VOL. 131 | NO. 161 | Friday, August 12, 2016
Safe to Scorching: SEC Coaches Feel the Burn
DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent
There are two kinds of football coaches in the Southeastern Conference: those that have gotten fired and those that haven’t gotten fired – yet.
This is a conference in a constant state of flux for football. The average tenure at their current schools of the 14 SEC coaches is 3.57 years. That’s right: Just making it through a full four-year recruiting cycle is tough.
With enormous salaries come great expectations and huge pressure. You’re only as good as your last game. Consider: Gene Chizik won a national championship at Auburn in 2010. Two years later, he was fired.
Since 2000, a total of 35 football coaches have left SEC programs. Of those 35, only 13 left on their own terms. Seven retired, most recently Gary Pinkel at Missouri after last season. Six left for other programs, most recently James Franklin, who departed Vanderbilt for Penn State after the 2013 season.
The other 22 were fired. OK, you can apply whatever term you choose (left by mutual agreement, negotiated resignation, etc.) but the bottom line is those 22 coaches wanted to continue at their current places of employment in the SEC but were informed that was not an option.
Behind the desk of every SEC coach is a seat. Entering the 2016 season, here is a gauge of the temperatures of those 14 coaches, from the coolest to the hottest:
Nick Saban, Alabama: He’s simply the best of his chosen profession, with the resume and the paycheck to prove it. Saban owns five national championships – one at LSU and four at Alabama – and runs the best overall program in college football. He recruits great talent, develops players, hires terrific assistants and orchestrates it all with a tireless work ethic.
At age 64, Saban shows no signs of retiring. The only thing that would lure him away is a second shot at the NFL (he was just 15-17 in two seasons as coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2005-06) but he doesn’t seem so inclined. Why walk away now?
On solid ground
Butch Jones, Tennessee: By increasing the Vols’ victory total in each of his three seasons – from five to seven to nine – Jones clearly has the program headed in the right direction. In particular, his recruiting has greatly upgraded the roster, particularly in terms of speed and overall athleticism. He also has pumped enthusiasm into a program that had hit on hard times.
The biggest challenge now for Jones is to meet the increased expectation level. Jones needs to take advantage of a division that is in transition with three coaches that are in their first season. Anything less than a berth in the SEC Championship Game will be seen as a failure.
Jim McElwain, Florida: While Nick Saban’s coaching tree has its hits (Jimbo Fisher, Mark Dantonio) and its misses (Derek Dooley), McElwain is made of the right stuff. Despite major issues on offense, McElwain squeezed a 10-4 record and an SEC East title out of the Gators in his first season.
It says a lot about McElwain’s job security that he was one of those pushing to bring Gators legend Steve Spurrier back to the university in a consultant’s role.
McElwain isn’t worried about the Head Ball Coach looking over his shoulder. “What are egos?” McElwain said. “Those are things that get you fired.”
Kirby Smart, Georgia: While many programs have expressed interest in hiring Smart over the last several years, it was the lure of coaching at his alma mater that finally influenced him to leave Alabama, where he was the nation’s highest paid assistant coach.
Much is expected. Although Mark Richt could never get the Bulldogs into the national championship conversation, he set the bar high with 10 or more victories in nine of his 15 seasons. Many in the coaching community believe Smart will be the next Nick Saban disciple to hit it big. Georgia got its man.
Bret Bielema, Arkansas: Things didn’t look so good for Bielema when the Razorbacks opened last season 2-4. But Arkansas turned things around with six wins in the last seven games, including back-to-back victories at Ole Miss and LSU, and Bielema has continued to fortify the roster.
Bielema’s job security seems solid because Arkansas invested so heavily in hiring him. He seemed to be locked in at Wisconsin with three straight Rose Bowl appearances but instead made the move to Fayetteville after the 2012 regular season. While his offensive approach may be rooted in old-school ideas, Bielema’s Razorbacks scored 40 or more points five times last season.
Safe, for now
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Although he often flies under the radar in a conference of rock star coaches, Mullen continues to put up impressive numbers in Starkville. In just seven seasons, his 55 victories already rank him third among Bulldogs coaches. In 2014, he coached the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the nation for four weeks.
