SEC Media DAYS 2023
By George Somerville
SEC Media days are in the bag meaning the start of the 2023 season is just moments away. This year the Touchdown team was In Nashville to bring you a UK exclusive. Yes, this year our SEC correspondent George Somerville was in The Music City to cover all the chaos, controversy and headlines from the four day event!
SEC MEDIA DAYS
My Nashville Experiences...!
As much as I enjoyed writing about the key stories coming out of Media Days I was really looking forward to telling the story of my experience in Nashville.
I have long waited to get out to SEC Media Days and after a false start last year I finally made it.
Unlike the other conferences SEC Media Days stretches out over four days and has a high degree of razzamatazz to it. Watching live on TV is like watching a who’s who of college football. So I was a little afraid that the hype and expectation of my trip would outweigh the actual experience.
This was to be as far from the reality as it could have been. The days did not disappoint.
Honestly, it was like being a kid in a sweetie shop. Everywhere I turned or every time the elevator door opened there was somebody I recognised from TV, print or social media. Walking down Radio Row was a surreal experience. Recognising faces not in the context I usually see them, but in real life – Paul Finebaum, Kirby Smart, Aaron Murray and Lane Kiffin – all casually chatting away with headphones on like they were recording a podcast.
Bumping into Cole Cubelic as he waited on his coffee order or sitting beside the Sports Illustrated team at lunch. The SEC Commissioner passing me on his morning run. On the escalator ride down with ESPN’s Ryan McGee as South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer heads the opposite way while asking how McGee’s family is.
The following paragraphs are my personal experiences and I warn you, I won’t be able to hold back the excitement I still have for the trip – even after a couple of weeks have passed since I returned from Tennessee.
"Are you George?"
The first day of Media Days was like the first day of school. I knew some people who would be there from interactions on social media or who had guested on the College Chaps Podcast but aside from maybe one or two I hadn’t met anyone in the flesh. It was both an exhilarating and scary experience.
After SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey finished his opening remarks I was approached by a woman who introduced herself as Kathryn Switzer. Kathryn Switzer is the Associate Director to the SEC Commissioner.
“Are you, George? I love your podcast” said Kathryn.
You could have knocked me sideways with a puff of wind. While we know that people in the US listen to our podcast, I genuinely did not expect someone in the room to recognise me. Kathryn subsequently introduced me to the Commissioner and ex Ole Miss and Duke head coach, David Cutcliffe backstage.
“You sound just like you do on your podcast, George” said Commissioner Sankey, who went on to say that he thought the addition of Will Muschamp’s audio rant during our intro to the pod was “genius” as he so kindly put it. The Commissioner appears to love that line from Muschamp. He also listens to the College Chaps Podcast.
Coach Cutcliffe thanked me for having him on the pod as our guest (check out that episode if you haven’t heard it already) and like many guests was taken aback by how much us Brits know about the game and how much he enjoyed the experience.
This was the introduction to my Media Days experience. I thought it had peaked early.
Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher is a man who talks a lot and says what he has to say quickly. Which he did at Media Days. Except as I wrote in Nashville Notes Pt 1 as much as Jimbo said a lot, he actually said very little. There are so many questions arising from the Aggies football programwhich the media wanted to ask. But for whatever reason, Jimbo either didn’t know or didn’t want to engage on those topics. Which led to more controversy than Jimbo expected.
But I digress – although its helpful background for what happened next.
On Tuesday night the SEC was hosting a reception at the Bridgestone Arena. As I headed out to the Bridgestone from my hotel I waited on the lift down to reception. As the lift door opened I noticed that Jimbo Fisher was in the lift. A nod of the head indicated that this wasn’t going to be a conversational lift journey. Which is exactly how it turned out to be.
And so my sixty second (but what felt like 20mins) lift journey with the Aggies head coach was held in awkward silence. I can’t help but revel in the irony of being in Jimbo’s presence with total silence.
To filibuster or to not filibuster. That is the question.
Do y’all remember then Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt talking and talking and talking during his first SEC Media Days? Hard to forget that painful episode which should have alerted Vol Nation to the disaster in waiting that Pruitt was for the school.
But therein lies the method in Pruitt’s madness. The Media Days schedule runs like clockwork and is super tight. One of the things that fascinated me was the schedule matrix contained within the media guide which shows the exact footsteps of each head coach and player while they are in the building. To the minute. It is with military precision.
Kirby Smart needs to be in the electronic media room at 10.05am. Shane Beamer will be on Finebaum at 11.45am. There is no cause for misstep or delay. When I visited SEC HQ I met the highly motivated team who were responsible for getting head coaches to their station on time. Not a job I envied I have to say. But during the week it was not uncommon to see what appeared to be presidential cavalcades moving with pace through the crowds as coaches and players were ushered from one engagement to the next.
Which takes me back to the podium on the main stage and Pruitt. The time allocated to each head coach is 30mins. This is roughly split 20mins opening remarks and 10mins Q&A. The smart amongst you have already realised that the longer opening remarks are means less time for Q&A. Smart thinking.
