The moment it became apparent how insane SEC Football Media Days is was when I was told that it wasn’t that insane.
For someone whose reporting has mainly consisted of covering campus news, it seemed mind-boggling to me to have nearly 1,800 other journalists, scores of media personalities and hundreds of fans taking over a Birmingham hotel, clamoring over a college athlete’s every word.
Yet, when I was watching the University of Alabama’s Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa get swarmed by a crimson-filled crowd of 30-40, I looked at a grad student from Florida who was working the event with the SEC and commented on how crazy of a scene it was.
“Yeah, but this year isn’t as crazy as some of the years,” she said.
I was shocked, to say the least. It was incomprehensible to see fans hold a full-on pep rally in the lobby of a hotel at 8:30 a.m. in the middle of the week in July, when the first game is well over a month away. Because fans couldn’t go past the lobby, people ranging from child to grandparent showed up just to catch a glimpse and have the hope of getting an autograph as their beloved players and coaches walked 20 or so feet from entrance to escalator.
Growing up in Birmingham, or the college football capital of the world, I am fully aware of how chemically dependent Southerners are on football, but it was remarkable to think this monstrosity had somehow been normalized.
Players and coaches would vanish from the eyes of the fans up the escalator, only to be greeted by a slew of cameras ahead of a few rounds with the media. For four consecutive days, eight hours a day, this was the routine, team after team.
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I am grateful beyond belief that my media affiliation only required me to cover Auburn-related news. Thankfully, I had a few days to just observe and get acclimated to the insanity. I am in no way envious of the national reporters who had enough interviews, news and storylines to produce content for an entire month. It was a four-day, college football bender that felt like four fall Saturdays back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
Covering his 14th straight SEC Media Days, Olin Buchanan has covered media days for nearly all of the Power 5 conferences. But he told me there’s nothing quite like the SEC’s. For the first few years, it was a thrill for him to just be a part of the excitement.
“Now, it’s the longest four days of the year,” he laughed.
For most other conferences Buchanan has covered, media days is a day or two at max. He said one of the times he’s covered PAC 12 media days, media had one collective hour for all attending players. And a good turnout for another conference could be in the neighborhood of 300 or so media members – miniscule in comparison to the small army that invades Hoover. More time with players, more journalists, more everything. The SEC couldn’t have picked a more accurate slogan: “It just means more.”
It was bizarre to pass by Paul Finebaum on your way to lunch or to have Bill Hancock, the director of the College Football Playoff, spark up a conversation with you in the bathroom about hating to have to put on a tie to “go on television and be famous or something.”
But the biggest impression left on me without question was just how composed the athletes were throughout the week. It’s no surprise Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was among a few coaches to bring up mental health of players during his opening statement.
“I don’t think you can prepare for something like this,” Tagovailoa told me. “You just got to come out and be yourself.”
Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond, and every other player I talked with, echoed those sentiments. But it’s damn near impossible to ignore the billion-dollar industry that clings to each thought when millions of fans jump at the 20-year-old for simply believing himself to be the best quarterback in the nation.
Tagovailoa interestingly said he doesn’t see himself as a celebrity, which is difficult to justify when he has a few dozen reporters playing human Tetris to squeeze up to the front to wait for a brief pause to grab his attention by barking a question at him. I don’t fault him, though. He should do whatever he can to bring sanity into an environment that is anything but sane.
Although I do feel for these college students who have their lives under a microscope, the four days were exhilarating. From watching Will Muschamp be more ready to take a reporter outside rather than answer what I thought was an unfair question to seeing Nick Saban soak up his cult-like fan reception, being a part of the chaos firsthand was exhausting yet thrilling.
Regardless of what I think or how grandiose I describe SEC Media Days, the slogan will still ring true. It really does just mean more.
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