HOOVER, Ala. — SEC Media Days are no longer just an excuse to drink your weight in Dr. Pepper, gawk at the frothing horde in The Wynfrey Hotel lobby and shake your head in disgust at a football coach from Mississippi. No, the league’s annual gabfest has become, as much as anything, a fashion show.
Glowing in the blue-purple hue of the backlighting at his table, atop a riser, seated in front of a microphone and surrounded by reporters in a ballroom earlier this month, LSU wide receiver D.J. Chark adjusted the flower on his lapel and grinned.
“My mom gave it to me for media day. It went well with the suit,” which was gray, as was his vest, worn over a light-blue, subtly patterned dress shirt and navy-and-white plaid tie that was expertly knotted. “I kept [the flower] right here, so my mom would be happy when she sees pictures of me.”
Smile, Mom, your boy did great — right down to his all-nighter the night before, watching YouTube and perfecting a Windsor knot. “I’m fairly excited about this one,” Chark said. But why all the fuss?
Because you don’t dare show up at SEC Media Days in your least-wrinkled pair of khaki pants and whichever rumpled button-down passes the sniff test. OK, so maybe reporters still do that, but for the players it has evolved into something of a style contest.
“When you’re getting on the plane and you got Derrius Guice with the [pink] jacket and Christian [LaCouture] looking like a president, you have to at least compete with them,” Chark said, pointing out that LSU’s star running back accented his cotton-candy blazer with a neon-pink bow tie and pocket square. “You don’t want to be the guy that gets off the plane and they’re like, ‘What’s he here for?’”
Nearly all of the 42 players who attended SEC Media Days 2017 — three from each of the league’s 14 teams — looked ready for a runway or red carpet. The conference added an easel with a “how to tie a bow tie” graphic in the hotel suite where players got dressed, necessitated by a recent surge in those confounding neck adornments. There were nine bow ties this year, an unofficial event record.
Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb wore one of them, but his was (gasp!) a clip-on. “Had to,” he said. “Nice and easy.” We can forgive the man chasing Herschel Walker’s career SEC rushing record for not wasting any time on such frivolous endeavors.
Tennessee offensive lineman Jashon Robertson’s orange bow tie had “been tied for like two weeks, so I’ve just been trying to keep it in place,” he admitted. A salesman at Jos. A. Bank tied it for him. “He tried to teach me, but he lost me with all the criss-crossing and all that crazy stuff.”
As he walked off the stage at SEC Media Days, Guice proudly announced he’d tied his own pink bow tie — before turning back with an addendum: “Took me about an hour, though.”
Mississippi State linebacker Dez Harris has been tying his own (non-bow) ties for years, but he needed help with the pocket square: a flourish of black silk (like his tie) with white trim, which accompanied a bright white dress shirt and striking blue suit.
“When I first found out I was coming, I started looking up new looks and I stumbled across this one,” Harris said. His mother took it from there. “She just went to work finding everything that was in the picture I sent her.”
She had the outfit shipped to him at school, except for one key piece. When Harris pulled up outside The Wynfrey for SEC Media Days, his mother met him at the door and tucked that silk square into his left front pocket, flaring it at the top just so.
“It’s fun,” Harris said, “to come out and show that you got swag, show that you know how to dress in something other than football pads.”
Sometimes it takes a village, though, to make that happen. For NFL players, it might be a stylist — or team of them — helping them dress for success. At SEC Media Days, it’s probably a university sports information director or low-level league employee like the one who swooped in this year to save Missouri wide receiver J’Mon Moore’s bow tie.
“We were going to implement a rule that if you can’t tie it, you can’t wear it,” said Kentucky SID Susan Lax.
But preseason All-SEC safety Mike Edwards had his heart set on a blue-and-gray plaid bow tie to go with his sharp navy suit and white pocket square, so UK’s other longtime SID, Tony Neely, schooled himself on YouTube and Lax took a video of a man at the suit shop demonstrating how to knot the bow tie, “and the three of us somehow got it tied on the airplane.”
That was just the beginning of their fashion adventure, however. As the whole dapper look was coming together, “I was about to tie my shoes,” Edwards said, “bent over — and I just heard spliiiiiiiiit.”
Right in the seat of his britches, he suddenly needed stitches. Luckily, a UK alum in the Birmingham area pointed the Wildcats’ contingent to a nearby alterations shop. For just $5 and in only a few minutes, Edwards was ready for his close-up, and he beamed for the cameras.
“Other than the split pants,” he said, “I think I look great.”
Nearby, Lax laughed about the mishap and smiled like the second mother that she is to many of Kentucky’s players. Coming to SEC Media Days is about a lot more than answering a few questions for these players — and the uptick in fashion is about more than playing dress-up.
“It’s a huge honor to be chosen to come here,” Lax said, “and now they know that once they’re invited to SEC Media Days they are going to get a new suit, which is very cool. We go with them and try them on and get them altered. They can pick out whatever they want — within a dollar limit — so they kind of get a taste of what it’s like when they’re in the NFL, if they get to do that, because you’re going to need tailored suits.
“And they can use these for interviews and business things they’ll go to. It’s pretty cool. They’re kind of wide-eyed going into this every year, but once this day is over, they’re like, ‘Whew, that was fun.’”
Oh, and there’s the answer to a tired, old question: How can these college kids, many from less-than-privileged backgrounds, afford such fancy clothes? Lax said schools are permitted to tap into the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund to pay for clothes deemed necessary for team activities.
If that somehow seems like an unfair perk to you, Lax would ask you to watch the way these players walk into a room filled with hundreds of reporters dressed to the nines — for perhaps the first time in their lives — heads high, shoulders back, smiles wide. Confident and proud.
“I don’t go many places where I can dress like this,” LSU’s Chark said. “I don’t want to go to the movies like this. I’d be the sore thumb in the room. But whenever I get the opportunity, I definitely love dressing up.”