HOOVER, Ala. — Each team drags three players with it to SEC Media Days, but it’s the coaches who tend to make lasting impressions.
With Steve Spurrier missing from this year’s festivities, there was a personality void. In his absence, we decided to crown a new “King of Media Days.”
It appeared to be an arduous task at the outset. There were favorites, sure. We laughed at dozens of jokes and cringed at a few questionable answers. Eventually, the dust settled, and by Thursday afternoon, we had our rankings:
14. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Asked to reconcile Mississippi State’s acceptance of Jeffery Simmons — caught on camera punching a woman repeatedly earlier this year — and a sign in the Bulldogs locker room that reads “Respect Women,” Mullen spoke in generalizations and never answered the question.
That was a theme.
He brought some interesting shoes to Hoover…
… But it was part of a tone-deaf performance that revolved around Simmons, though Mullen rarely mentioned his new 5-star recruit by name.
At one point, a reporter asked Mullen why Simmons was given uniform No. 36 — a special jersey in the Bulldogs program — and managed to say two completely separate things in his answer.
- He didn’t specifically give Simmons the number (“we just kind of assigned it off what locker you’re going to be in right now”), and…
- He specifically assigned No. 36 to Simmons to honor former player Nick Bell (“that’s something we had discussed and we’re looking forward to”).
On top of that, he tried to remove himself from the line of fire by saying “I wasn’t involved as much” in giving Simmons the green light to enroll.
There were some lighthearted moments (remember: the shoes), but any positive vibes were overshadowed by his Simmons comments and then a later interview in which he made things worse for himself.
13. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
He spent 59 words talking about his kicker in the opening. Sure, that kicker — Daniel Carlson — is good at what he does, but that’s an example of the unnecessary fat most coaches packed into their introductions.
Malzahn lost a lot of points for being a combination of boring and uncooperative.
Consider the following question: “What do you think you misjudged about your team last year? And then when something like that happens to you as a coach, how do you sort of compensate for that the next year in terms of maybe managing expectations or that kind of thing?”
He wound up speaking in generalizations and failed to answer either part. There were a couple moments of clarity and honesty (“Domestic violence is something that we don’t touch,” and “It was very humbling” to underperform in 2015), but they were few and far between.
A few years ago, Malzahn and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema were part of some mini-theater at this event, but that appears to be behind them.
Malzahn mentioned “Bret from Arkansas” as if he were a “first time, long time” guy on the Finebaum show, which we appreciated, but his overall cordiality toward Bielema was the end of our hope for fireworks.
We’ll finish with some classic coachspeak about quarterback Jeremy Johnson: “Jeremy went through a storm last year and the way he’s responded in the spring, in the summer, he’s responded very well. He’s operating with a chip on his shoulder. He wants to help our team in any way he can.”
12. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Kentucky has started 5-0 and 4-1 the last two seasons and failed to make the postseason in both. Some might call those “collapses,” as one reporter chose to do.
Stoops didn’t like it.
“I think you used the word ‘collapse,’” Stoop said. “I don’t think I would ever use that word because they weren’t. I just said they were very competitive games. Very good games that could have gone either way.”
This one was mostly a snoozer, save for a funny moment when Stoops discussed his relationship with Bret Bielema.
“He’s a beauty,” Stoops said. “I think he was in here entertaining you guys earlier, right? But I tell you a story about Bret. I just said it out there to some of the guys. I better be careful. Don’t get in a pissing contest with a skunk. Right? So he’s gone. He can’t say nothing about me right now.”
Stoops went on to tell an anecdote about Bielema’s tiny dogs (they’re little, he’s big, and so on), which proved to be the most memorable part of the conversation. Not good for personal branding, Mark.
11. Kirby Smart, Georgia
A lengthy opening (1,944 words) set the tone for a Saban-esque presser from Smart.
