Sportswriter Buddy Martin takes us on a literal tour of the 50-year history of SEC Media Days. This is not our granddaddy’s SEC anymore.
There were about 1,200 credentials issued for last week’s SEC Media Days. The event has come a long, long way from 1966, when 22 writers were dive-bombing campuses in a decrepit DC-3 prop plane on what was known then as the “SEC Skywriters Tour.”
I was a boy sports writer 50 years ago as part of that very first Skywriters corps, which nearly crashed after an aborted landing at the Auburn airport and may have been shot down in Oxford, Miss., had the folks at Ole Miss known what was coming.
Fifty years ago, black players could not play in the SEC and the league wasn’t so dominant. The crowds didn’t swell to more than 100,000. And the TV revenue was chump change.
The pioneers of what is now SEC Media Days pretty much have become dinosaurs, although a second generation soon came behind us and lasted for 17 years. The Skywriters were grounded and Birmingham became base camp. There were 400 people at the first SEC Media Days on the ground in 1985.
#DownHere, every good story gets embellished a little. Southern legend can be tricky. In fact, one of them holds that everybody had an uncle or aunt or grandparent or neighbor who would have been millionaires if they hadn’t turned down a chance to buy Coca-Cola stock. Coke stock has nothing on the SEC, though, which has become dead-solid-perfect blue chip.
Most of the tales about the SEC Skywriters Tour I’ve read sound legit. But revisionist history sometimes convolutes authenticity.
Just to clarify, in 1966, players did not wear leather helmets and not every team ran the single wing or full-house backfield. They didn’t use the dropkick. Actually, 0-0 or 7-0 games were not all that uncommon, but they were not the main staple of SEC football, as some would have you believe.
It is true that we typed our stories on portable typewriters and sent them to the newspaper offices via Western Union, but the memories have been dimmed a little over the years. It’s tough to re-create in great detail when there is hardly anybody else around to verify stories.
After a day of researching through Google, emailing others who may or may not have been aboard and calling, I have become convinced that different versions of times, dates and events have crept into the narrative.
Poring over the black and white photo of these men posing in front of the archaic airplane, I could name all but four of them (I had to look them up). Trouble is, all of them are dead, retired or have been deposed to parts unknown.
A HECTIC SCHEDULE
I can recall the grueling schedule that sometimes took us to three schools in a day for news conferences, lunches and sometimes practice. I don’t know which was more demanding: Loading and unloading luggage or keeping up with the pace of writing stories.
As for the mode of transportation, I’m pretty sure it rivaled the one that the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in age. Put it like this: When they picked us up in Gainesville, John Logue of Southern Living magazine reached for his seat belt and it came out by the roots.
My roommate for that first SEC Skywriters Tour was Neil Amdur of the Miami Herald, who later would become sports editor of the New York Times and who would play a part in the huge controversy that loomed ahead.
“Unlike today’s staged event in Birmingham, this was a ‘real tour,’ ” Amdur told me a few years ago, “with an airplane going to each venue, on a tightly organized schedule that barely left you enough time to interview coaches. And then you had to write at designated times. In some cases, we were making three campuses in one day.”
He still has one of the old itineraries handed out by tour director Elmore “Scoop” Hudgins: “On Friday, September 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.”
Amdur wrote a gutsy story about how segregated America, time and circumstance had brought about the decline of championship football for Ole Miss. The Rebels’ coach was Johnny Vaught, who had won six SEC titles from 1947-63. The words “age, apathy and apartheid” appeared in Amdur’s lead. The next year when we arrived at Oxford, he was told by the public relations director, “You’re not welcome here.”
Amdur stayed, wrote and flew out. Ole Miss still hasn’t won an SEC title since 1963.
A LACK OF RESPECT
In 1966, what we were about to witness was the prelude to a season that now seems so obsolete – a time before the SEC had earned enough respect to win a popular vote in the polls.
Alabama was the scourge of the league, with Bear Bryant unleashing an 11-0 undefeated season on the SEC as co-champion with Georgia. The Crimson Tide trounced Nebraska 34-7 in the 1967 Sugar Bowl but didn’t win the national championship because teams weren’t re-ranked after the bowls back then.
Michigan State and Notre Dame tied 10-10 and neither played in a bowl. But both were ranked ahead of the Tide. The Tide did earn the respect of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who when asked if his team was the greatest team in the country after winning the first Super Bowl replied, “I don’t know yet – we haven’t played Alabama.”
I remember visiting Tuscaloosa with the Skywriters and being impressed with how Bryant directed his practice with clockwork precision from atop his famous tower. He had the gaze of an eagle.
Florida was re-emerging under Ray Graves; the Gators had a nine-win season and a Heisman winner named Steve Spurrier. But the league would belong to Bear that season.
HEY, PINE TREE, YOU’RE IN MY WAY
Over the years, many of the colorful stories have been retold, none more popular than the near-crash landing at Auburn. We had to abort the landing, and as the pilots gunned the engines, it became apparent that we were playing chicken with a row of trees. That our charter pilots usually were the last to leave the hotel bar every night didn’t exactly bode well for our chances.
George Smith, then of the Anniston (Ala.) Star, remembers it well. He says the near-miss was even closer than we realized: “In landing at Auburn, I’m looking out the window and the tip of the plane actually brushes the very top of a pine. Then we pull up and go around. I asked, ‘Cow on the runway?’ Honest . . . you don’t make up stuff like that.”
Smith bears witness to the pilots’ overindulgence in adult beverages: “A few of us are having a late night drink at a Holiday Inn where we’re staying. The two pilots are wrapped around some hard drinking at the bar. It is 2 a.m.; at 6:30 we take off. Those cats still had to be drunk.”
I remember seeing Raymond Johnson of The Tennesseean clutching a pillow like it was a lifeboat vest. Instinctively, we all began hunching forward as if to help the plane’s momentum. We couldn’t have cleared it by more than 25 feet. That night, the cocktails tasted especially good.
When we returned the following year to land at Auburn, Jack Hairston serenaded us on his harmonica with that famous Titanic swan song, “Nearer My God to Thee.” If we weren’t already bonded, that seemed to do it.
THE TRAILBLAZING 22
I did finally run down the names of the original 22, but it wasn’t easy to find. So in honor of the trailblazers and in the spirit of helping future pathfinders, here are their names: John Logue, Southern Living; Neil Amdur, Miami Herald; Buddy Martin, Today (Cocoa, Fla.); Jack Hairston, Jacksonville Journal; Tom McEwen, Tampa Tribune; Bill Bondurant, Fort Lauderdale News; Tom Kelly, St. Petersburg Times; Bob Bassine, Orlando Sentinel; Bill Clark, Atlanta Constitution; George Smith, Anniston (Ala.) Star; Jimmy Smothers, Gadsden (Ala.) Times; Bill Lumpkin, Birmingham Post-Herald; Benny Marshall, Birmingham News; Raymond Johnson, Nashville Tennessean; Larry Boeck, Louisville Courier-Journal; Lee Baker, Jackson (Miss.) Daily News; Wayne Thompson, Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger; Edgar Allen, Nashville Banner; Ed Harris, Knoxville News-Sentinel; Austin White, Chattanooga (Tenn.) News-Free Press, Ron Speer, Associated Press; David Moffitt, United Press International.
(You can follow Buddy Martin on Twitter @buddyshow)