SEC FOOTBALL: Day One Was A True Circus

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama --- It was kind of like the Super Bowl Wednesday afternoon as the Southeastern Conference began its annual Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel. With Florida Coach Urban Meyer, Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer and South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier on the docket for day one, it was like starting with the championship game with the playoffs scheduled to follow the next two days.

A Thursday morning agenda that includes Georgia's Mark Richt and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville just can't compare to the media circus that was Monday afternoon. First there was Meyer, the hottest name in coaching after an unbeaten season at Utah got him the promotion to Florida, where three years and 15 losses demanded a coaching change. Then there was Fulmer, the dean of SEC coaches, back in Alabama after skipping the event last year when he was ducking a subpoenae for a highly publicized court case against the NCAA. Ed Orgeron, the new Ole Miss coach, followed Fulmer. He was like the warmup band because when Spurrier arrived, it was like a rock star was in the building. The former University of Florida coach was a bit more subdued than in Media Days past, but he still showed a bit of razor edge with some of his remarks.

The thought of a day one with Meyer, Fulmer and Spurrier had much to do with the SEC awarding more than 700 credentials for the three-day event. By comparison, the Atlantic Coast Conference, which Tuesday concluded its media event in Hot Springs, Virginia, awarded only 221 credentials.

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The issue of toughness once again surfaced with Meyer. Beginning in January when he took over the job at Florida Meyer has continually stressed that Florida's football team must get tougher, especially in the fourth quarter. During the three years of his predecessor, the Gators became famous for their four quarter collapses.

Meyer said that February mat drills and spring practice had produced improvement in his team, but he still needs to see toughness because toughness allows teams to finish the game.

"When you just evaluate in the weight room and watch them in practice … you watch mat drills … that's how you evaluate the toughness of your program," said Meyer. Ability to finish … starting to drill hard … can you finish when it gets real hard?

"My evaluation after mat drills and after spring practice was no. And I am hoping … and that was the theme for the summer … that we can find out when we get the team out for two-a-days. A big emphasis on getting tougher."

Asked what it will take for Florida to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game in December, Meyer talked about conditioning, creating trust among teammates and building a will to win. Then he spoke candidly about finishing games in the fourth quarter.

"You have to got to close the deal," he said. "I think it's tied directly to that. I don't think how tough our football team is. Athletes like we have in Florida can run away with the game. I want to know when it's 13 to 13 and 90 degree heat … I think that's the question. I think the biggest question mark … are we fast enough? … sure we can run … can we finish the deal and do we have the toughness to hang in there when things are not going well? That's the two questions."

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Meyer said that the Gator Gathering schedule didn't look like such a big deal back in May when the spring tour began but after going through 20 of the meetings around the state that he might have to re-evaluate how things are done next year. He said that he understands that pressing the flesh with alumni and boosters is important, but it is also important for him to be with his family, players and assistant coaches.

"All the Gator clubs and speaking issues didn't look so bad back in the month of May," he said. "I will have to look that over because I am a person that enjoys being around my family and my players. I will be honest. I don't really like to do anything else. Spending that much time away from your players I didn't feel like that was good. They are special and I don't know them very well. I will relook at that, rethink it."

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Fulmer went through a spring practice in which 22 players had to miss time because of surgery. With a 2005 schedule that is rated among the three toughest in the nation, Fulmer says there will be no time to waste once practice begins in a couple of weeks. "As far as our football team, I think that we can have a very good football team," he said. "Our schedule is really hard. UAB is a tough football team to open with and then having to go on the road at Florida and LSU, is very difficult. If you look down the rest of it, having to go to Alabama and playing in Notre Dame and Kentucky Memphis, Vanderbilt.

"With the top-heavy schedule that we have it's really important for us and a challenge for us right now because we had a number of surgeries coming out of spring practice and coming out of the season that we report in great shape and great health. We have to be ready early. We don't have time to wait on somebody to get in shape. We don't have time to experiment a whole bunch. We certainly don't have time to waste any days and two days as we get ready for our season."

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Fulmer believes that this year's offensive line can be the best he has had at Tennessee. The Vols have starters and experienced players back at every position except center, but he thinks that position could turn into a strength.

"Our offensive line, I expect to be as good as we have had at Tennessee," he said. "Arron Sears is a great football player. Not a good one; he's a great football player. Rob Smith is a captain, a junior which tells you what the rest of the team thinks of him in his ability and his toughness. I am excited about him. Cody Douglas needs to be 100 percent well for us at right guard and right tackle Albert Toeaina has improved 100 percent since last year when he came in from junior college and had very little idea about the fundamentals and techniques. I am hopeful that he will be a big time player for us.

Our center is questionable right now. Richard Gandy hurt his knee playing a pick-up game in the off-season. It is a concern right now whether he will be back for the opening game or the second game or just when he will get back. He's ahead of schedule and we expect him back. If he doesn't make it back or if he does, David Ligon has done a tremendous job of getting himself ready to participate. He took advantage of all the work that he got in the spring. Right now I will be comfortable with him being our center."

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This has been an offseason in which the Vols endured 13 arrests in off the field incidents. It is a situation that Fulmer called intolerable and an embarrassment to the University of Tennessee. Fulmer said that usually there are five or six players that you have to watch closely while there are 78 or 79 on a team that do everything right. And, he said, that some players come from excellent backgrounds yet they still get into trouble.

