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The Magic of SEC Media Days

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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With all due respect to any key divisional pairing, SEC Media Days is where the big stage is both literal and figurative alike.

As a player you are in awe. I had so much respect for the institution of the SEC. Being there was monumental, we understood what it meant to be a part of the SEC
~Kevin Carter

There is no platform in college football quite like the SEC. Though the brightest of lights come later in the fall, the first spotlight, for some, shines through in mid-July. Every summer, the 14 league head football coaches, along with three student-athletes from each institution, gather with local, regional and national pundits for four days worth of commentary and interviews. As reporters huddle for free breakfast and lunch, a smörgåsbord of storylines stack up on each plate. Here, it just means more, every quote and quip, included.

With all due respect to any key divisional pairing, SEC Media Days is where the big stage is both literal and figurative alike.

The event, almost as much a celebration of the return of college football as an introduction to its latest rendition, has become a highlighted stretch on the schedule. Simply being great isn't good enough; you have to explain why. Given the reach of the room, this podium comes with power, and coaches, including the biggest names in the game, often use their time to further the narratives around their respective teams. Though there may not be a scheme, there is always a strategy. Not counted, these points are made.  

Many have deemed SEC Media Days the unofficial kickoff to the season; this is where tee meets TV.

It's been said that every good conversation starts with good listening. For nearly a week, the college football media will be vigorously taking notes. A year's worth of on-field talking points will, first, originate in a hotel lobby. Lights, camera, redaction!  

Another tour stop for rock star head coaches, SEC Media Days can be an especially-bewildering experience for student-athletes. Appreciative to blown away, many emotions are often at play.

"As a player you are in awe," recalled former Florida All-American Kevin Carter, now a prominent football analyst. "As a player, I had so much respect for the institution of the SEC. Being there was really monumental because we understood what it meant to be a part of the SEC."

While interviews are part of the routine for high-profile players, nothing, not even the biggest of post-game press conferences, compare to this ringer of mid-to-late July. Radio to television, print to online, every medium goes all-in, aligning with the star power that one of the biggest brands in the region undoubtedly brings. Live coverage has long been a status quo. The size and scope of SEC Media Days, minus any semblance of real football, mind you, really is different.  

"When you're playing the game and have the interview after, you're so caught up in the adrenaline, you are not thinking about the media part it," former All-SEC Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch acknowledged. "Just for a preseason media day, I completely underestimated the amount of reporters that would be there and the overall impact that day had."

Though all players have some media familiarity and are prepped for the gauntlet of the pre-season kickoff, what awaits is larger than life.  

"Oh, I thought I was ready to be honest with you," smiled former star Vanderbilt defensive lineman Jovan Haye. "You know, you do interviews around campus and before and after games, but SEC Media Days, that was an eye-opener."

As college football media coverage has grown and expanded, so, too has the foundation and reach of the most famed conference's prepping event. It is now a must on the summer slate, much like a late October Florida-Georgia game or an end-of-November Iron Bowl pairing is in the fall. In recent years, as many as upwards of 1,000 credentialed media have been on site in Birmingham and, now, Atlanta, with the rise of social media creating a gums-to-thumbs immediacy for every phrase and utterance.  

Similar to gameday, it's go-time when your name is called. Designed, in part, to promote the people and personalities that players are, the setting can turn football stars into full-fledged celebrities. 

"They rolled the red carpet out for us, like there was paparazzi everywhere," Jeff Owens, former All-SEC defensive tackle at Georgia, remembered. "Every room I walked into, it was like the media was following me." 

On display for all to see, SEC Media Days is an enchanting mix of camaraderie and competition. The most recognizable faces for teams that will soon go head-to-head mere weeks later will, beforehand, mingle and mind amidst all of the flashes and bulbs. Part of the scene, with coaches, players and reporters all blending into one veritable game show, seems surreal. This week, there are only winners.

There is a very real pride that permeates through it all.

"Seeing the commissioner, seeing all of the other schools, kind of happily 'mean-mugging' the players of the other schools, it was overwhelming," Carter continued. "I remember just trying to represent the university in the right way. The stage being set, all of the questions and all of the angles, back then it was a blur."

A generation ago, SEC Media Days served, additionally, as a meet-and-greet for players who may not have had much of an off-field relationship outside of high school recruiting. As of late, with a more vivid network of connectivity bringing people together, interaction has become more "hey, what's up" instead of "hey, who are you?". Each student-athlete in attendance has, at the very least, a common understanding of what it took to get there.  

