Storylines aplenty at SEC Media Days 2003

HOOVER, Ala.-- When media types from around the South and the nation converge here Tuesday for Kickoff 2003, a.k.a. SEC Football Media Days, it could be one of the most fascinating three days in the history of the event. Since last December, when Georgia bested Arkansas in the 2002 Championship Game, the venerable old conference has been rocked by departures, scandals, and realignment within the neighboring Atlantic Coast Conference.

HOOVER, Ala.-- When media types from around the South and the nation converge here Tuesday for Kickoff 2003, a.k.a. SEC Football Media Days, it could be one of the most fascinating three days in the history of the event.

Typically the media types that cover Southern college football get a little breather in the summertime-- but not this year. Since the 2002 season ended, it seems like it's been one outlandish thing after another.

Since last December, when Georgia bested Arkansas in the 2002 Championship Game, the venerable old conference has been rocked by departures, scandals, and the realignment of the neighboring Atlantic Coast Conference.

First the Southeastern Conference lost two head coaches to the Big XII. Alabama's Dennis Franchione shocked and insulted Tide fans by bolting for Texas A&M after two years in Tuscaloosa-- and then Kentucky's Guy Morriss, hired to clean up the mess left by Hal Mumme, evidently decided the future looked brighter at Baylor.

The month of March brought a shocking academic scandal at Georgia, and basketball coach Jim Harrick was terminated. In May new Alabama head coach Mike Price got caught with his pants unzipped in Pensacola, and the Crimson Tide job went back on the market. Ultimately it went to a 38-year-old favored son, Mike Shula.

The NCAA placed Arkansas football on probation, and investigators have been sniffing around Starkville, Miss. for months now.

Just when it appeared that things were about to quiet down for the summer, rumors surfaced that the ACC was about to make a corporate raid on the Big East. Although the ACC stumbled and bungled before settling on Miami and Virginia Tech, the story sent shock waves around the nation's major football-playing conferences and provided grist for the media's mill through the dog days of summer.

Blissfully, the annual gridiron gabfest known as SEC Media Days is upon us. It's time to talk some real football for a change.

Some things never change. The media crush, as always, will be bigger than ever. As always, more radio stations than ever before will do live remotes from the lobby of the Wynfrey. As always, the coaches will try to guard their words and refrain from providing anyone with bulletin board material.

But in other ways, things have changed tremendously in just a year's time.

Last year it was Florida's Ron Zook and Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson meeting the media crush for the first time. This year Alabama's Mike Shula-- who didn't even have the benefit of working with his team in spring practice-- and Kentucky's Rich Brooks serve as the requisite newbies.

As usual, a couple of coaches are on the proverbial "hot seat." Last year it was Auburn's Tommy Tuberville who headed the scorching-stool list. (One year later, most people are picking his Tigers to win the conference-- go figure.)

This year it's Mississippi State's Jackie Sherrill whose seat is the most precarious. Will Jackie be able to pull off a Tuberville turnaround and salvage his hide?

Last year an anxious media cadre interrogated then-rookie Commissioner Mike Slive for the first time. One year later, when Slive again addresses the media Tuesday at noon, he will doubtless be called upon to answer relevant and irrelevant questions about conference realignment, compliance, and the SEC's place in the ever-evolving world of the BCS.

The most eagerly awaited press conference, however, will undoubtedly be Mike Shula's on Tuesday afternoon. After one embarrassment after another in the off-season, Bama fans may be willing to give Don Shula's fresh-faced son a mulligan if things go sour in Season One. But Franchione didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare for his successors, and like all Tide coaches, Shula will eventually be called upon to win-- or else. Can someone so young, in his first head-coaching position, withstand the pressure?

Fans at Florida, Tennessee and LSU pray that the down years their teams suffered through in 2002 were aberrations-- while Georgia fans pray that their 2002 championship season signals the onset of a Dawg Dynasty under Mark Richt.

Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson charmed the press at last year's Media Days, and came close to stealing the show with a dry wit and an almost Lou Holtz-esque array of one-liners. But with the Commodores entering 2003 riding a 17-game SEC losing streak, Johnson's wit can only carry his team so far. The former Furman coach effected a turnaround in his second year with the Division I-AA Paladins-- can he replicate the feat with the luckless Commodores?

A brand new season of SEC football dawns, and all 12 teams, even Vanderbilt, start out undefeated. Another annual 14-week war looms.

This week, in Hoover, Ala., the first shots are fired.

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SEC Media Days 2003 runs Tuesday through Friday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala. Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson meets the media Tuesday from 3:10-5:10 p.m. VandyMania.com will bring you insider reports and interviews with the Vanderbilt players and coaches attending.


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