State has had six straight winning seasons on Mullen’s watch and the Bulldogs are a combined 19-7 in the last two years. One mark against Mullen is that his Bulldogs have lost their Egg Bowl matchup with rival Ole Miss in three of the last four years.
Will Muschamp, South Carolina: Since this is his first season with the Gamecocks, Muschamp is in no immediate danger. But the honeymoon won’t last long if he doesn’t win some games. Muschamp was not the first choice of South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner, who preferred Houston coach Tom Herman and also made a pass at Kirby Smart.
Beyond that, Muschamp’s shaky four-year head coaching run at Florida in 2011-14 makes him vulnerable. Having been fired by another SEC East school so recently, Muschamp needs to prove he is up to the job.
Barry Odom, Missouri: After what was termed by the university “a thorough national search,” Missouri elevated defensive coordinator Odom to head coach, succeeding the retiring Gary Pinkel. Odom, 39, will get plenty of leeway since he is all-Tiger. He is a former Mizzou player and was an assistant coach for four years, including defensive coordinator last season.
But his lack of name recognition outside the immediate Mizzou family could work against him if Odom does not succeed quickly. It’s a tough job. After winning the SEC East in 2013 and ’14, the Tigers have encountered considerable turbulence.
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss: The on-field performance has been terrific, with four consecutive winning seasons, including the 10-3 run last year. Beyond that, Freeze’s teams are fun to watch because of his fast-paced, high-flying offense.
It is off the field where potential trouble looms. A lengthy NCAA investigation turned up a number of nasty allegations. At the NFL draft, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil admitted he had taken money from a Rebels assistant coach to help his mother pay bills. If the NCAA drops the hammer on Ole Miss, will the university administration stand behind Freeze?
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: Everybody knew it would tough to follow Franklin’s run of three consecutive bowl trips and back-to-back nine-win seasons. Just the same, it’s safe to say Mason has not met expectations with a 7-17 record and only two SEC wins in his two seasons.
The Vanderbilt administration seems to be solidly behind him. It helps that the Commodores improved dramatically on defense last season after he took over as coordinator. But the first four games of the season – at home against South Carolina and Middle Tennessee, on the road at Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech – are key to his security.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn: The Tigers are just 15-11 overall and 6-10 in the SEC since playing for the national championship in 2013, Malzahn’s first season. Despite going into the 2015 season with high expectations, Auburn never found its footing offensively and finished 7-6, winning just two SEC games.
Malzahn is under the gun. Perhaps he has noticed that his predecessor, Gene Chizik, was fired just two years after winning the national championship. Malzahn has vowed to be more hands-on with the offense and is counting on new arrival Kevin Steele to upgrade things as defensive coordinator.
The seat is on fire
Les Miles, LSU: The phrase “What’s past is prologue” is a fair analysis for the tempest surrounding Miles in Baton Rouge. Various reports had Miles on the verge of being fired after a November collapse last season, but he ultimately survived.
But just because somebody threw Miles a lifeline at the 11th hour doesn’t mean the same factors that contributed to his near-ouster are not still in play. Since playing in the national championship game in 2011, the Tigers have struggled against top-tier competition. Miles needs a big season or he’s likely out at LSU.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: When the Aggies burst upon the SEC scene by beating Alabama and going 11-2 in 2012, Sumlin was viewed as a rising coaching star. But things haven’t taken off from there. A&M has gone 8-5 and finished outside the Top 25 in each of the last two seasons.
The expectation level in College Station is extremely high. It doesn’t help that A&M keeps losing big-time quarterbacks like Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, although the arrival of Trevor Knight from Oklahoma should help this year.
Worth considering: Sumlin’s buyout would require paying him $5 million for each year remaining on his contract, which runs through 2019.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky: Although the expectation level for Big Blue football is lower than most SEC programs, it is no secret that patience is wearing thin for Stoops, who enters his fourth year in Lexington. His combined 4-20 SEC record is a primary concern. So is the collapse of 2015 when the Wildcats started 4-1 and then went 1-6.
With the renovation of Commonwealth Stadium, Stoops needs to start making progress in an Eastern Division that is in a state of flux. It doesn’t help Stoops’ cause that he has yet to beat Louisville in the annual Governor’s Cup matchup. But he does have a $12 million buyout.
Reach David Climer at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DavidClimer.