ATLANTA — It has been quite a month for Laura Rutledge.
The SEC Network’s benevolent host was asked to MC the SEC Championship Coaches’ Luncheon on Friday at The Hyatt Regency. That meant interviewing Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart in a brief panel discussion before a crowd of sponsors and ticketed guests.
Rutledge was charming and funny as always, with some of the most entertaining moments coming at her own expense.
Rutledge’s main task Friday was to take questions from the assembled guests and read them off to the coaches. The person determined to have submitted the best question was rewarded with a prize, a round-trip to somewhere exotic.
One of the questions she asked didn’t win, but it probably should have:
“This is for Coach Saban,” Rutledge said, reading from an index card, “How do you ensure that your team stays motivated with the amount of sex it has had, uh, I mean, success it has had?”
Rutledge stopped, covered her mouth and chortled red-faced as the crowd of a couple hundred roared in laughter — along with the respective coaches.
Just as the noise subsided, with perfect comedic timing, Saban deadpanned: “I’m not sure I understand the question.”
More laughter. Georgia’s Smart nearly fell out of his chair he was laughing so hard.
There was a lot of that on Friday, kidding and teasing and storytelling. There are some high stakes being played for in Saturday’s monumental matchup between the nation’s No. 1 and No. 4 teams. But the day before was the Nick and Kirby Show in Atlanta, with Rutledge as a somewhat reluctant co-star.
The Alabama and Georgia coaches were the featured guests everywhere they went, even if they weren’t exactly thrilled to be there (both admitted they weren’t).
But if you were in position to listen, it was at the Coaches’ Luncheon you wanted to be in attendance. Unlike at the media press conference, which would occur an hour later at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Smart and Saban were loose and engaging in the panel-style interview skillfully (mostly) conducted by Rutledge.
Rutledge instantly put the notoriously high-strung coaches at ease by lobbing them relational and non-football questions. She asked them who was better at golf and which coach was better at basketball. It gave them the opportunity to share stories about the good times they shared at Alabama, rather than focus on their year-round battle of beating the brakes off each other on the field and in recruiting.
For instance, Saban had no problem admitting that Smart was the better basketball player, but also pointed out that was why Smart was almost always on his team for their weekly pick-up games in Tuscaloosa.
“You’ve got to understand, I always got to pick my team first,” Saban said.
In one of many well-timed retorts, Smart fired back: “Yeah, he gets to do that in football, too.”
Later, when asked about his future at Alabama, Saban said he only, hoped to “maintain some kind of standard.”
Laughing again, Smart replied, “Yeah, some sort of standard.”
Clearly the former co-workers were enjoying the trip down memory lane. But they did get around to talking some football.
Saban said he thought Georgia was playoff team regardless of the outcome of the championship game.
Smart said he thought the 36-16 loss to LSU on Oct. 13, “made us look in the mirror and helped a lot of our guys buy in to what we were saying we needed to do.”
The Bulldogs remain the SEC’s youngest team, with freshmen and sophomores making up 68 percent of the roster. Smart said their plan was to play a lot of those young players early “so we’d be better at the end.”
Saban said this year’s team stands out from the other great ones he has had because of its ability to score points in bunches.
“Our style is completely different from what it’s ever been before in terms of the skill players and all the explosive offensive plays,” he said.
Of his most skilled skill player, his Heisman Trophy-favored quarterback Tua Tagoavailo, Saban said. “We kind of expected that could happen, and he certainly hasn’t disappointed.”
For her part, Rutledge kept the conversation light and flowing. She never allowed the coaches a chance to fall into a cascade of clichés, which they would both do later in media interviews.
Smart actually broached the subject of neither of them wanting to be talking to anybody but their players on Friday.
“I know he’s not happy about being here because on Friday we’re supposed to be with our team,” Smart said.
“It’s just a conflict,” Saban said of his aversion to having to be there. “It’s a necessary thing we do for the league and we’re happy to do it. We are, after all, in the entertainment business. But it takes us away from what we need to be doing.”
As for her slip-up in the interview, Rutledge blamed it on Smart.
“It’s Kirby’s fault,” she joked. “I got concussed at his game.”
Three weeks ago Saturday, Rutledge was doing a sideline report at Georgia-UMass game when she was taken out at the end of a play by Georgia running back Prather Hudson.
Hudson would later send a playful tweet jokingly asking her out. He may or may not have known she’s married.
— Laura Rutledge (@LauraMRutledge) November 20, 2018
Earlier this month, Rutledge nearly got bucked off a horse riding a Kentucky thoroughbred onto the set of SEC Nation before the Georgia-Kentucky game in Lexington. She nearly came to tears playing with Georgia’s bulldog mascot, Uga X, on a recent visit to Athens.
One would never know Rutledge is a proud Florida graduate. But whether it’s at a coaches’ luncheon or on a pregame set, she is worth tuning in for regardless of team affiliation.