In the fashion of his old boss, the new Bulldogs coach made a power move to assert his dominance in the room: “This is my first Media Days, but I am no stranger to the SEC. This starts my 18th season as part of the SEC. Had five as a player, one as administrative assistant, three as position coach, and eight as coordinator. In that time, I had the great benefit of being to every venue in the SEC.”
There were buzzwords aplenty; it’s only a matter of time until Georgia has its own version of the “Process.”
“I got great value from the nine years I spent at University of Alabama and 11 years I worked for Coach Saban, learning the difference between a team and a program,” Smart said.
He was later asked how his Georgia team will be different from Alabama, a query that he answered by failing to disassociate his plan from Saban’s plan in any way: “The trademark for us is going to be big, physical, fast football team. We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly moving that direction. That’s the stamp I would like to put on it.”
What’s the stamp logo? An elephant?
10. Barry Odom, Missouri
Imagine you are Barry Odom. It’s the eve of your first career appearance at SEC Media Days. You are about to introduce your program to the 1,000-plus credentialed media and tens of thousands of fans watching at home.
Then, you get a phone call. It’s your athletic director. He’s leaving town to take over a program — Baylor — in worse shape than your own.
Less than an hour before your speech the next day, the news breaks. You get ushered through several interview rooms before stepping up to the main microphone and saying hello to the nation for the first time. Just as you step onstage, Baylor puts out an official press release about your old athletic director.
This was supposed to be your moment, and now it’s not.
Given the circumstances, Odom held up well. He eased through his pre-written monologue as the room sat silent, and then did fairly well answering questions about social unrest and his departed AD.
He seemed relieved to field a few questions about football, and scored extra points byputting the heat back on a Missouri-Kansas rivalry that’s been dormant since 2011.
Few will remember his answers on Wednesday, but that’s a good thing considering things could’ve gone south in a hurry for the poor guy who had to deal with negative factors outside of his control.
9. Butch Jones, Tennessee
Like commissioner Greg Sankey, whose opening address established a somber tone, Jones decided to begin with a remembrance of Pat Summitt.
“Every day I start my morning off, I look outside my window and I look down at her statue,” Jones said.
When the Q&A session began, he unleashed a joke that he’d clearly been dying to share (because it didn’t fit the question at all). When asked about high expectations, he responded: “Well, first of all, you get snapped back in reality right away. We’re excited to get here, and we board the bus, and Coach Sumlin changed buses with us, so we had no air conditioning. So it was about 100, 110 degrees on the ride over there. That’s a reality check right away.”
Hmm … what?
Jones has a penchant for saying nothing at all while plenty of words pour out of his mouth (a skill his players share). Example: He used “You always have to learn from the previous experiences and past experiences” and “it’s better to be a player-coached team than a coach-coached team” in the same paragraph.
He managed to sneak an Erik Spoelstra reference into one of his answers; one of those designed tidbits he was waiting to interject. But any presser that provides an unprovoked Spoelstra reference is probably better than one without any Spoelstra, especially with this group of humor-averse coaches.
We did appreciate Jones’ response to a question about Tennessee’s sexual assault problem: “Well, we don’t look at it as something of the past or something that’s been settled. Everything is a teaching unit. These are very, very serious issues that surround every college campus, they surround society today, and we’ll continue to educate our players on the importance of it.”
8. Nick Saban, Alabama
Sure, he’s often boring, and his deification of “The Process” has become stale. But the moments of subdued rage make any Saban presser worth a listen.
During a lengthy monologue (more evidence that Smart is following his blueprint: They both went way long before taking questions), Saban got weird; he acknowledged the absurdity of the Media Days spectacle, leaving reporters momentarily stunned before launching into his talking points again.
That moment alone shoots him up the list, and if this list included his ensuing appearance on the Paul Finebaum Show, Saban would’ve made a play for No. 1.
Also, this will live on forever:
7. Jim McElwain, Florida
McElwain is one of the SEC’s funniest coaches (though some beat writers would say he uses humor to divert attention from questions he doesn’t want to answer).
