HOOVER, Ala. — Gus Malzahn is speaking at the main podium in the Wynfrey Hotel ballroom at the 2017 SEC Media Days.
The head coach introduces Auburn’s three player representatives who will be interviewed shortly. Malzahn then explains how excited he is for the 2017 season before answering questions asked by journalists from across the country.
Off to the side, another intriguing scene unfolds — one just outside of the frame those watching at home are missing.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who just introduced Malzahn, is sitting next to Auburn’s sports information director Kirk Sampson. The two whisper for a few minutes, smiling. And it doesn’t look like they’re talking about Malzahn’s time at the microphone.
“U2,” Sankey laughs. “That’s what we were talking about over there.”
Both Sampson and Sankey are avid fans of Bono and crew, having been to several shows in recent years. Whenever they see each other they compare notes.
Of course, Sampson and his Auburn band of staffers is no rookie to SEC Media Days. Last week’s event was his 19th trip to Hoover, Ala. When you’re that type of veteran and everything is running smoothly, you recognize a minute to delve into a musical icon.
“The role of the various sports information directors and their staffs are so important,” Sankey said. “There is just so much that goes on here. It would be impossible to do all of this without them.”
For Malzahn and Auburn seniors Tray Matthews, Braden Smith and Daniel Carslon, Thursday in Hoover was long. For Sampson, it’s the culmination of weeks of work.
The role of media members who cover college sports has changed in recent years. Likewise, the media outlets have multiplied, which has meant growth for sports information staffs. The days of sending a small group consisting of a head coach, players, an SID and a photographer are long gone.
Sampson and his staff are in charge of all logistics once the football staff decides who will represent the program at SEC Media Days. That includes who’s going to media days, travel, roles of each staff member, scheduling, and more. The SIDs even help players pick out what suits they’ll wear if someone needs guidance. (Sampson admits Auburn’s players have the fashion under control most of the time).
Perhaps the most important part of Sampson’s job is preparing student-athletes. Players are briefed on travel, what their day will look like and the visual layout of Media Days. And then of course, Sampson and staff help prep Auburn’s reps for whatever questions they might be asked.
“All these players, it’s just like when they come in as a freshman athletes,” Sampson said. “You hope they get better every year and typically they all improve when it comes to media, too. Practice makes perfect, and the more repetitions you get standing in front of a member of the media or a microphone, the better you’re going to get at it.”
Braden Smith was eager to impress and ended up as a media star for the Tigers in Hoover. But he admittedly hasn’t always been that keen on media appearances. Sampson has been a big part of his evolution.
“Definitely, we had a little session that probably lasted about an hour just kind of going over some questions we might have,” Smith said. “They’ve done a really good job in preparing us for whatever might come our way basically.”
While some might wonder how much players are coached on what to say and topics to avoid, Sampson encourages players to “be who they are” and enjoy the experience.
Auburn’s trio of Smith, Daniel Carlson and Tray Matthews were among 42 out of nearly 1,400 football players representing the 14 SEC teams at media days.
“You’re in pretty elite company,” Sampson says. “So it’s a great opportunity.”
It’s also a tremendous experience for those who might want to take another career path, too. Sampson said he can think of at least one Auburn player who was so impressive during his time in Hoover he eventually landed a job in broadcasting.
But things don’t always go according to plan. Mishaps arise, such as in in 2010, when former linebacker Josh Bynes left his dress shoes in another bag by mistake.
“That was pretty comical,” Sampson recalled. “He got a lot of attention for his wardrobe — minus the shoes.”
Sampson fondly remembers former tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who represented Auburn at SEC Media Days in two consecutive years. One year, Lutzenkirchen — who was killed in a car accident in June 2014 — was interviewed by a kid reporter. Then he turned around to interview the young boy.
“They had a lot of fun with it,” Sampson recalls.
If Sampson is lucky his future trips to SEC Media Days will go exactly according to plan, much like his most recent one did. Many media and SEC staff members voiced a belief Malzahn had his best appearance yet. Auburn was picked to finish second in the SEC behind Alabama.
Yet the critical cog in the football wheel, and the rest of his staff probably won’t ever get deserved recognition, but that’s the way they like it.
“Media Days is always a good experience,” Sampson said. “In my time we’ve had a lot of great kids participate and had a lot of fun.”