The main ballroom was filled early on Tuesday morning. While usually the first press conference of the day can start a little slow, media members, guests and just plain curious onlookers staked out their spot for the annual show that is Coach Steve Spurrier's appearance at SEC Football Media Days.
When I first moderated a press conference with Coach Spurrier a few years ago, I received plenty of advice. Be ready to jump in. Don't let him take over the press conference and call out his own questions. Buckle up and don't be surprised what may come out of his mouth into the microphone.
But that is what makes his appearance at this event so entertaining. It is 30 minutes of football insight, dangling good natured jabs at other coaches and programs and bits of standup comedy that generally plays well in the room and on national television.
Prior to each interview session, I meet the coach just outside the ballroom in the back hallway of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham's kitchen to remind them of a few things before we get started. Yes, much like rock stars and high-profile political figures, SEC coaches are escorted to the main ballroom through a catacomb of hallways and back entrances. It is a route in which I am familiar having traversed this particular corridor with Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino and Darren McFadden among others.
Somewhere in the middle of my short speech about the order of events, the strategically located water bottle with the cap seal already broken to allow easier access and the live national television coverage, Coach Spurrier surmised this was his 22nd one of these. He noted that he had been to quite a few SEC Media Days, but some of the writers had been to even more than he had. "They don't have to worry quite as much about the wins and losses," I offered as a compliment to his longevity.
Shortly after, we broke through the doors and headed to the podium. And it didn't take long for Coach Spurrier to reward the early morning crowd. In response to a question about the importance of donors to the program, Spurrier compared them to NFL owners, except they "don't tell you who to play, what plays to call, so forth." He also thanked a South Carolina booster for taking him to the Bahamas on his jet and letting him ride on his yacht recently.
But it was the next question that provided sort of a history lesson and certainly a good laugh. Spurrier was asked what he thought about the proposed Bonham Trophy to be awarded to the winner of the South Carolina vs. Texas A&M game. The trophy reportedly will be named after South Carolina native James Butler Bonham who rode to the Alamo to deliver the word that no reinforcements were headed to help the entrenched troops.
"I'm actually from Tennessee," Spurrier said. "I always was taught the hero of the Alamo was Davy Crockett, so this was a new one for me. It's a good story, I'm sure Bonham did some good things. I always thought Davy Crockett was the hero of the Alamo, he and those 33 Tennessee guys that came in there and got killed, so forth. So the trophy was a little surprising to me. I'm sure this guy Bonham was a hero and did a lot of good, after I read the story."
It would have been hard to match the circus-like atmosphere that surrounded Texas A&M's visit last year to SEC Football Media Days. It was only days after news broke of Heisman Trophy quarterback Johnny Manziel's oversleeping at the Manning Passing Academy. This year at the same podium that was mobbed by a frenzied media corps trying to get close to Manziel last July, the Aggies' punter Drew Kaser politely answered questions for a modest gathering of media members.
But just because Johnny Football wasn't in Hoover, didn't mean Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin didn't have to talk about the former Aggie star. But at least it wasn't for long. In response to a three-part question that sought to know if Sumlin had spoken to Manziel recently and how he has approached his young quarterbacks in talking about the importance of off-field behavior, Sumlin provided a much more concise response.
"Is this SEC Media Days?" Sumlin said smiling. "No, that's a great question about the Cleveland Browns. Anybody else got something?"
The FIFA World Cup may have ended on Sunday, but that doesn't mean Mississippi State's Dan Mullen is finished following soccer. In response to a question, Mullen detailed that his mother is a British citizen and she grew up in North Wales watching the sport.
Mullen says that he likes to wake up early on a Sunday morning to watch the early game of Premier League, especially when Liverpool is playing. Mullen also drew a parallel to the passion much of the world has for soccer and the loyal following football has in the SEC.
"I do think SEC football could be compared to European soccer," Mullen said. "The passion our fans have is equal. I'm sure I'll have a lot of European nations very upset, teams throughout the world upset (by saying this). That is one of the things that makes this league so much fun, is the passion that our fan bases have for football is similar to watching the passion these European soccer teams and followings have, which is a pretty neat deal."
Preserving a Rivalry
Amid all the off-season future scheduling talk and eventual decision on a, traditional rivalries like Alabama and Tennessee were widely discussed. In the end, each team will play six games within the division, one permanent opponent and one rotating team from the other division. Tennessee head coach Butch Jones was pleased with the scheduling outcome and shared the reason behind his position.
"What makes college football special are the traditions, the rivalries," Jones said. "It's (Alabama-Tennessee) has been a traditional rivalry. Now, we have to get back to making these rivalry games relevant again. It's in our DNA at the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama. They're very special to us. I think that's what kind of makes up the pageantry of college football."
A busy schedule awaits on Wednesday as the festivities begin include SEC Coordinator of Officials Steve Shaw, SEC Network executive Justin Connolly and Executive Director of the College Football Playoff Bill Hancock.
On the team side, Missouri leads it off and will be followed by some more Tigers, LSU, before Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema joins Razorback student-athletes Trey Flowers, Alan Turner and Brey Cook for the afternoon media tour.
On Tap for Wednesday (All Times Central)
9 a.m. - Noon - Steve Shaw, SEC Coordinator of Football Officials
9 a.m. - Noon - Justin Connolly, ESPN Senior Vice‐President College Networks
9 a.m. - Noon - Missouri (Coach Gary Pinkel, Evan Boehm, Markus Golden, Maty Mauk)
11:10 - 11:50 a.m. - Bill Hancock (Executive Director College Football Playoff)
1 - 4 p.m. - LSU (Coach Les Miles, La'el Collins, Terrence Magee, D.J. Welter)
1 - 4 p.m. - Arkansas (Coach Bret Bielema, Brey Cook, Trey Flowers, Alan Turner)
ESPNU (9:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.)
For the fourth consecutive year, University of Arkansas Associate Athletic Director for Public Relations Kevin Trainor is serving as the press conference moderator in the main print media room at SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Ala. Throughout the week, Trainor will share some highlights and observations from this year's event.