I arrived at the Sheraton shortly before the first session began. I picked up media guides for all the women's teams and headed for the main media room for SEC Commissioner Mike Slive's welcoming comments.
My ears pricked up when Slive mentioned that there will be some "special events" held in connection with the women's tournament to be held in Nashville in March to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of SEC Women's Basketball. Later I asked about what those "special events" might be-- but nothing will be revealed until the official announcement in December, when general ticket sales begin.
After the Commish finished speaking, the fun began in earnest.
SEC Media Day is one big party, with both men's and women's basketball players and coaches gathered at the Birmingham Sheraton. The day is broken into four sessions, with three teams scheduled for each of the sessions. During each two-hour session, coaches and players rotate separately through two television sessions and the main media room.
The main room is a banquet room set up with twelve big round tables. That's where the majority of the press -- traditional print media, radio, and Internet publishers -- conducts interviews. The players and coaches are assigned to particular tables, and members of the media freely come and go to conduct interviews or just to chat.
Session 1 featured coaches and players from Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Alabama. In this session, the players did TV first, while the coaches were available in the main room.
Since there's a lot more media interest in men's basketball than in women's, if you're patient, you can usually find a time when coaches or players are sitting alone at their tables for a one-on-one conversation. Not so with Tennessee Head Coach Pat Summitt. Her table is the only women's table that stays as busy as one of the men's. I thought it would be more interesting to have more in-depth discussions with some of the others there, so I moseyed along.
Alabama Head Coach Rick Moody was nearby. As I joined his table, he was saying that this year Alabama has a choice of going small and pressing, or going big.
When I asked who the "bigs" would be, he said that Dee Meriwether was bigger and stronger, but freshman Tamicha Hamilton is truly big: both "large" and tall -- and quick. He said to get an idea of what he's talking about, think of Florida's Vanessa Hayden. In other words, she isn't just big... she's BIG.
I had decided beforehand to talk with as many coaches as possible about the NCAA's changes in recruiting rules that took effect this past summer. In the past, college coaches were able to talk freely with AAU coaches throughout summer evaluations, as they take their teams to exposure camps and tournaments.
Under the old system, a college coach could watch a prospect during the day, call up the coach that night to express interest and get an immediate indication of whether the interest was mutual, what kind of shape the prospect is in academically, etc., and confirm that the prospect's original travel plans for the summer are still in effect.
Under the new system, college coaches are prohibited from any contact with coaches, prospects, or families unless the prospect is actually at home. No longer are college coaches allowed to schmooze the AAU coaches, email them or send faxes while they're with their teams at certified summer tournaments.
These changes necessitated some changes in how college coaches go about recruiting during the summer. I was interested to see how the SEC coaches viewed the changes. I talked with Coach Moody first -- his view is that it's the best thing that the NCAA has done. "Things had gotten absolutely crazy," he said.
Say, for example, that you're a
coach and you go to a tournament to evaluate prospects and watch one of kids
you're interested in in a game. At the end of the game, 30 coaches might line
up waiting to talk to the AAU coach. In the meantime other games with other
prospects would start, presenting the college coach the dilemma of not getting
his dibs in with the AAU coach, or missing the chance to watch other games. The
bottom line is that it's an attempt to control the influence of AAU coaches in
the recruiting process, and he's very supportive of it.
Next I noticed Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb's table was pretty empty, so I sauntered over to chat with her for a while. More about that later.
Soon it was time to rotate. The coaches headed off for TV, and the players came to the main media room for interviews. Senior captains Hillary Hager and Jenni Benningfield were the Vanderbilt representatives, while Ashley Robinson and Tasha Butts represented the Lady Vols. Manisha Redus was the lone Alabama player present.
I stopped by to say hi to Jenni and Hillary, who were talking with Maurice Patton from the Tennessean. When Brent Wiseman of VandyMania came over to talk with them, I went over to visit with Ashley Robinson.
Most of the women's coaches bring two players. Usually the two players sit at the same table, but Tennessee's players each get a table all to themselves. I assume that the reason is to accommodate more reporters, who always congregate around Coach Summitt's table. But the players don't attract that same level of attention, so they're left to sit alone when there are no reporters visiting them.
For a few weeks, I'd been compiling a list of "20-questions" for the players. I hadn't ever done it before, so I wasn't sure how it would work or which questions would produce the most interesting responses. When I saw Ashley sitting alone at her table, I thought I'd try it; at worst, it would give her somebody to talk to.
As it turned out, she was great. She was funny, very friendly and articulate, and seemed to enjoy doing it. One of my questions was "True or false: I never read Internet message boards about women's basketball." She gave a definitive "false"-- she occasionally reads message boards, but Tasha Butts is the one who reads them all.
