At roughly the same time that President Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, faced reporters in Finland, a different sort of news conference was beginning here.
The head of the Southeastern Conference stepped into an expansive room carpeted with artificial turf and looked across wave upon wave of sportswriters in attendance.
Though Commissioner Greg Sankey had come to talk college football on a Monday morning, he started things off by referring to the distant international summit, noting that “we have more people here than at the press conference in Helsinki right now.”
If it seems presumptuous to compare sports to geopolitics, then you don’t know much about football in the South.
The SEC has won nine of the last 12 national championships and should be in the running again this fall with Alabama and Georgia hovering near the top of the early predictions.
The conference’s summer media preview has grown to outlandish proportions, overtaking the College Football Hall of Fame this week, drawing more than 1,000 reporters and photographers for four days of largely predictable questions and answers.
The sheer size and scope of the gathering suggests that nothing succeeds like excess. Or, as an SEC promotional video put it, “sometimes we go a little bit over the top.”
So it made sense when Sankey took advantage of the opening session to do a little boasting, speaking from the hall’s converted indoor field with all that turf, a huge videoboard overhead and goalposts at the far end of the room.
The commissioner touted the SEC Network and the continuing benefits of a multibillion dollar deal with ESPN. That money contributed in a big way to almost $597 million in total revenue for the 2016-17 fiscal year, the league distributing $40.9 million to each of its schools.
Bolstering the conference motto — “It Just Means More” — member schools ranked first in football attendance last fall, drawing 75,074 per game. By comparison, the Big Ten averaged 66,227 and the Pac-12 just 49,601.
Alabama’s Nick Saban was far-and-away the nation’s highest-paid coach at $11.1 million in 2017, according to USA Today. Texas A&M hired Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State in early December by offering him a 10-year deal at $75 million.
Just as important, SEC teams have spent lavishly on building their staffs.
Seven of the 10 highest-paid assistants work at its schools. Louisiana State paid defensive coordinator Dave Aranda $1.8 million last year and had former offensive coordinator Matt Canada under contract for $1.5 million annually.
LSU has also joined the trend — pioneered by Alabama — of hiring outside consultants that do not count against the NCAA limit on staff size.
“We have 10 analysts this year as opposed to five,” coach Ed Orgeron said Monday. “We’re giving our coaches more information, our players more information, earlier in the week.”
Critics — and there are plenty, because this is a conference people in other parts of the country love to hate — have complained about the way the SEC handles its football schedule.
On Monday, Sankey acknowledged the issue “generates a bit of a debate and fills plenty of air time and column space.”
While the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 force their teams to slog through a nine-game league schedule, the SEC has stuck doggedly to an eight-game model. Sankey said there are no plans to change in the foreseeable future.
“Let’s just take a look at what’s happened around our football,” he said.
Teams like Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma might put a dent in that run this fall, but there was no lack of swagger here this week.
Most conferences have only one media day; the SEC needs four times as many, filling up a major hotel, its meeting rooms and much of the adjacent Hall of Fame.
The SEC Network offered wall-to-wall coverage on Sunday while, in a park across the street, there was a carnival for fans.
Returning to this whirlwind after a decade away, Fisher took the proceedings in stride, walking on stage with a smile as the first coach to face the media.
“Howdy,” he said, adding: “If y’all don’t know, you’re supposed to say ‘Howdy’ back. That’s an A&M thing.”
That was about as interesting as it got on a day filled with platitudes and players insisting they were ready to “step up” and “be on the same page.”
With heavyweights such as Alabama, Georgia and Auburn scheduled for later in the week, there was still a chance for something noteworthy, if not quite as explosive as the comments by Trump that ignited a national debate.
As Sankey said: “We’ll see if we can make some news.”
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