"Zach Mettenberger was obviously with his team. A.J. McCarron was there, Johnny Manziel was there, Jadeveon Clowney was there, you got to see all of the talent," Lynch added. "It's a very cool responsibility to have bestowed upon you by your coaches. I think that is the most unique and cool thing you get out of playing for the University of Georgia, besides just representing yourself, is you are representing so much more than your football team."

Being included in the player contingent has always been considered a great honor. Oftentimes overlooked is the fact that these young football players step in front of the microphone with not just their respective programs, but their families and friends, high schools and hometowns, institutions and, sometimes, whole states intently watching from afar. It's a great responsibility and, annually, an impressive showing. The perspectives are always powerful.

Most regularly, programs select veteran players to step into the fray. This edition won't feature a single underclassman. They answer the tough questions, the silly ones and tell the tales of their stories, and their team's, all in one. The process is, in some ways, grueling.

Correspondingly, SEC Media Days is a showcase of leadership.   

"To come down here and represent your team, being chosen by the coaching staff, is an honor. I've always said that to become the spokesman, the mouthpiece for the organization, that was pretty cool," Haye nodded.

For some, such exposure can be a formative part of the college experience.

"It's a huge accomplishment for the head coach to ask you to speak on behalf of your whole team. And for the conference. It's a tremendous blessing that the kids have those opportunities," Owens stated.

Different players have different approaches to the media, most specifically in a wild environment like SEC Media Days. There is a lot of space between cliches and charisma and almost everyone finds their comfort zone somewhere in the middle. Granted, interpretation is everything, but many try to draw conclusions from what is said in the summer into what will be in the fall. Perhaps there can be hints in team talking points, which is all part of the fun. 

Generally, most take a more measured, modest course.

"Just stay humble," former Auburn All-American tackle Wayne Gandy advised. "It's better to undersell than oversell and keep it about the team, keep it about family. If anything comes up about an opponent or another team, don't try and get into a war of words and just keep it about whatever team you are on and your part of the ball. If I play offense, I talk offense, if I play defense, I talk defense and just try to get out of it without putting your foot in your mouth."

What is said has the chance to be remembered; so, too, what is seen, a notion that is taken quite seriously. Simply put, those in the limelight want to look worthy of the moment. They go to great lengths to make sure they do. From coaches lacing up the latest kicks to players making sure their suit game is on-point, it is always first-down-and-fashion. The goal is to make a lasting impression.  

For all of the words, style, at SEC Media Days, is substance.

"We had to worry about what we were going to wear," Haye detailed. "It's been very competitive over the years, even when I played, trying to find the perfect outfit was the first thing I had to get off my to-do list."

Similar to on the playing field, experience, in this context, can also be the best teacher.

"The first year I think I got an outfit from the mall, it was glistening and very shiny. The next year, I toned it back," Haye laughed. "I still kept it professional and I got best dressed."

Nearly a week long, now, SEC Media Days is a lot of things. The event is bright and crowded, busy and frantic, still focused and, at times, stirring. What we hear often depends on what we are listening for. Clearly, the sheer gravity of it all speaks to just how much this sport means to so many people.  

As revered head coaches like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, friends who met in last season's epic College Football Playoff Final, stake their claim, a number of young men they and their peers lead will do the same. The chance to embrace the moment is one that is made the most of and one that matters.  

Players don't merely stand in front of reporters, wait and respond. Notably, they stand tall. 

"Every time I get to go back as an analyst, it's even better because I'm like a kid in a candy store. I get to meet all of these young men and converse with them, get a sense of how they feel, what's going on with their lives and how they feel about the pride of the SEC," Carter beamed.

There won't be any chants at SEC Media Days, but there is always chatter. One thing everyone in Atlanta will unanimously agree on, as the festivities take place, fittingly, at the College Football Hall of Fame, is where the conversation, for any season, starts and ends. Just ask, these kind folks will tell you.

"I have a tattoo on me, I'm biased and I'll forever be biased. I got the old SEC logo on me, the shield. The SEC is the best conference out there, period. There's an old saying that the three best conferences in America are the AFC, NFC and SEC and that's the truth. I don't care what any other conference says, it is what it is, I'm going to take that to my grave. I don't care whose feelings get hurt, but the SEC is the best conference in America."

When a league that has won nine of the last 12 national championships makes a statement, the rest of college football pays close attention.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports