Tom Murphy is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
SEC Media Days underway in Atlanta
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days Monday, July 19, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
ATLANTA — The annual gathering of football coaches and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey for the conference where it just means more will kick off today with about 1,000 media members also flocking to the event at the College Football Hall of Fame.
The venue that was scheduled to hold the 2020 SEC Media Days before it was canceled due to the covid-19 pandemic then looted by rioters is back in the rotation after two years in Hoover, Ala.
Sankey will open the proceedings at 10:30 a.m. Central today with his annual State of the SEC speech, the occasion he took last year to point out — via Bob Dylan lyrics — that “changes were a-coming” for the money-stacking, championship-racking league.
Indeed, two days later, news broke that Oklahoma and Texas would be applying for membership in the SEC while handing in their notice to the Big 12.
That bombshell news, unleashed right around the time state laws were allowing college athletes to profit from their Name, Image and Likeness, sent college athletics into the next round of realignment, a carousel that where it stops nobody knows.
Expansion, realignment, scheduling and the Wild West that sprung from the implementation of NIL deals across the country are sure to be hot topics in “Hotlanta,” where temperatures are projected to push into the low 90s during the week, about 10 degrees cooler than the frying pan in Arkansas.
One topic likely not to catch fire: The very public spat between two of the league’s three national champion coaches.
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The day after seven-time national champion Coach Nick Saban of Alabama fired across the bow of Texas A&M’s No. 1-rated signing class by saying the Aggies “bought every player on their team” at a talk in May, one-time national champion Coach Jimbo Fisher unleashed a scorched earth rebuttal on his former boss. Fisher, who won a national title with Saban at LSU in 2003, called Saban a narcissist, said his remarks were “despicable,” challenged reporters to “dig into his past,” said “some people think they’re God,” and, for good measure, concluded that their relationship was “done.”
That heated exchange, which drew public reprimands from Sankey, made for great theater, for which the SEC never seems to be lacking. It also pointed out how quickly the NIL game blew up into a controversial subject with what seems a willy-nilly set of rules that can be interpreted differently on a state-by-state basis.
Georgia Coach Kirby Smart, whose Bulldogs avenged a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game by beating the Crimson Tide 33-18 in the College Football Playoff title game in January, gave voice to the concerns that have probably lurk with most college coaches.
“I just want to make sure that the game stays at a point where we can control it,” Smart said on the SEC Network of NIL legislation and their enforcement.
Every coach in attendance will be aiming to bring his full team back to Georgia’s capital city to compete in the 31st SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 3 as Atlanta hosts the game for the 29th time.
The SEC season is scheduled to start in 40 days, when Vanderbilt takes on Hawaii at the Ching Complex in Honolulu.
Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman will make his second appearance at media days on Wednesday morning, joined by quarterback KJ Jefferson, linebacker Bumper Pool and safety Jalen Catalon.
The league will feature two new coaches in LSU’s Brian Kelly and Florida’s Billy Napier, and 10 of the 14 coaches have been on the job for two years or less.
Kelly, a native of Massachusetts, dropped into the bayou after a 31-year run as a head coach in the upper midwest at stops including Notre Dame (2010-21), Cincinnati (2006-09) and Central Michigan (2004-06). His Fighting Irish teams were routinely hammered by SEC clubs in postseason games, though they did beat LSU twice, but LSU Athletic Director Scott Woodward made the bold move to hire the 60-year-old in Baton Rouge.
“The SEC has obviously an ability to continuously turn out great football teams based upon a commitment from the university, great recruiting, great coaches to play at the highest level,” Kelly said at his introductory press conference. “And they’ve consistently done that and they’ve earned it by what they’ve done on the field. So everything that they’ve gotten, they’ve deserved.”
Saban proteges in the SEC now number four, with Napier joining former Saban assistants Fisher, Smart and Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin.
SEC media types are on a roll, having successfully credited the SEC champion in five of the last eight years. Alabama has been the media pick to win the SEC eight of the last nine years and the Crimson Tide delivered five times, with interventions from Auburn (2013), Georgia (2017) and LSU (2019).
Auburn was the pick in 2015, but the Tigers dropped to last in the SEC West that year as Alabama took the league title.
SEC teams have won 13 of the last 19 national championships dating to LSU’s title in 2003 with Saban, Fisher and company, including the last three, with crowns claimed by LSU, Alabama and Georgia.
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