Forget SEC football. Forget SEC baseball. The most powerful group of teams assembled in the SEC plays on the softball diamond.
Here is all you need to know about the strength of the SEC this softball season: Texas A&M did not qualify for the 10-team SEC tournament this week at South Carolina. Yet the Aggies are No. 22 in the latest NCAA RPI and are a lock to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
The SEC tournament that begins Wednesday at Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field is not just any league get-together. This is a gathering of 10 of college softball’s best teams, all headed to the NCAA tournament.
Beverly Smith is in her fourth season as USC’s coach, so she has perspective on how difficult it is to compete in the SEC. Her team’s eighth-place finish in the SEC regular season was good enough to sport a No. 32 ranking in the RPI.
“You just don’t get to take a day off,” Smith says of the league. “Every game you’re playing is an absolute battle.”
With 16 seasons at Alabama, Patrick Murphy is the dean among coaches in the SEC. During that period, Murphy has joyfully watched the league’s softball grow from an afterthought with little clout nationally to among the nation’s elite.
There were seasons early on in which Murphy knew his team was better-coached than some SEC opponents. He knew his players were more talented. He knew there were series that could be won simply by playing solid softball.
“Now there is not a gimme any weekend,” Murphy says. “Any weekend, any team can beat anybody. If you don’t play well, you’re going to get beat.”
It is why, for the second consecutive season, an NCAA-record 11 teams from the SEC will receive NCAA tournament bids. It is why the latest RPI rankings show the SEC with the top three teams – No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia. And it does not stop there with Missouri at No. 9, followed by Tennessee (13), Auburn (15), Kentucky (16), LSU (20), Texas A&M (22), Mississippi State (31) and USC (32).
The strength of the conference was not attained overnight. Murphy says it has been a systematic process that began with a commitment from SEC athletics directors to hire quality coaches and improve facilities.
“In the SEC, an athletic director is not afraid to go out and get somebody and pay the money,” Murphy says. “Number two, (the ADs) want to win, whatever sport it is. That’s across the board, and right now we have probably the best group of one through 13 coaches in the league’s history.”
Murphy knows something about facilities improvements. When he arrived for the 1997 season as an assistant coach, and for the first three years of the Alabama program’s history, Murphy faced an unenviable task. He was charged with removing the portable fence from the outfield following every practice and game so slow-pitch recreation games could be played on the field. Alabama played its home games then at a Tuscaloosa recreation park.
“Fifty people and three dogs running around in the outfield was our crowd,” Murphy said.
Rhodes Stadium was constructed in 2000 at a cost of $2.2 million, and another $2 million in renovations were completed in 2011. Alabama topped 90,000 in attendance at the 4,000-seat stadium during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
The numerous sold-out crowds are mostly the result of Alabama playing winning softball. The Crimson Tide will appear in their 16th consecutive NCAA tournament this season, have advanced to the Women’s College World Series eight times and captured the national championship in 2012.
Meanwhile, the rest of the league has been gradually following Alabama’s lead. In recent years, Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU and USC have either renovated stadiums or constructed new ones. The SEC tournament this week will be played in USC’s new $8 million stadium. Missouri and Mississippi State have plans to upgrade their facilities.
Better coaching and top-level facilities have led to SEC programs mining the Southeast for the nation’s best talent. No longer are the best players found primarily in southern California.
It all adds up to the SEC challenging the long-dominant Pacific-12 Conference for national supremacy. The Pac-12 has produced 10 of the past 14 national champions, with the exceptions being Oklahoma twice, Michigan and Alabama.
Murphy and Smith can see the shift of power from the West Coast to the Southeast. Evidence of that relocation of supremacy in college softball will be on display this week when 10 of the nation’s top teams compete in the SEC tournament at USC.
Even SEC football and baseball can’t make that kind of claim.