Senior Writer

Real football talk returns as media days bring relief


The moment it all changed was probably the day Woody Widenhofer needed a security escort to get through the Wynfrey Hotel lobby.

That would be Woody Freaking Widenhofer, not exactly a rock star coach at that time, or ever. That would be the guy with the 27-71-1 career record and, at that point, the one who was battling to keep Vanderbilt out of the SEC East basement. Not much has changed since that time about 10 years ago. Woody's gone but Vandy's still struggling and that Star Wars cantina scene he waded through has, if anything, gotten freakier.

We're talking the SEC media days that begin Wednesday in Hoover, Ala. They have become the unofficial start to the college football season, if for nothing else than to the over-the-top absurdity and high drama of the three-day affair. It's good for the media. It's good for the fans. It's good for your sanity if you're finally looking forward to linebackers instead of (Will) Lyles or touchdowns rather than Tressel.

Four years after his first media days as 'Bama coach, there is a Nick Saban statue in Tuscaloosa. (US Presswire)  
Four years after his first media days as 'Bama coach, there is a Nick Saban statue in Tuscaloosa. (US Presswire)  
After months of conflict and corruption across the nation, we're actually going to talk some football this week. But not until each SEC coach wades through that Wynfrey lobby, which has become, literally, a rite of passage. If this is July in Hoover it must be time for the 25-yard slog from the luxury hotel's entrance to the escalator. If anything, the annual perp walk has evolved into more of a mosh pit since Woody's time -- millionaire coaches making their way past and through autograph-seeking ebay trolls, wide-eyed children and get-a-life adults. Think Woodstock with Sharpies.

The conference media day "season" actually began Monday with the Sun Belt's two-day video conference. It lasts until the Big East event Aug. 1-2 in Newport, R.I. But as you may have noticed by paying attention to the polls lately, there is nothing like the SEC. It may be good this week for college football but it's better for us that it's not all about college football.

Four years ago, Nick Saban endured The Lobby for the first time as Alabama's coach. Upon departing his black Mercedes, a cadre of SEC staffers surrounded him for his walk through the lobby. One shouted, "No autographs!" That didn't keep them from trying, or touching the savior-in-waiting.

A couple of years ago, Tim Tebow and the Florida contingent had to use a back entrance to get out of the hotel. It worked until it didn't. They were spotted heading out to a waiting car by rabid fans. Was it this bad for the Beatles?

Media days used to be of debatable value outside of those for which they were intended. It was a place to pick up a set of press guides, schmooze with coaches and work on preseason stories. Now they have become events, marketing opportunities.

Both the WAC and Mountain West conduct their media days next week in Las Vegas. Tickets for Kato Kaelin's comedy act are valued higher ($39.95) than the $29 media rate available at the Orleans Hotel and Casino for WAC attendees. You can't afford not to go! It's up to you to figure out which one, though.

Sadly, the conferences still haven't figured out how to stay out of each other's way this time of year. The WAC overlaps with the Big Ten's kickoff. The Mountain West begins as the Big 12 ends. It's a long summer, boys. Figure it out.

Elsewhere, standing out has a different definition. Two years ago a bunch of us were jolted out of a semi-slumber for the 9 a.m. start to the Pac-10 media day by rock music blaring out of huge speakers at the front of the room. Coaches then took fan questions relayed via the Internet from a host in the back of the room. Great idea if this wasn't, you know, media day.

The conference cleaned up its act last year, at least providing complimentary sun screen and towels for the event that was staged on the floor of a broiling Rose Bowl. It's the least the league could do after having spent six figures to rent a couple of G4s to fly coaches and players to New York and back for a media blitz.

If that sounds like complaining, it isn't. There's glitz in L.A. (Pac-12), an epic lobster bake (Big East) and free golf (various locations). Just don't expect, necessarily, free speech. Heisman finalist, returning leading rusher and All-American LaMichael James won't be at Pac-12 media day. There's always the "danger" he might be asked about his buddy Lyles.

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It was the SEC that long ago figured out how to do it right. The coaches determined their league's media days were a huge recruiting tool. The coaches typically make their way through Wynfrey's own "Magpie Alley", a narrow hallway filled with the South's leading opinion makers -- sports talk show hosts. One floor up it's the game within the game: How many cameras can you get your mug in front of? Answer: Several.

Two years ago Steve Spurrier caused a minor stir when he left Tebow off his preseason all-SEC ballot. What do they say about there being no such thing as bad publicity? For three days that was the talk of the event. If Spurrier's name appeared in a few headlines, so much the better for South Carolina recruiting.

The day before, the world found out that Tebow is a virgin and intended to stay that way. Do you care?

Last year the Ol' Turkey Inseminator, Vandy's Robbie Caldwell, had them spitting up complimentary Dr. Pepper on their keyboards. Saban got after pimps. Mark Richt fielded more questions about his job security.

The great thing (for us) is they have to be there and they have to be available. Coaches haven't been this captive since the last meeting with their financial advisor. Even Joe Paterno grits his teeth and makes it through a two-hour Big Ten session for any slob with a microphone or notebook. In Las Vegas, it's the event where you find out that Air Force's Troy Calhoun is one of the smartest and most engaging coaches around.

In the SEC, it becomes sort of a Southern Gentleman's Club where only the members know the true shared experience. You can be sure this week that commissioner Mike Slive will brag about his conference's financial situation (rich), championships (several) and then field questions about his league staying out of NCAA jail. Tennessee's Phil Fulmer once addressed reporters remotely by speakerphone when he was concerned about being served with a subpoena while in Alabama.

The battle scars have to be earned. The usually conservative Slive last year referred to Derek Dooley's Tennessee "predecessor leaving to return to his western roots."

Don't let the door hit you in the khakis, Lane Kiffin.

"When I say welcome, I mean welcome," Slive said of Dooley.

We need this time of year because there has been precious little football to talk. We need some substance. It seems that the offseason has been one huge Freedom of Information Act request.

Speaking of that offseason ... the SEC media days could once again be a celebration of sorts for Vanderbilt. As of Tuesday, when LSU was found to have committed a major infraction, Vandy is the only SEC school to not be found guilty of a major violation in football.

For now. That's why we get to ask the questions.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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