New Star in SEC?

Robbie Caldwell.

You don’t know him.

Neither do I. Nor do the rest of the football media gathered here on the outskirts of Birmingham. Even the other SEC head coaches don’t know him.

That’s too bad for us.

Make no mistake, there is a new media star in the conference (at least for a year) and he is the head football coach at Vanderbilt.

At his appearance in the main press room at SEC Football Media Days this morning, the recently named interim head Commodore sounded like Jerry Clower while mentioning among other things:

Turkey farming.

Pouring concrete.

Pipe fitting.

Frog Gigging.

Hunting.

Fishing.

Watermelon.

Cussing.

Oh yeah, a little football too.

Coming across like a favorite uncle or the best high school coach you ever played for, Caldwell entertained the gathered media with his country accent, self-deprecating sense of humor, openly emotional personality, and quick one-liners.

Whether he’ll be able to hold on to the Vandy job for more than just a season may be questionable, but he certainly has one group behind him – the football writers gathered here in Hoover.

You can check out the SEC’s newest coaching star by visiting the conference website (see links on side) and following football prompts to the media days video clips.

It will be worth your time.

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SEC Media Days Questions

Like the girl in the Zac Brown Band song, the SEC’s got whatever “it” is.

 Look no farther than Hoover, Alabama, for proof.

For many southern football fans, SEC Football Media Days kick off the college football season.  The event brings to mind dual pep rallies.

Upstairs at the Winfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama, the annual gathering of league coaches, selected players from each school, and hundreds of national and local media could pass for a big, corporate pep rally. Which it is of course.

Downstairs, a hotel lobby-full of fans decked out in team colors and seeking autographs, pictures, or handshakes from coaches and players is much like a college or high school pep rally. Which it is of course.

A pep rally the SEC Media days may be, but they are typically not much with regard to making news.

Coaches are exceptionally well-versed in sticking to scripted answers (although Steve Spurrier cannot help himself on occasion). Players are similarly prepared, their answers so clean and non-controversial, often seeming like young politicians training for future campaign races.

Commissioner Mike Slive is smoother and a more commanding presence than any of the politicians seeking election in this month’s primaries. He provides concise, positive information about the conference, and deftly addresses controversial topics.

While breaking news may be rare, there are legitimate questions that can be addressed at these media gatherings. Here are several I would like to see answered this week (some are on-field related, others deal with off-field topics):

1. How will individual programs and the SEC as a whole address the growing problem of agents jeopardizing the eligibility of players by offering them financial (or other) inducements?

Reggie Bush and USC may be the most notorious characters in this story right now, but with recent news of an agent hosting dozens of returning college stars at a party in south Florida, a true quagmire may be on the near horizon.

2. Are any programs close to breaking the Alabama-Florida stranglehold on the two conference divisions?

The quick answer based on preseason prognostications is an emphatic “NO.” Nick Saban at Bama and Urban Meyer with the Gators stand shoulder-to-shoulder astride the top of the league, and none of the other coaches can see above the well-polished shoetops of those two.

3. If the division crowns seem to have been conceded, how does the rest of the league stack up?

In the East, South Carolina is a perennial tease, Georgia has underachieved the past two years, Tennessee is coming off a tumultuous twenty-four months, and the Kentucky-Vandy duo is not near championship caliber (although UK is certainly closer than the Commodores). If things fall into place just right, Carolina and/or Georgia could feasibly take the title (unlikely though).

On the other side, the Crimson Tide faces stronger challengers, but even with significant personnel losses still figures to roll over the rest of the West. Arkansas must learn to play defense, LSU needs consistency under center and on the sidelines, Auburn will have a brand-new signal caller as will Ole Miss, and Mississippi State still lacks the talent to compete over the long, arduous season. A semi-educated guess would place Arkansas and LSU atop the challenger list (scheduling has something to do with that).

4. Who are the most important players in the league this season … not necessarily the best players – those most important to the success of their respective teams?

Here are four that immediately come to mind:

Aaron Murray – Quarterback Georgia. The highly touted redshirt freshman is the only new starter on offense for the Dogs. Should he play well, Georgia might provide the biggest challenge to Florida.

Stephen Garcia – Quarterback South Carolina. An enigmatic junior (who seems like he has been in Columbia a decade), Garcia needs to make plays and eliminate mistakes to give Steve Spurrier a chance at another championship. If he doesn’t the head ball coach figures to have a quick hook.

Dont’a Hightower – Linebacker Alabama. This huge (260 lb) inside linebacker earned freshman All-America honors in 2008, but missed the Tide title season with an injury. Hightower will be counted on to stabilize an Alabama defense that lost eight starters, including his predecessor as emotional leader, Rolando McClain.

