The most powerful man in college football strode through the second-floor lobby at The Winfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., on July 17, working the room like a seasoned politician. He pressed the flesh with reporters, patted backs and made small talk. He even kissed a baby. Then SEC commissioner Mike Slive walked toward the dais to give a speech in a sprawling ballroom, marking the unofficial kickoff of the 2012 college football season and signaling the beginning of 72 hours of the biggest non-event on the college sports calendar: SEC Media Days.
With more than 1,100 credentialed media members looking on, Slive, the real architect of the new four-team playoff system, was greeted by a round of applause -- no matter the fundamental rule against cheering in the press box. (For the record, only half of the credentialed media were from well-known publications.) Slive then spoke for nearly 15 minutes, reminding reporters that the SEC had supported a playoff ever since an undefeated Auburn team was shut out of the national title game in 2004. Then he delivered the money quote.
"There must be an effective system of checks and balances within the administrative structure to protect all who come in contact with it, especially those who cannot protect themselves," he said without directly mentioning the Penn State sex abuse scandal. "No one program, no one person, no matter how popular, no matter how successful, can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was about the most revealing statement made during SEC Media Days. Oh, there certainly were some memorable lines, like this beauty from Missouri senior wide receiver T.J. Moe on what it means to be moving from the Big 12 to the SEC: "They also have prettier girls, the air is fresher, the toilet paper is thicker." And there was the wide-eyed, this-is-crazy look on the face of new Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin when he first spotted the crush of media. Last year, as Houston's coach, Sumlin spoke at Conference USA's media days at a hotel in Memphis; only a smattering of reporters attended, and a wedding took place a few ballrooms away. Now Sumlin faced entering into the teeth of the national media machine. "What's my assessment of the [SEC West}?" the coach said. "It's a pretty damn hard league."
But unlike in previous years, there weren't any moments worthy of national news. A quick review of the highlights -- or lowlights, depending on your perspective -- from the SEC Media Days past.
• In 2004 Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer stayed in Knoxville to avoid being served a subpoena in a lawsuit against the NCAA brought by former Alabama assistant coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams. So Fulmer did his interview via conference call. With no coach to take a picture of, a gaggle of photographers snapped pictures of the speaker phone.
Four years later Fulmer was in fact served a subpoena when he entered The Wynfrey, stemming from a lawsuit involving former Alabama booster Wendell Smith. At first he denied it; then called it "BS."
• In 2009 a reporter asked Florida quarterback Tim Tebow if he was saving himself for marriage. After Tebow said he was a virgin, there was a long awkward silence in the conference room. To this day, Tebow says he's still saving himself.
• In 2004 then LSU coach Nick Saban brought his dog with him to The Wynfrey. The dog escaped from the room and ran into the media session featuring his owner. The dog's collar listed Saban's home phone number, which was jotted down by several enterprising reporters.
Ever since he became the head coach at Alabama in 2007, Saban has been the star attraction at Media Days. Nearly 1,000 crimson-clad Alabama fans will wait for hours in the hotel lobby hoping for an autograph or merely a sighting of their beloved coach. This year was no different, as on Thursday Saban, escorted by three state troopers, walked through the lobby, causing the 'Bama faithful to fall into a fever.
Saban then experienced something that his predecessor, Mike Shula, didn't. Back in 2003, in his first appearance at SEC Media Days, Shula authored what was generally viewed as a poor performance, appearing nervous and unsure of himself. When he needed to use the bathroom, a cameraman followed him inside, capturing the moment for posterity.
Saban, ever the planner, ever the master of control, didn't put himself in such a vulnerable position. When he needed to go, he put two security guards outside the door, preventing media from joining him (did his security do a sweep of the bathroom before the national-title winning coach entered?).
That fact that writers like me are even reporting this underscores how the SEC Media Days have become the theater of the absurd. The good news: Fall camps are only weeks away from opening.