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SEC media days: The most eventful ‘nonevent’ in captivity

Football media days/daze staged annually by the Southeastern Conference compare to the frenzy of Super Bowl week, with a notable exception:

Super Bowl week ends with a game.

“This has got to be the largest credentialed media contingent for a nonevent,” said Tony Barnhart, veteran multimedia sage of Southern football.

The SEC credentialed 1,050 people for last week’s gridiron fest at the Wynfrey Hotel.

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They take their “nonevent” football seriously down here.

For three days, Wednesday through Friday, starting with Arkansas and ending with Louisiana State, fanatics of all shapes and allegiances jammed the lobby for the chance to glimpse their heroes.

Think of a “Star Trek” convention combined with a rodeo.

Upstairs, writers staked out stories as cameramen and beauty-contestant broadcasters tripped over each other’s re-takes.

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Friday, Alabama fans, cordoned off by a barrier, actually booed a Birmingham sports writer as he descended the escalator.

Twenty-nine outlets set up shop, for 72 hours, in a first-floor corridor called “Radio Row,” to dispense vital and not-so-vital SEC football information.

Rarely have so many gathered, in one place, for so little in actual news value.

For SEC fans, media days are a sign the season is just around the very long corner.

“43 days until Football! Roll Tide!” boasted a sign in “Bama Fever,” an apparels shop adjacent to the hotel.

For journalists, the SEC interview adventure is as much a cultural happening as it is informational.

It was here, two years ago, that Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was asked if he was still a virgin.

“Yes, I am,” he said.

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Former Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer once refused to cross the border to attend for fear of being served a subpoena in a legal case involving the NCAA and an Alabama booster.

“I am not attending because of the legal circus that’s been created,” Fulmer said.

Fulmer did show up in 2008 . . . and was served a subpoena.

Amid bright lights and the rat-a-tat of camera clicks, SEC coaches enter the Wynfrey like singers enter the Grammys.

“It doesn’t matter who the coach at Alabama is,” Barnhart said. “He’s a rock star.”

Current Coach Nick Saban, in that context, is Elvis.

“You could sell 20,000 tickets to this if you wanted,” said Chadd Scott, an Auburn graduate who now works for an Atlanta-based sports website. “Just to listen to a bunch of coaches talk.”

The days in the life of the SEC:

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Wednesday

Check-in: Reporters are directed to a first-floor credential-pickup room. Each “media” member receives his own personal box of SEC media guides. A lot of schools, as a cost-saving measure, don’t print media guides any more. They still do here.

The media brunch includes (yum) oysters on the half shell.

Upstairs, Charles Bloom, the SEC’s associate commissioner, braces for the onslaught.

“I’m nervous,” Bloom says. “But in my 17 years of this event, no one’s been hurt yet.”

The schedule-of-events sheet, eight pages thick, looks like a military invasion plan. It includes interview instructions, corresponding coordinates and a map of the hotel.

Players and coaches are whisked from one room to another.

Wednesday’s teams: Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi State.

The day starts with Commissioner Mike Slive’s state-of-the-union speech.

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, Slive quips, “Rumors of my resignation are greatly exaggerated.”

South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier, in his stump speech, takes a dig at an opposing coach.

“I saw Dan Mullen,” Spurrier says. “Mississippi State has a jet airplane out there. We pulled our little King Air up next to it. They’ve got a lot of money at Mississippi State. Everybody’s got a lot of money, I guess.”

Mullen, when his turn comes, shoots back.

“But I’ve never played Augusta National, so I can’t be on his level,” Mullen says. “He’s probably a member there; we just don’t know.”

Thursday

Teams: Kentucky, Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee.

Upstairs: A producer for Georgia’s “Dawg Post” nearly tackles a cameraman who almost walked directly into a live spot.

Downstairs: A fan spots Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley at the bottom of the escalator. “There’s Dooley! There’s Dooley!”

Tim Couch, former Kentucky quarterback, now a Fox analyst, passes by.

“He didn’t make it in the pros too good,” one fan quips to another.

Bill Hancock, executive director of the controversial Bowl Championship Series, has already done 14 radio shows to spread his gospel of why college football doesn’t need a playoff.

“They can find out you’re a real human being,” he said.

Hancock, surprisingly, is not wearing a mask.

The big news, though, is Auburn Coach Gene Chizik’s grand entrance. Auburn is defending national champion but can’t shake an ongoing NCAA investigation involving former quarterback Cam Newton.

Chizik, somewhat joylessly, says the investigation “hasn’t taken the joy out of anything.”

A potential bombshell had dropped when Danny Sheridan, the longtime oddsmaker, said sources had told him a third-party “bagman” had helped recruit Newton to Auburn.

Sheridan made the claims on Paul Finebaum’s popular radio show, being broadcast live one floor below on “Radio Row.”

Chizik bristles. “The NCAA on more than one occasion has said that Auburn has done nothing wrong.”

Thirteen cameras follow Chizik 30 feet from Wynfrey D Ballroom to his next interview in Riverchase B.

Reporters Dennis Dodd (CBS Sports) and Matt Hayes (Sporting News) corner Sheridan in a corner on the second floor.

Sheridan says he regrets using the term “bagman” and, after some more pressing, establishes the odds of the NCAA coming down on Auburn.

“50-50,” he says.

Friday

Teams: Alabama, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, LSU.

At 7:30, the lobby begins churning with Alabama fans. The zealot attracting the most attention is Eric Blackerby, 28, wearing a shirt emblazoned with “I HATE AUBURN.”

Saban has entered the hotel through a separate door and is meeting privately upstairs with selected reporters.

Dressed nattily in a suit, Saban talks about the upcoming season as he simultaneously signs footballs fed to him, continuously, by three assistants.

“How was your summer?” he is asked.

“It ended,” Saban says. “Abruptly.”

Saban’s team, which won the national title two years ago, will be one of the favorites this year. Everything, though, has been tempered by the deadly tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa in late April.

Saban moves to the main interview room, where he is asked to comment about the “I HATE AUBURN” fan.

“That is not really the way that we should respect the opponents we have,” Saban says. “But, you know, this kind of behavior sort of develops more of that kind of behavior.”

Downstairs, Blackerby is told his shirt was discussed in the news conference. He seems thrilled.

Alabama fans fear standing close to Blackerby might hurt their autograph chances.

Blackerby put “I HATE AUBURN” away after the tornado, but figured enough time had passed to reignite the rivalry.

“For a long time I couldn’t wear the shirt,” he says. “I didn’t want to be negative.”

The SEC flying circus wraps with LSU Coach Les Miles explaining why he can’t talk about an ongoing NCAA investigation involving Willie Lyles, the same scouting-service provider allegedly involved with Oregon.

“All I can tell you is we’re going to cooperate fully,” Miles says.

Chalk it up as just another day in the SEC.

Actually, it was three days.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/dufresnelatimes


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