"My wife reminded me of this," he said. "I was really angry after a couple things that we had later and I was venting to her … we lost a really good player there in James Banks … he had great parents, you can't blame it on his environment, nothing like that. It's just really unfortunate that we couldn't get him to listen and change to the point that we had to let him go. I was venting about that.

"She said 'just think of all the guys that you saved.' I think back when I was a youngster … thank goodness that there were some coaches and people that took opportunities to help me and get me over some humps, so there was a lot kids that we do do great things for, but unfortunately sometimes the publicity comes to the ones that do poorly. We are all embarrassed about it. We hate it. We're going to continue to work on it. We would be really naive to stand here and think with 18 to 22-year-old kids there's never going to be any problems or issues. I have got three wonderful daughters that have been raised right and everything, but I don't always know what they are doing either. But we have had more than our share and more than we intend to tolerate."

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Fulmer got a few chuckles when asked what was his reaction when he found out that Steve Spurrier was returning to the Southeastern Conference at South Carolina? Spurrier beat Fulmer seven out of ten times the two squared off against each other.

"When I first heard he was coming back I said, oh, crap, something like that!" Fulmer stated. He's an interesting personality. Dynamic personality, and I think he very much knows that he has got a real demanding job in front of him to do that, but if anybody can do it, he can."

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For years there has been an exodus of the top players from the state of Mississippi. That's something that has to stop according to Orgeron, the new coach at Ole Miss. Orgeron, who played his college football at Northwestern State (LA), coached under Jimmy Johnson at Miami, Paul Pasqualoni at Syracuse and Pete Carroll at Southern Cal in preparation for taking the Ole Miss job. He built his reputation at all three schools as an ace recruiter. He said he is up for the sales job that he has to do to stop the outflow of talent from the state.

"We go to every school in the State of Mississippi, and I feel that every young man that was born in the State of Mississippi wants to play for Ole Miss," he said. "We have to show them a great program and we have to show why he comes to Ole Miss and why he feels that way. That's my feeling. But obviously some people have done a better job of recruiting."

Orgeron was a college teammate of the late great Joe Delaney (Kansas City Chiefs), Mark Duper (Miami Dolphins) and Bobby Hebert (New Orleans Saints).

"That's a lot of big time talent to come out of one little school," he said.

At the mention of Delaney, he shook his head and said, "What a shame he died at such a young age. He was one of the greatest football players I've ever seen but a better person."

Delaney died trying to rescue two kids who had fallen out of a boat. Delaney didn't know how to swim but that didn't stop him from trying to rescue the two kids. He drowned but the kids survived.

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Spurrier didn't deliver any of the signature zingers that used to make Media Days such a fun event. He was humble but optimistic. Off the field problems with players he didn't recruit and incidents that happened before he arrived in Columbia have clouded his first season at South Carolina. He said that despite the problems that have been well publicized, he hasn't found tremendous resistance to the discipline he has brought to the program.

"We're going to do the program the right way there and some things happened," said Spurrier. "The biggest thing happened when I guess the athletic director announced that there was not going to be a bowl game because the fight with Clemson which was a real nasty event for both schools … really was. Terrible. Both schools deserved whatever punishment of no bowl game.

"So some players took some things out of the stadium. We have three players … former players that took some laptop computers. They have since been returned, but we had about five players that actually took their picture off the wall. For some reason they had all the players pictures … those guys got arrested for taking their picture off the wall. They are part of the arrest group. I know sometimes in college I probably personally did some things I wasn't very proud of, but taking your picture off the wall and bringing it back I didn't think deserved quite the national punishment that those guys got. But anyway, those are -- some of those guys are still back on the team. Then we had some stealing incidents. We are not going to have guys that steal on the team. Sometimes you need some guys to maybe go by the wayside to tell the other guys if you are going to play football at South Carolina and be a student athlete, got to do things the right way. Simple as that."

Asked if there were similarities between the 1990 team he inherited at Florida and the 2005 team he inherits at South Carolina, Spurrier said, "Both schools were under investigation. A lot of people didn't know we were at South Carolina. Everybody knew Florida was back in '90 although the only one violation that they said occurred --- and it never was proven --- was that the head coach paid the child support payment four years prior in 1986 so that was why that '90 team in Florida was put on probation which was very unfair, but that's another story.

"This investigation at South Carolina has been going on for three years. Some things that had happened, I mean, you read them, some were considered major. I mean, nothing to do with cash and payments and things of that nature … I don't know if any of them gave a competitive advantage but there were rules broken and we did offer to give up a couple scholarships and hopefully the NCAA will accept that and move on."

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Spurrier paid homage to that 1990 team at Florida saying, "The '90 team in Florida was very close talentwise with the '96 National Championship team, really was. We just hadn't been together that long. Had two losses, but the other nine games I think we won fairly convincingly. I don't think any of the other nine were --- Alabama game was the only close one of the nine victories.

"That team returned eight starters on our defense. It was third in the nation in 1989, so I knew we're going to be very good on defense and we had players on offense, they just hadn't had a chance to do anything. Players had some big strong offensive linemen. Shane Matthews came from basically nowhere, what Shane did, he understood what we're trying to do, very smart guy, he's still playing in the NFL, he's with the Buffalo Bills, 14th season, obviously he was a very talented player."

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