In less than a month, the Southeastern Conference will go from having 12 member schools to having 14. That fact has been well known to all for months, but it didn't fully become real to me until I was standing in a crowded hotel ballroom in Atlanta last night. Well, sort of.
Texas A&M's Association of Former Students sponsored a reception at the Marriott in Buckhead aimed at welcoming the SEC's two newest members into the conference. The list of special guests included Mike Slive and the presidents and head football coaches of both A&M and Missouri. In order to make the four hour one-way drive from Charlotte worth it, I was determined to at least get in a word with each of them.
The hotel had three SEC placards out front, two normal logos and one pennant logo, to help guests find which of the three entrances to go through. The event was being held in a second floor ballroom with a capital T-shaped hallway in front. It was scheduled to start at 6:30 pm, but by the time I arrived at 6:25, at least a hundred people had already assembled inside.
The front of the hallway had pennant-style flags hanging from the ceiling, one for each SEC school. Either side of the corridor had balloon towers, one with maroon and white and the other with black and gold. There were two side rooms before the cross of the T. The left room was Texas A&M themed, and fans could get their picture taken with Reveille inside. The other was Missouri themed, but the most popular attraction inside was one of the many drink stations set up throughout the whole space. They were stocked with water, soda, cheap beer, and some kind of wine that I'm not familiar with. The men of the SEC largely stuck to the beer, while I can't recall anyone other than women partaking of the wine.
I noticed first that the Missouri contingent had already arrived, as chancellor Brady Deaton was making the rounds in the Mizzou room. A quick glance at the VIP check-in table showed that the A&M party was in the house as well. The only name tags still waiting to be picked up were those for Mike Slive, UGA president Michael Adams, and someone else whose name I didn't recognize.
I continued on to the cross of the T just before the ballroom entrance. Turn left, and you got the chance to take a picture with Truman the Tiger. Turn right, and you basically walk into a temporary wing of the Texas A&M bookstore. Plenty of hats and shirts were on sale, and the on campus Apple store had even set up two display tables. A few prize items were there for a drawing, including signed memorabilia from coaches and a brand new iPad from the Apple reps that a Missouri fan would end up winning.
I soon overheard a Missouri fan mention that she saw Gary Pinkel inside the ballroom, so I made my way into the main area at last.
The hall was your standard hotel ballroom, though the back half was made inaccessible by a temporary wall of dark curtains. The left had a large banner welcoming Texas A&M to the conference, while the right wall had a nearly identical banner for Missouri. A half dozen or so drink stations lined the outer rim of the room, while columns of tables stocked with hotel catered finger food filled the inside. At the back was a dais with a podium, and on either side were tables reserved for the VIPs. (Update - see some more photos here).
It doesn't take long to spot Pinkel. He's fairly tall, and he's wearing his trademark black mock turtleneck under a gray sport coat. While he's easy to pick out, he's not easy to flag down. After some brief chatting with people he clearly knew, he makes it to the safety of the VIP tables with relative ease. He's not the quickest at navigating the crowd, though. That honor goes to longtime SEC broadcaster Dave Neal, who zoomed past me before I even could recognize who he was.
I wandered around for a bit to get a feel for the growing crowd. The turnout was probably about 40% A&M and 40% Mizzou fans, and as expected for Atlanta, Georgia fans were probably the third-largest contingent. By the end of the night, I either saw or heard fans from 10 of the 14 schools. Only Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt were blank on my mental checklist, though with a turnout in the neighborhood of 1,000 people, I easily could have missed them. Plus, not everyone showed up in their school colors. Coaches' polos were the most common sight, but there were plenty of generic suits and cocktail dresses throughout the room. I got the feeling that most attendees were locals, because everyone who learned I drove down from Charlotte responded with the same surprised, "Oh, wow." There was an A&M fan who looks like Gene Stallings, but only if Gene Stallings was seven feet tall, and I later saw an Auburn fan who was a dead ringer for Verne Lundquist.
