There were no games, there were no first-down markers, there was no scoreboard. The only helmets were those displayed on a dais. But the SEC football season began in earnest this past week in a hotel connected to a mall in suburban Birmingham, where Nick Saban posed for photos and signed autographs for fans gathered just steps from stores like Aldo and Zumiez.
Part pep rally, part press conference, and all promotional blitz, SEC Media Days encompassed four days, 14 head coaches, 42 players and hundreds of media members, spinning off thousands of words in the process. Downstairs in the lobby, fans gathered clutching souvenir footballs, dressed in school colors, and chanting slogans at the behest of TV cameras. Upstairs in the conference center, coaches and players shuttled between 11 different media stations, likely telling each one of them some version of the same thing.
Indeed, this was “talking season” — as South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier likes to call it — at its height, and it stoked football fever like the smell of a fresh-cut field in August. Leaving Birmingham, you could almost see the start of practice coming early next month, and then real football soon after that. It was enough to make you want to check the propane level on the tailgate grill.
But alas, a few weeks still remain. To tide you over, here is the best from SEC Media Days, where talking about football was almost as good as the real thing.
5. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, on lessons learned in his first season as a head coach, where the Commodores went 0-8 in the league: ”I made some assumptions a year ago about this football team. I assumed that, just because we were in the SEC, that we would play like an SEC team. And we didn’t.”
4. Tennessee coach Butch Jones, in response to Spurrier’s line that fans were doing “cartwheels” at Tennessee and Arkansas over 7-6 records identical to the mark USC recorded last season: “I want to make one thing clear: Contrary to reports, there were no back flips, and there were no somersaults.”
3. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, on last year’s close loss to Mississippi State: “Scars are a very beautiful thing. I have scars on my knee from an ACL surgery. I have scars on my ankle from ankle surgery. I have a scar on my left hand from hand surgery. My mom has scars from 24 years of breast cancer survival. My dad has scars from throat cancer and prostate cancer. Scars remind you of difficult places in your life that you’ve championed. We’ve championed those moments. We didn’t win them, but they’re not going to be a part of our history that’s lost forever.”
2. Spurrier, on the keys to his longevity in coaching: “Somebody said, why are you still coaching? I said, ‘Well, I forgot to get fired, and I’m not going to cheat.’ That’s about the way you lose your job. You get fired for losing or you cheat, and then they get somebody else. So I’ve not done any of those to any extent big time, I guess.”
1. Auburn coach Gus Malzhan, on potential concerns of northern schools using satellite camps in southern states to try and steal recruits out of SEC country: “I think that whole thing got blown out of proportion, to be honest with you. The chances of a team up north coming into our state and getting a player that us or Alabama wants is slim to none.”
Winner: Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. The shoe wars made a little-too-obvious intrusion into Media Days, with Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen wearing his Adidas Easy Boost 350s, and Bielema countering with Nikes. “I try to be swagged up in footwear,” Mullen said. “Hell, let’s start a little Nike-Adidas war,” Bielema added.
Finally an adult entered the room in the form of Freeze. His choice of footwear? “My Johnston and Murphys from Williams Brothers store, the general store down in Philadelphia, Mississippi,” he said. “You should try the baloney and bacon there for sure, too. It’s quite fine.”
Honorable mention: LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who boldly paired a red bow tie with a khaki safari jacket. And the pants? “The pants were $6.99 at Dillard’s,” he said. “Y’all can buy them, too.”
Winner: LSU coach Les Miles. Hang on.
“Summer’s been fun. I think it’s important that the coach as well as the players kind of have a separation, because we go every day. We see each other just about seven days a week starting here pretty quick. I had an adventure. This is at Boston with the Red Sox game, great city. My son went to a camp there and went in the Green Monster, signed up. Those kind of historic ballparks, I enjoy those. My oldest daughter, Smacker Miles, is chasing a personal time and a personal best at (Texas), and hopefully I can get her to come home this weekend after she swims. My eldest son, Manny, left for UNC. He’s working hard and trying to become a Tar Heel in football. Ben ... is getting ready for a junior year at Catholic in Baton Rouge. Big, strong, strapping guy, having a great summer. Macy, fast-pitch softball player, watching my girl. I’m going to tell you something, here’s what happens. When you were a young father or mother, here’s what you did. You had a place in your family that was your time with the kids, right? And then you realize, as this thing goes — I mean, you pushed the buggy, you were at the practices, you did all those things. Then when this thing gets a little older, my youngest son is 16, and I have a difficult time corralling him. So I have now a 12-year-old. She just turned 12, fast-pitch softball player, and I’m going to make a rule that she cannot go to college nor really question whether or not we send her to high school so that we can keep her around and continue to be father, just like I’ve always been. I’ll certainly have to change that direction, but I can tell you, it makes a difference. So that’s the summer.”
3. Bielema. The Arkansas coach struck a perfect tone. He was self-depreciating, he occasionally appeared emotional talking about his players, he took Spurrier’s “cartwheels” line in the right spirit. “I will say this: I respect my elders at all points,” he said. “I don’t think the way (this) body is built, with rockets or not, I could do any cartwheels.” At the podium, only the Ball Coach was better. “Thank you very much. Go Hawgs,” he said by way of a sign-off.
2. Missouri’s players. A lot of players came to Media Days and said different versions of the same thing — we’re here to put last season behind us, we’re here to work hard, we’re here for the complimentary beverages (OK, maybe not). But not the Tigers, who after winning back-to-back East titles had a point to make about not getting any respect.
“Winning 11, 12 games a year hasn’t done anything for us, as far as getting respect,” said defensive back Kenya Dennis. Quarterback Maty Mauk agreed. “You turn on the TV and hear, ‘Missouri’s a Cinderella team.’ We go 12-2, 11-3, and we’re still a Cinderella team,” he said.
Mizzou had been picked sixth and fourth in the East in the past two media polls, and was projected to finish third in the division this year. “I think they want to see if we can consistently do it. Maybe two years back-to-back isn’t enough in the SEC,” Dennis said. In terms of outspokenness, though, the Tigers were the runaway winners.
1. Spurrier. Faced with a barrage of questions about when he plans to retire, the 70-year-old Ball Coach was masterful behind the microphone, completely owning the standing-room-only crowd in the media room by the time he left. He was sharp, he was funny, he was honest, and he was vintage Spurrier, mixing comments about his football team with references to John Wooden, golfer Dustin Johnson, and oddsmaker Danny Sheridan.
He took little shots at Tennessee and Arkansas with his “cartwheels” comment, he talked about putting top recruits on “the Clowney program,” he needled Nick Saban’s giant contract at Alabama, he stopped at Arby’s on the way home. Most of all, he appeared nothing like a coach ready to hang it up. “None of us know how long we’re going to be here,” he said. “None of us know.” If SEC Media Days was any indication, Steve Spurrier is going to be around a little bit longer.