Also memorable was her answer to the question: "One thing people would be surprised to know about me is... ?" She said that she thought people would be surprised to know that what she wants to do is get married and have lots of babies, maybe about six. She says other people talk about what jobs they want; she just wants to get married and have a family.
I decided the "20 questions" was pretty interesting, but the Alabama player had already gone, so I drifted back to the Vanderbilt table to take more photos. Session 1 came to an end, and the Vandy coaches and players left for the airport.
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Session 2 featured Auburn, Florida, and Mississippi State. I chatted briefly with Auburn Head Coach Joe Ciampi about the changes in the summer recruiting rules (he's very much in favor of them) and with Mississippi State Head Coach Sharon Fanning.
Last year I had asked Coach Fanning about restaurants in Starkville, but by the time I went to Mississippi State last year, I'd forgotten what she'd told me. So I asked her about restaurants again; this time, I made sure I had my tape recorder running.
However, not long afterwards, I rewound the tape and listened. Nothing. Not only had I missed her comments, but a sizable portion of the earlier comments, too. I hadn't taken notes, even though I should have known better, so I guess next year I'll ask her again. Maybe we'll make it an annual tradition.
But I spent most of Session 2 chatting with the players from Auburn and from Mississippi State.
Mandisa (pronounced "Man-dee-sha") Stevenson and Natasha Brackett were the player representatives from Auburn. Mandisha's nickname is "Slim" and Natasha's is just "Brackett". Both said that the biggest reason they came to Auburn was to play in the SEC, and Mandisa wanted to be near her family.
One of my questions was "The percentage of players in the SEC with tattoos is probably about ____", which produced an outburst of laughter, as it did every time I asked it. The lowest estimate I got all day was 60%. Mandisa and Natasha thought it should be around 80-85%, though they thought it probably would vary from team to team.
They agreed that the toughest arena in the SEC is at Tennessee because of the fans, and they have 10 hours of required study hall per week. When I asked, "The secret weapon on our team this year is _____", they said "Defense!" -- which I thought was funny, because Auburn is so well-known for Coach Ciampi's defensive schemes. Mandisa said that Vanessa Hayden is the toughest player she's had to defend in the SEC, and Natasha says Auburn alum and Olympian Ruthie Bolton is the player she'd most like to be like.
Next stop: Mississippi State, where Rebecca Kates and Tan White were answering questions. They were a study in similarities and differences. When I asked the biggest reason they came to MSU, Tan said that it was close to home, and Rebecca said that because of the coaches, even though two of them have since left. And they both wanted to play in the SEC.
But when I asked what people would be surprised to know, Rebecca said, "Fans probably think we're not girly."
Tan, with her close-cropped hair and tailored shirt, broke out laughing, and said incredulously, "Get off!!"
"They do," Rebecca insisted. "They think we're not girly. But we're girly off the court." She paused for a moment, then laughed and said, "Well, some of us." (I said I needed a girly photo of her.)
She said, "I need some men on either side of me. The Florida coach over there -- he is CUTE. I'd pose with him." I threatened to drag him over, but she said she was just kidding.
But they were unanimous when I asked, "One question I hear all the time is ____"... "WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITHOUT LATOYA!!!!", an obvious reference to graduated four-time All-American LaToya Thomas. Their answer is that it takes five players to make a team, not one, and they're thinking about this year's team, who's on the court this year, not about what's happened in the past.
One of the questions was, "One thing I always forget to pack on road trips is _____." Neither could think of anything, so Rebecca suggested changing the question to "One thing I always pack for road trips is ______" and immediately answered "my cell phone." It gets packed first, always. If she forgot it, she'd phone back home and say, "I'm on a 4 day road trip, can you mail me my cell phone?"
After that I changed the question. By the end of the day I had concluded that cell phones are No. 1 on the list of essentials for traveling basketball players, with CD players not far behind and PlayStation 2 running a distant third in the day's un-scientific survey.
* * * * *
Session 3 started off the afternoon with players and coaches from Kentucky, Louisiana State, and Ole Miss. I spent the most time listening to Ole Miss Head Coach Carol Ross. For those unfamiliar with her history, she's SEC through and through. She was a guard at Ole Miss back in the 80's and still is in sixth place on the all-time steals list. She was an assistant coach at Auburn for seven years, then took over as head coach at Florida. While she was there, the Florida program made a dramatic turnaround.
In the spring of 2002, after taking the Lady Gators to the NCAA tournament nine times in ten years, she resigned, saying that she was burned out. After a year splitting time between her condo on the Florida beach and doing color commentary for TV, she came back as head coach at Ole Miss.
