11 Days. 11 States. 2900 Miles. The Search For Why In The SEC, It Just Means More.
Imagine telling the story of the mighty Southeastern Conference, the unquestioned king of college football, without ever mentioning or focusing on a single SEC football player or coach. Seems foolish, doesn't it?
But hey, when you are tasked by the commissioner of the SEC, Greg Sankey, to give the SEC brand a new voice, to start a new conversation about what it really means to be part of the SEC, ginning up the football highlight clips just won't cut it. Flipping this SEC thing over and playing the B-side of the record was absolutely our goal, in the form of a national TV commercial unfolding during SEC football games on CBS, ESPN, and the SEC Network this season. See, everyone already knows the SEC for football, and there is so much more (might want to keep this key word handy) to SEC culture than that. There are so many other stories to be told. We just had to get out there and tell them.
We carefully plotted out an 11-day trek into the heart (and small arteries) of SEC Country this summer. We'd visit old barns, older cemeteries, and even older libraries under summer Southern storm clouds and over the Mississippi River, pass fields of sunflowers and small town squares from Savannah to Texarkana, down to Orange Beach, Alabama, and up to Columbia, Missouri, in search of the true soul of this collection of 14 universities.
We asked anyone who came within earshot, "So, what is it about the SEC that means so much to people?" We were energized by the tongue-tied total lack of specificity in their answers. The locals definitely had their theories, memories, and feelings, but everyone went through some amount of struggle to try and pin down the perfect answer. We wondered if maybe there isn't one. The spirit of the SEC may be just that: hard to visualize, grasp, and certainly verbalize. Regardless, our kids were all off in summer camps anyway, so heck - challenge accepted!
We knew we couldn't hop around by air - we'd miss too much. We had to get down in it - we'd go by van. We'd go the back way, whichever way that needed to be. And we'd go in the heat of the off-season, when only the stories and the spirit of the SEC resided.
A few of us from The Richards Group assembled a small production crew and started to tell our story in Savannah, Georgia, under a regal ancient oak with small chandeliers of Spanish moss catching the breeze off the Wilmington River. It was the quintessential Southern backdrop, a unique setting to perfectly lay claim to this conference's uniquely Southern geography.
From there, we were off to Lexington, South Carolina, where our first taste of our new SEC theme line, "It Just Means More," was on full display. We rolled up to Richard Jackson's 4,000-square-foot party barn behind his house on the point of Lake Murray outside West Columbia, South Carolina. Inside: wall-to-wall memorabilia, full kitchen, flat-screen TV, antique cars, you name it. A party barn for the local Gamecocks? Nope. For the Tennessee Volunteers, of course. Here was the orange-covered game-watching headquarters for the Columbia-area UT Alumni Club. (See, the ripple effect of the SEC means UT orange blood flows far beyond Knoxville.)
We needed a two-second shot of our on-camera SEC Ambassador, accomplished LA TV and film actress and former Auburn homecoming queen Wynn Everett (AU Class of '00), standing in front of a jukebox in a local UT hangout. These wonderful people threw a full-blown, 50-person, three-generation tailgating event. We thought it was all for us, but we soon came to realize it was really for the Vols. In the middle of July. They stayed up overnight smoking their favorite pulled-pork barbecue with homemade coconut pound cake to boot. The group, between takes, sat and watched a rerun of a UT game from last season or last decade - who knows - up on the big screen. And they were riveted. It was like it was five hours before kickoff and Neyland Stadium was right next door. Clearly, here, being attached to an SEC school means more.
Then, it was off to Columbia and the University of South Carolina. The shot: observing double-major grad student and former USC student body president Lindsay Richardson doing her thing. Lindsay is a delightful young African-American woman and a complete nonactor. Perfect. It was not lost on us where we were meeting her: the 176-year-old South Caroliniana Library, the oldest freestanding college library in the United States. Inside this national treasure, among many historic documents, a manuscript dating to 1683 encourages fellow French Huguenots to come settle in the new colony of Carolina. And here, 333 years later, an unlikely group were all together, filming Lindsay in her natural habitat, studying. Chalk up another one for authenticity.
From there, we stopped overnight in Decatur, Georgia. The shot we needed (no big deal): just a newborn, authentic Vanderbilt legacy curled up asleep inside a Vanderbilt football helmet. We decided to re-create the kind of birth announcements that get circulated in these parts. So we met up with Vanderbilt alums Anoosh and Kelly Ann Bahiraei (Vandy class of '00). They were gracious enough to endure the five-hour drive down from Nashville with their 10-day-old baby boy, Patrick George, to meet us along our route.
Auburn, Alabama, and the home of Auburn University were on the docket the next morning. The shot: looking out over famous Toomer's Corner in the heart of a small SEC town. Toomer's, the iconic 1950s drugstore, was the backdrop. To get the right downward angle, we got an eight-foot ladder from which we could film through the branches of the new oak saplings. These are the same saplings that are struggling to replace the large oaks recently poisoned and killed on that site.
Our mistake was twofold: (1) We brought our own freshly cut oak branches to use as props to shoot through, which looked remarkably like the ones currently attached to the struggling baby trees; (2) word that we were there shooting a commercial for the SEC never got to groundskeepers, the townspeople, or the Auburn head professor of horticulture. After mortified fans called in, AU landscape guys (on Gators), the Auburn marketing guy (on foot), and the head horticulture professor (on a ten-speed bike) converged on us within minutes. Suffice it to say, certain foliage means more at Auburn University.
