Alabama’s Nick Saban can walk anywhere he wants in the Southeastern Conference – college football’s roughest neighborhood – and no one can lay a finger on him.
His teams have won the national championship in three of the last four years. Overall, SEC teams have won the title seven consecutive years and the league is a dream destination for head coaches – until it turns into a grinding, weekly nightmare.
Somebody, after all, has to absorb all those losses that make everyone else look so good. Four of the SEC’s 14 coaches have been replaced since last season for a 28.6 percent turnover rate that sounds rather like an ominous crime stat. Last season, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee went a combined 3-29 in the SEC, 14-34 overall, and each of those coaches ultimately saw his resume inside a white chalk outline.
“The bottom line is you have to be successful,” said Gus Malzahn, who has returned to Auburn, where just three seasons ago he was offensive coordinator under Gene Chizik on the Tigers’ 14-0 national championship team led by quarterback Cam Newton. “I think all coaches, especially in this league, understand that.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban reacts to a question about a trip to Ireland, which he said he knows nothing about, during the Southeastern Conference football media days in Hoover, Ala., in August. Despite his incredulity at the question, Saban is accustomed to the bright lights of the SEC. (AP Photo/AL.com, Vasha Hunt)
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn watches a drill during the first day of practice earlier this month. Malzahn begins his second season at Auburn. (AP Photo/al.com, Julie Bennett)
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin now understands the spotlight of SEC football, thanks in part to a particular quarterback. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)
Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith says of new coach Bret Bielema, “He’s a very outspoken guy. Hog fans like that. What you see is what you get.” (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Though it is difficult to succeed on first down, it is possible. Look at James Franklin, who has made Vanderbilt relevant in games and not just math competitions. Look at first-year coaches Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M and the way they “overachieved” in 2012.
Auburn hired Malzahn away from Arkansas State (9-3 in his only season as a head coach) to bring Auburn back to prominence. Immediately, if not sooner. That’s the job description at Arkansas and Tennessee as well.
But even at Kentucky, first-time head coach Mark Stoops doesn’t want to settle for tamping down goals, though it makes more sense than the fans’ overly ambitious dreams.
“It’s really, to be honest with you, an uncomfortable situation for me because it’s not my style to try to temper those expectations,” said Stoops, whose brother Bob has had much success at Oklahoma. “I think the educated fan knows where we are as a program, knows we have a lot of work to do.
“But the flip side of that is I want that excitement. Our season tickets are up. People are excited and anticipating a good year, because we certainly are. We’re not going out there to put all this hard work in, to not compete, and not try to win games.”
The message to the fans can be a delicate line to walk. At Tennessee, the perception was that players had quit giving effort by the end of Derek Dooley’s third year and second straight 1-7 conference season. First-year coach Butch Jones, with a military haircut and a record that boasts bowl trips in five of six years at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, is about changing attitude and work ethic above all else.
“Tennessee fans, they just want to see effort,” said senior Vols offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James. “That’s what all of them talk about. They want to go out there and see Tennessee football.”
And that would be enough, just giving great effort?
Mississippi linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and second-year football coach Hugh Freeze confer during practice. “The expectations that are coming now with our program, I’m very careful,” Freeze said. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
“Well, at some point they’re going to get frustrated” if the wins don’t come, James said, reality always just around the next corner.
Each of the programs that made a coaching change has a story to tell, some more sordid than others. The Razorbacks followed the literal off-the-road disaster that was Bobby Petrino with the on-the-field embarrassment overseen by John L. Smith. Arkansas won just four games in 2012 and lost three of four homes games to start the season, including in overtime to the vaunted Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks.
Enter first-year coach Bret Bielema, who led Wisconsin to seven straight bowl games and three consecutive Rose Bowls. But on Dec. 5, 2012, when he walked into his first Arkansas team meeting, those past successes mattered far less than the fact that many of his players were looking at their third coach in three years.
“Everybody sat in that room with a different story,” Bielema said. “Yeah, they had all just gone 4-8. They might have been the starting right corner, backup defensive tackle, second-string left guard on punt (coverage). But everybody went through it.”
Including senior defensive end Chris Smith, who said, “Coach Bielema’s going to bring Band-Aids to the hurt program.”
Malzahn also found a team in need of healing. First, the Tigers had been rocked by their own scandal – reported widespread synthetic marijuana use among players during the 2010 team’s national championship run. Then they fell all the way to 0-8 in the SEC last season, the final indignity a 49-0 loss to archrival Alabama.
