Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 14, 2023

SEC brings the circus to state

The Nation’s biggest sports organizations have decided Nashville is the place to party

Josh Huepel from 2022's Media Days - Photo provided

During his stellar football career at Vanderbilt, Jordan Rodgers was the star of the Commodores’ offense. But when it came to talking with the media, he always felt like he was playing defense against what inquiring reporters wanted to know.

Now, as SEC Media Days makes its first appearance in Nashville, Rodgers is back on offense again – among the 1,100 credentialed media members (including ESPN’s production crew) – asking instead of answering questions during the four-day event that begins Monday at the Grand Hyatt Nashville.

“If you’d told me, sitting in a borrowed blazer (at SEC Media Days) in Hoover, Alabama, in 2012, that I was going to be on the other side of (the interview) someday, I would have been like, ‘No, what? You’re crazy. I hope I’ll still be playing football,’” Rodgers says.

While the NFL aspirations never materialized, Rodgers’ connections with college football have soared. Tuesday night, he’ll be among the hosts for ESPN’s Broadway block party during an SEC Nation live telecast. And this fall, he’ll serve as a color analyst for ESPN/SEC Network games.

Rodgers understands – and sympathizes with – players being grilled by the media this week and that his approach to conducting interviews is a little different. He just wants to “talk ball” with them.

“As a player, your job is to – at least back then – our job was to give as little information as possible. Or give just enough that you’re not boring and people are tired of talking to you. Now that I’m on this side, I want these players to open up. I want it to be a safe place for them,” he says.

“So it’s a balancing act. The players and coaches definitely have their guards up because it’s media, you know? They always feel like we’re trying to catch them. But we love this sport. And especially in working for the SEC Network and ESPN, we love this conference and we want to highlight that as much as possible.

“I definitely try to get these kids to loosen up a little bit, get them to lighten up a little bit and realize that we’re just trying to have some fun and talk ball.”

Rodgers says he loves the idea of Nashville hosting SEC Media Days.

“I don’t think it’s going to be anything like the (2019) NFL Draft was in Nashville … but SEC football is the biggest thing there is right now outside the NFL,” Rodgers says. “There is no better passion, no bigger passion for football or sports in general when it comes to the SEC. Nashville is kind of a mecca for people to travel to from all over the country for one reason or another. So it’s great that we’re getting the event here.”

Nashville and SEC leaders feel the same way.

“SEC Media Days is a great opportunity for the city to host a high-caliber event that brings over 1,000 media members to the city,” says Deana Ivey, president and CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “The SEC has believed in Nashville for years by bringing their basketball tournaments here, and our hope is that this is the next step to doing even more events together.”

This marks only the third time SEC Media Days has been held outside the Birmingham area. The league took the 2020 and 2022 events to Atlanta. Nashville was supposed to have hosted in 2021 “but like everything else, like so much else, COVID interrupted our plans,” says Herb Vincent, the SEC’s assistant commissioner for communications. “We determined a few years back that this is one of our signature events and it would be good to move it to various parts of the SEC footprint and bring Football Media Days on the road.”

Following the 6 p.m. SEC Nation telecast, Grammy-nominated Midland will play a free concert on the outdoor stage. Scott Ramsey, CEO/president of the Nashville Sports Council and TransPerfect Music City Bowl, says it will be similar to other sports-related events such as the NFL Draft and last month’s NHL Awards/Draft block party.

“When we envisioned the event, we had kind of really wanted to build off what we did for the NFL Draft and for some other events like the bowl game and the SEC basketball tournament, where we could maybe use downtown Nashville to introduce a fan element to the Media Days,” Ramsey says.

Here’s what Nashville’s media says about Media Days.

Larry Woody, Main Street Media

This marks the 55th time in 57 years the SEC hosted football media events, though today’s barely resembles its SEC Skywriters Tour predecessor. From 1966-1983, the league flew 40 reporters to each university to interview coaches and players.

The SEC canceled its 1984 event because reporters were in Los Angeles covering the Olympics. In 1985, the SEC began inviting the media to the Birmingham area. In 2020, COVID forced a one-year cancellation.

