HOOVER, Ala. — At long last, some brushstrokes were applied to the unvarnished SEC histories of Missouri and Texas A&M on Tuesday.
Wearing a matching maroon tie and pocket square, ambitious first-year A&M coach Kevin Sumlin answered a reporter, "What's my assessment (of the SEC West)? It's a pretty damn hard league. How is that? That's my assessment."
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, sporting a gold and blue striped tie pulled taut, grinned and admitted, "Our fans, to say that they are excited about us being in the SEC, would be a complete understatement. They've become fanatical about it."
The Aggies and Tigers didn't dip their toes in SEC waters Tuesday, they went to the springboard and took a dive in the deep end. SEC Media Days ; the league's annual tour de force of self promotion — welcomed members No. 13 and 14 with its blinding limelight. More than 1,000 media members, from print scribes to web writers to radio talking heads to television personalities, threw darts.
How do you compete in a league with six straight national champions?
What's it going to be like playing in a league with Nick Saban, Les Miles, Steve Spurrier, etc.?
Can you win?
Seemingly expected to emit unmediated awe, the SEC's new Big 12 transports toed the line between giving just due and not cowering into a corner.
"We're not intimidated," said Pinkel, later adding, "People are acting like we played a bunch of high school teams. We played in a pretty good league."
"My realistic expectations are to win," Sumlin said plainly. "I said that from day one."
For Sumlin, who spent the last four seasons coaching in the shallow waters of Conference USA at Houston, Tuesday drew a public eye that no other league can replicate. The 47-year-old handled it smoothly. Sumlin, who has been a head coach in just two bowl games, said the realization of his new reality came at May's SEC coaches meetings.
"When you walk into a room with 13 other head coaches in the SEC and (commissioner) Mike Slive, they close that door behind you and it's just you guys in there, that's when you know it's real," Sumlin said.
Luke Joeckel, a Texas A&M offensive lineman whose father played in the old Southwest Conference, never envisioned himself playing in the SEC. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Texan said he was destined for games versus Texas and Oklahoma and Nebraska. Awash in the glow of the SEC, though, even his Big 12 background gave way to a confession.
"I was always a Big 12 guy and I used to think that was the best competition, but now being in the SEC and watching film — it's going to be fun playing in the best conference in America," Joeckel said.
A year ago, neither Missouri nor Texas A&M finished among the top four in the Big 12. The Tigers went 8-5 overall and 6-4 in the league. A woeful defense led a once-promising Aggies season to a 7-6 record, a 4-5 league mark and the ousting of coach Mike Sherman.
Now SEC flags hang on A&M's Kyle Field and Mizzou's Memorial Stadium. The Tigers' welcoming gift is a league opener at home against Georgia. The Aggies, meanwhile, will play host to Florida for their inaugural league game.
Asked about those games, some players were made to think Darth Vader was heading to campus with a band blaring "The Imperial March."
To a man, each called the SEC the best league in the country. Then came the caveat.
"A lot of times, people blow it out of proportion," said Missouri senior offensive lineman Elvis Fisher. "The SEC is the best conference, don't get me wrong, but we weren't playing high schoolers in the Big 12."
Texas A&M's Sean Porter, a first-team All-Big 12 linebacker last season, concluded Tuesday by saying, "I've never done anything like this in my life," and added that he'd been asked a few "weird questions."
Now that varnish has some scuffs in it. Welcome to the SEC.
"We feel welcome," Porter said. "Even though we get a lot of the 'you're from the Big 12; you've never played football like this before,' we feel like people are excited to have us in the SEC, just like we're excited to be in it."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/@BFQuinn