Ron Higgins: July’s not July without SEC Media Days

My annual ritual each July since 1978 when I was entering my senior year at LSU is buying an academic year datebook.

Not January through December but July to June, because as a writer it corresponds with the start and end of my college sports season.

Most of my datebooks have tracked my personal and professional life, mixing events such as the first date with my future wife of now-almost 42 years (“Great date!” I noted in my 1978-79 datebook) and my various journalistic assignments around the world.

Until this past academic year, my datebooks have been full of good memories.

But since mid-March, when the coronavirus put the full-court press on sports as well as life in general, the last three months in my datebook has a dearth of scheduled events.

No NCAA basketball tournament, one of the best times of the year. No LSU baseball and softball seasons. No NCAA Regionals or Super Regionals or College World Series.

And now that July is here, there’s no live 36th annual SEC Football Media Days, which serves as the unofficial kickoff to the season.

It has grown from humble beginnings in 1985 of a one-day gathering of 60 or so media members and 10 head coaches to a four-day SEC Network televised circus with just more than 1,000 of the media horde, 14 head coaches, 42 players and an overflow of fans behind rope clamoring for autographs.

SEC Football Media Days creates a buzz that carries us until the start of preseason practice in the first week of August, which essentially is the beginning of the nonstop mayhem that ends in the College Football Playoffs.

The storylines for the 2020 Media Days in Atlanta would have run rampant.

Players certainly would have been quizzed about how they feel playing despite a coronavirus pandemic and their thoughts on players suddenly having newfound power after the recent racial unrest.

The entertainment factor would have taken a huge jump with new coaches Lane Kiffin of Ole Miss and Mike Leach of Mississippi State forming the Magnolia State’s greatest-ever Media Days comedy duo.

With the live Media Days being cancelled, it supposedly will be transformed into SEC Virtual Media Days, which has yet to be scheduled.

It won’t have the same pop and pizzazz. But probably the same was said when the league switched from its preseason football Skywriters tour, which ended a 19-year run in exchange for the creation of SEC Media Days.

Every August from 1965 to 1983, 45 or so hard-working and partying journalists with hearts of gold and livers of bronze, stuffed themselves in a DC-3 propeller plane for a daily tour of the then-10 league schools.

The Skywriters schedule was simple.

Fly in for a day at an SEC school. Attend practice. Conduct interviews with players and coaches. Write and file stories. Adjourn to a dinner party hosted by the school with free food and drink that lasted well in the wee hours of morning. Board the plane the next day with a hangover.

The late Jimmy Davy, who died May 1 at age 87, was a longtime writer and columnist for the Nashville Tennessean. His Skywriters tales were legendary.

 “One night at Auburn, a writer has a little too good of a time and he passes out right after a dinner,” Davy told me a couple of years ago. “We take him from his seat and stretch him out on another table while somebody goes to get the doctor.

“The doctor doesn’t show up in a timely fashion, and this writer is still unconscious. Somebody says, `We need to get some ice or a cold towel to put on his face.’

 “We couldn’t find a towel, but on this banquet table was this huge bowl of sliced cucumbers that had been on ice. So, we decide as a group that we’re going to take all these ice-cold cucumber slices and put them on this guy’s face.

 “So, when the doctor finally shows up and takes a look at this guy with all those cucumbers on his face, he says, `Which one of you guys is the witch doctor?’”

Everybody had a great time on the Skywriters tour including the plane’s Southern Airways pilot, who was nicknamed “Crash” by late Gainesville (Fla.) Sun sports editor Jack Hairston.

“The night before the start of the tour in Birmingham, most of us were playing cards and drinking into 2 or 3 in the morning,” recalled Mike McKenzie, former executive sports editor of The Advocate in Baton Rouge. “There’s this guy with us all night, just laughing and having a great time. We didn’t know who he was, and nobody asked him.

“We board the plane the next morning and that guy is already there. He’s the PILOT!”

Davy said Crash’s record as the Skywriters’ pilot was flawless, even though Crash was sometimes as under the weather as the writers after an all-nighter.

“Crash often left his cabin door open, so we could see right into the cockpit,” Davy said. “One morning, we’re all getting on the plane in Oxford and we look up in the cockpit. There’s Crash laid back in his seat wearing an oxygen mask.”

SEC Media Days certainly couldn’t match the Skywriters, just the league’s planned SEC Virtual Media Days won’t have the same ambience as a live Media Days.

Virtual SEC Media Days won’t have Nick Saban’s dog (when he coached LSU) escape his hotel room where media days was being held, navigating his way downstairs into various press conferences before he found his owner.

Virtual SEC Media Days can’t have a Hawaiian Tropic regional beauty contest in the media days hotel, an event (by happenstance) that was heavily attended by media and players. Short of singing “We Are the World,” everyone bonded for one memorable night.

A Virtual Media Days can’t record the groans from the media like it gave after former Georgia coach Ray Goff responded to a question about a then-new rule stopping games if there is blood on a player. Goff said, “I don’t think it will make a difference for us because we wear red jerseys.”

Nope, we won’t get any of that this year.

The way a second wave of coronavirus hit as teams reported back to campus in June after a three-month hiatus to begin conditioning drills, it’s still a week-to-week proposition if there will be a full 2020 season.

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