HOOVER, Ala. — A lot of media types have been grumbling over our free lunches about Southeastern Conference media days moving back to the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta next year, where it was held in 2018.
To be fair, us media types grumble over a lot of things. Including the quality of the free lunches.
The Hall of Fame is a cool place to have media days. Seriously, you should take a visit the next time you’re in Atlanta when not sprinting between Concourse B and Concourse D at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Last year’s event proved one thing, though, that Atlanta can’t possibly match Hoover on:
The number of Alabama-crazed fans per square inch who jam into the lobby here at the Hyatt Regency-Wynfrey Hotel on the day Nick Saban and his players arrive.
Nick and the guys — quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, linebacker Dylan Moses from U-High and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy — strolled through the revolving glass door about 8:30 a.m. They were greeted by a totally off-the-chain pep rally, some of the folks having been there since 4 a.m. (yes, 4 a.m.).
A small sampling of the full-court craziness as Tagovailoa made his way past the masses toward Radio Row, churning out autographs as he went:
“Tua! Over here!”
“Tua! Tua for president!”
The hotel clearly brought out extra security to keep an eye on this mob. They were sober men in refined but modest suits, whose expressions told you they could not really comprehend what all these loons were doing in the middle of a four-star hotel lobby at 8 in the morning.
To the uninitiated, it could be a shock to the system. Moses, who gives the impression his heart rate never goes above, like, 20, was unfazed.
“I kind of already knew that was going to happen,” he said. “We are here in Alabama.”
Still, if you haven’t been here, it’s a scene like you’ve never experienced in your life.
One woman’s T-shirt was typical:
Nick Saban spoke of “the organization” when he talked about his program Wednesday. Like it’s an NFL franchise instead of the emotional touchstone for, they say, about 70 percent of Alabamians (the other 30 percent is comprised of Auburn, South Alabama, Troy, UAB and the rest).
In reality, Alabama football is religion to folks like this. Followers of the prophet Saban, for whom a brush with greatness can be a bucket-list experience on this high holy day of the Bama fan’s calendar.
“I touched the hem of his garment … and all my hair grew back!”
One regular is Birmingham resident Shannon Villa. Call him The Original Ring on the Head Guy. At least he says he is, anyway. He has this big gold Bama national championship ring headgear, a furry crimson and white vest and a six-pack of chutzpah.
“I was in Atlanta,” Villa said. “I’ll be back there next year. And Nashville (for 2021 SEC media days) after that.
“I just want to be part of the show.”
Bama fans are the show on the day Alabama takes its turn (Auburn will be here Thursday; in case you’re wondering, it won’t be quite as frenzied). Fans like Pam Bethke, a former Huntsville, Alabama, resident who drove all the way from Austin, Texas, for this.
“This is exciting. My best friend is over there,” Bethke said, pointing behind her somewhere in the roped-off (quarantined?) sea of Bama folk.
“I came because I love Alabama. It’s in the blood. I bleed crimson.”
If it’s in the blood, I’m starting to think I need an inoculation.
Some folks are less rabid but no less dedicated. Robert Stillwell, who came from nearby Oxford, Alabama, with his quintessentially Alabama-named wife Jonnie Sue, took in the scene from a red folding armchair. He looked like he expected a tailgate party to set up camp near the elevators at any moment, but was willing to go with the flow if it didn’t. A food court in the adjacent Riverchase Galleria mall is only a couple of Jerry Jeudy fly patterns away.
“This ain’t my first rodeo,” Stillwell said with Grade A Alabama drawl.
Jonnie Sue was his reason for being here, Stillwell said. She has only missed one Alabama game the past 42 years — Tennessee in 2006, and that was to bury her mom.
“My wife doesn’t miss anything,” Stillwell said.
As you’d expect, confidence is high among Bama fans. Saban may be the best college football coach of all time; the roster is stocked with blue-chippers; and the culture of winning is so ingrained at Alabama, it could double the school’s endowment if it could be bottled and sold.
And yet, there is that little matter of the score from January’s CFP National Championship Game: Clemson 44, Alabama 16. A loss is one thing (only Saban’s 2009 team went undefeated), but this was a world-class rout.
“We got beat, beat,” Villa said.
Stillwell is undeterred.
“I’m more confident (than usual),” he said. “I know who we’ve got and how they can play.”
Villa is vexed by the return of Steve Sarkisian, who is back after two years calling plays for the Atlanta Falcons with mixed results. He took Lane Kiffin’s place for the 2017 CFP title game (Bama also lost to Clemson).
“Sarkisian is the wild card right now,” Villa said. “That’s the scary part. But if Saban believes in him, I do, too.”
If you aren’t a true believer, you weren’t rolling in the “Roll Tide!” cheers in the lobby Wednesday morning.
Expect a similar scene in the lobby of whichever New Orleans hotel Alabama is assigned for this season’s CFP championship game at the Superdome.
See you in January, Original Ring on the Head Guy.