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Volume 21 No. 1
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Roy Kramer: Behind the curtain …

Loren Matthews, the programming chief for a fledgling cable network called ESPN in the 1980s, was always on the lookout for content. One of the trends then was for ESPN to produce games and run them on a delay basis.

So while Roy Kramer was the athletic director at Vanderbilt during that time, he received a call from Matthews, who wanted to broadcast a Vandy-Georgia football game a day after it was played. ESPN would pay Vandy, the home team, $7,500. In exchange, the network would hang an ESPN banner in the end zone. One camera on top of the press box caught all of the action.

ESPN broadcast the game on that Sunday as planned, and the next day Kramer received a call from Georgia’s athletic director, Vince Dooley. He wanted to know how much Vanderbilt received and if Kramer intended to split the $7,500 with the Bulldogs.

“We had no conference deal to address that kind of thing back then and I said no,” Kramer said with a smile. “Every time I see Vince now, he says he’s still waiting for his $3,750. It sure was a different time back then.”

Kramer and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany were often seen as adversaries during the formation of the BCS, but Delany says he never saw it that way. In fact, many people close to the two college power brokers never knew that Delany’s wife and Kramer’s wife are cousins.

Kitty Delany and Sara Jo Kramer both grew up around Athens, Tenn., an hour southwest of Knoxville. So whatever tension might have mounted between the commissioners usually was eased by their wives.

Jeremy Foley, the longtime AD at Florida, considers himself to be one of the many people Kramer has influenced through the years. When Foley was a young AD in the early 1990s, he was upset with the umpires at a baseball game and went into their locker room to voice his displeasure.

“I got a call from Roy the next day and he just told me that I can’t do stuff like that,” Foley said. “He wasn’t threatening to fine me or anything like that, but he was talking to me in more of a fatherly way about how to handle things, and I really appreciated that. He saw a young guy who took the AD job at 39 years of age who needed some direction and guidance. I always felt like he had my best interests at heart and he was always there to help.”

Some of Kramer’s speeches at the NCAA Convention of the 1980s and ’90s became legendary because of the power of his voice and the passion he exhibited. He was, after all, a member of the Maryville High School debate team.

Once, as NCAA leaders debated how best to gauge academic progress of student athletes, Kramer warned his colleagues not to overinflate the value of the grade-point average.

“We’re treading on tenuous ground if we overemphasize the GPA and start changing what the student athlete majors in,” he said. “Then you’re going to have them asking, ‘Do I take engineering or Canadian fly-fishing?’ … Well, you better believe I got letters from every person who had ever been Canadian fly-fishing. I don’t know where I came up with that. It’s just the first thing I thought of.”

Kramer got the idea to move the SEC’s football championship game from Birmingham, Ala., to Atlanta from a Super Bowl he attended at the Georgia Dome in 1994. As he toured the new facility, Kramer turned to his wife and said, “This is where we’re going to have our game.”

“You didn’t have to worry about weather,” said Kramer, who had not been to a domed stadium before. “You had this great convention center next to it. It really wasn’t a hard decision.”

Once word leaked out, Kramer found himself in a firestorm back in Birmingham, where the SEC has its headquarters. Talk show host Paul Finebaum had organized a protest and vowed never to come inside an SEC building again.

Finebaum’s rants about Kramer didn’t go unnoticed. Kramer’s wife, Sara Jo, once called the show to support her husband.
“What are the odds of a commissioner’s wife calling a radio show?” Finebaum asked.

Finebaum, the longtime talk show host in Birmingham, had several interesting ways to describe Kramer:

“He’s like the guy playing the piano at the brothel in the French Quarter. He acts like he doesn’t see who’s going up and down the stairs, but he knows.”

“He could be Sherman-esque about some issues. The biggest disagreement we ever had was right after 9/11. When they decided to play football, he came on the air and was very cavalier about it. But that was the ex-coach in him. The way to get back to normal was to play football.”

“He probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He followed Harvey Schiller, who was a genius. And the commissioner of the ages [Mike Slive] came after him.”

One of Kramer’s favorite activities these days is to visit the Apple store at Knoxville’s West Town Mall for a session at the Genius Bar. Kramer has two iPads, one for him and one for his wife. “For a guy his age [83], he’s one of the most technologically advanced men I know,” said his daughter, Sara Gray Mackin. “He’s the one who moved the grandchildren to Macs.”

Seldom did Kramer’s children ever see their dad lose his temper. He had a different way of handling the pressure of coaching football.

“He’d say, ‘Let’s take a ride,’ and we’d all get in the car and go for a ride,” Mackin said. “When everything got in his face, he’d just get away from it and we’d go on a day trip, usually to a Civil War battlefield or something like that. He was a history teacher in high school, and he enjoyed that.”

— Compiled by Michael Smith