NOTE: David Hale will be reporting on the lead up to the SEC Championship on Dawg Post for the next few days. The not-as-handsome-as-he-is-popular Hale currently covers the Philadelphia Phillies of Major League Baseball.
While not covering the Phillies, Hale is the sax player for Huey Lewis & the Nudes -- the world's finest all-nude Huey Lewis tribute band.
You can follow him on Twitter here.
When the 2010 football season began, it marked the first time in years that I wasn’t spending it in a college town. Instead, I was in the Phillies locker room – just six weeks into a new job and, it seemed, a million miles from the one I'd left.
To say I was having second thoughts about the transition was an understatement. The baseball beat was grueling, with deadlines to meet every night and millionaires constantly wondering what I was doing invading their turf.* Even the lone perk of the gig -- free ice cream in the press box -- only helped me add about 10 pounds to my already less-than-trim figure.
(*Note: The Unabomber-eque beard I’d grown probably wasn’t helping my cause.)
Change isn't easy, and that first Saturday of college football season was a stark reminder of what I'd left behind.
But, of course, I wasn't the only one in the locker room with my eyes glued to the football games on TV. Jumping into the baseball beat mid-season, I'd made few inroads with the players, but college football was common ground.
So that first Saturday of football season, I struck up a conversation with relief pitcher Chad Durbin. He was an LSU alum and a huge follower of the SEC. It didn't hurt that he's also one of the nicest guys in baseball.
We chatted for a while -- perhaps the first real conversation I'd had with a player -- about the upcoming season and what we expected in college football's best conference.
I'd just left covering Georgia, where the wolves were circling Mark Richt and the 2010 season figured to be a turning point.
Durbin was livid after LSU disappointed in 2009, and he told me he'd be fine with the Tigers going winless in 2010 if it meant Les Miles would get the axe. It was just the type of SEC-style hyperbole that I'd missed.
As it turned out, the 2010 season wasn't exactly a banner year at LSU, though the team showed signs of improvement. In Athens, things were even worse, and Richt suffered through his first losing season as a head coach.
When it was over, however, Durbin didn't get his wish, and Miles was back for 2011*. At Georgia, the increasingly vocal critics were also disappointed, as Richt survived the embarrassment of a bowl loss to UCF to return for his 11th season.
(*Note: Miles survived, but Durbin didn't. He signed with the Indians for a third of his 2010 salary during the offseason and finished the 2011 season with a 5.53 ERA.)
Then came rocky offseasons for both schools. Arrests left LSU without its starting QB. Attrition left Georgia with a stable at running backs that made the term "depth chart" something of a misnomer.
Change is hard, of course. But patience is even tougher.
But while the detractors had their share of ammunition at both schools, the momentum slowly began to shift.
When I left UGA after the 2009 season, I was sure Aaron Murray would become a star. It just took an extra year for it to happen. This year’s passing offense improved by 43 yards per game and averaged five more points per game than they my last season covering the team.
When I left UGA, it was with high praise for Todd Grantham, whom I was certain would turn the defense around. That, too, took a bit longer than expected. And yet, Grantham's D has allowed eight fewer points per game and 70 fewer yards per game than the final installment of Willie Martinez's crew that I covered.
And when I left UGA, I assured readers I'd take The Curse of Hale with me -- that Georgia's luck would turn around eventually. In the meantime, the Phillies have been bumped from the playoffs shy of the World Series in each of my seasons here, while Georgia's turnover margin regressed to the mean* and the schedule set up perfectly for a run to the SEC title game this year.
(*Note: I get to use "regression to the mean" a lot more covering baseball, which is nice.)
LSU's re-emergence has been even more dramatic, which makes Saturday's game still something of a mismatch. In my years watching college football, I'm not sure I've seen a team quite as talented as the Tigers. They've got a punishing running game, they miss fewer tackles than most NFL teams and even Les Miles seems like he's been consistently taking his meds this season.
If UGA keeps it close on Saturday, it'll be something of an upset. But it won't be half as surprising as how far they've come in the two years since I left.
Even if LSU loses, they're still the best team in the country. That's how good they've been in 2011, and that's a far cry from where they were when I last wrote about them.
Maybe they'd be here with new coaches, too. Alabama and Auburn certainly proved that model works.
But after spending the last 18 months surrounded by change, I can't help but find some comfort in knowing that Georgia and LSU stayed the course and were rewarded handsomely for their patience.
It's easy to look ahead and see where the grass appears greener -- or, in Les Miles' case, more flavorful -- but there’s a certain beauty in trusting in what you’ve already got.