In 2023 we saw different examples of how to approach opening remarks. First up, Mizzou head coach Eli Drinkwitz provided what was the most comprehensive update on a roster college football has ever witnessed.
“That is probably the most efficient roster update that I’ve ever provided, and I tried to kill as much time as I possibly could so that I would not answer any question too crazy today and trend on Twitter. Let’s see how we did. With that, I’ll open it up for questions”.
Which is a somewhat truthful admission from Drinkwitz – a man not unlike Lane Kiffin who is no stranger to a humorous Twitter quote. Which is a shame because many, including me were looking forward to hearing from Coach Drink. Maybe just not quite as long. Drinkwitz had filibustered, which became a standing joke for the rest of the week. To Drinkwitz, or not to Drinkwitz.
At the other end of the filibuster spectrum was South Carolina head coach, Shane Beamer. Beamer had been warned by his kids who graded last years performance
“My three children have not let me forget that I had the second-longest opening statement last summer, so they have been telling me for two weeks, don’t be that guy again. I didn’t think I was long last year, but apparently I was, so I’ll be much shorter this year or try to”.
Of course the hardest act to follow was that of Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett, who followed on from Mike Leach’s legendary hatred for opening remarks.
Leach is remembered well for his opening line at SEC Media Days of,
“Alright, I’m not a big opening statement guy, and plus, you guys are going to ask whatever you want to know anyway. So let’s just go ahead and get started. Is there any questions?”
When pressed on his disregard for such statements, Leach expanded
“I really don’t see the point of it. So as opposed to me sit there and think of some flowery opening statement, which I’ve done before, and then at the end of the opening statement a number of people ask questions that have already been addressed in my opening statement, I decided we’d just sort of cut out the middleman.”
So Arnett had a tricky job for sure. But he more than handled it. Arnett’s opening would have made Leach proud,
“Real quickly before I start out, I would like to acknowledge that I have seen the graphic listing the word count for every head coach’s opening statement last year at this event, and Coach Leach’s was seven. Seven words. I’ve already said too much, and that combined with wearing a tie, I’m sure I’ve disappointed him a little bit here today. In recognition of his tremendous impact and influence not only on the game of football but on myself, I’m going to do my best to keep this short and sweet”.
Carrot Cake and Fried Chicken
In part 2 of Nashville Notes I wrote about my crowning glory of the week which was asking Alabama head coach, Nick Saban about his European recruiting experiences.
As much as that was the highlight of my week, surprisingly it wasn’t the only question that the Alabama head coach was asked during his time in Nashville.
Amongst the serious stuff that the coaches are asked to answer, there is some left field stuff. Coach had talked about Grandma Saban and her process. “Let the cake bake” was Grandma’s advice. Which of course prompted the journalistic question of the year,
“so what is your favourite cake, Coach?”.
“Yeah, well, carrot cake, that’s easy”, said the Crimson Tide head coach.
Which frankly was manna for heaven for every sports radio and TV show the following day. You couldn’t watch a sports news show on Thursday morning without someone debating the merits of carrot cake. And I loved it.
Why did he say carrot cake? Why not chocolate or any other kind of cake? You would be surprised at the level of debate this answer created.
But while I won’t divulge my source, those from Tuscaloosa tell me its because someone close to Coach Saban bakes him a carrot cake on special occasions which goes down well with the goat. Carrot for the goat if you will. Didn’t think we would be talking about that, did you now.
Of course it wasn’t just Coach Saban who travelled to Nashville. Alabama also brought Kool Aid McKinstry, Dallas Turner and JC Latham.
While Alabama and Kentucky have played football for over 100 years (106 to be precise), its not a common fixture in SEC football. In fact the two teams have only played 41 times in their collective histories. The last time the two teams played was in 2020 but you have to go back 10 years to the last time that the Crimson Tide played in Lexington.
So it was inevitable that Dallas Turner was asked his thoughts about travelling to the Blue Grass state this season. Turner’s response was short and to the point.
“I don’t know nothing about Kentucky except fried chicken”.
Colonel Sanders would be proud of you Dallas. Finger licking’ proud.
When I met with the nice folks of the SEC they enquired how long I was in Nashville for and what my plans for the rest of my week in the US were.
My original plan was to use the extra couple of days to stay in Tennessee and go visit Rocky Top country and Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. I have long wanted to get to Knoxville and while my strong preference is to visit Neyland for a game, beggars cannot be choosers in this scenario. Knoxville in July it was.
“Come to Birmingham” said Kathryn Switzer which was swiftly echoed by the Commissioner. “We would love to show you around”.
Which seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. Knoxville in October suddenly seemed a far better time to visit. And so I was not travelling as planned North to Knoxville but rather I was travelling South to Birmingham, Alabama.
The size of the SEC operation is on a huge scale and it is clear that soon the SEC is going to outgrow its premises on Richard Arrington Jr Boulevard in Birmingham, AL. And just in case you were wondering who Richard Arrington Jr is, he was the first black mayor of Birmingham, The city has a significant place in the history of the civil rights movement in the South.
The jewel in the crown at SEC HQ is the new video centre where every play from every game from every SEC sport is played back to. It really is quite something to behold and contrary to my assumption on any given Saturday you can hear a pin drop as the games are played in that room.
