The call from SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer came on Monday. The country had mourned for almost a week after the planes flew into the twin towers and the Pentagon on 9/11, the previous Tuesday, and the sports world had come to a stop.
Kramer, the most influential of the conference commissioners 20 years ago in 2001, had been the most vocal about returning to play. He wanted to play on the first weekend after 9/11, just five days after the tragedy, a move that stalled once the NFL called off its games.
But on Monday, Sept. 17, it was time. Kramer had been in contact with the White House staff, and President Bush was solidly behind a return to daily life, including sports.
The next game on the schedule was a Thursday night tilt pitting South Carolina at Mississippi State on Sept. 20.
With the support he needed from Washington, Kramer called Mississippi State Athletic Director Larry Templeton with this message from Washington: “The White House wants y’all to play football,” Templeton recalls Kramer saying on the phone.
The Gamecocks and the Bulldogs would play the first football game, pro or college, after 9/11.
The SEC’s original plan, though, was to play that first weekend, which meant that the league would stick with its original schedule as closely as it could.
Kramer, after consulting with the university presidents on a Sept. 12 conference call, emerged emboldened by their reaction. They favored a return to normalcy, especially with Bush advocating a position that if Americans start changing their habits, the terrorists have won.
“So on Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 12), we issued a press release that said we would be playing and part of that impetus was from President Bush saying, ‘Hey, the country needs to get back to normal as quickly as possible,’” said Charles Bloom, who headed up SEC media relations at the time and now works in South Carolina’s athletic department.
The SEC originally decided to play scheduled games on the weekend of Sept. 15, then postponed them. On the following Monday, the call was made to play again. First up was South Carolina at Mississippi State on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2001, in Starkville. The Gamecocks won, 16-14.newscom
Kramer explained the SEC’s position by saying the conference took the action after deep consideration and discussions between the member schools as well as with government officials.
What seemed like a good idea inside the walls at headquarters in Birmingham, though, did not go over as well nationally when the SEC announced its decision to play.
“The backlash was immediate,” said Bloom. “And that was before there was Twitter and Facebook. Talk radio, the TV networks, they were on the story throughout the day. We were getting beat up pretty good.”
The next day, Sept. 13, a Thursday, the SEC hosted its weekly conference call with all 12 head football coaches talking about their teams and reaction to the horrifying events.
In the midst of the call came word from the NFL. The league had decided to postpone its full slate of games for that weekend.
It changed the entire trajectory of the SEC’s plans.
“That stopped us in our tracks,” Bloom said. “You pretty much knew that we were going to be following suit very soon.”
Kramer reconvened the SEC presidents that day in light of the NFL’s announcement.
There were other factors in play. Some of the SEC opponents opted not to play. Brigham Young was supposed to play at Mississippi State, but the Cougars “weren’t about to get on a plane,” Templeton said.
South Carolina was scheduled to host Bowling Green and when that fell through, it began talks with Western Kentucky as a replacement.
The annual Florida-Tennessee rivalry game was one of the SEC matchups affected by 9/11. The game was rescheduled and played on Dec. 1, 2001. The Vols won 34-32.Getty Images
But the conference reversed course and shut it down before any of those schools could reschedule. An additional week was tacked on to the end of the season to accommodate lost games, like Florida-Tennessee, a traditional early-season SEC showdown.
“When you start to hear that other teams and other leagues aren’t playing, you kind of figure out that you’ve got to reverse field,” said SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack, the league’s scheduling guru.
That next week, Templeton had little time to think about the significance of the moment. They were scheduled to play in three days under unprecedented circumstances. Protocols for security had to be rewritten quickly.
“We looked at every scenario when it came to moving games around,” Womack said. “You take every consideration and put it on the table. We were talking to other conferences, the NFL. We ended up moving (extending) the season back a week.
“And then with South Carolina, you had to think about travel and if they’d be OK flying. There were a lot of big decisions that had to be made.”
Both schools fully committed to playing that Thursday night.