“When I first got here, I had to do some Dr. Phil-ing,” Malzahn said. “There were some mental scars.”
Which Bielema believes isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“To me, scars are a good thing,” he said. “Scars are a daily reminder of things you’ve persevered. If you can accept what’s happened in the past, if we can move forward together, take every day for what it is, you’re going to have this be a growing experience instead of a dying experience.”
Freeze, who, like Malzahn, joined the SEC coaching ranks after one very successful year at Arkansas State, inherited an Ole Miss team with a fragile psyche. The Rebels had gone 2-10 in 2011 and were 1-15 in the SEC over the last two years under Houston Nutt. Predictions for Freeze’s first season were almost apologetic – tough situation, tough schedule, so sorry, coach, you may not win more than three or four games.
Instead, the Rebels won all the games they were supposed to win, took advantage of Auburn and Arkansas having down years, beat Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, and finished with a 38-17 victory over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl for a totally unexpected 7-6 season. And the record easily might have been 9-4; the Rebels lost by three to Texas A&M and by one to Vanderbilt.
“We were fortunate in year one,” Freeze said recently, as he now stares ahead at an even more challenging schedule. “I would not be quite truthful to stand here and tell you we didn’t have some fortune go our way.”
While much was made of quarterback Bo Wallace playing hurt, Freeze admits it was rare to be able to start the same five offensive linemen every game and to have the receiving corps in place all season. The defensive line incurred only minor injuries as well.
“The expectations that are coming now with our program, I’m very careful,” Freeze said. “I told every group I went to this spring, I tell our team quite often, that unrealistic expectations always produce frustration. … Our task in year two is to maintain the enthusiasm and energy from both our fans and our players as we continue to strive to be relevant in the SEC West.”
Translation: in 2013 Ole Miss may discover that a big step forward is sometimes followed by a small step backward.
First, the marketing plan
Malzahn returned to Auburn speaking of a “new day.” At Kentucky, players parrot Stoops’ “attack the day” theme.
“If I’m doing a rep on the bench press, I’ll be mad at myself if I do three reps hard and take one of them off,” linebacker Avery Williamson said. “That’s what it means to attack the day.”
At UT, Butch Jones speaks of “building a championship culture” to bring the Vols back among college football’s elite programs. “We talked about doing that brick by brick,” Jones said. “That’s not a fancy slogan. We really meant that every brick is symbolic of every individual in our football family.”
On the front end, players seem universally bought into their respective “new days” and building projects. Vols defensive lineman Jacques Smith calls Jones “genuine.”
Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith says of Bielema, “He’s a very outspoken guy. Hog fans like that. What you see is what you get.”
Of course, what fans really like is winning at a level that exceeds expectations. Tangible improvement might be enough in year one, but only if fans and other self-appointed experts, such as sports writers and broadcasters, believe they see more improvement on the horizon based on recruiting.
Jones has received strong reviews in this area. Bielema has his eyes on Texas.
“We have a certain alumni (Cowboys owner Jerry Jones) that built a stadium in the middle of Texas that is very big,” Bielema said. “He won a national championship when he was a player at Arkansas. Jerry Jones had made the commitment he wants to make everything he can about Arkansas great.”
Stoops has a pretty powerful ambassador in his own right: former University of Memphis basketball coach and current Kentucky hoops icon John Calipari.
“Coach Calipari, he could not be any better,” Stoops said. “We bring recruits in, he visits with them.”
Peyton Manning, among others, has been back to UT to speak to players about the pride of wearing the orange and white and understanding the football program has a history that current players will contribute to in one way or another.
Said offensive lineman Tiny Richardson: “I’m not just representing myself, but a line of guys who came through here and have been successful.”
Perhaps all this encouragement and support will help. But once the games start, there’s really nothing Peyton Manning, John Calipari or even Jerry Jones can do for their teams. The SEC’s new coaches will amass records that, at the end, will be their own.
Auburn cornerback Chris Davis took inspiration from the huge turnout at their spring game – evidence of a “new day” – because last season it became common to look up into the stands at Jordan-Hare Stadium and see fans leaving early.
“They say they’re back on the ‘Gus Bus,’” Davis said. “We all are.”
At least for now. In the safety of the preseason, just before the doors open and these four new coaches and their still-healing teams step into the mean streets of the SEC.