My tour guide took me through the SEC library – a treasure trove for any SEC historian – the boardroom, where many a heated debate has taken place and the Commissioner’s office to admire his impressive collection of bobble heads! I spent time with John McDaid, the head of officiating as he grilled me on the interest in the sport outside the US. John officiated in NFL Europe back in the day and recalled fondly his time in Scotland with the Claymores.
I think I was introduced to just about everyone in the SEC that day, my head was spinning. From the doorman to the lady who answers the phone to angry fans – I assume those who cannot get through to Finebaum.
I joined Mark Womack to watch a little of the Open golf from Royal Liverpool. Mark who is a golf fanatic had a vested interest because Brian Harman was leading the Open and who won the tournament is a SEC golfer from Georgia. Mark has been Associate Commissioner of the SEC for over 30 years and is also its Chief Financial Officer. And we chatted golf.
I say it a lot but the hospitality of the people from the South is like nothing I have experienced before in the US. They are kind and humble but they are interested. Why, where, how started most conversation I had.
I could and should write more about my day in Birmingham but have run out of space. Perhaps I save that for another day.
It really does Just Mean More.
Marty and McGee
I met both Ryan McGee and Marty Smith in Athens GA in 2019 just before Georgia played Texas A&M in UGA’s homecoming game. Ryan has since kindly been a guest twice on the podcast. I have never hid my admiration for them both and Marty and McGee is one of the best tv/radio sports shows out there.
If you follow me on Twitter you know I regularly tweet into the show. On occasion one or other of these fine southern gentleman interacts with the tweets on the show. It’s a lot of fun. Like the Paul Finebaum show, Marty and McGee thrives on the interaction it has with its listeners.
However, not for one second did I think I would be a guest on this fantastic show. But I was.
The definition of kismet: “fate or destiny”
I bumped into Ryan McGee twice in Nashville. On the second time I was rushing to catch the media bus to the event at Nissan stadium. Ryan stopped me to ask how my week was going.
He had heard my Nick Saban question on TV and worked out that my obscure tweets about me flying to the States meant that I was in Nashville. He laughed heartily when I told him my Greg Sankey story but then said “you got to come on the show and tell that story but first you have to come by the set and meet Marty”.
He didn’t need to ask twice and so I visited the set on Thursday (which is where the awesome photo comes from) and then I dialled into to the show on Saturday from my hotel room in Birmingham.
Given all that had gone on in the week leading up and then getting the invite to Birmingham I was on cloud nine. As Coach Saban said the cake was baked and now there was icing on it. Appearing on what is my favourite sports show was the cherry on top. It was a surreal and awesome experience. And the comments and messages I got during and after were so incredibly supportive.
I have dropped a link to the section I was on below in case you missed it and on the off chance you want to listen to my moment of glory.
The rest of my Saturday was pretty awesome also, as given I was in Alabama I took the 45 minute detour to head into Tuscaloosa to have breakfast at Rama Jama’s, take the customary photo beside Coach Saban’s statue and stock up in the team store. What a way to end my SEC Media Days trip!
Old and new friends
Finally I want to touch on the people I met during my time in Nashville. I have found the college football community in the South to be incredibly welcoming and supportive.
I am amazed regularly by the messages I get from people in the US in response to requests for them to come speak on the College Chaps podcast. But would they be different when I encroached onto their patch? Well, no – that was just a silly idea. Of course Southern hospitality is a thing (don’t get me started on how awesome lunch was each day….) meaning everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome.
It’s unfair to single out individuals but it would be wrong not to shout out to the people at the SEC – Kathryn Switzer, Chuck Dunlap and the team.
The Marty & McGee crew – not just the two main guys but the whole crew were a complete hoot and a great bunch.
Old friends, Crimson Tide beat writers Tony Tsoukalis, Charlie Potter & John Talty. And of course our buddy Chris Marler. It was awesome to finally meet SEC Networks anchor man, Peter Burns.
Matt Fortuna from the Athletic and president of the Sports Writers Association of America. Pat Forde and Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated (although Ross has now moved on to Yahoo Sports). All of these guys have been guests on the podcast.
New friends, Connor O’Gara from Saturday Down South and Brooks Austin, director of recruiting for Fan Nation. And lastly Seth from the Saturday in Athens podcast who was also a debutant in Nashville and someone who will appear on the College Chaps podcast more than once I’m sure.
I met an awesome photographer, Denny Simmons who had just moved from Indiana to Nashville. It was Denny who took the awesome photo of me speaking with Ole Miss running back, Quinshon Judkins.
Finally my old friend Leland Barrow from Georgia’s SID team was escorting Brock Bowers around Media Days. I wholly admit to missing some of Bowers time in the room to catch up with Leland who is such an awesome guy.
As you can see it was such an awesome opportunity to meet folk from around the SEC football community.
College football writer
A GLASWEGIAN LIVING IN LONDON, GEORGE has written about the SEC for over five years now. HE PROVIDES CFB CONTENT FOR THE TOUCHDOWN AND IS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.