A three-time NSMA Tennessee Sportswriter of the Year at The Tennessean who now writes for the Wilson Post and 16 other Main Street Media newspapers, Woody fondly recalls the Skywriters Tour – especially the after-hours time with fellow reporters in the hospitality room. They worked hard and partied hard.

“It was a really relaxed atmosphere. Usually, the coaches would come to the hospitality room that night and hang out with us, kind of let their hair down and sit around and have a beverage or two,” Woody recalls. “Sometimes a poker game would break out, and it was just really, really relaxed. A lot of fun times.”

And a lot of high jinks. He tells how Jack Hairston, the late Gainesville Sun sports editor, would read “really morbid, horrifying crashes” as the plane took off and landed. More than one reporter confronted Hairston, failing to see the humor.

Another funny one: Skywriters Tour first-timers had to load and unload luggage for the veterans. One year, a TV reporter balked.

“He said that was too juvenile, he was a professional reporter and he wasn’t going to play those silly games. So he refused to do it,” Woody tells. “And after the second day when he refused to do it, as we were taxiing down the runway to take off, we looked out on the tarmac and his luggage was sitting on the tarmac. Someone tossed his luggage off and left it behind. So some of it was juvenile pranks, that kind of stuff. There was a lot of fun, a lot of camaraderie.”

Woody laments that Media Days reporters are hamstrung by today’s format of the coach and three players from each school in attendance.

“It was a different era back then. I know it was a lot more fun.” Woody says. “I guess I’m biased, but I think the stories were a lot better, too. … It’s more like a press conference than that informal chat or get-together like the old Skywriters used to have.”

Teresa Walker, Associated Press

She’s been the AP’s state sports editor for nearly 32 years, is a four-time NSMA Tennessee Sportswriter of the Year and in 2020 was inducted into the TSWA Hall of Fame. But this will be Walker’s first SEC Media Days to cover.

And because it’s in Nashville she expects it to be more fan-friendly than other years.

“I’m just positive that Nashville is going to put its musical stamp and party atmosphere on this thing and it’s going to be the Nashville SEC Media Days and it’ll be unlike any other the league has held,” Walker says.

Looking ahead, she pinpoints the Georgia-Tennessee Nov. 18 in Knoxville as one to watch. The Vols, who open the 2023 season in Nashville against Virginia, lost 27-13 at Georgia last year.

“That could be the game that ends up deciding the SEC East, in my opinion. And I won’t be surprised to see if Tennessee has a chance to play its way into Atlanta as the last SEC East champion before the expansion next year,” she says.

She also says Vanderbilt has a chance to improve off last year’s 5-7 record, which included wins at Kentucky and at home over Florida before a blowout loss to Tennessee.

“I’m really, really curious to see (coach) Clark Lea. The way they were able to finish strong last season was very impressive, and I want to see what steps they take to build on that moving into this year,” Walker says.

The Commodores open the season Aug. 26 at home against Hawaii, a team they beat 63-0 a year ago on the road.

Chris Harris, WSMV

The Channel 4 sports anchor says he’s covered SEC Media Days “at least seven times” for his current and previous employers. So what’s it like?

“It’s just absolute chaos,” he says with a laugh. “Just think of 1,000 different media members in a hotel area waiting for the teams to bring in the head coach and a couple of players to different rooms. I used to go from room to room to room to room (for interviews).”

At previous SEC Media Days, typically the only access fans had to coaches and players for autographs was when the team walked through the lobby. Harris wonders if that will be different at the Grand Hyatt.

“If coaches choose to stop and sign autographs or whatever, then they can. Saban would stop and sign autographs at the time,” He says. “Now I’m curious to see what they do up here, if they allow fans more access or if they have anything else planned. From a fan standpoint, I don’t really know.”

Harris will be focusing much of his attention on Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

“Tennessee could be up there, just as they were last year. Obviously, everything is kind of contingent upon Joe Milton’s evolution. If he has a season like he did during the Orange Bowl, then that is incredibly promising,” He says.

“I think Vanderbilt is just kind of ‘let’s-see,’ you know? That’s the way it’s been in Clark Lea’s first couple of years. … I think we’re all kind of curious to see how much of a step Vanderbilt takes this year.”

Doug Mathews and Tony Barnhart, radio hosts

Mathews lives in Nashville, Barnhart in the Atlanta area. But they’ve been on the air together for the past 15 years on Mathews’ 104.5-FM sports talk show.

