at the end of the day.
And that's OK. If the lamb can lay down with the lion and Missouri with Alabama, the new normal and the old reliable can find room in the same stadium, especially at 20 percent capacity. Some critics and cynics have denigrated the enormous collective effort it took to get here, but that effort has reinforced what a fall Saturday means and why it matters around here.
As the cool kids say, we're one sleep away from the delicious possibility of Bo Nix spinning a game-winning touchdown pass toward Seth Williams or a punt floating foolishly in the direction of Jaylen Waddle, while we hold our breath and anticipate the magic that's about to happen.
You can't hide that kind of smile even with a mask.