One might think that, with its move from a smaller venue to The Wynfrey Hotel, the Southeastern Conference Basketball Media Day might have come up in status to the level of its famous three-day football counterpart held at the same location.
But that notion is quickly dispelled by the simple act of trying to help one’s self to a bottle of water on a big hospitality table in the lobby.
“Excuse me, sir, but that’s for the nursing home people.”
Hey, I just turned 50, but I’m not ready for the old folks home just yet.
“No, those folks,” said the lady whose sole duty appeared to be to keep those grubby sports media types away from the big table of drinks. (They must know how much we like free grub.)
Sure enough, there was a much larger gathering across the hallway of folks learning the latest trends in bedpans. They were oblivious to the fact that some of the top college basketball coaches in the country — including the winningest coach in the history of the NCAA game, Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt — were just a few feet away.
Welcome back to reality, Southern style.
Be that as it may, the annual gathering of SEC basketball coaches and players attracted a fair amount of sportswriters and TV types. It’s a more intimate affair, with journalists huddled around tables where the interview subjects sit.
There are half a dozen tables in the room, but usually only one or two are attracting much attention, nearly always the one where a big-name men’s coach is holding court. While Kentucky’s John Calipari or newly-hired Auburn coach Tony Barbee are surrounded by a gaggle of cameras, digital voice recorders and the occasional old-school skinny reporter’s notebook, another nearby table will be nearly ignored — usually with a player from a lowly-regarded womens’ team.
Little real news is made at these gatherings. The closest I found is a quick mention by Auburn women’s coach Nell Fortner that freshman center Peyton Davis, she of Mortimer Jordan fame, suffered a sprained ankle last week and was sidelined for a bit. Nothing serious, and Davis is already back at practice with few ill effects.
Fortner — who coached the United States team to an Olympic gold medal — was barely noticed during her hour-long session. I could have had an exclusive interview with her for more than half an hour if I’d wanted. Right about now, I wish I had. (So did the sports-information person hovering nearby nervously.)
That was the case with Alabama women’s coach Wendell Hudson last year, when I spect a fair amount of time keeping him company while then-new Calipari held sway nearby. Hudson told me how the Tide women’s program needed to establish better relations with high school coaches in Alabama, particularly in metro Birmingham.
His effort paid dividends, as his recruiting class this year includes former Ramsay star Kaneisha Horn and Erwin standout Khristin Lee. Jordan and Hayden fans remember Lee well from last year — not fondly, but well, as she gave both teams fits on area play.
A few other notes from Media Day:
• Vols’ men’s coach Bruce Pearl, on the heels of his sanctions by the NCAA for improper recruiting contacts and lying about them in the subsequent investigation: “It’s been therapy to get back on the court. This is my favorite time of the year. ... Pat [Summitt] has been like a big sister to me during this.”
• Calipari, who lost four staring freshmen from last year’s squad to the NBA: “Obviously, I’m in panic mode right now. I don’t have both feet on the panic button but I have one. I went back to my practice plans from a year ago to see what we had gotten in at this same time last year and it was exactly the same.”
• Barbee, on the new Auburn Arena and its effects on recruiting: “All the dynamics and the atmosphere just make it a great facility, and it has been a lot of fun. It has helped a lot with our last two recruiting classes. It really impacted our sophomore and freshmen classes. We have five freshman and four sophomores, and it really helped bring them in. Kids today want all the bells and whistles.”
• Tide men’s coach Anthony Grant: I’m not really sure what he said, because he was so soft-spoken I could barely hear him.
• A colleague of mine from Mississippi gave me a tip: “Check out JaMychal’s shoes.” Sure enough, a peek behine the table curtain revealed that Tide forward JaMychal Green was wearing a standard-issue business suit — and a pair of Skechers shoes. “Just tryin’ to make a statement,” Green said.