It’s often been referred to as a “media circus.”
And, well, that’s a pretty apt description for the event known as SEC Media Days … when more than 1,000 print and electronic media types, who cover Southeastern Conference football, gather under one roof at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham – Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala. to break down everything about the approaching season you want to know … or even don’t want to know.
The 2019 version of media days will be unveiled this week, July 15-18, and it’s back in Hoover — just a long punt from Birmingham — after a one-year respite when the 2018 event was staged at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
The schedule for SEC Media Days is pretty much the same every year … the head coaches of the 14 conference teams meeting briefly with their beat media then taking the stage in the huge, Main Media room to offer a preview of their team and then open it up for questions from the print reporters. The coaches then also do interviews on Radio Row and in front of the television cameras. And, as always, each coach is accompanied by three of his leading players. In Georgia’s case this year, it will be quarterback Jake Fromm, offensive tackle Andrew Thomas and safety J.R. Reed joining Kirby Smart Tuesday morning for the interview sessions.
But very seldom do the SEC coaches tip their hand on any new developments in their program, at least as far as how their team will line up and actually perform in the upcoming season. Nope, everything you’ve read after the conclusion of spring practice and in the preseason magazines, you’ll hear again when your favorite coach stands up at the podium. Most every coach, especially those whose teams have been picked to make championship runs, will downplay their chances a bit, use a lot of coach-speak and yes, poormouth if you will.
But as they do that, I think there is a bit of sincerity in their words. Yes, the head coaches have seen their teams go through spring drills and have monitored the summer workouts, as much as the NCAA allows, but until they view their players in the preseason camp of August, when the pads go on and the hitting begins in earnest, there’s no way they can accurately gauge who’s become “game ready” and poised to make the plays when there are people in the stands. Preseason camp, after all, is the first time they see the newly arriving and highly-touted freshmen in scrimmages … the ones that weren’t early enrollees and went through spring practice.
But the good thing about SEC Media Days is that it does whet the fans’ appetite for Southeastern Conference football. And that’s apparent each day when the fans pack the lobby of the Hyatt Regency-Wynfrey Hotel to get a look and greet the respective coach and players of their favorite team when they enter the building. As you would guess, the biggest throng of fandom each year at media days belongs to the Alabama Crimson Tide. When Nick Saban enters, it’s akin to a rock star fighting his way through the crowd. And it will be on Wednesday morning when the legendary coach arrives this time.
But, mind you, SEC Media Days isn’t always hum-drum … unceasing interviews with the coaches and players simply spewing out the company line with hardly any new revealing info forthcoming. As I’ve attended this event down through the years, there have been a multitude of unexpected happenings, many of them so humorous that they’ve added a good bit of “juice” to the proceedings.
At the 2010 media days, for instance, there was then Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell. Of all the presentations I’ve heard in Hoover and Atlanta, none were more hilarious than the talk Caldwell made that day. He’s one of the few coaches I’ve heard who received a huge ovation from the normally, staid media corps. Caldwell, who had been named Vanderbilt’s interim coach just a few weeks prior following the sudden resignation of Bobby Johnson, exuded folksy, corn-pone charm during his talk and regaled reporters with tales of previous jobs he’d held growing up in rural South Carolina, including a memorable stint as a “turkey inseminator” on a poultry farm. Of course, as things turned out, the fun for Caldwell didn’t last long as he went 2-10 in his lone season as Vandy interim coach. He was replaced by the much more successful James Franklin.
And arguably the most absurd moment in the history of SEC Media Days came in 2004, when Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer declined to show up. Fulmer was apparently fearing a subpoena to testify in a lawsuit brought against the NCAA by former Alabama assistant coach Ronnie Cottrell, in which Fulmer was accused of being a secret witness. Fulmer gave his SEC Media Days presentation via conference call, with the bizarre scene leading to reporters and videographers crowded around an empty podium to record Fulmer’s remarks being delivered from a speakerphone. The SEC fined Fulmer $10,000 for not attending Media Days.
Fulmer might have dodged a subpoena in the Cottrell lawsuit in 2004 by not showing up for SEC Media Days, but he wasn’t able to do so four years later, in 2008, in a different case involving former Alabama booster Wendell Smith. As Fulmer stepped out of an SUV at the Wynfrey Hotel, process server Brandon Blankenship was waiting, and handed Fulmer a subpoena. Fulmer stalled on testifying throughout that season, and after his resignation from Tennessee that December, the story died down.
Back to 2004, there was more hilarity as that was the year when Nick Saban’s dog stole the show at SEC Media Days. Saban was the head coach at LSU and coming off a national championship, but it was the coach’s dog, Lizzy, that everyone was talking about that year. It seemed that housekeeping at the Wynfrey Hotel left the door open to Saban’s room, allowing Lizzy to escape. The dog, a boxer, somehow found its way down the elevator and joined Saban at the podium for his remarks to TV reporters. Sounds like Lizzy had a little help but the incident almost made for a loss of words from the normally unflappable Nick Saban.
Then there was 2009 and Steve Spurrier’s supposedly famous snub of a fellow Florida Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow. Tebow was arguably the most famous athlete in college sports that year, having won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and having led Florida to a national championship the following year. But that didn’t mean he was unanimously regarded as the best quarterback in the SEC, as one coach left him off his preseason ballot. The culprit? None other than then South Carolina coach Spurrier. Spurrier, who won the Heisman in 1966, took full responsibility for the snub, blaming it on a “miscommunication.”
And there was nothing humorous about it but you had to shake your head at the 2013 SEC Media Days when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel entered the big room to get to his assigned corner for interviews. I was standing there when he entered and I can vouch that no player in Media Days history, not even Tebow, has ever drawn a crowd like the one that surrounded Manziel that July. Manziel had just won the Heisman Trophy — beating eventual national champion Alabama in the process — and endured a controversial offseason that included accusations of drunken behavior. When “Johnny Football” took the podium in Hoover, reporters were stacked so deep those in the back had little hope of even seeing Manziel, let alone hearing what he had to say.
And yes, there was a funny incident involving Georgia’s Kirby Smart … just last year in Atlanta. Heads turned quickly in amazement when a Kentucky reporter asked Smart about the Bulldogs having a “loaded quarterback room” with Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm and Justin Fields all competing for the starting job.
Of course, Washington native Eason had long since headed west, transferring from Georgia to the University of Washington some 161 days prior to 2018 media days. Can’t remember if Kirby replied anything to that question, think he just shook his head in response.