HOOVER, Ala. — When Nick Saban arrived for his first SEC Media Days event as coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2007, he was greeted with questions about “realistic expectations.”
Of course, he swiftly built an empire that blew past any Tide fan’s biggest daydreams, collecting four rings since that first July nine years ago.
As he spoke with media on Wednesday morning, there were no questions about his ability to bring Alabama to the mountaintop a fifth time. No one in the room doubted his ability to do so.
This session got us thinking about perception, and how quickly it changes.
So we decided to crack open the Media Days transcript library and see what kind of questions greeted current SEC coaches at their first big Q&A sessions (including those whispers of doubt when Saban stepped up to the podium).
Nick Saban, Alabama (2007)
Q. Last December you were pretty adamant you wouldn’t be Alabama’s coach. You’re here today. Can you explain why or why not integrity should be an issue for maybe recruits and their families, considering what happened the two weeks before you took the job?
Q. You talked about realistic expectations before. Since you’ve been hired, Alabama fans are talking national championship. Is it realistic for them to expect you to bring one to Alabama?
Q. Is it fair or unfair that every time you see a story on intercollegiate athletics your salary comes up, like the poster child for excess. There’s the national image that Alabama was willing to do anything to buy a national championship, so they paid a guy $4 million a year. How do you look at that?
Saban answered each one of these questions with indignation and snark (as well as with his four rings over the last nine years). His best moment was his immediate response to the latter question: “Well, I actually took a pay cut. Do you put that part in there?”
Bret Bielema, Arkansas (2013)
“Bert,” as he’s lovingly known across the SEC, got into a little tiff with new Auburn coach Gus Malzahn over the topic of hurry-up offenses, which led to this beautiful interview exchange:
Q. Coach Malzahn said he thought any notion that the hurry‑up, no‑huddle offense was dangerous, he thought that was a joke. How would you respond to that? Why specifically do you think the hurry‑up offense is dangerous for player safety?
COACH BIELEMA: He thought it was a joke? …
Q. That’s what he said.
COACH BIELEMA: I’m not a comedian. Everything I say is things I truly believe in…
Q. Coach Malzahn also said his concern is defensive players faking injuries to slow the offenses down. Do you agree with that?
COACH BIELEMA: You know what, in addition to not being a comedian, I’m not an actor…
There was also a question-and-answer tidbit that wouldn’t be out of place at this year’s event.
Q. Based on pre‑season magazines, I’m suspecting my colleagues will reflect tomorrow, you’re not going to be picked very highly in the SEC West. Your thoughts on where people think about you?
COACH BIELEMA: The lower the better. I think our kids are carrying a tremendous chip on their shoulder. The same group that’s going to vote us a certain place tomorrow is the same group that a year ago today had us in the top five. We lost some really good players.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn (2013)
Q. You’re at a school that made a coaching change two years after a national championship. How much more has the pressure gotten on coaches to win, and win now in the SEC especially?
My, how time flies. Malzahn is facing the same questions again … three years after nearly winning the national title. Auburn’s recent history of unceremoniously flushing out championship coaches (Tuberville and Chizik) means the man who was recently referred to as an offensive genius is feeling the heat in Lee County.
Get a load of these:
Q. You mentioned you want to have the fastest offense in college football. If there are any issues in the first couple games running the offense, would you consider trying to slow it down, huddle up a little bit, or only one way to go with the offense?
Q. You developed your hurry up system with high school players. There’s coaches in this league that have criticized hurry‑up offenses as being unsafe, having more injuries. Have you talked to those coaches and disputed that with them at all?
Shun the nonbelievers! Malzahn answered those questions rather quickly. There was also a fascinating pair of questions about quarterbacks three summers ago:
Q. Talking about the quarterbacks, Jeremy Johnson, you saw him in high school. What is it about him that puts him in that group of four?
Q. What would you say about Nick Marshall, what he can bring to the table?
Malzahn’s response to the latter: “He’ll have a chance. He’s unbelievably talented. He has a big‑time arm. He’s like Jeremy. How quick can he pick up the offense? What we ask our quarterback to do from the sideline, it’s tough pre‑snap as far as communication, everything we ask them to do. But we will give him and Jeremy a fair chance and we’ll see what happens.”
We could go back to last year’s session and re-live Johnson’s projected Heisman campaign and SEC writers’ prediction that Auburn would win the league, but we’re not here to re-open every Tiger wound.