After a few minutes of mingling, I spot Slive near the back making his way into the ballroom finally. I shadow him for a few paces as he gives some orders to a few folks before moving in. He's a busy man, so I don't wait long to ask him how "Project X", the planned SEC television network, is coming along. "It's coming," he replies while grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "But no one knows what it is, right?" With that, he chuckles and disappears towards the back.
At about 7:00, Neal takes the podium and welcomes everyone to the event. Flanking him on either side are video screens with bright blue and yellow SEC logos that are almost blinding in the dim room. He gives a rundown of all of the special guests there, and unsurprisingly, the Georgia fans cheer far more for AD Greg McGarity than they do for Adams.
The A&M delegation is the larger of the two, which makes sense given that the Aggies are the ones who sponsored the event. Along with president Bowen Loftin and Kevin Sumlin are both basketball coaches, a few administrators, Reveille, some Corps of Cadets members, and, unmentioned by Neal, the merchants outside in the corridor. Missouri's official group is largely made up of Deaton, AD Mike Alden, Pinkel, and Truman.
It's not too long before Neal cedes the stage to Slive. By now, the commissioner is an old pro at pandering to crowds like this one. His speech has plenty of lines to elicit a whoop from the Aggies and cheers from the Tigers, and he manages to squeeze a "y'all" out of his northeastern accent for everyone else. He name checks a few other member schools, something that serves as an informal head count for various fan bases. Georgia fans are the loudest, of course, followed not too far behind by Florida fans. A smattering of Ole Miss fans are present, and the sole LSU fan is loud and proud. I also hear a Mississippi State fan hiss at Slive's mention of the Grove.
By this point the ballroom is packed full of nearly everyone in attendance. The cadets had even brought Reveille in to hear the presentations. Slive finishes up and turns it back over to Neal, who says a few words to set up a promotional video about the University of Missouri. Deaton then gets up to speak after that, followed by Pinkel. They all say nothing new in as many words as possible, so I check out to the corridor to get on the hotel WiFi and get away from the crowd for a bit. I chat with some Gator fans who noticed I was tweeting from the event, and they tell me about an awkward conversation they had with Sumlin earlier. Later on they would lament that they didn't get a chance to offer UGA's Adams a beer from the drink stations.
I went back in the room towards the end of the A&M phase of the event, which I could tell was about as content-free as the Mizzou portion was. Neal closed by facilitating the giveaways, with Sumlin and Alden doing the honors of drawing names. After he finished, I noticed that greeting lines were quickly forming by the stage right VIP tables as fans attempted to get one last chance at meeting the bigwigs before they bolted. I joined them to make sure I had that chance too.
While waiting to meet Deaton, I see Neal make his way off the dais. This time I stop him before he has a chance to scurry on past. He is cheerful and gregarious, and he's blown away by the turnout. I mention that I grew up watching him call SEC games, as he began doing Jefferson Pilot work when I was 10 years old. His shoulders slump and he does a dramatic mock eye roll, saying, "Aw man, don't tell me that!" Another fan grabs his attention briefly, and after that, he disappears faster than Keyser Söze.
Next up is Deaton, who is a talker and definitely in his element. He deduces from by blue shirt and orange tie that I'm a Florida alum and immediately asks me if I know UF president Bernie Machen. Deaton says he really likes working with him. I say I've shaken his hand twice, in reference to my two graduation ceremonies. Before I get to explain what I meant by that, he tells me to say "hi" to Machen for him the next time I see him. So Bernie, if you're reading this, Brady says "hi".
I have time for only one question, as some Missouri fans with cameras behind me are getting antsy. I ask him what his favorite part of the SEC has been so far. He quickly replies that it's the leadership, saying that he loves working with all of the rest of the people he's met in the conference. I then shake his hand again and move on next to Pinkel.