With just two full days left to prepare for the game, Templeton assembled his staff. The safety of the players, coaches and fans would take the highest priority. Many of the safety precautions that fans take for granted now were instituted for that game.
The SEC’s initial news release on Sept. 12, 2001, following the 9/11 attacks
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The members of the Southeastern Conference mourn the tragic loss of lives, bodily injury and condemn the acts of destruction which occurred yesterday (Tuesday) in this nation. Each of our institutions has been personally touched by these events.
After reviewing all of the issues involved, the Southeastern Conference announces that all Conference athletic events will be played as scheduled, including the football games on Saturday, September 15.
The Conference believes these events present a meaningful opportunity to bring our people together in a common expression of sympathy and mourning. An appropriate ceremony to express these sentiments will be held prior to each game.
The Conference also announces that the member institutions will donate $1,000,000 from the gate receipts and television fees to funds which will assist the victims of this tragic event. In addition, fans at each event will be encouraged to make donations to these funds.
In taking this action, we join the President of the United States and other leaders of our nation by “not allowing this event to change our way of life or restrict our freedoms.”
If required by changing events or circumstances, adjustments could be made to this schedule.
Source: Ole Miss
Templeton estimated that the school doubled the number of law enforcement officers, brought in handheld wand devices and placed bollards — those concrete barriers — around the stadium to keep vehicles a safe distance from the perimeter.
“I just remember ESPN deciding that they were going to promote the devil out of the first game played since 9/11,” Templeton said.
In one of Templeton’s many phone calls with South Carolina AD Mike McGee that week, he remembers saying, “Mike, whether it’s by plane, by bus or by walking, you guys are going to have to come to this game.”
Kerry Tharp was then South Carolina’s communications chief, and he was one of two administrators who typically went to the site of road games a day early to make sure there are no surprises when the team arrives.
He flew Delta through Atlanta to the Columbus, Miss., airport near Mississippi State’s campus in Starkville and still remembers how “eerie” it was at the normally bustling Delta hub.
“Normally, that place is wall-to-wall, but there was hardly anybody in there,” said Tharp, now president of Darlington Raceway.
The Gamecocks had planned to fly out of Columbia the night before the game, but with the country still on edge and the team making last-minute travel arrangements, their charter flight didn’t have enough crew members. The plane never took off from Columbia that evening.
Message board chatter stoked the story that South Carolina’s plane never landed in Mississippi. While technically true, the message boards didn’t have the whole story that the plane never took off, which left a lot to the imagination for friends and family.
When the SEC returned to the field after 9/11, South Carolina-Mississippi State was the first college or pro game. Players from both teams held the U.S. flag on the field before kickoff.Courtesy of Mississippi State
Middle Tennessee AD Chris Massaro was on the South Carolina staff in 2001 and was part of the travel party that got stranded in Columbia that night.
“The plane’s not there and people start to get nervous, like ‘What’s going on?’” Massaro said. “Once we knew the plane wasn’t coming, I remember we had a little meeting about who was going to tell Coach Holtz,” Even well into his 60s, the fiery South Carolina coach Lou Holtz still was a commanding presence.
The next day, the Gamecocks were on time departing for their unusual day-of-the-game flight.
By that evening, Mississippi State’s preparations were in place. The staff arranged for players from both squads to unfurl a massive U.S. flag that stretched sideline to sideline.
ESPN announcer Mark Jones welcomed viewers with an emotional and poignant opening that was broadcast on the stadium’s video board so that fans could see and hear it, something the school didn’t normally do.
Chants of “USA, USA” filed the stadium and spilled over into the parking lots. And when Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill’s stepdaughter, Bonnie Bishop, sang the national anthem, the whole place joined in.
Kramer and Womack, both of whom attended the game, shook Templeton’s hand for an amazing job. Templeton, who looked like he’d been holding his breath for the last four hours, wore a look of sheer relief. The only thing that went wrong from Mississippi State’s perspective that evening was the Bulldogs’ 16-14 loss.
“That might have been the only time I didn’t go into our team’s dressing room postgame,” Templeton said. “I just remember being so relieved. We pulled it off.”