Cameron Newton – Quarterback Auburn. Notice a trend here? The SEC lost a whole lot of experienced QBs. Newton is a former Florida transfer and Terrell Pryor look-alike who could pose big problems for defenses if he can master the intricate spread attack of the Tigers.

5. Although it’s only July … what games look to be the premier matchups this fall?

There are quite a few … here are five listed in predicted order of significance:

Florida at Alabama (October 2): The league’s two juggernauts square off at the Capstone. This could be the regular season game of the year … in the nation, not just the SEC.

Alabama at Arkansas (September 25): If the Hogs hope to take the West, they’ll need to stem the Tide in Fayetteville. Arkansas plays at Georgia the week before, while Bama is at Duke, but this is also the Saturday before Alabama-Florida … so it could be a trap game for Bama.

Georgia at South Carolina (September 11): These two teams should be the main challengers to Florida in the East. Losing this game will not absolutely eliminate one from the race, but will certainly damage title hopes.

Alabama at LSU (November 6): Yet another installment of the Saban-Miles saga. The animosity toward Saban has waned somewhat among Tiger faithful, but if the defending national champs roll into Baton Rouge undefeated, it will be a big time on the bayou.

Clemson at Auburn (September 18): While the game will have no bearing on the conference race, it is a nice ACC-SEC pairing and could be indicative of how much a threat both sets of Tigers will be in their respective leagues.

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Note: Live at the SEC Media Days … Heisman winner Mark Ingram just finished his remarks. Nick Saban led off the afternoon session after comments from Commissioner Mike Slive. BCS head Bill Hancock spoke to media this morning.

Four to Consider for Dogs AD

With the dismissal of Damon Evans, the focus inside the Butts-Mehre Building at the University of Georgia now turns to his successor as Athletic Director.

A familiar firm seems likely to lead the search.

Zach Klein of WSB-TV in Atlanta (he has been at the forefront of coverage since the Evans scandal broke) reports that Parker Executive Search of Atlanta will recommend the new AD. Headed up by Georgia alum Dan Parker, the group is well-respected in college athletics and previously played a significant role in the hiring of Dr. Michael Adams as President, Evans as Athletic Director, and Mark Fox as Men’s Basketball coach (although those first two names might not provide much confidence for some Bulldog fans).

While the Parker firm typically keeps a tight lid on research and recommendations, here are pros and cons of four potential search targets, plus two that should be considered. Click on any name for a bio link.

Greg McGarity (Florida)

Pros: Without question, Greg McGarity will be the favored choice of rank-and-file Bulldog fans. A native Athenian, a UGA alum, and a former varsity athlete (tennis), McGarity paid his dues at various assignments within the Georgia athletic department before moving to Florida in 1992. He has an even and friendly disposition, and has worked for two of the premier intercollegiate leaders of the last three decades (Vince Dooley at Georgia and Jeremy Foley at Florida). A safe, seasoned, and sound choice.

Cons: Although McGarity was long gone before the Michael Adams-Vince Dooley saga of the late 1990s, the president might see him as too closely allied with the Bulldog legend.

Eric Hyman (South Carolina)

Pros: The well-respected AD of the Gamecocks has the kind of curriculum vitae that would quickly turn the head of an academician like Michael Adams. Top man in Columbia since 2005, Hyman was formerly athletic director at TCU, Miami of Ohio, and VMI. A prolific fund-raiser and national leader among his peers, Hyman would certainly bring steadiness, experience, and prestige to Athens. He was reportedly a finalist when Evans was hired.

Cons: While Georgia is probably a more nationally recognized department (keep in mind the Gamecocks just won the College Baseball World Series) than SC, the move could be seen as a lateral one. Also, Hyman and his family are Carolinians (he and his wife are UNC grads, and Eric also earned a masters degree at Furman).

Carla (Green) Williams (Georgia)

Pros: A former varsity basketball star for the Lady Dogs, Williams would bring continuity to what appears from the exterior to be a smoothly functioning department. She also carries a bit of academic heft having earned a Ph.D. in sport management from Florida State (although she has never published or presented research to my knowledge). The prospect of naming the first female athletic director in the SEC would probably be appealing to the always image-conscious Adams. It would be difficult seeing her stand up to the powerful president either (which would be a pro for her hiring prospects).

Cons: The hiring of Williams would promote someone young, only moderately experienced, and would come with more than just a whiff of political correctness. Would seem simply a distaff Damon Evans hire to many.