The Mizzou head coach is clearly an old pro at these kinds of events, even steering some fans away from the nearby bright projector screen to make sure their picture came out well. Again, I only have time for one question as the line to meet him was understandably longer than Deaton's. I ask him if he has a favorite kind of defense to attack as an offensive minded head coach. "No," he says quickly, before giving the question another thought. "Well, a defense that doesn't have many good players on it. That's my favorite." A laugh breaks apart that line from his next. "But you don't see that in this conference much, do you?" I assure him there's always Kentucky before making my way over to Sumlin.
I almost miss the Aggie boss, as he's making his way towards the exit. He's clearly distracted, as his eye contact doesn't last beyond the hand shake. I ask him the same question as I did of Pinkel, whether he had a favorite defense to attack. "No," he says even more quickly than Pinkel did, and a second thought yields only a furrowed brow and a shake of his head. Within seconds, he's out the back doors.
It takes a little bit of time to track down Loftin. He's the shortest of the night's dignitaries, which increases the level of difficulty in finding him. The crowd is thinning though, and his distinctive walrus mustache and bow tie keep him from being too invisible.
Loftin pumps my hand vigorously and begins talking to me as though he had known me forever. After some small talk, which doesn't feel like it's ever optional with him, I ask him what his favorite part of the SEC is. "Everyone treats each other with respect. It's really a conference of equals," is his reply. I thank him and he turns to greet some Aggie fans wielding cameras. He can't help himself though, and says to me over his shoulder as he walks away, "That's something we didn't have in the Big 12."
The night is wrapping up, so I head out. I talk to one last person, Texas A&M's VP of marketing Jason Cook. He's the only person from either traveling group who might have a clue as to who I am, and sure enough, he does recognize my name from Twitter. He thanks me for retweeting his stuff every so often, and he all but apologizes for Sumlin's hasty exit. Apparently the plane Sumlin took from College Station had only three hours to hang out at the nearby executive airport, so the coach had a very tight schedule to keep.
Over the course of our conversation, I realize that he is kind of a symbol for this new era of the league. He used to live in Jacksonville, Florida, so his son is a big UF and Tim Tebow fan. He had to tell the kid that he can't wear his Gator stuff around College Station much anymore because of A&M's conference switch. The Cook family was by far not the only one disrupted by the change. I earlier had met a gentleman who held degrees from both Alabama and Texas A&M, and I briefly conversed with a Georgia grad who was married to an A&M grad. Many relationships that once had a friendly distance of differing conference affiliation are now candidates for those hackneyed "house divided" license plates.
Everyone was still getting used to the idea of Texas A&M and Missouri as SEC schools, and it was obvious because everyone in attendance was so, well, polite. No Georgia fans barked at my obnoxious orange and blue colors. Not a single "Roll Tide!" rang out all night. Missouri fans lined up for pictures with Reveille, and Aggie fans high fived Truman. The hiss from the Mississippi State fan was the closest thing to a spirit of rivalry that I noticed, and even that wasn't all that loud.
It's not that I was expecting brawls to break out over games of yesteryear, but all of the people who attended were on their best behavior. Part of that was the venue, but I really got the sense that a lot of it was just that we don't really know these new people from Texas and Missouri. Arkansas and LSU are really the only schools with a history with A&M, and no one has had many encounters with Mizzou before. Existing SEC fans were welcoming strangers into the fold, and Southern hospitality being what it is, everyone was as nice as could be.
For that reason, it didn't completely feel like an SEC event despite the omnipresent conference logos. The SEC schools are like a group of brothers with intense sibling rivalries. They'll defend each other endlessly against outsiders while almost mercilessly beating up on each other when it's just them. I had a good time at the event, but it didn't quite feel authentic just yet.
Don't worry, A&M and Mizzou fans, we'll get there. When the fall rolls around and we meet up in bright, sunny parking lots and stadiums instead of a poorly lit hotel ballroom, you'll get the real SEC experience.