DESTIN, Fla. — If I had made out the itinerary for this week’s SEC spring meetings, Sonny Smith and Bruce Pearl would have been conducting a coaching seminar.
And they wouldn’t have had to draw a single “x” or “o.”
So what if Smith is long retired from his coaching heyday in the 1980s at Auburn. Of if Pearl is beginning his third year in coaching purgatory after a spectacular run at Tennessee ended in his firing for lying about NCAA violations. They both have something to offer.
And they both remind us what the conference is missing.
Just because the SEC is primarily a football league — and its football has never been better — doesn’t mean basketball has to be a big bore. Both sports thrived in the early to mid-1980s when SEC football gave us Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, when almost every SEC basketball team had a future NBA player and when coaches understood the value of being a court-side attraction.
Former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson’s sports coats had more personality than today’s average SEC basketball coach. Former Georgia coach Hugh Durham could convey more with a well timed double take or a raised eyebrow than most current coaches can in a 15-minute interview.
Former LSU coach Dale Brown’s news conferences upstaged games. And when Smith was coaching Auburn, he was even wittier than his best player, Charles Barkley.
Asked what’s missing from SEC basketball, Smith said, “The No. 1 thing would be the entertainment part of it, the coaches being able to be themselves instead of robotic.
“From the coaches’ standpoint, they just aren’t as entertaining as they possibly could be. I don’t know if they are as engaging with their fans as much as they should be.
“I could be wrong. But we’re talking about the perception here.”
Kentucky and Florida are exceptions to the perception. There’s nothing bland about winning, as the Wildcats have done under John Calipari, and the Gators have under Billy Donovan.
When you win the way they have, even “robotic” can be colorful. But Calipari and Donovan also are two of the most quotable coaches in the conference.
The rest of the SEC coaches could use a crash course on showmanship.
Pearl didn’t just revitalize Tennessee basketball by winning. He did so by realizing he was in the entertainment business.
The demeanor of so many current coaches suggests they’re in the mortuary business.
Pearl distinguished himself by painting his chest orange and baring it at a women’s basketball game. He could entertain by sweating.
“If Bruce had been coaching back in our day, he would have just been one of the boys,” Smith said. “People liked that we did (or said) those crazy things. Today, coaches are afraid to do that.”
So the entertainment is limited to the talent on the court, which isn’t what it used to be, and a prevailing style of play that produces 50-point scores with numbing regularity. The SEC was more entertaining in the early 1980s, even without a shot clock or 3-point line.
Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson was the best entertainment the conference had to offer last season.
Never mind if his eyes said, “I need medication.” Or if you always thought he was just one shot or taunt ahead of ejection. He stood out like Pearl in body paint.
And he made you watch. Who else in the SEC did?
I’m not recommending coaches go psycho. But if they can’t recruit more entertaining players, they could at least don a sports jacket worthy of a Hugh Durham double take.