What began 52 years ago in the air lands in Atlanta: SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame
Part I: This is the first of a series about SEC Media Days and how it began 52 years ago. The author was on board for that first flight.
By BUDDY MARTIN
SEC Media Days 2018 is the mere undercard for the championship flight that is about to ensue this fall in the virtual cathedrals of college football where, yes, it does matter more.
Those roots were planted 52 years ago on the maiden flight of the SEC Skywriters Tour.
It all began with a group of 21 hard-working, fun-loving, mostly Southern storytellers in the summer of 1966 on the first of what was to become 17 consecutive SEC Skywriters Tours. They and the league set the stage for what has now become an annual event and which this year has a new venue – the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
Like Lewis and Clark with typewriters, those early pioneers boarded a decrepit DC-3 prop plane – a sort of press box with wings – to explore the mid-century model of a 34-year-old conference that would one day explode into national dominance.
Those early wordsmiths, using the most rudimentary tools of communication, hopscotched around the 10 Southeastern Conference schools on a groundbreaking mission – to inform their readers what they could expect from their SEC rivals. Back then, there was no internet, no social media and there were no cell phones and 24-hour sports networks that now instantly inform. Newspapers were extremely relevant as they were enjoying one of their last heydays.
As one of just five remaining original members, I will be among more than 1,000 credentialed members of all media sorts who will make the trip to Atlanta Monday. This is the account of some recollections from 1966 by me and my four surviving colleagues — plus some of our peers.
What’s going on in Atlanta
Check out your local TV listings for the 2018 SEC Media Days coverage. CBS TV Schedule.
Good news, bad news
It is late summer 1966, just a few months shy of the three-year anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Racial unrest is ripping America apart and two more assassinations of public icons – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy’s brother Robert – are less than 22 months off. The seeds of an unwinnable war are taking root in Southeast Asia. Dr. King and his followers have been marching on Alabama for over a year. As Bob Dylan had written two years prior: “For the times they are a-changin’.”
On the good-news side, America had just landed an unmanned spacecraft on the moon, but four months after the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 transmitted the first photos of the lunar surface. Diversions from bad news, however, are hard to find. Many turn to the fields of athletics. Sports, at least, are a placebo – especially in the Deep South, where college football is still king and the Southeastern Conference is regional royalty. Nationally, maybe not so much – yet.
In those days down below the Mason-Dixon Line, there were still generational scars from the Civil War 101 years before. Residue lingered from that terrible conflict between the Northern and Southern states that almost killed as many Americans as all the other wars combined.
It wasn’t uncommon then to see the Confederate flag or hear “Dixie” played by college bands. There also were no African-American players in the SEC, which was still searching for a national identity despite Alabama having won mythical national titles in 1961, ’64 and ’65. Regional pride still took precedence over national dominance.
“We weren’t so much interested in winning a national championship as we were winning the SEC and going to a bowl,” former Tennessee and Florida head coach Doug Dickey said.
Steve Spurrier, who would win the Heisman Trophy in 1966 and come back to coach the Florida Gators to their first national title 30 years later, agreed.
“Too many things had to happen to win the national championship back then,” Spurrier said. “If we were SEC champs then we accomplished our mission and the rest was gravy.”
Besides, there was that perceived network bias. Southern envy and disdain toward the Big Ten and Notre Dame fueled a sense of inequity and unfairness among the SEC loyalists. The alleged offenders were the so-called elitists Northern press and the Big Three television networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – that seldom featured regular-season SEC telecasts. Rarely did stories of the SEC get coverage by national media.
Despite all that, SEC football was becoming a leading export of the South, quietly but aggressively launching an unprecedented 52-year growth spurt that vaulted the league into the stratosphere.
The perfect window of opportunity for enlightenment was about to open with the 1966 launching of the SEC Skywriters Tour, the brainchild of public relations-minded Elmore “Scoop” Hudgins, the league’s first sports information director who would guide the entourage. Scoop’s idea for the SEC Skywriters was inspired by the Big Ten Skywriters Tour, which had its beginnings in the 1950s.
A popular, hail-fellow-well-met sports information director from Vanderbilt, Hudgins convinced SEC Commissioner Bernie Moore and his successor in 1966, A.M. “Tonto” Coleman, that an SEC Skywriters Tour, despite skeptical traditionalists who felt “too much stuff is already getting in the paper,” would be a positive. And maybe the SEC Skywriters would produce good will, better press coverage and improved writer/coach relationships.
There would be a few obstacles to overcome.
SEC Skywriters Air Force
A “bucket of bolts” DC-3 from East Coast Flying service was dispatched for those 21 sports writers to come preview the 1966 college season. It was not a league junket. Newspapers paid for their writers’ plane seats and hotel accommodations, which were anything but luxurious. One tipoff was a rotted seatbelt which came loose as one writer strapped in for the first leg.
“If Scoop had been in charge of the Mafia, they would have called it ‘disorganized crime,’” joked Steve Townsend, who eventually succeeded his friend as SEC media director and inherited thus inherited the annual chaos.
Despite Scoop’s sometimes lacking organizational skills, the Skywriters got airborne, and the seeds for SEC Media Days were about to be planted that would grow like Jack’s beanstalk into a monster-hype machine. The rest of the college football world was about to tip in to the passions of the Deep South, noted mainly for its addiction to sweet tea, fried chicken and corn bread.
