An inside look at what really happens at SEC Media Days (Cont.)
Doug Segrest, a veteran reporter for the Birmingham News, is standing by the escalator. He knows the guy. Sure, he says. That was George Lapides. He's right over there.
George Lapides (pronounced LA-PITAS) is a sprightly old man with close-cropped white hair, bifocals and a genuine old-time Southern accent. He is very friendly. As it turns out, he is also the single best person to ask about the history of this event. He's been covering it for nearly 50 years.
"I've been to every one," Lapides said. "I think there are only two of us still alive. And I'm the only one still working."
It was different back in the '60s. There were fewer than 40 people covering the SEC, as opposed to 800, and they could all fit in a Martin 4-0-4 airplane. Which they did. Instead of sitting around a hotel they flew together from one SEC school to the next, talking with coaches and players and getting to know the football landscape. In Gainesville, coach Ray Graves hosted them for dinner at his own home. Back then the coaches actually talked to you.
One day Lapides watched a scrimmage from the sideline with Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who was talking about a freshman running back. Dooley said the kid wouldn't be ready for another year. They stood together as the defensive lineman Eddie (Meat Cleaver) Weaver smashed the kid and forced a fumble.
I told you he's not ready, Dooley told Lapides.
The kid got the ball again, and got hit again, and fumbled again. Not ready? Well, maybe he was. On September 6, 1980, Georgia played Tennessee, and Dooley gave the kid another chance. That led to this immortal play-by-play call from Larry Munson, the voice of the Bulldogs:
Herschel Walker went 16 yards! He bowled right over orange shirts, just driving and running with those big thighs. My God, a freshman.
Another time, George Lapides was sitting in the school cafeteria with Auburn coach Pat Dye. And Dye said, I got me a running back right now who could start for the 49ers, Rams and Falcons.
Who's that? Lapides asked.
Vincent Jackson, Dye said.
Lapides asked if he could talk with Jackson. Dye said he didn't usually allow freshmen to talk to reporters. Lapides pushed a little, and Dye relented. Lapides got an interview with young Vincent. He wrote a column for the old Memphis Press-Scimitar proclaiming that he'd found the next Herschel Walker.
Well, not exactly. He had actually found Bo Jackson.
But Lapides may have been closest with Bear Bryant, the king of the Crimson Tide. Bryant used to call his house at night, and if his 10-year-old son, Michael, answered, then Michael and the Bear would chat like old friends for 20 or 30 minutes. When George Lapides was hospitalized for back surgery, Bryant sent him a framed picture with a note that said get well soon.
Those were the days.
Oh, by the way: that little conversation in the ballroom with John L. Smith? Not actually a confrontation. Lapides covered Smith when Smith was still at Louisville. They used to play in golf tournaments together. Smith called Lapides "Gorgeous George." They could go back and forth that way in the ballroom because they are something like old friends.
Smith confirmed all of this in a brief interview between visits with Fox Sports and ESPN.com. "You called each other by name," he said of the old days. "There were times when you could say, 'Don't print this,' and then say a few things, and they wouldn't print it."
Imagine saying that to several hundred news-starved reporters with their fingers hovering over the Tweet button.
The next morning, Alabama fans press seven and eight deep against the crowd-control barriers in the lobby. They want to see Nick Saban, the coach who has brought them two national titles in the last three years. Many people say Saban's arrival will be the highlight of the event, but George Lapides is not holding his breath. He does not know Saban. Nor does he really know Derek Dooley, the Tennessee coach, even though they live in the same state and Lapides was once close friends with Dooley's mother and father. "I don't even know 90 percent of these people," Lapides said the day before, "and I'll tell you 99 percent of them don't know me."
Now he's doing his radio program, live on Radio Row near the entrance to the Riverchase Galleria mall, for Sports 56 WHBQ in Memphis. He says it's the longest-running sports talk radio show in America, but it may not run much longer. It was once three hours long, then two, now one. Lapides will turn 73 in November. He was recently diagnosed with diabetes, and had five stents put in his heart, and had eight feet removed from his small intestine. Still, he looks happy this morning. He smiles often, and his feet tap the floor with excitement as a very large young man approaches the table and sits down.
"A wonderful young man," Lapides said. "Barrett Jones from Alabama."
"Six, seven minutes," warns one of Jones's handlers, a serious man in a dark suit.
And so they talk like old friends for six or seven minutes. Their relationship is something of a coincidence. They're both from Memphis, and they both love the Memphis Grizzlies, and Lapides has often seen Jones and his family at the games. Jones made first-team All-American for the Crimson Tide last year as a junior, and now Lapides looks at him like a grandfather beholding his grandson.
The coach is around here somewhere. In a few minutes he will address the crowd upstairs. It will be a perfectly nice speech, and perfectly bland, featuring liberal use of the words enhance and maximize and implement and forefront and beneficial and outcome. Then the great Nick Saban, heir to the throne of Bear Bryant, will walk off the stage just as remote and unknowable as he was when he arrived.
But here they are, Lapides and Jones, just an old man and a young man, just talking. This will probably be the last SEC Media Days for George Lapides. There is not much point in coming anymore.
The dark-suited handler waves a finger in a circular motion, indicating that time is up.
George Lapides looks at Barrett Jones.
"Always good to see you," he said. "Say hello to your folks for me."
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