Ah, August. April may be the cruelest month, but for SEC football fans, August is the one filled with the most blind optimism. Every team gets a fresh slate, 0-0. Freshmen report, then veterans. Pads pop under the blistering August sun. Fans close their eyes and dream of spending the winter holidays in some sunny clime.
Another season of SEC football has arrived. No, the season doesn’t begin until Aug. 31. But the "discussion-of-football" season-- which, in the South, is 365 days a year-- kicks into high gear Tuesday with SEC Media Days in Birmingham. Over 700 media members and all 12 SEC coaches will converge on the Steel City for three days of interviews, analysis, predictions, and cliches.
Last year was my first chance to attend. I'd heard about it for years, but when offered a credential to cover the event for VandyMania (then VandyNation), I found the lure irresistible. For this football fanatic turned quasi-journalist, it was a satisfying and eye-opening opportunity. I was naturally curious to hear the coaches, but equally curious to discover what goes on behind the scenes.
The event takes place in a huge hotel conference center, and kicks off Tuesday at noon with a luncheon hosted by the SEC Commissioner. (Little did we know last year that we were attending the last such event hosted by Roy Kramer; this year new Commissioner Mike Slive, formerly of Conference USA, takes over.)
On Tuesday afternoon four SEC coaches take turns facing the print media, the broadcast media, and yes, even the Internet media. Four more coaches face the press on Wednesday morning, and the final four appear on Thursday morning. Each coach is also allowed to bring along two key student-athletes, who do their best to answer the questions in coherent sentences.
You've never seen so many notepads, cameras and laptops in one room. Practically very major newspaper in the South sends a representative, as do a good number of local TV stations. Sportstalk radio stations do live remote broadcasts. For them, it's a feeding frenzy. For the coaches and athletes, it's talk-till-you-drop.
Even major networks like CBS, ESPN and Jefferson-Pilot show up and scramble for face time with the principals. (You know those taped cut-away interviews on TV broadcasts that look as though they were made the morning before the game? Hate to break it to you, but they were recorded in August.)
In the huge print media room, every coach is expected to speak for 5-10 minutes, then take questions for the better part of an hour. Most coaches, from all appearances, seem to dread this. They respond methodically, guardedly, seldom smiling-- but who can blame them? A single rash remark by a coach might appear in 100 papers the next day.
Persistent reporters are sometimes lucky enough to score an exclusive interview with a coach or player in between sessions-- but to do that, you've got to be aggressive. You might have to elbow someone else out of the way, or thrust your microphone above his. Journalists compete with each other for interviews almost as aggressively as they go after the free food.
Among SEC coaches, two are always the most eagerly anticipated by the press-- Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier. (Oops... guess we're down to just Holtz now. Spurrier, now the Chief Redskin, has been supplanted by the deadpan Ron Zook.)
Cagey Lou Holtz has always innately grasped that the media needs fodder. Writers need a funny line or two to lead with, and the broadcast media needs sound bites-- so Holtz always comes armed with plenty of each. You know before he gets up that he's going to say his graduation-ravaged Gamecocks couldn't beat Little Sisters of the Poor, but his presentation is still unfailingly hilarious.
Spurrier's popularity, on the other hand, was due partly to his celebrity, but moreso to the fact he was so refreshingly blunt. With a brashness that stood in stark contrast to every other coach's moribund approach, the Gator-in-chief felt free to take shots at rival schools, to accuse other schools of playing dirty, or perhaps even to criticize the Commissioner.
Spurrier made his entrance last year with all the panache of a rock star-- wearing fashionable sunglasses, surrounded by an entourage. Yes, Gator fans will miss the Visored One, but not half as much as reporters. He was a breath of fresh air.
Media Days also offers multiple informal opportunities to mingle with coaches, conference officials, reporters, and broadcast celebrities. There'll be a reception on Tuesday night. There's a golf outing on Wednesday afternoon, where a reporter might find himself teeing off with Phillip Fulmer or Jackie Sherrill.
Several unique themes swirl around this year's media gathering. It's the first big event for Commissioner Slive, as well as for Florida's Zook and Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson. NCAA probation looms for Alabama and Kentucky, and perhaps others. As always, several coaches are on the proverbial hotseat. There's never a shortage of things to discuss.
Birmingham rolls out the red carpet for this event. As a goodwill gesture, the conference distributes cheesy little thank-you gifts to media members-- a tote bag, or a polo shirt. (Given the scandals and probations that have plagued the SEC this past off-season, the conference might want to consider going a little nicer this year.)
You know that with this many media members in one place, advertisers will be on hand. Official SEC sponsors hawk their products in hallways. Blazered bowl representatives are everywhere, hoping for free publicity.
Media Days is also important for the universities' sports information offices. Media guides, those voluminous tomes so anticipated by both media and fans, make their debut at Media Days. These days it seems as though SID's vie to see which school can produce the thickest-- heck, Florida's alone was over 430 pages last year. Last year I nearly herniated myself carrying them all out to the car.
The media traditionally takes a vote on the projected order of finish, and their selections are announced with great pomp on Thursday. (Seems like the press guys generally start with the sure thing, like picking Vanderbilt sixth in the East-- and go from there.)
Other conferences have developed their versions of Media Days based on the SEC's, but the SEC's is still easily the granddaddy of them all. For three late-summer days the coaches and media, not always necessarily on chummy terms, conveniently overlook any past ill will and play nicely in the same sandbox.
There's a feel-good atmosphere about the whole soiree. When it's all over on Thursday afternoon, everyone leaves a little happier. Reporters come home with enough interviews on tape to generate dozens of stories-- enough to keep readers titillated right up through the season's opening kickoff.
And coaches are happy too. They won't have to go through this grueling ordeal again for another 364 days.