Jim McElwain, Florida (2015)
Q. Just curious, how quickly do you think you can get things turned around or get this program back to that elite National Championship caliber level? Do you have a sense for what the rebuilding process is going to take yet?
Q. You talked about having time to build something at Florida. The last five coaches in this league that were fired were fired in four years or fewer. How do you turn it that quick, especially in the offense, which is in the state of Florida they expect you to have a great offense with the high school talent. How do you flip that that quick?
Similar to the Saban questions at the top of the story, these reporters had not the slightest inkling that Florida would start 10-1 and win the SEC East. McElwain’s confidence (“It’s kind of great to have the expectations”) looks impressive in hindsight.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky (2013)
Suffice it to say that reporters were not falling over each other to speak with Kentucky’s new coach three years ago. But one question about recruiting has proved Stoops to be prophetic.
Q. Historically Kentucky has had a tough time recruiting outside of its region. Do you think Kentucky can succeed staying with Kentucky recruits long‑term or do you want to expand the base beyond the state boundaries?
He promised to recruit Ohio (his home state) hard, as well as mine the south for talent. And he came through; His 2014 recruiting class featured two 4-star prospects from Ohio (Thaddeus Snodgrass and Darius West) and another out-of-state 4-star pairing (Boom Williams from Georgia and Denzil Ware from Florida).
On the field, it’s been a different story, as Stoops has yet to reach a bowl game during his Lexington tenure. “We have so much work to do,” he said in 2013. But he’ll likely be out of a job if he doesn’t hit the six-win mark this autumn.
Les Miles, LSU (2005)
Ready for a throwback?
Q. So much focus on the quarterback. Is it Russell’s job initially or how do you see the three guys in particular?
Miles was deciding between JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux in the summer of 2005. All three eventually won big games for Miles, with each having vastly different collegiate and professional outcomes. He was also asked about his new coordinators: Jimbo Fisher and Bo Pelini.
Later, Miles touched on the gigantic expectations in Baton Rouge; the ones that almost cost him his job last season.
Q. Can you pinpoint a specific moment where you realized just how great the expectations were coming into this program?
LES MILES: Not really. It’s so common place. I think I spoke on Wednesday night and I got in the car as they took me to the opportunity to speak and guy talked about nine wins and then at the podium somebody mentioned 10 or 11, then a guy said, well, you know, 12 victories is probably just what we’d like, coach. I said, well, you know, frankly there’s one left.
And although “you know who” was out coaching in the NFL, he still got plenty of mentions at SEC Media Days.
Q. How well did you know Nick Saban before you got in job? How well do you know him now? You guys talked about the fan base and the expectation that’s come along with this?
LES MILES: I did not know Nick Saban before I took the job. I knew of him. I only know that the job that he’s done here has been really a strong one. It’s one that I really respect. I know that he is very loyal to LSU and would do anything that he can do to help us. I visit with him on just a couple of occasions and he has been very, very serving of LSU in those conversations.
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss (2012)
Q. When you talk about the program being in wilderness right now, are you concerned that your players hear that and maybe expect not to win?
This is where Ole Miss stood four years ago, in the shadow of a previous regime that handicapped the Rebels both on and off the field. Before Freeze arrived, fans in Oxford had not seen a 10-win team in nine years, and the media was hesitant to believe in ‘The Blind Side’ coach.
Q. Are you going to start off camp with co‑number ones at quarterback?
Freeze’s options? Barry Brunetti and Bo Wallace. He went with the latter, and Wallace — who threw for nearly 10,000 career yards after winning the competition — helped deliver Ole Miss’ first victory over Alabama since Eli Manning was on campus.
Q. Another four years added onto the Memphis series. Did you have any input in that? Are you happy about that? There seems to be a perception that playing Memphis is almost necessary for recruiting despite the condition of their program. What specifically about playing Memphis is so beneficial for Ole Miss’ recruiting?
COACH FREEZE: I think number one, you said it, recruiting in that town. I’ve made no bones about it. We consider that town to be in state for us. We have great relationships with the high school coaches, alumni and friends there. It’s very important that we recruit well there.
It’s nice to be able to hit important recruiting regions, but it’s also important not to overlook the potential of a program in said recruiting hotbed.