As the late Andy Griffin once said in his 1953 best-selling recording yarn: “What It Was, Was Football.” Indeed, the time had come for the SEC to claim its place in the national college football marketplace.
From Birmingham to Atlanta
Some writers boarded the plane in Atlanta and flew to the Gainesville for the first stop at the University of Florida where they were met by a senior quarterback named Spurrier, who would later win the Heisman Trophy, and his head coach Ray Graves.
There, eight Florida writers hopped onboard the aging aircraft to depart Gainesville for Athens, Ga. Upon sitting down, John Logue of the Atlanta Journal reached for his seatbelt and discovered one end of it had come out by its roots — perhaps foreshadowing trouble ahead. There was nervous laughter.
The notion that the maiden voyage of SEC Skywriters would be a social excursion with an extended cocktail party was quickly dispelled. A schedule crammed with interviews, luncheons and practice observations precluded late-night carousing or roundtables at the bar. And it would be several years before the schedule provided time for any major social interaction. Deadlines for stories were always pressing.
At first, the tour was bound by a tightly controlled agenda with a rigid travel schedule. Sometimes the agenda called for visiting three schools in one day, filing stories on deadline at each stop.
Eventually some creative chaos came to bear. But Neil Amdur, then of the Miami Herald and later the sports editor of the New York Times, doesn’t recall any time for frivolity in Year One.
“Unlike today’s staged event, this was a ‘real tour,’ with an airplane going to each venue on a tightly organized schedule that barely left you enough time to interview coaches,” Amdur recalled. “And then you had to write at designated times.”
Amdur still has the documents to prove it.
“In some cases, we were making three campuses in one day,” he said. “I’ve still got one of the old itineraries handed out by Scoop Hudgins: On Friday, Sept. 1, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., we went from a Georgia practice with Vince Dooley at 8 a.m. to a Knoxville luncheon conference with Doug Dickey and then on to Lexington, Ky. for a dinner/press conference with Charlie Bradshaw.”
For the first time, many of the SEC Skywriters would be welcomed (or sometimes un-welcomed) to campuses beyond their normal sphere of influence. Some writers would eventually maneuver off the beaten path and into their own milieu. After-hours access or interaction with coaches socially or personally, however, was virtually non-existent – especially coaches such as Alabama’s legendary Paul William “Bear” Bryant, a larger-than-life figure looming over the SEC.
Bryant was changing the dynamics of the once-pastoral life of some coaches. The Bear had laid down the gauntlet with territorial imperatives, warning other coaches to stay of Alabama. And he raised the ante with a premium on winning.
In 1963 Bryant and former Georgia coach Wally Butts had won a $3-million libel lawsuit against the Saturday Evening Post for “The Story of a College Football Fix.”
So, the legend of Bryant had become low-hanging fruit – albeit tough to find or pick. But there would be this one rare night years later after the first tour.
Logue recalled a rare occasion in the late 1960s when he and colleague Jack Hairston of the Jacksonville Journal wound up almost inadvertently overindulging with Bryant and having to deliver the inebriated Alabama coach back home, whereupon they were confronted at the door by an angry Mary Harmon Bryant, his longtime wife.
A rare night with Bear
Logue and Hairston had been invited along by the owner of a Tuscaloosa radio station to a small party for Bryant because “everybody was too intimidated to be alone with Bear Bryant.” After the party at a posh lake home, the host drove Bryant, Hairston and Logue back to the Bryant residence.
Along the way, Bryant asked that the car be stopped so he could approach an older woman. He asked her for “all your change” which he poured into his sports coat pockets. In exchange he handed the woman a wad of bills far exceeding that amount he had received in coins, according to Logue. Whereupon Bear told Logue and Hairston “my grandson collects coins” and then proceeded to pass out.
When they got to his home, they rang the doorbell and out came Mrs. Bryant. “You’re killing Papa!” she cried, a mantra she keeps repeating over and over as Logue and Hairston remove Bryant’s shoes and pour him onto the sofa. “You’re killing Papa!” is the last thing they hear from Mary Harmon as they depart and close the door.
As they climb into the car, Logue said to Hairston, “Surely, that’s not the first time that’s happened over the past 40 years.” The next morning as they walked onto the Alabama practice field, the first person to greet them with a warm, drawling “Good mawnin’” was a bright-eyed “Papa” Bear Bryant.
None of those kinds of stories were told or written back then. It was generally understood that reporting on personal conduct was off limits and had no place in sports journalism. So off went the Skywriters to write about football, and, at the same time, to begin chronicling the SEC’s rise to national supremacy.
For me personally, the SEC Skywriters tour was an exhilarating-but-exhausting week of grinding over my typewriter, sleeping a few hours and jumping out of bed to race to the DC-3 that would take us to the next venue. Ever-so-slowly, however, a bond began to develop among the writers and a pecking order evolved.
Your commitment to work became your badge of honor. Stamina was required. Courage would be, too.
“And then there was Oxford, Miss.,” Amdur continued.
A story about Ole Miss’ racial barriers would soon rock the football establishment.
NEXT: Dateline OXFORD, Miss.