His Monday session provided a decent amount of laughs. Here were a couple of his greatest hits:
- Regarding freshman kicker Eddie Pineiro: “I was excited to see he was able to buckle his chinstrap. That was awesome. And to see that happen, you know what, that’s a step in the right direction.”
- Regarding Florida State’s “state championship” rings: “You know, I mean, they won it. So why wouldn’t you? That’s a hell of a deal. But I don’t really get that jacked up in that stuff … I don’t know whether our administration has it in our budget to do that. I don’t know.”
He called his younger self “a little shaver.” He told a reporter “I think you may have to check with Tennessee on that one” after the reporter said Georgia was Florida’s biggest rival. And he said he’d love to play Nick Saban again “because I know it’s in Atlanta.”
McElwain endured a barrage of Saban questions to give us a nice note on Nick: “I think he can go forever. He’s — that’s just the way he’s wired. And I haven’t seen one thing, when we were around each other that week of the SEC championship game, I didn’t see one less bounce in his step, anything like that. And, you know what? He’s — the guy’s something special.”
6. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Sumlin put forth a strong performance on Tuesday. He got his points across in a straightforward manner while providing scenes and insight that most coaches struggle to conjure up in the flow of conversation.
He snuck a couple laughs into the session, but was best when cordial and informative. Here are some examples of his effectiveness while discussing new quarterback Trevor Knight:
- Setting a scene: “I think it’s been his ability since he came into the first team meeting and sitting there in the front row with his beard, and all of the 17-, 18-year-old guys are going: Who is that old man? Didn’t I see him on TV playing for Oklahoma? And his ability to be humble and still be able to share his experiences and talk to our guys, it’s been fabulous.”
- How Knight won the starting job: “It was pretty simple, he earned it.”
- How to make something corny sound wise: “The greatest teacher is experience and I think what has helped Trevor is some of that gunslinger has won games and some of that gunslinger cost him his job and has put him in the situation that he’s in.”
The only time Sumlin really had to walk on eggshells was when he was asked about Johnny Manziel, his former quarterback at Texas A&M.
Sumlin looked none too pleased by the question — “Have you been in contact with Johnny Manziel recently?” — but summoned up the strength to put forward a good answer.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Sumlin said. “He’s an Aggie and he’s always going to be an Aggie. At Texas A&M, we take care of each other.”
5. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Facing a mountain of criticisms and uncertainties, Freeze handled himself well in front of a slightly hostile room. His answers appeared to be honest, and he managed to address Ole Miss’ self-punishments and further potential NCAA violations in his introduction.
“As a head coach, I understand that I’m held accountable for the things that happened within our building and even outside the walls of our building,” he said.
His thorough answers to football-related questions were a bit dry, and he sort of stumbled around with dumb metaphors now and again, including the following: “It’s like making a cake. I don’t like taking a raw egg or baking soda. Those don’t taste good. But when the final product is done, it tastes really, really good. And it doesn’t taste good right now…”
We appreciated his summary of the current NCAA controversy:
“Look. Everybody has — everybody’s got a narrative. You have one, I have one, our rivals have one. All of us have one in regards to us going on in the world and in our world with the NCAA … But with everybody’s narrative going on, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle and the facts are this. There will come a day where we get to stand before the committee on infractions, which are the ones that matter, and we will be held accountable for any wrongdoing that is found, and that’s the way it should be. We don’t want it to be. I have zero interest, zero interest, in cutting corners to be successful, and our staff knows that very well.”
He fought off a well-crafted follow-up question about his lack of oversight, effectively putting himself in the clear — for Thursday, anyway.
4. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Mason promoted the brand hard with a custom suit that caught the country’s attention on the first day:
He also made three references to “West End,” the street that runs alongside some of the Vanderbilt campus. We’re not sure if that will catch on, but it was a valiant effort.