Memphis turned the tables on Ole Miss last season, whipping the Rebels and ending Mississippi’s College Football Playoff hopes in mid-October.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State (2009)
Twitter was still on the fringes of international takeover seven years ago, but Mullen was already onboard. He made sure to let the SEC know his tech savvy was unmatched during his opening monologue.
COACH MULLEN: I’m only going to Twitter today, since that’s the new way to do things. ‘I am on stage.’ I’m tech savvy right here. I’m only going to answer questions through Twitter or Facebook, so I can be the cutting-edge young coach up here (laughter).
Mississippi State was in need of some media attention, as evidenced by the following question.
Q. You’ve been part of a staff that the won two BCS championships now in the last three years. How do you respond when people say, That can never happen in Starkville, Mississippi? How do you answer that question?
Mullen gave an unspecific response (“Our goal is always going to be to find a way to start the season [asking] how do we get to Atlanta?”) but allowed his team to speak for itself in 2013, when the Bulldogs earned the No. 1 national ranking and proved that MSU can be a national power when the stars align.
A year earlier, Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida, where he coached two-time national champion Tim Tebow.
Q. In your dealings with Tim Tebow, did you find any weaknesses in his game? Can you kind of give us some of the dirt on him off the field, things that maybe were annoying to you?
COACH MULLEN: Annoying? Boy, you know, he can be a little stubborn in his beliefs sometimes. He has very strong beliefs in his faith, if you don’t know that one. You know, weaknesses in his game? I don’t know. I wouldn’t consider anything a weakness in Tim’s game. I will give this to him as one of his strengths, in having weaknesses. If you identify a weakness or something that he’s not doing well, he wants to work as hard as he can to correct it.
As Denver Broncos fans are painfully aware, their former first-round draft pick was unable to correct a lot of his on-field problems at the professional level.
Butch Jones, Tennessee (2013)
Q. I know you take it one game at a time. Have you had any of your fans come up to you and say, ‘We’ve lost eight in a row to Florida, can you beat the Gators?’ Have you heard any of that?
COACH JONES: Hear it all the time (smiling). Obviously being at Tennessee, we have a lot of rivalry games. I’ve heard that about Florida, obviously. I’ve heard that about Alabama. In order for us to make those rivalry games, we have to get back to being relevant and winning those football games.
Not much has changed here. Jones has lost his first three games against the Gators, and might need to beat Florida to keep his job. Tennessee hasn’t had any luck against Alabama, either, so according to Jones’ logic, these still aren’t “rivalry games.”
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M (2012)
Q. I’d like to get your thoughts on starting a season like you are fresh at a new college, but with a quarterback situation that you’re going into the year with.
COACH SUMLIN: I will say this: You got to start somewhere. All those guys that become veteran quarterbacks, they had to figure out a place to get started. So we’ll work through that.
Enter Johnny Football. Texas A&M became one of the country’s premier programs that autumn, thanks in part to a Manziel-engineered upset of Alabama and the Aggies’ second-ever Heisman Trophy. Absolutely no one at SEC Media Days saw it coming, with “Johnny Manziel” not getting a single mention in the official transcript.
To Sumlin’s credit, he saw bright days ahead:
Q. Even in the midst of you playing against Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, this is your first year in the SEC. What are your realistic expectations this year?
COACH SUMLIN: What are my realistic expectations this year? My realistic expectations are to win. I said that from day one. Everybody talks to me and acts like I didn’t know what I was getting into when I took the job. We had already entered into the SEC under the agreement when I took the job.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt (2014)
The SEC’s perennial doormat was coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, but everyone knew the Commodores were headed for a downswing when James Franklin skipped town.
Mason inherited an iffy roster and a rough recruiting situation, but made a bold claim to begin his Media Days career:
COACH MASON: I think our opportunity to compete for an SEC East title is now. We want to make sure that we work extremely hard day in and day out to be men of character, men of integrity. We’re going to play extremely hard.
Q. You mentioned the time to win for Vandy in the SEC is now. When you decided to take the job, how did you look at the East and how do you look at it now as you’ve gotten into the job a little bit?
COACH MASON: You know, it’s deep, to say the least. Great coaches, talented teams. You know, your perception on the outside, you only know where you’re at. So really that’s all you have to go off of. Being in the midst of the SEC now, this is football country. Every program, every coach has a chance to be successful.
Mason, the former defensive coordinator at Stanford, has built an elite defense in Nashville, but the offense is light years behind. The Commodores likely will need to make a bowl game if Mason is going to stick around for another round of interviews next July.
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