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VOL. 9 | NO. 29 | Saturday, July 16, 2016

Too Big To Ignore: The SEC and Its Ever-Growing Football Media Days

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HOOVER, Ala. – The SEC football preseason always has been loud. More than 30 years ago, the noise came via the Skywriters Tour and the rattle and roar of a DC-3 propeller plane carrying rumpled, hardworking – and often hard-drinking – sports writers to the 10 Southeastern Conference campuses for essentially unfettered access to the league’s coaches and players.

This forerunner to the ESPN production that is today’s SEC Media Days began in 1965, the brainchild of then-SEC sports information director Elmore “Scoop” Hudgins. More than one fun-loving scribe passed out from an evening of conversation with coaches and colleagues. The Skywriters pilot was known to partake as well.

His nickname? Crash.

“It’s amazing that everybody survived that thing,” said Ron Higgins, a longtime SEC writer who now is a columnist for nola.com and the Times-Picayune.

Higgins wasn’t around for the Skywriters Tour, though he knew well many of the survivors. He did attend the first formal SEC Media Days held in 1985 at Birmingham’s Holiday Inn Medical Center. It drew, at most, 70 media members and maintained some of the intimacy that made the Skywriters Tour legendary.

“They had coaches at round tables for one-on-one conversations,” Higgins said. “It was wonderful. Afterwards, SIDs would invite you out to dinner with the coaches. Some of those nights sitting there with Johnny Majors (then coach of Tennessee), he was like three bottles of wine into it and just being unbelievably funny and telling all these stories.”

Now in 2016, and for a long time, the loudest sounds do not come from a prop plane or a raucous dinner with coaches and writers. Alas, that sort of trust – and at times, friendship – evaporated years ago.

Now, all the sounds are scripted and the loudest voices speak via the SEC Network (child of ESPN), with its studio set-up at the back of a huge ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham - Wynfrey Hotel. This week the network’s college football analysts were “role playing” for a nationwide audience. So former All-SEC and LSU defensive lineman Anthony “Booger” McFarland was pretending to be Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason and shouting, “I chose the SEC! The SEC didn’t choose me! I’m the Chosen One! Not LeBron!”

And analyst and former LSU defensive end Marcus Spears was playing the part of LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, saying, “I’m done with social media! I’m just gonna ball out!”

The SEC Network’s talking heads on that set snickered at the performances while, behind them, sitting at rows and rows of tables, hundreds of sports writers – mostly oblivious to the white noise of TV banter – pecked away on laptop computers. They were waiting for the next head coach to make his mandatory appearance at the lectern and offer, as Arkansas coach Bret Bielema described it, “a song and dance.”

BIGGER, YES; BETTER, NOT NECESSARILY

The SEC reportedly issued more than 1,200 media credentials this year for the four-day event in suburban Birmingham and it is not an exaggeration to say that many of the media here will not step one foot inside an SEC stadium during the season.

One young reporter who might or might not get to cover an actual game is Jack Ronilo. Jack is an 11-year-old rising sixth grader and Birmingham resident who won a contest through Sports Illustrated for Kids to be credentialed for this event. And he did have a theory as to why Booger McFarland and Marcus Spears talk so dang loud on TV.

“They’re just trying to be heard,” he said. “The (microphone) might not take as much sound. I guess they have to shout. And if not, they have played football. So, I mean, there’s a lot of shouting involved with coaches.”

True. And if Jack had been born 50 years earlier, he might have a Skywriters Tour ride in his future.

But at today’s SEC Media Days, coaches actually scream their messages in measured voices as they spin this way and that to communicate the need for patience with their programs. The SEC is the toughest league in the land, back on top after Alabama’s national championship, and has won eight of the last 10 national titles. So coaching life expectancy is always subject to change.

LSU’s Les Miles was Dead Man Walking at the end of last season, but somehow resurrected his career and was here on Thursday to say wacky things that just pop into his head or that are deftly disguised as wacky things that just pop into his head.

Said Higgins: “You can ask Les a direct question, ‘Les, is the sun out today?’ And he’ll say, ‘The lake is wet.’ I’ve covered him for three years (on a daily basis) and I don’t know whether it’s an act or he has a detachment.”

The undisputed King of the SEC is, of course, Alabama coach Nick Saban. He has five national championships, one with LSU and four with the Crimson Tide. With each passing day it becomes easier to envision him in a Hounds-tooth hat. But Saban wasted no time saying that this is the third straight year he’s come to SEC Media Days unsure of his Opening Day quarterback. File that one under Rich People’s Problems.

