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Marshall Law: SEC's preseason football extravaganza

July 16, 2013

HOOVER, Ala. - Starting today at the Wynfrey Hotel, the grandest preseason extravaganza in all of college football will unfold.

Over the next three days, the head coach and three players from each of 14 schools will spend half a day answering questions from all manner of reporters and media at Southeastern Conference Media Days. More than 1,100 media members have been credentialed to participate.

ESPN Gameday and other ESPN entities will be there. CBS will be there. Newspaper, Internet, television and radio reporters from far and wide will come armed with questions and opinions.

Wednesday, first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, defensive end Dee Ford, H-back Jay Prosch and cornerback Chris Davis will be there to represent Auburn. On the same day, the lightning rod that is Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will be under the hot lights. On Thursday, Alabama fans will jam the lobby hoping to get a glimpse of head coach Nick Saban and quarterback A.J. McCarron.

For three days, Hoover will be the center of the football universe.

It wasn't always that way. There was a time when college football coaches weren't paid millions of dollars a year, didn't live in mansions and weren't guarded when sports writers came around.

Every August from 1965 until 1983, the SEC Skywriters would tour the league schools. Forty or so newspaper and TV reporters, a few cameramen and SEC publicist Elmore "Scoop" Hudgins would climb into an aging Convair aircraft, piloted by a guy known as "Crash" and the trip would begin.

It was no place for the faint of heart.

In a period of nine days, usually, the group would visit all 10 SEC schools. Each one rolled out the red carpet, making players and coaches available. The head coach almost always showed up in the hospitality room at night. It was a different day.

I went on seven Skywriters tours - 1977-79 as sports editor of The Decatur Daily and 1980-83 as sports editor of The Montgomery Advertiser. I was young, so I survived. I made lots of good friends that are still good friends to this day. After all these years, when we are together, we still laugh at the same old stories.

Thank goodness there was no social media in those days to record our escapades.

A typical Skywriter's day started with climbing onto the plane at around 8 a.m. The plane was so old that the air conditioning didn't work until it was in the air. It was unbearably hot inside, especially for those who'd stayed up until the wee hours of the morning taking advantage of the host school's hospitality.

We'd go to two schools on some days, but usually it was one. There'd be a visit with the head coach, the opportunity to talk to players and then go to practice. Later, there would be a dinner and fun and fellowship that lasted late into the night. Somewhere in there, we managed to get some work done.

My favorite Skywriters memories have little to do with football.

One year, in Nashville, another Skywriter and I decided to check out a local club. We stayed there until closing time. We weren't ready to go, so we asked where we could find a place that would still be open. We got a recommendation and off we went.

As we sat at our table, the door flung open and someone yelled "Raid!" We asked what was going on and learned we were in a club that was open after hours illegally. We got the heck out and went across the street to a feed store. We sat on bags of feed and watched the police take several people out in handcuffs.

But the night wasn't over. We needed a ride back to the hotel and there were no cabs in sight. Cell phones were years away. A guy pulled up in a big, long, old car and asked if we needed a ride. Having little choice, we said we did and negotiated a price. We climbed into the back and discovered that two apple crates serve as the back seats. We sat on those crates all the way back to the Holiday Inn.

Even in those days, there were some coaches who weren't exactly thrilled to see the Skywriters coming to town. Fran Curci was Kentucky's coach, and the program had been through rough times with the NCAA. As he stood up to speak, Roy Exum of the Chattanooga News-Free Press interrupted him.

"Fran," he said, "I have something I'd like to read. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. ..."

Curci was not amused.

And then there was the time two Skywriters got into a loud, profane argument as the preacher was blessing the food before dinner.

The Skywriters tour was run by the "High Tribunal," a group of older reporters who ruled with iron fists. The late Jack Hairston, then sports editor of the Gainesville Sun, would commandeer the public address system and read newspaper articles about airplane crashes.

There was no lower form of life on the Skywriters tour than a rookie. Rookies were expected, among other things, to load the veterans' bags on the plane each morning and unload them at every stop. One year, one of the rookies adamantly refused. He loaded his bags, but no one else's. As we took off after one stop, he looked out the window and screamed. His luggage had been taken off the plane by his fellow rookies and left on the tarmac.

After 1983, the SEC decided it would be better served to bring the coaches and players to one place. What is now called SEC Media Days was born.

For a long time, it was something of a reunion, attended mostly by people who covered SEC schools on a regular basis. But as the SEC has become the strongest conference in the history of the game, Media Days has grown into the national spectacle that it is today.

For the SEC, that's a good thing. Instead of 40 guys on an airplane writing and talking, SEC football will be front and center on national television, in newspapers and on web sites. But it won't be as much fun as it was in the days of Scoop and the Skywriters.

And I won't sit on any apple crates in the back of an ancient car.


Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for Follow Marshall on Twitter:




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