HOOVER – It may feel like there has never been SEC Media Days without Bob Holt.
Holt, from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a veteran of SEC Media Days by any measure. He’s attended the event more than 20 times, dating back to the early 1990s.
“There were a lot of people, but it wasn’t like this,” Holt said.
But Holt is not the longest-tenured writer in Hoover. Arkansas only joined the league in 1991. SEC Media Days have been an annual event in Birmingham since 1985. Only a handful of media members have attended all 33 editions of SEC Media Days.
“I’ve seen this thing move. I’ve seen it change,” said Ron Higgins of The Times Picayune in New Orleans. “I’ve seen it get bigger. I’ve seen sports writers realizing they were on TV, trying to dress better.”
Higgins was working for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis when he arrived in Birmingham in July of 1985 for the first SEC Media Day. It was just one day then, while it’s now four days. He’s gone from Memphis to Mobile, then back to Memphis before moving to New Orleans.
SEC Media Days has moved, too. It started at the Holiday Inn Medical Center, then spent two years at the Birmingham Hilton. It was at the Wynfrey from 1988-91, then at the Birmingham Sheraton from 1992-2000. It’s been at the Wynfrey every year since then. There’s no going back to 1985.
“Ten coaches, one ballroom, 10 round tables,” Higgins said. “You could go table-to-table, sit down and have a conversation with the coach. There wasn’t a microphone. There wasn’t a TV camera in your face. You didn’t have to announce who you were.”
It was much more informal then. Coaches would often linger in the hospitality room after the event ended or go out to dinner with writers and share a drink. There were about 60 writers at SEC Media Day in 1985. More than 1,000 attend now.
“Most of the people who were there (in 1985) are not with us anymore,” said Kirk McNair. He’s attended SEC Media Days every year as owner and publisher of Bama Mag.
Jimmy Hyams began his perfect record of working at every SEC Media Day event when he was with the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate. He now hosts a radio show on WNML in Knoxville. Charles Hollis has been at the event every year with The Birmingham News.
Phillip Marshall participated in the SEC Skywriters tour in the 1980s, which preceded SEC Media Days. The Skywriters, a group of about 40 journalists, flew from town to town during the summer to meet with the league coaches. That eventually dissolved in favor of the centrally located media days.
“The best part of the Skywriters was that the coaches would come and spend a lot of time at every stop,” Marshall said. “Not just question and answer, but sitting around and having a drink, talking and telling stories. That kind of went away with this.”
Others have attended nearly every edition of the event. The Tuscaloosa News’ own Cecil Hurt has missed it once, while on sabbatical in 1993. John Adams, now a columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel, was working elsewhere in 1985 and missed in 2013 with surgery. Tony Barnhart did not attend the first two editions of SEC Media Days. WVUA’s Gary Harris was one of a handful of TV broadcasters at the inception in 1985 but missed one later on.
There were no live radio broadcasts there in 1985. Media members who were there also didn’t recall any female reporters present.
“Now it’s not even something you think about, which is the way it should be,” Marshall said.
There was less scrutiny on the event in its early days. Relationships between coaches and the media were more informal. Stories that would dominate the news cycle now were washed away then.
“I remember one year, Bill Curry was coaching at Kentucky,” Hyams said. “They weren’t any good when he got there. He predicted Kentucky would win the SEC and go undefeated. I think they went 2-10 that year.”
Another year, Hyams had written a story about Florida coach Steve Spurrier losing two out of three rounds of golf to track coach Doug Brown. Spurrier found Hyams in Hoover and confronted him.
“I’m going up the escalator and he’s going down,” Hyams said, “and he yells ‘Hey! What was that bull you wrote about golf? That was best three out of five, not two out of three!'”
Spurrier was a constant foil at SEC Media Days until his retirement. He was head coach at Florida and South Carolina for a combined 23 appearances at SEC Media Days. Nick Saban’s 17 appearances are the second most. Hollis wrote earlier in his career that he expected Spurrier to jump from Florida to the NFL. The old ball coach took umbrage to that opinion and let him know during a golf tournament at SEC Media Days one year.
“My foursome was behind his foursome, and he was a heckler,” Hollis said. “He heckled me on every hole, and I’m not a very good golfer anyway. He ended up sending a letter to my editor, and we still have it. I always thought ‘One day, he’ll do something big and I’ll have this postcard where he called me pond scum and wanted the editor to fire me.'”
Coaches would banter back and forth at the early edition of SEC Media Days, something that would never happen now with personalities like Auburn’s Gus Malzahn or Tennessee’s Butch Jones. McNair said Georgia’s Vince Dooley once stopped by Auburn coach Pat Dye’s table, raised his hand and asked a question of the Auburn coach.
Sometime in the late 1980s, Higgins remembered reporters and players at a bar in Hoover at a Hawaiian Tropic bikini contest after the media events ended.
“Derrick Thomas from Alabama was there, and one of his friends said ‘Derrick, look at that one. She’s got everything!'” Higgins said. “Derrick Thomas said ‘No, man. Bad teeth.'”
The friendly atmosphere lingered well past the early days. While coaching at LSU, Saban brought his dog to Hoover one year. The dog left the hotel room, rode the elevator downstairs and found Saban speaking to the media. There was also the year Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer called in to SEC Media Days to avoid being subpoenaed in the state.
Those were the days before Tim Tebow was asked if he was a virgin. That was before the SEC Network, which now broadcasts live from the event for four straight days.
“In those early days, pretty much every coach would go down his depth chart and then take questions,” McNair said. “That’s what I remember, they’d go down the depth chart and then take questions. Nothing like the guardedness of coaches today. Saban doesn’t have a depth chart.”
SEC Media Days has grown to have a reputation as a circus. But all five veterans said they still enjoy the event. It’s still a chance to talk football, and still a chance to catch up with friends from around the league.
That’s what it was when it began in 1985. Now it’s become something more.
“I don’t know where this ends,” Higgins said, “unless you have a blimp fly overhead that says ‘It just means more.”