Anticipating Media Days

Maybe, just maybe, the annual snooze-fest also known as SEC Football Media Days will be interesting this year. Football fans across the South look forward to Media Days each season with anticipation rarely seen outside the buildup to a season premiere of The Sopranos.

But little relevant news has come out of the gathering since Steve Spurrier took his visor and attitude to the NFL, with Houston Nutt's revelation several years ago that safety Ken Hamlin, then serving time for a drunk-driving conviction, "is probably on a roadside as we speak" a notable exception.

Thanks to two very different men–Phillip Fulmer and Sylvester Croom–this year's gathering (which begins Tuesday) promises to be different.

It will be interesting to see how Mississippi State's Croom–the first black head coach in SEC history–handles the scrutiny and media blitz that Alabama's Mike Shula navigated just a year ago.

It'll also be interesting to see how Fulmer handles the situation, period.

Tennessee's rotund head coach, never a popular figure in these parts, became Public Enemy numero uno of the Crimson Nation during the off-season.

Montgomery lawyer Tommy Gallion–handling former Tide assistants Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams' $60 million lawsuit against the NCAA and other parties–revealed last winter that Fulmer had served as a secret witness against Alabama during the investigation that landed the Tide on five years' probation and stripped two bowl appearances and 21 scholarships.

According to the transcripts, Fulmer collaborated with lawsuit defendant Tom Culpepper and shared what he felt was potentially damaging information regarding Alabama's program under then-head coach Mike DuBose.

That, shockingly, raised the ire of Alabama fans, many of whom already blamed Tennessee for the latest NCAA probation. Gallion has built his case around an alleged conspiracy between the NCAA and the University of Tennessee to bring down Alabama football, and the Fulmer-NCAA transcripts were certainly damning evidence.

So damning, it seems, that UT officials are worried about Fulmer's safety at Media Days.

The (Nashville) Tennesseean reported this week that UT athletic director Mike Hamilton and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive have been talking about how to handle Fulmer's security during his appearance next Thursday morning at the Wynfrey Hotel.

Seems they're concerned about how the fans who regularly crowd the hotel's lobby (where coaches and players mingle and talk with radio talk shows set up there) will respond to Fulmer.

"'It's not something you particularly like, but you know it's there," Fulmer told The Tennesseean of a potentially nasty fan reaction.

Complicating matters is that Alabama–traditionally the week's biggest fan draw–is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

UT officials are apparently considering sneaking Fulmer into the hotel through a side entrance (insert your own joke here) and taking him directly to the second floor, where all interviews are conducted and fans aren't allowed.

It'd hardly be shocking if Fulmer chooses this approach; he reportedly kept a very low profile at the spring SEC meetings in Destin, Florida, where coaches and athletic directors typically talk freely with reporters.

What Fulmer will say once he gets to the podium Thursday is anyone's guess. My theory? He'll likely try as best he can to deflect attention from his location to his team, although little positive or interesting news will come out of that approach. Fulmer is as dry as unbuttered toast left out in the midday August sun, an old-school coach with a sleep-inducing tone.

But reporters will certainly ask him–over and over–about the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry, his dalliance with the NCAA, and his own struggling program.

Will Fulmer take their bait and give them quotable material? Probably not.

That's his wife's job, anyway–remember, Vicky Fulmer accosted Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Gary Lundy in Neyland Stadium's press box after he wrote a negative column about former Vol quarterback Casey Clausen.

But Fulmer's appearance will be the week's highlight–or lowlight–or both.

Croom's first trip through the SEC media gauntlet should be fascinating, too.

The Alabama alum has received plenty of well-deserved media attention since MSU tabbed him as the league's first-ever black head football coach late last year.

Part of that buzz came from Shula's ill-advised spring football award snub, but most has been from national media outlets seeking a piece of Croom and his story.

His speech will inevitably be compared with Shula's, as will the pair's every move until one or the other leaves the SEC and the close proximity between Starkville and Tuscaloosa.

Last year, Shula gave a talk that sounded as prepared and wooden as the average 11th-grader's speech project. Give him credit; at least he didn't repeat himself and tell jokes multiple times like South Carolina's Lou Holtz did two years ago.

Shula has upgraded his media skills and public persona since he was hired more than a year ago, but Croom is a slightly more polished speaker.

None of this will matter when the two teams meet in Bryant-Denny Stadium November 6, but in the football-starved environment of early summer, it looms large.

Croom's appearance will be a highlight for all the right reasons. Fulmer's day in the spotlight promises to be electric for its negative potential.

Both will make the Wynfrey Hotel–at least for three days–the South's football epicenter. This year, my fellow media types and me can leave the pillows and sleeping pills at home.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column for BamaMag.com


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