“I knew Doug when he was an assistant coach at Tennessee, and we became friends then. When he quit coaching and started doing other things … he said, ‘Hey, how about coming on the show with me?’

“It turns out we had a great chemistry together on-air and have been doing it ever since,” says Barnhart, an award-winning former sports writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who spent time with CBS and the SEC Network. He continues to write as and also hosts a podcast, “Mr. CFB and Friends.”

Mathews, who played football at Vanderbilt and coached at both UT and Vandy, as well as other schools, predicts this won’t be the only time SEC Media Days is held in Nashville.

“For years now, the Southeastern Conference has really made this a premier event, and Media Days is when college football starts in the South,” Mathews says. “Nashville is just a natural spot. … I think that’s why they’re going to make a huge deal out of it – and, no question, they should.

“I mean, this is the premier football conference in the United States. You can argue that the Big Ten is close – and they are – but this is the premier conference in the country and they do a great job of showcasing it. This will kind of kick off the football season for millions and millions of fans.”

Mathews was a senior running back at Vanderbilt in 1969 when the Skywriters visited. He remembers being interviewed by Nashville legends John Bibb of The Tennessean, Fred Russell of the Nashville Banner and others.

Barnhart is a big country music fan and remembers his 1975 trip to Nashville to cover the Georgia-Vanderbilt game for his UGA student newspaper, the Red and Black. The weekend began with a Friday night trip to the Grand Ole Opry and ended with Georgia’s 47-3 rout of the Commodores the next day.

“We were having dinner at the old Holiday Inn. (Georgia AD) Joel Eaves came over to our table and said, ‘Fellas, I’ve got tickets to the Grand Ole Opry tonight. My wife and I don’t feel like going.’ So he gave us four tickets to the Opry House. We had an absolute blast,” Barnhart recalls of what was a 50th anniversary celebration, a lineup that included Lester Flatt, Dottie West, Roy Acuff, Tammy Wynette and Barbara Mandrell.

Asked about UT and Vandy for the 2023 season, Barnhart offers these assessments:

“Tennessee did a great job. Obviously, they’ve got to replace their quarterback, Hendon Hooker. … They certainly had a great year last year, had some great moments and I’m anxious to see if they could put good seasons back-to-back.

“Clark Lea has done a really good job there (at Vandy). He knew it was going to take some time, that it’s going to take some time to recruit and to build your program, to get your culture established.”

Johnny (Ballpark) Franks, sports radio talk host/sports historian

After years at Tennessee State, where he was sports information director and associate athletic director, Franks launched a radio career with stops in Huntsville, Biloxi/Gulfport and at 560-AM in Nashville. The sports historian now hosts a weekly show each Monday@BPFranksShow on Twitter.

He’ll be at SEC Media Days planning to renew old relationships and establish new ones. That’s how he gets his best guests and stories.

“As time has gone by, it’s gotten actually tougher to talk to some of these individuals. If you don’t have contacts, then it’s tough to be able to get to key interviews. That’s why it’s important in these networking events like this is just to make sure you develop relationships,” Franks says.

“Like last year, the very first interview I did coming off the elevator, I was able to have a one-on-one with Bryce Young, the then-Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama. That’s why I love SEC Media Days. Because it’s the unknown of who you’re going to meet, who you have a chance to talk to and visit with, and you’re always looking for a different angle.”

Jordan Rodgers, SEC Network

Checking back in for a last word from the former Vandy star, we asked his assessment of the Commodores and Vols for the 2023 season.

“Tennessee is a national championship challenger,” Rodgers declares. “Their offense, I don’t believe it’s going to skip a beat. I think Joe Milton is an absolute superstar in the making. Seeing his development and growth from getting benched and having to sit behind Hendon Hooker and learning from him. His improvement on his accuracy – intermediate and on the deep ball – has been fantastic and he is hands-down the most physically gifted quarterback in the entire country.”

Following Media Days, Rodgers plans to visit Vanderbilt “to develop a relationship with Coach Lea. I appreciate and understand the job that he has in front of him. And I will say the more time I spend around the program, the more you can tell that they are building it the right way, not just in recruiting but how they’re developing players, obviously.”