Other coaches have more pressing issues. Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason has won exactly two conference games in two seasons. Former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is getting his shot to restore alma mater Georgia to top-of-the-heap prominence. Former University of Memphis defensive coordinator Barry Odom gets his first head coaching opportunity at alma mater Missouri. And Will Muschamp, dumped by Florida in 2014, has been recycled as head coach at South Carolina.

At Tennessee, Butch Jones has the pressure of being expected to win the SEC East, but at least that nasty Title IX lawsuit was settled for a cool $2.48 million. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, however, is still not out from under the scrutiny of an NCAA probe and former offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil’s NFL Draft Night claim that a member of the Rebels football staff paid him money.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen spent much of his time here answering – OK, dodging – questions about prized recruit and freshman Jeffery Simmons, who is best known for the video that caught him hitting a woman several times as she lay on the ground.

“We’re all responsible,” Mullen finally said when asked about the risk for himself and the university if Simmons were to be involved in a similar incident while at MSU.

Not that the SEC wants attention going to any of these unpleasant realities. Commissioner Greg Sankey, who shockingly did not beat his chest about the league winning eight of the last 10 national championships – Mike Slive, where have you gone? – did seem to enjoy rolling out the league’s new slogan: “It just means more.”

He noted not one SEC school is currently on NCAA probation and that not one SEC team from any sport is presently below the NCAA’s academic progress rate cut line. He also urged the media not to overplay isolated, negative events.

“The fact that we come to Media Days and there are maybe more extreme headlines is not new,” Sankey said, later adding, “The body of work of this conference far outweighs those problems …”

Meanwhile, when Rosalyn Durant, senior vice president at ESPN, took her turn at the lectern she touted the SEC Network’s having televised 1,600 events in the past year. So excited was she about the network’s progress and brand recognition, she quoted Winston Churchill: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

Going forward – as in down on the football field in 2016 – the SEC’s administrators, coaches and players again believe the results will be sufficient to make even a prime minister proud.

BACKWARDS, FORWARD, ONWARD!

In the preseason college football rankings released from the ESPN in May, defending national champion Alabama was No. 1, LSU was slotted at No. 6, Tennessee at No. 11, Georgia at No. 13, Ole Miss at No. 14 and Texas A&M at No. 21.

LSU running back Leonard Fournette is considered a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett might have the inside track on being the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

So talent is not a concern, even if you could win a lot of bar bets by wagering someone could not name five SEC quarterbacks. Let’s see, just for fun: Chad Kelly at Ole Miss, Joshua Dobbs at Tennessee … um, ah, anyone seen Johnny Manziel?

Meantime, there was Bielema calling Deatrich Wise Jr. a “beautiful 6-6, 270-280 pound defensive end.” To which Wise responded: “He said that? That’s an honor coming from coach Bielema. You see his wife, she’s beautiful. His calling me beautiful is a great thing.”

Bielema also said of his Hogs, “We’re not very sexy. We’re kind of a work in progress. We need a lot of time in the bathroom to get ready and come out and look great.”

Higgins calls Bielema the closest thing left to Steve Spurrier, who retired last year as coach at South Carolina and had been entertaining the media masses for decades going back to his days at Florida.

“Some coaches, you feel like they’re trying to recruit you when they talk to you,” Higgins said. “Spurrier would try something out he wanted to say on his wife. And if she said, `Oh, Steve,’ he’d use it.”

There was the time a few years ago, when Saban was still at LSU and had brought his dog to Media Days, and the dog got loose and was wandering around the hotel looking for him. Proof, perhaps, of the loyalty Saban commands.

But mostly, the current version of SEC Media Days just seems, well, too much. And a little silly.

Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, has been coming here for 20-some years. He’s not sure when the image first stuck in his head, but he knew things had changed when he noticed everywhere he turned there were back-pedaling cameramen. They followed Tim Tebow from one place to another. And Johnny Football. And now Saban and everyone trying to beat Saban.

“It’s got its own personality,” Ehrhart said. “I’ve been to just about every kind of convention and this is the only convention, whether it’s political or something else, where guys have to learn to film running backwards. Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump could walk in and you don’t have that many cameras trying to backpedal.”

The irony? It’s all an indication of the SEC moving ever-forward. The SEC reportedly had total revenue of $527.4 million for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2015. Each of the 14 member schools received approximately $31.2 million. The total revenue way back in fiscal 2009? Less than $150 million.

“Some people see it as a circus,” said Missouri linebacker Michael Scherer. “Or you can see it as, `look how much the sport has grown, look how much the SEC has grown, look how much respect SEC football gets to have a big production just to talk to some people.’ I mean, that’s all we’re doing. You could have come to Columbia or called me on the phone.

“It just shows the magnitude of what SEC football is.”

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