HOOVER, Ala. – The circus has left town, so it’s time to look back at our favorite acts, most memorable moments and biggest takeaways from SEC Media Days 2016, where you weren’t cool unless you screamed at Paul Finebaum at least once.
Pawwwwl stirred the pot. After whiffing on a chance to challenge Dan Mullen to his face – oh, don’t worry, we took care of that – ESPN and SEC Network’s most provocative talking head did not miss another opportunity to sharply criticize controversial coaches the rest of the week.
He went after Alabama’s Nick Saban for his light touch with two players arrested (but not prosecuted) on weapons charges. He tangled with Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze over his NCAA-investigation mess. Both led to off-air confrontations captured in grainy photos and videos that turned us all into the high school kid gleefully yelping, “Fight!” in the cafeteria.
Here’s hoping Bret Bielema is too big to fail. With Steve Spurrier gone, Arkansas’ coach is the mouth this conference needs. He’s not shy about taking hilarious shots – at himself or his rivals – and seems totally comfortable in his considerable skin.
A large man, Bielema brought tiny dogs (Yorkies) with him to Hoover and said of his program: “We’re not built very sexy. We need a lot of time in the bathroom to get ready.” Reporters swooned. We need this guy, who is trying to build something in the brutal SEC West, to win at least enough to hang around.
Les Miles really didn’t want to talk about it. Channeling Chris Farley: Hey, Les, ‘member that time you were gonna get fired and then at halftime of the last game they changed their minds? That was a hoax, right? LSU’s coach knew those questions were coming, it seemed, and did his damnedest not to have to answer them – or any others.
In an epic, 21-minute opening statement, Miles tackled social issues, broke down his roster in excruciating detail and shared that he broke two toes in his right foot while catching fast-pitch softball tosses from his daughter while wearing flip-flops.
“I went to Cuba,” he added, “and Cuba is a communist country, and that was kind of the reason I went.”
Like Bielema, the SEC needs this man at the microphone. But that question he didn’t want to answer still looms.
Sexual assault is no joke in the SEC. After Baylor’s scandal blew up more than just the football program and, inside this league, recent cases rocked Vanderbilt and Tennessee, it seems sexual assault is finally being considered a serious problem in college athletics. SEC players and coaches talked extensively this week about an increased focus on educating players.
Georgia’s Kirby Smart said he schedules quarterly speakers to “make sure our players understand and are aware of the severity of what’s going on, not only in college football, but in the NFL and all over the United States. It’s become a societal issue. It’s very concerning.”
That’s a great first step. Now, coaches, back up the talk with toughness in dealing with anyone who mistreats women. Speaking of which …
Dan Mullen blew it. There was not a bigger loser at SEC Media Days than Mississippi State’s coach, who inexplicably showed up unprepared to talk intelligently about the one-game suspension for 5-star freshman Jeffery Simmons, who was caught on video repeatedly punching a woman in the face.
We asked: What if that was your wife or daughter? And he actually said: “I don’t know that my family would be in that situation, to be honest with you.”
Pathetic. If Simmons harms a woman on MSU’s campus, Mullen should be fired. Speaking of which …
Ah, yes, the hot seat. Five coaches in Hoover got questions about their long-term security and the need for a big season to bolster that: Miles, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn from the West; Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason in the East.
Stoops addressed it best: “We’re tired of being close.” Mason wore it best, with a custom-lined, Vandy-themed suit jacket. Miles deflected it best with that thousands-of-words preamble. Sumlin and Malzahn lulled us to sleep best, by saying almost nothing at all of note.
All the best to that whole group, though, as they fight for their jobs this fall.
Embracing the other side. Butch Jones finally has built back Tennessee – per a source close to the program, it was done brick by brick – to national relevance. His Volunteers were the runaway pick among SEC media to win the East for the first time since 2007, and Jones isn’t shying away from that.
“You want those expectations,” he said. “I think it’s a compliment to everyone in our program of how far we’ve come.”
And yet, the man can’t even get an air-conditioned bus ride to media days. Sumlin hijacked the last ride with AC, apparently.
“It was about 100, 110 degrees on the ride over,” Jones said. “That’s a reality check.”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.