A reporter asked Coach Ross whether Steve Spurrier's competitive attitude had rubbed off on her at Florida. She smiled and said, no, she was pretty much born with it, but she thought of herself as a kindred spirit with Spurrier. He'd say things that people thought were crazy, but they made sense to her. And besides, he came to Florida when she did and left when she did. She joked that that's why she left-- since he left, she had to leave, too.
Then she was asked why she had returned to coaching, what had changed between the time that she left Florida and accepted the job at Ole Miss. "What changed for me," she said, "is that Ole Miss called and said, 'Please come home.'" She said that she felt a debt of responsibility to Mississippi. "I didn't have the right to sit on the beach when my alma mater needed me to rejuvenate the program," she said, and added that it was the only job that would have made her shake the sand out of her sandals.
By this time the two Ole Miss players, Tywanna Inman and Genice Terry, had taken their place in the main media room. Looking their way, Coach Ross said, "I want those seniors to experience all the good I know in women's college basketball, which means having a pulse in March." Despite the generally gloomy expectations for Ole Miss outside the program, I realized that somehow she had made a believer out of me.
I stopped briefly at LSU Head Coach Sue Gunter's table before moving on to the players. Her biggest concern is post play, since she lost three post players to graduation. "Our inside game is a mystery right now," she said. She thinks that Georgia is head and shoulders above every else at this point. Beyond that, she thinks it's the usual dogfight.
Mickie DeMoss, a long-time assistant at Tennessee, took over the reins at Kentucky last spring. She said that when the Kentucky job came along, it seemed like a good fit. She had the feeling that it's a sleeping basketball giant and that AD Mitch Barnhart's tangible commitment to the women's basketball program sold her.
What was that evidence of that commitment? First, he moved out of his suite of offices in Memorial Coliseum and moved her and her staff there, making the women's office mirror the men's. He put up enough cash so her assistants' salaries are in upper third of the SEC. He ensured a significant marketing budget, and construction of a new practice gym right next to Memorial is about to begin.
Most importantly, he OK'd a locker-room renovation this summer. Though she appreciated the office suite, the locker-room renovations were a top priority to her. Locker rooms are important selling points to recruits, DeMoss said, since they'll spend so much of their lives there.
Finally, we chatted for a while about the virtues of playing in Memorial vs. playing in Rupp Arena. She said she's still thinking about that one, weighing the pros and cons. Rupp, after all, seats 25,000, and she's concerned that a few thousand women's basketball fans would rattle around in there. In the meantime she'd rather see improvements to Memorial.
Like all of the players, Ole Miss' Genice Terry and Tywanna
Inmon were a lot of fun to talk to. When I asked about nicknames, Tywanna said
that she's "The Queen", junior Amber Watts is "The
Princess", and freshman Jada Mincy (a former teammate of Vandy's Ashley Earley at Memphis Briarcrest) is "The Duchess." Unfortunately, the
Duchess tore her ACL in the preseason and is just coming off surgery.
Tywanna said that people would probably be surprised at how sensitive she is. She cries at movies, for example, "Remember the Titans." She said, " I think all teams should watch that movie if you're having trouble or conflict in your team because it really shows you how you can come together against any adversity." Genice ("GT") agreed. It made sense.
When I asked LSU's Temeka Johnson and Doneeka Hodges about tattoos, they guessed that 85-90% of players in the SEC have them. About that time, a reporter wanted to talk to Temeka about how their NCAA loss to Texas, so Doneeka and I chatted about her tattoos.
Doneeka got her first tattoo when she was a junior in high school, a Mickey Mouse. In the summer I'd seen a Mickey Mouse on her sister Roneeka's left arm during the Pan Am training in Boston. Doneeka said they got them at the same time, only Doneeka's is on her right arm, but that she didn't have hers any more.
Had she had it removed? No, she'd covered it up with another one. What did you get, I asked? She said that her cousin had been killed in a car accident Oct. 1, just a few weeks before, and she'd gotten a heart with angel wings, and her cousin's nickname under it.
Doneeka said all of her tattoos have a special meaning for her, and told me about them one by one, all ten of them. Except for ones on her wrists, they were all covered in the long-sleeved shirts and slacks that she'd worn, so she said she'd show them to me in Baton Rouge when she's in her uniform. I found it very touching.
So I was a little taken aback when I asked, "One thing that people would be surprised to know about me is... ?". Temeka immediately said that people think she's mean because she doesn't smile a lot, but she said that the truth is that she isn't mean. While Doneeka was thinking, Temeka said, "She's not as mean as she comes off ... a lot of people think she's mean, too." They didn't seem the least bit mean to me.
