Beside them, photographers shifted back and forth, looking for the perfect angle, that once-in-a-lifetime shot.
Their object of desire? A triangular black speakerphone.
In seconds – well, after a comic-relief busy signal, at least – that phone would bring the disembodied voice of Tennessee head football coach Phil Fulmer into what was fast becoming a Media Days frenzy.
A bizarre, unheard-of buzz enveloped the ballroom.
And then Fulmer started talking.
He opened with an unhinged, seven-minute rant that fired back at Tommy Gallion, his group of attorneys representing Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams, and media that he said labeled him a "coward" for ducking his scheduled Media Days appearance.
In the process, he legitimized Gallion's crusade for what the Montgomery lawyer considers "the truth" about the NCAA investigation that resulted in the 2002 probation against the Alabama football program, a blow that the Tide is just now starting to recover from.
Fulmer was angry. Emotional. Defiant. He spoke of both "rogue boosters" and "rogue lawyers," whom he also called "radical," "irresponsible," and undertaking "their own agenda to smear the NCAA and anyone they can along the way." This was a Fulmer virtually no one had seen before. Usually, the veteran Tennessee head coach is drier than the Mojave Desert, a giant human sleeping pill who seems to be reading from a giant book of "Coaching Clichés 101." Thursday, for once, Fulmer was interesting. Worth listening to, for all the wrong reasons.
He spoke of being on the side of truth, and accused Gallion and Co. of showboating and grandstanding, making "wild charges, incredible exaggerations and telling half-truths to try and make their case."
My question is this: If Fulmer is so confident he's on the side of truth, then why didn't he show his face and ample body in Hoover Thursday?
That's fine. Fulmer admitted he was still worried about being served with a subpoena by Gallion and Co. if he showed up Thursday, despite Gallion's promise to stay away if Fulmer hit town.
"If you believe that, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona I want to sell you," he joked.
Gallion promised to take the deposition at a time and place convenient for Fulmer (maybe, say, the week of Nov. 13, the Vols' final off-week of the season), but Fulmer apparently doesn't trust him one bit. Or he doesn't believe that Gallion is seeking what he believes is the truth.
"Through this whole affair, I have told the truth and will continue to tell the truth," he said. "Second, telling the truth is much different than agreeing to be a stage prop for a lawsuit that is for show."
If Fulmer believes the Cottrell/Williams lawsuit is "for show," then what does he have to be scared of? He'd attract far less attention by agreeing to a deposition than he has avoiding one.
By avoiding SEC Media Days, he caught the attention of numerous national media outlets. A story that was formerly confined to the talk-show airwaves, newspapers and Internet message boards of Alabama and Tennessee has gone big-time. Thursday, I sat next to a friend of mine who writes for a major, national publication you'd all recognize. While he wrote his account of the matter, he peppered me with question after question about the affair, trying to gain a better understanding of the matter.
ESPN, ESPN.com, CBS Sportsline, Sportsillustrated.com and Sports Illustrated were just a few of the national media outlets on hand in Hoover. If Fulmer had made the event, he'd have been a side note. By blowing it off, he was the story. A story that wasn't exactly flawless, by the way.
Late in the session, a female reporter asked Fulmer about his eight-hour meeting with recruiting analyst Tom Culpepper, a defendant in the Cottrell/Williams case. Fulmer shot back, angrily denying the meeting and the tape's existence. "There wasn't an eight-hour meeting," Fulmer said. "Regarding the tape, there is no tape and never has been a tape that I know of. I wish there was a tape because everyone down there could hear it. You would be shocked. We probably wouldn't be having this conversation."
Let me quote from Fulmer's interview with the NCAA, summarized by NCAA investigator Rich Johannigmeier:
"Fulmer reported that during the eight-hour meeting, Culpepper provided information that indicated that individuals associated with the Alabama football program have been involved in possible violations of NCAA legislation. Fulmer reported that after consulting with his attorney, Fulmer secretly tape-recorded approximately an hour-and-a-half of Fulmer's conversation with Culpepper." Somebody's not being truthful, be it Fulmer or Johannigmeier, since Fulmer denied both the meeting and taping any part of the meeting.
Thursday, Fulmer acted angry, defiant – like someone who has something to hide. If Gallion has his way, those secrets will be uncovered eventually, if Fulmer and his university have secrets worth tucking away.
And thanks to Thursday's bizarre performance, the whole nation will be watching.