Mark Lewis (Jet Set Sports)

Pros: Do not let the cartoonish company name fool you, Mark Lewis brings more business credentials to the table than any of the other candidates for the position. Son of former Bulldog defensive coordinator Bill Lewis, Mark grew up in Athens, attended Clarke Central High, and was a long-snapper for the Bulldogs. Boasting experience with the U.S. Olympic Committee, at General Electric, and now at Jet Set (an international event planning company for the Olympics), Lewis has overseen budgets that dwarf even that of a large athletic department. Still has ties to Athens as his brother Geoff is a teacher and coach in nearby Oconee County. Lewis would be a somewhat bold choice.

Cons: Lack of experience as an athletic director would be the first that jumps out, although his business background would likely supersede such concerns. One thing he might not be able to overcome is his link to the Dooley years. His dad was Vince’s defensive coordinator for nearly a decade.

Two others that deserve consideration:

Claude Felton … one of the top sports media people in the nation, Felton is universally admired within the UGA athletic department and throughout college athletics generally. Retained (apparently after some reservations by Adams/Evans) when he was passed over for Evans, Felton has remained a steadfast part of the Bulldog operation. Not an exciting pick perhaps, but Michael Adams could do much worse.

Frank Crumley … Typically considered second in command to Evans, Frank Crumley is a senior associate AD in charge of finance. With Georgia annually ranking as one of the most profitable departments in the nation, Crumley deserves much of the credit for keeping a close eye on all those Bulldog bucks. Talented, relatively young, and seen as an up-and-comer, his candidacy might be tainted by his close ties to Damon Evans (although it shouldn’t be).

Evans and Adams Should Go

Damon Evans should be fired as Athletic Director at the University of Georgia.

Consider that unlikely pending further details of his arrest.

Michael Adams should have long ago been fired as President of the University of Georgia.

He was not, and is in no danger of losing his job now.

Two of the three most visible and powerful people at the state’s flagship university are unfit to lead (the third – head football coach Mark Richt – should not be mentioned in the same company as Evans and Adams).

Evans was arrested by the Georgia State Patrol on Wednesday night in Atlanta after being spotted driving erratically, and charged with driving under the influence. Evans refused breathalyzer tests, and his unfortunate mug shot will likely be a lasting image.

To make matters more unseemly, Evans – a married father of two – was with a 28 year-old woman (not his wife) when pulled over near midnight. At his brief and unenlightening press conference Thursday evening, Evans called the woman just “a friend.” Perhaps.

The man who will decide the professional fate of Damon Evans is similarly unfit for leadership.

UGA President Michael Adams is a political brawler. He cut his teeth working for then U.S. Senate majority leader Howard Baker, and later as an aide to Governor Lamar Alexander (now U.S. Senator), both of Tennessee. That those two respected southern gentlemen would have someone as slimy as Adams representing them is not a positive mark on their records.

Since taking the helm in Athens in 1997, Adams has presided over a period of tremendous growth at UGA, something that very likely would have happened whether he or someone else was living in the President’s Mansion on Prince Avenue.

He is best known for controversial – and ethically questionable – decisions.

Adams fired football coach Jim Donnan in 2000 after consecutive 8-win seasons, against the wishes of longtime Athletic Director and Bulldog coaching legend Vince Dooley. Adams was later found to have doled out a secret payment to Donnan as well.

After butting heads with Dooley (who is most responsible for the ultimate hiring of Mark Richt as head coach), Adams engaged in a death-match struggle and forced the most influential icon in Bulldog athletic history out of his job. Adams replaced Dooley with Evans. While calling him a “yes-man” might be too strong (the Athletic Department has continued to roll along successfully under Evans) … if anyone can document a decision by Evans that went against the views of Adams, I would enjoy reading it.

Adams has other leadership lapses on his curriculum vitae as well.

He was responsible for hiring the reprehensible Jim Harrick as men’s basketball coach. He reimbursed the institution for questionable personal expenditures, paid a stipend from university funds to his wife (who once famously called the police when a group of basketball students came to the President’s home to complain about the dismissal of Harrick), and was embroiled in a controversy concerning the oversight of excessive spending on an “ecolodge” in Costa Rica.

His handling of the Dooley debacle caused enmity from a throng of loyal Bulldog boosters, and many withdrew donations. While the overall fund-raising efforts of the university have grown under Adams, there seems little doubt the level could have been higher had so many Dooley loyalists not been alienated.

Adams and Evans both earn taxpayer money.

In fiscal year 2009, Adams earned $607, 417.98 in salary with another $7779.14 in travel according to state records. The same report showed Evans earning $420,000.00. His recent $90,000 pay increase goes into effect today.

Adams and Evans work for you, me, and the rest of the citizens of Georgia. Their salaries come from our paychecks. They are eligible (if they choose to participate) to reap thousands upon thousands of retirement dollars through the bloated state retirement system.

Neither man is fit for his office.

Damon Evans should be fired. Michael Adams should go with him.

Consider both unlikely. For now.