story by Chris Rushing
Follow Me on Twitter: @rushicw
So here we are in the midst of all the heat and lack of rain that defines a southern summer. While our schedules are filled with baseball, softball and soccer tournaments, admit it — your eye has wandered towards today for months when all 14 Southeastern Conference coaches will descend upon the Wynfrey Hotel ballrooms in Hoover, Ala., to discuss their two-deeps and answer various questions.
It’s still weird to type “14” instead of “12” when discussing the SEC, but I digress.
This year, we have an added bonus of two sets of coaches and three players making their debuts in Missouri and Texas A&M. A whole new crowd of media will have to pick up credentials after checking into the Sheraton adjacent to the Hoover, Ala., Galleria. It will be interesting to listen to the Mizzou and A&M writers best describe the throng of Alabama fans sure to converge on the bottom floor of the hotel lobby as they patiently await the opportunity to get autographs from Nick Saban and Co.
Having worked four of these events during my days as a college undergrad, we were always on our toes to look out for the unexpected. The unexpected has led to quite a few tales of grandeur shared amongst friends and myself.
Before going into the stories, I want to give a little background. Every media relations volunteer is welcomed with a speech from guru Tammy Wilson to prepare for almost all situations that involve 800-plus media members in addition to chatty (and not-so-chatty) student athletes and coaches.
Even though he has since moved onto Kentucky, DeWayne “Tall Man” Peevy also played an important role in supervising the volunteers. Tall Man is one of the most laid-back individuals I have ever been around, so it takes quite a bit to get him frazzled. Without further ado, here are some instances that exceeded protocol given to us in our speech and had Tall Man scratching his head a little.
In 2003, then-South Carolina coach Lou Holtz did not arrive at the soiree. Sure, there was a threat of storms in the Columbia area that day, but most coaches come the day prior to their scheduled appearance to work Radio Row and relax a little bit off-camera. The lasting memory of this was watching hundreds of hands holding tape recorders around one small speaker phone in order to ask their questions to the always comical Holtz. Another important piece of the puzzle that will play later in this column: Holtz brought about a penalty fee assessed by the SEC offices to no-shows.
The next summer, Philip Fulmer took a page out of Holtz’s playbook and delivered his assessment of the 2004 Volunteers squad via teleconference. His reasons were much different from Holtz’s, though, as he was avoiding the possibilities of being served a subpoena for his involvement in the Albert Means case against the University of Alabama in 2002. While Fulmer’s decision was bad enough, it was even worse that the school OK’d the trip for his two players to Hoover. Sadly, very few questions for these guys revolved around their upcoming SEC Eastern Division title run but the void left by Fulmer’s actions.
Not to be outdone, Saban (then as LSU coach) was still riding high from winning the BCS championship with the Tigers that January. While it is not uncommon for family members to travel to Media Days, Saban — as he has so many times done on the recruiting front — took things to a new level by bringing his family dog to the solitary room most coaches occupy prior to waltzing through the ballrooms. I will never forget the look on Wilson’s face when she saw the pooch escape captivity when the elevator doors opened and race toward all opened doors seeking his master.
A majority of the cutting up occurs in the hallways while players and coaches are moving to each scheduled stop. Most of the players will admire and comment on each other’s attire, and it is always fun to see coaches interact with athletes they recruited but missed.
In 2005, following a three-year hiatus from the event, Steve Spurrier seemed eager to make a splash in his return to the league he dominated the prior decade at Florida. When he recognized Jarvis Herring and Mike Degory in the hallway, the Ol’ Ball Coach made a snide remark towards his critics who said he had lost his recruiting edge later in his Florida reign.
“Hey, I recruited both those guys, and they’re here. Only good players come here. Who said I can’t recruit?” Spurrier quipped to the television cameras following him.
Many point to last week’s barrage of preseason watch lists and all-conference team selections as the unofficial start of the college football season. Those folks have never spent a day, much less an entire July week, in this Birmingham suburb to fully recognize the true college football preseason kickoff event the SEC puts on like no other. The best part of media days is the unexpected, a promise of which the league never fails to deliver.
Hopefully these anecdotes will help whet your appetite for the week under the Galleria big top.