* * * * *
Session 4 was supposed to feature Georgia, Arkansas, and South Carolina-- but the women's contingent from South Carolina couldn't attend due to airplane problems. As I approached Georgia Head Coach Andy Landers' table, he was telling reporters about Tina Taylor, one of his guards who had torn her ACL a few days earlier during a half-speed layup drill. He said she had been working her tail off, and they'd been thinking she'd be playing a lot of minutes this year, but now she's out for the season.
I asked him about Ebony Felder. Felder, who was a consensus top 10 prospect coming out of high school, has been hampered by injuries throughout her career. Before her freshman season, she separated both shoulders while lifting and missed the season. Since then she has had an assortment of injuries, and last year at media day, Landers described has as having "loose joints", which made her vulnerable to injury.
Landers said she's only able to participate in about 20% of the things they do in practice. He isn't expecting her to play before Christmas and isn't sure how much, if any, she'll play after that. There isn't a specific injury at this point; it's just precautionary because she's had so many injuries and surgeries that "I don't want her to get hurt again" -- and neither does she.
Like the other coaches I talked to, Landers is supportive of the changes in the recruiting rules, saying they redefine summer recruiting. The summer, he said, is supposed to be an "evaluation" period, where coaches can watch and evaluate prospects; but in the past it had become a de facto "contact" period because of the amount of contact between collegiate and AAU coaches. He'd like to see a break in the middle, but generally thinks the changes will take a lot of stress out of summer recruiting for coaches.
Arkansas Head Coach Susie Gardner, who took over from Gary Blair when he left for Texas A&M, said that as a new coach coming in, the summer restrictions posed some problems for her. As the former coach at Austin Peay, her old recruiting territory was Tennessee and a small part of Kentucky.
Now that she's in Arkansas, her prime recruiting area has changed. She knew the AAU and high school coaches around her old stomping ground, but doesn't know the coaches in Arkansas. Under the old rules, she would have been able to get acquainted with them during the summer tournament circuit, but the new rules curtailed that contact.
She also asked me if I knew that Sally Thompson, one of the active members of the Commodore Crew, had been her first grade teacher. I'd known that Sally knew her, but I hadn't realized she'd been her teacher.
While we were talking, Tennessean beat writer Maurice Patton arrived at the table and asked her to tell him about her last conversation with Andy Landers. Coach Gardner had played at Georgia back in the 80s, so they go back a long time, but they've only been opposing SEC coaches for a few months. He was teasing her about the conversation and enlisted Maurice to help out. Or maybe he was giving Maurice a tip. Or both. It was a little hard to tell.
My last conversation of the day was with Arkansas' Shameka Christon. When I arrived at her table, she was chatting with Coach Landers, who had come over to visit. For the second year in a row, Shameka was wearing one of the more striking outfits of the day.
She said that there are several tough arenas in the SEC. Vanderbilt is tough, probably because of the intensity of the rivalry between the two teams; Tennessee, because they have so many fans. But she said Ole Miss is the hardest, because Arkansas hasn't won there in the last 11 years.
Shameka came to Arkansas because there were a lot of players on the team that she'd always played against, like Dana Cherry and India Lewis, and she wanted to play with them instead of against them. And it didn't hurt that Fayetteville wasn't too far from home.
I asked her about the new coach at Arkansas. She said that she's intense and is focused on discipline. Shameka says that the new coach isn't big on setting goals. Instead, the coach's philosophy is that if you go out there and give it your all every day, you'll be fine. Everything else will fall into place. Shameka says that she likes that approach because it takes a lot of pressure off.
The thing about her that would surprise people is that she collects pens -- writing pens. She says that her friends think that if you gave her a choice between a gift certificate she could use to buy pens, or a Lexus, that she'd take the gift certificate for the pens. She can't really explain what it's all about or exactly how it got started, but when it comes to pens, she's a fanatic.
When she goes on road trips, the one thing that she can't go without, besides pens, is her cell phone. No teddy bear, no special pillow, but the cell phone goes wherever she goes. She guessed that about 70% of players in the SEC have tattoos, and thought that fans probably think that athletes have a pretty easy life, but the truth is that their schedule on a daily basis is strenuous and really hard and that you have to have great time management skills.
The room was starting to look deserted. It was time to pack up the media guides, the notebook, the tape recorders, cameras, and my new gym bag and head back to Nashville. Though that gym bag is really nifty, the best souvenir was a kaleidoscope of thoughts and images of the coaches and players that make the SEC the greatest women's basketball conference in the nation.
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Photographs by Whitney D for VandyMania.com.