In year's past, SEC Media Days has been known for the absurd. Take 2008, for instance, the year Phillip Fulmer was served a subpoena to testify in a liable suits against the NCAA. Or last year when Vanderbilt's Robbie Caldwell charmed the room by explaining the finer points of turkey insemination. This year, however, coaches and media personnel, alike, stuck to their scripts more often than not.
Not that there weren't story lines to be had, mind you. Mike Slive's proposal to bring collegiate athletics out of the dark ages seemed promising enough. The problem was that the story fizzled when each coach basically said some version of "We'll play by whatever the rules are," or "I haven't had a chance to read over the proposal, so I can't comment." This is the type of story-killing sensibility that media members have nightmares about.
As a group, media members didn't have much luck when it came to questions about over-signing, either. Will Muschamp's response, "We don't over-sign," was barely distinguishable from Steve Spurrier's "We didn't over-sign." Houston Nutt offered a little commentary on the matter by admitting that he is "kind of connected to that," but reiterated the week's motto of pledging to follow whatever rules are placed in front of him.
Even Auburn's Gene Chizik got off easy by staying on message. When asked about the "bag man" story that broke just prior to Media Days, Chizik repeatedly stated that he had no concerns when his head hit the pillow at night. That's great and all, but I'm not going to believe that someone who allegedly paid a player $180,000 to get him on campus will suddenly find religion after winning a National Championship and thumbing his nose at the enforcement agencies for a year. Chizik probably does sleep like a baby at night, and that's exactly what worries me.
And so it went for three days in Birmingham. Media members would try their darnedest to elicit some interesting response from the coaches, and more often than not the coaches' remarks remained guarded. At some point during Houston Nutt's session on Friday, it hit me that 2011 might be the tipping point of SEC Media Days. The contrast between Saban's and Nutt's approach to media questions was stark. While Houston Nutt gave off the appearance of internalizing your questions and actually giving you his answer, Saban always appeared to be weighing the best possible answer. Aligning with Saban in this regard were Will Muschamp, Dan Mullen, Gene Chizik, and possibly (I'm assuming here because I missed his session) Bobby Petrino. Coaches on the opposite end of the spectrum were pretty much limited to Steve Spurrier, Houston Nutt, and newcomer Derek Dooley, with everyone else falling somewhere in between. I couldn't help but wonder if we were witnessing the turning of a page on SEC Media Days. For many coaches, perhaps the majority now, it's no longer about promoting your sport but surviving the week without winding up in the papers. In an age of internet message boards and year-round hype machines, coaches no longer feel like they need to promote their brands because it's already being done for them at a frenetic pace. A coach no longer needs to be the face of their program because a marketing department can take care of that behind the scenes.
All that's not to say that I, personally, didn't get a lot out of my SEC Media Days experience. As a first timer on the Birmingham scene, it was an educational experience to see how the pros go about their business. I learned as much about the art of story telling as I did about information gathering. It was also a humbling and gratifying experience to be socialized into the corps of media members.
But the real value in SEC Media Days, for me, is the chance to interview the players from around the conference. Popular players like the Alshon Jerfferys and Marcus Lattimores of the world end up being swarmed by people to the extent that it becomes tough to elicit any sort of unique story. I preferred to stick around the less popular players in the hopes of being able to strike up an actual interview. And this is where I appreciated, more than anything, the chance to attend Media Days. With so many emotions and so much money hanging on each play during the season, it's easy to forget just how normal these kids really are. I already shared with you my impression of Kentucky offensive lineman Stuart Hines. If you really want to get a sense of what playing football means to some of these young men, though, you have watch the video of Ole Miss defensive end Kentrell Lockett. Rather than marring his cometary with my own, I'll let Mr. Lockett speak for himself.
Pretty soon we'll all turn our attention from Birmingham to the Atlantas, Charlottes, and Dallases across the country where kickoff games are being staged. Just as the turning of the leaves signifies the onset of Autumn, so, too, does SEC Media Days signify the approach of the college football season. Folks, we are now less than six weeks from the start of college football season, and that just might be the greatest thing about SEC Media Days.