While he’s not a funnyman, Mason tackled several serious issues with aplomb.
This is the kind of guy Vanderbilt has in charge: “It goes back to John F. Kennedy when he was asked to fall for the lesser role than running for president. For me, that’s been a statement that really speaks to where we are. I think, obviously, if there’s an opportunity to be better, then let’s be better. Let’s reach, you know, for the highest thing out there. Let’s reach for the sky. Let’s reach for the brass ring. Let’s not reach for, you know, what is sitting there at eye level.”
Some of it came across as a bit silly (“Don’t downgrade your dreams to match your reality. Upgrade your faith to match your destiny”), especially when Mason was asked about the country’s recent police-related shootings.
“You know,” he said, “it takes teamwork to make the dream work.”
We were impressed by his immediate answer (“Linebacker”) to a broad question (“What’s the toughest position on the field to play?”) and the information he used to back up his thesis: “The sleight of hand with quarterbacks, the deception of formation adjustments and how things change, bumping gaps, being able to communicate what happens with empty sets…”
But many reporters came away impressed by his handling of a question regarding his status as an African-American football coach.
“You know what?” he asked. “I don’t wear that cape. I really don’t. I think my ethnicity, OK, has nothing to do with my position. I think I’m intelligent enough to be a head coach, and I’ve proven over time that I can, you know, do the job.”
3. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Following a fairly monotonous opening, Muschamp got the crowd chuckling when he opened it up for questions. Bob Holt, a longtime columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, stood up to address Muschamp, which prompted Muschamp to say, “You don’t have to stand, Bob.” Holt fired back with, “I have to … It’s like a presidential address.”
Later, to the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi (who is bald): “The glare of these lights off your head is blinding.”
Muschamp was confident throughout, saying, “I’m a little shocked it took six or seven questions to get to this one,” after being asked about the lessons he learned from his Florida tenure and how he can apply them to his new gig.
He flexed his muscles — noting his former Florida recruits were the reason the Gators have more draft picks in the last two years than any other SEC team — and said to hell with hedging: “There is no three-year or five-year plan. We plan to win now.”
The highlight was his explanation of a broken finger he suffered last season: “I wear my emotions sometimes on my sleeves a little bit more than I should. I don’t remember the situation. I black out sometimes.”
2. Les Miles, LSU
When it comes to the SEC’s best personality, take your pick between Miles and the man who claimed our No. 1 spot.
The Tigers coach’s first line (“Thank you so much for the applause”) got people laughing, but his bizarre, 21-minute opening sequence put the room to sleep by the end.
We’ve got a full breakdown of his monologue here, and hope he’s able to return in 2017.
1. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Bielema immediately detailed the slap on the wrist he got from previous SEC commissioner Mike Slive after Bielema’s first Media Days appearance in 2013, and also made note of current commissioner Greg Sankey’s sober opening address.
Those things together made some wonder if he would not come through with another lively performance.
Thankfully, he proved the doubters wrong.
There were plenty of memorable moments (calling defensive end Deatrich Wise “beautiful” was one of them), but the overall effect stuck more than any single punchline.
An anecdote that cracked people up: “I was in Europe with my wife. We were on a train headed to Paris. It’s ironic for me to say that in every words. My wife said, Hey, there’s something about — on the Internet about a Big Ten team canceling with an SEC team. I said, I don’t know anything about it. She said, Really? Your picture’s right here.”
Many thought Bielema might go in on Jim Harbaugh, but he instead opted for compliments, saying, “I love a guy that speaks his mind.” Curveballs are always good, even when they replace potential flamethrower statements against a prominent Big Ten coach.
Bielema also called out SEC head of officials Steve Shaw for “a marvelous call” against Texas A&M in 2014.
“First tripping call I’ve ever seen in college football,” Bielema said to shouts of laughter. “I hope there’s a moratorium on complaining about ref’ing.”