SEC media days never fail to entertain
The game plan is in place. The blockers know their assignments: They will fan out to form a shield in front of the man they need to protect.
And that's just to securely transfer Alabama coach Nick Saban from his car into the hotel.
SEC media days, college football's version of a New Year's Eve fireworks show, commence on Wednesday. The event held at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., is the first sign that the sport is emerging from its annual summer hibernation.
That could be why fans of the Southeastern Conference's 12 teams swarm over every square foot of open space in the lobby. That could be why at least 900 media members are expected to come to the three-day event, about a 50 percent increase over four years ago. That figure is pretty amazing, especially when you consider there are probably 900 fewer media members than there were four years ago.
Those present will hear from the 12 SEC head coaches, each of whom is bringing three players -- also a 50 percent increase from 2009.
The theater over the next three days may not be daring -- the actors change every year, even if the scripts never do.
Every team starts the season undefeated (yada). Every team has improved (yada). Every team is excited (yada). Throw in a little white greasepaint and you would have Kabuki y'all.
And yet, because of the passion engendered by college football in this part of the country, SEC media days do boffo box office. That may be because they never fail to entertain. And it may be because there never can be enough coverage to satisfy SEC fans.
Issues form and rage with the suddenness and strength of a summer thunderstorm. A year ago, when the league polled its coaches for the preseason All-SEC team, one coach had not voted for then-senior Tim Tebow of Florida.
ESPN.com's Chris Low writes about all things SEC in his conference blog.
Oh, the humanity! You would have thought someone had refused to vote for Santa Claus. Which coach did it? To what end? How would Gators coach Urban Meyer twist it to his advantage?
And then Steve Spurrier fessed up that he messed up. The South Carolina coach said that one of his assistants had filled out the ballot and Spurrier signed it without paying attention. Spurrier apologized about 53 times in 10 minutes for the mistake. Gator Nation took it down to DEFCON 4.
Need further proof? Take 2004, when then-Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer, on the advice of his attorney, refused to set foot in the state of Alabama in order to elude a subpoena in a suit spun out of rival Alabama's NCAA problems.
Fulmer conducted his "State of the Vols" address by conference call, which forced a hotel ballroom full of journalists to rush to the front of the room and form a pen-and-pad scrum in order to hear the scratchy phone speakers.
One year and a $10,000 fine later, Fulmer began his remarks by saying how happy he was to be there.
"I haven't seen the commissioner [Mike Slive] yet but if you see him make sure he knows that I was here," Fulmer said. "Because it can be expensive when you don't show up."
But Fulmer is long gone and most current coaches haven't seen as many of these as Fulmer did during his tenure at Tennessee. Spurrier will begin his remarks by reminding everyone that that this is his 18th appearance at SEC media days. The room will be packed for him, as it will be for Saban and Meyer, both of whom will appear on Wednesday. Reigning Heisman winner Mark Ingram of the Crimson Tide will have the attendees spilling out into the aisle, too.
In contrast, first-year coaches Derek Dooley of Tennessee, Joker Phillips of Kentucky and Robbie Caldwell of Vanderbilt will see empty seats. All three will be measured by their listeners to see if they have a sense of humor, a sense of syntax, or any sense at all. In 2003, first-year Alabama coach Mike Shula stood behind the lectern stammering like a high school freshman in speech class.
Spurrier's news conferences are always standing room only because it is well-known that there are no exit ramps between his brain and his vocal cords. Spurrier has mastered thinking aloud with impolitic remarks or laying out in detail what he is not supposed to discuss. Take this quote in 2007, for instance, after Tim Donaghy's referee betting scandal rocked the NBA:
"Yeah, we'll all have to be careful now of not saying, 'It appeared that guy had money on the game,'" Spurrier said. "You can't say that anymore. I don't know if I've ever said that before. There were a few games, not many. There's been a few lousily called games that deserved an investigation."
Spurrier, smiling all the while, knew exactly what he was doing.
Gone are the more intimate days of this event, when sports information directors opened a post-news-conference hospitality suite and set up a bar. The news conferences have gotten so big that some schools hold smaller, more informal interview sessions.
And before or after the news conferences, the coaches and players must ride the rapids of Radio Row, where at least two dozen sports radio stations in the Southeast set up live remotes on opposite sides of a long hallway.
The SEC sees no point in limiting the size of its media days, or taking them out of Hoover. League officials mostly smile and shrug. It is what it is -- the first harbinger of fall, a realization that the long national nightmare is over. College football is but six weeks away.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.