College football is back.
Don’t take our word for it. All you have to do is turn on the TV for wall-to-wall coverage on the SEC Network and standups on ESPN. Or just look up – way up – to the side of the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel, where a sign beams this message six stories high: “It Just Means More.”
Unofficially, 2021 SEC Kickoff Presented by Regions Bank is the start to the upcoming college football season.
“This is the event that starts the energy to get ready for college football season,” said Tony Barnhart, a veteran sportswriter dubbed Mr. SEC. “I’ve been to a bunch of them in other conferences, but this is the one that generates everything.”
The media days event brings the 14 SEC football coaches, 28 players and hundreds of media to Hoover, Alabama, each July. It’s the first national look into the upcoming season, coming just a few weeks before preseason camps open. Hoover, the Birmingham suburb, has been home to the event for 23 of the last 33 years. But this annual confab goes back even further, to 1985, the year that ended with Auburn’s Bo Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy.
“Because college football is so important to the Southeast, this is the kickoff to the season,” said John Adams, columnist for KnoxNews.com. “Frankly, it belongs in Birmingham. The SEC office is here and you’re just 50 minutes from the campus of what has become the epicenter of the college football world (the University of Alabama).”
It’s a time to fill notebooks with quotes and anecdotes and a chance to fill airtime with quips and insight. And this year, there’s breaking national news to boot.
The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas and Oklahoma have made overtures to join the SEC. It’s a credible report – instantly buoyed by the lack of denials – that would send shockwaves across the nation by turning arguably the best college football league into a super conference.
The SEC has expanded twice in recent memory, from 10 to 12 teams in 1992, and from 12 to 14 in 2012. But one fixture during the growth has been the SEC’s ties with Regions Bank.
“Regions’ relationship with the Southeastern Conference goes back more than 25 years and it remains one of our most visible partnerships,” said Paul Hodges, head of Geography and Experiential Marketing for Regions Bank. “It’s a natural fit – Regions and the SEC share the same headquarter city, as well as culture and geography. And when it comes to college athletics, the SEC remains among the national leaders.”
What began as a chance for newspaper reporters to provide never-ending copy in the leadoff to the season has become a TV platform for ESPN and the SEC Network. Personalities from Paul Finebaum to Laura Rutledge, Gene Chizik, Peter Burns, Roman Harper and Greg McElroy provide live commentary throughout the day, broadcasting from a stage in the back of the main media room.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions that cancelled the event a year ago, the number of media attending SEC Kickoff is still limited. Instead of getting one-on-one interviews, players from the 14 schools do a question-and-answer session from the main stage. But there are exceptions.
Lined along the first floor of the Wynfrey are dozens of radio stations from Florida to Texas to Arkansas doing their daily shows, and getting quick interviews with players, coaches and newsmakers who visit “radio row.” In a nearby retail space, the three hosts of what used to be The Roundtable on WJOX, Birmingham’s popular sports talk radio station, produce podcasts for their new digital adventure, The Next Round.
The Next Round’s hosts – Jim Dunaway, Lance Taylor and Ryan Brown – have attended a combined 71 SEC Kickoff media days.
“I like it because of the camaraderie,” Dunaway said. “You see everyone who covers the SEC every year, maybe for the only time, and get a feel for what to expect in the season ahead.”
One drawback of the pandemic-forced SEC Kickoff media days restrictions, however, is the lack of fans. In normal years, they line the Wynfrey lobby in search of autographs and photos from the coaches and players of their favorite teams. Getting back to that is something Brown would like to see in years to come.
“It became a fan event years back, almost by accident,” Brown said. “Because fans are so passionate about the SEC, it turned into a must-see event – they need to find a way to recapture that.”
That’s exactly the plan for 2022, when the event moves to Nashville for a year. But for those who regularly attend, they hope the league doesn’t lose sight of its intended purpose.
“The beautiful thing about SEC Kickoff is that it’s a one-stop event to meet coaches, players and even friends,” said Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “It’s a much-anticipated event. The only drawback is it’s a long drive, at least for us, to get here.”