From there, we were on to Tennille (not pronounced like Captain & Tennille - it's proudly pronounced Ten-ULL), Georgia, where we found the famous Georgia Barn on the way from Athens to the annual Georgia-Florida throwdown in Jacksonville. It's a landmark along GA State Route 15 for sure. Built in the 1920s, with one side recently repurposed as an old-school social media post by local Bulldogs fan and amateur painter Ross Smith, the barn even has its own Facebook page. On this day, the barn reads "Glory, Glory To Ole Georgia."
We drove six hours out of our way to meet up with Florida alum and former football walk-on Dr. Garrison Rolle (Class of '90) in Tallahassee, where he is an orthopedic surgeon and owns his own surgical practice. His son Garrison Jr., a Gator sophomore and on track to be a surgeon himself, also scrubbed in for the three-second shot.
From here, we shot over to Orange Beach, Alabama, to rendezvous with the Faulkner family. The shot: three generations of Alabama graduates on a chartered fishing boat. We borrowed a $2 million fishing boat. The Faulkners wanted to show off their three generations of well-earned Bama rings, while the boat's seller wanted to show off the boat on a highly visible SEC commercial. It was, as they say, a win-win.
We wanted to capture the Mississippi River in this story as the backbone of the conference. So the Natchez-Vidalia bridges would be the scene for our next shot, with Mississippi State graduate Ryan Marchbanks (Class of '01) driving over the river at sunset. We thought an overhead shot might be neat. The director contacted a local pilot who does land mapping and who was more than happy to lend us his plane (and himself to fly it) for a few hours .
No time to linger in Natchez. SEC Male Athlete of the Year Jarrion Lawson - a University of Arkansas graduate, track star, and current MBA student - and his parents would be waiting for us in their trophy-covered family room in Texarkana, Texas (or was it Arkansas?), the next day. Jarrion was working us into his crazy schedule as he was headed to Rio the next week to begin final preparations for the Summer Olympics. So, from Natchez, we were high-tailing it westward when, just outside Vidalia, our lead van was pulled over for speeding.
Our trailing van pulled over behind them, and we watched the traffic stop play out through our windshield. After a few seconds, we asked, "Um, why is the cop pulling up the sleeve of his shirt?" And a few moments later, "Wait. Did the officer just...salute?" Turns out, when the officer learned that we had just filmed a scene for the SEC with a Mississippi State graduate, the cop showed off his MSU tattoo and, yes, saluted our guys to be safe and have a good day. Bet that doesn't happen for other conference marketing firms.
From Texarkana, we backtracked through the night over to Oxford, Mississippi - home of the Ole Miss Rebels and the best shrimp and grits on the face of the Earth at City Grocery on the Square. (Our writer is from Charleston, South Carolina, where shrimp and grits was basically invented. He's had 'em all, and he said it's no contest.) A much-needed down day offered us a chance to soak up Oxford. Adorable. Picturesque. Idyllic. Quaint. All of us are now encouraging our children to try and get a scholarship to Ole Miss.
Anyway, our job here was to film about three Ole Miss cheerleaders doing the traditional "Lock the Vaught" cheer as they do in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. It's one of those simple, quirky gestures that's time-honored and adamantly protected here in SEC Country. And it's another mere two-second shot for the commercial. We weren't even going to see faces. Would have been much easier to just hire a few actors, borrow some Ole Miss cheerleader uniforms, shoot it in a field in Dallas, and call it a day.
But no. If it truly "Just Means More" in the SEC, it meant we weren't going to fake anything. We were dedicated to authenticity. So we put in the request to have a few of the current cheerleaders help us and waited for the sun to drop at Taylor Grocery, home of the sweet tea/fried catfish/chocolate cobbler supper of your dreams. Well, of course the entire squad showed up to the practice field, 50 total. All with big smiles and greetings of "Hotty Toddy!" all around. (Just being friendly to a road-weary production crew means more in Oxford.) Oh, and the Oxford Fire Department came. See, we wanted to create "rain" to add a little more dedication to the moment. Why hire a professional rain machine and crew for $10,000 when the fire chief offered the services of his crew and truck for free? (In the final cut, we ended up using a non-rain take. Sorry for getting you all wet, guys.)
The last leg of our trek would take us six more hours up Interstate 55 to Columbia, Missouri, to capture a quick shot of the iconic Mizzou columns and a statue of Truman the Tiger. (You know you've put some miles on the van when you start to see signs to Chicago. As in Illinois.) The same Truman statue that the administration doesn't really want anyone riding, but hey, it's for the SEC, so they thought it would be okay to bend the rules a bit. With the regal dome of Jesse Hall in the background of our heart-of-campus shot on an unseasonably cool July afternoon, it was a mighty fine way to wrap up our trip.
2,900 miles total, ten states (most repeated), and the best part? Despite a Herculean effort, well, we never fully captured why "It Just Means More" in the SEC - and we probably never will. But we felt that while witnessing the story of this magical conference, for 11 days at least, we got to sit in awfully sweet front-row 50-yard-line seats.