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VOL. 11 | NO. 30 | Saturday, July 28, 2018

League of Change

Six of the 14 SEC programs will be led by new coaches this season. Blame Nick Saban.

By Don Wade

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The South has its advantages. First-year Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead, whose previous head coaching job was at Fordham University in the Bronx, knows this to be true. “Everything being wrapped in bacon, that’s pretty good,” said Moorhead, who had a successful two-year run as Penn State’s offensive coordinator before coming to the SEC, where it is not a stretch to say everything is wrapped in the legacy of Nick Saban.

Alabama’s head coach is entering his 12th season. In the same job. At the same place.

With five national titles for the Crimson Tide and an earlier one at LSU, Saban is the standard for excellence. He is the creator of outsized expectations that hover over the rest of SEC as his poor colleagues desperately try to keep up.

New SEC football coaches are (top to bottom left to right): Jimbo Fisher, Joe Moorhead, Dan Mullen, Jeremy Pruitt, Matt Luke, Chad Morris. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

“Everyone’s hiring to try and beat coach Saban,” said All-SEC Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher.

Since Saban came to Tuscaloosa in 2007, there have been 27 coaching changes in the SEC. Only Missouri and Texas A&M, which just joined the league in 2012, have had only one coaching change in that span.

So rampant is the turnover that Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops are tied for the second-longest tenure and each is only entering his sixth season in the same job.

“That made my heart drop,” Stoops said when told he was an SEC old-timer. “That’s not a good feeling.”

This season, six of the 14 SEC schools have new head football coaches. The headline hires: Florida getting Dan Mullen to jump from Mississippi State and Jimbo Fisher, who won a national title at Florida State a few years ago, moving to Uncle Nick’s neighborhood for a 10-year $75 million contract at Texas A&M.

“I think I’m the second-highest paid in the conference,” Fisher said. “Paul Finebaum just got a new contract.”

Ha and ha. But it’s good that Jimbo has a sense of humor. A few months ago the Texas A&M chancellor, John Sharp, presented Fisher with a plaque celebrating a future Aggies national championship with “20 - - ’’ printed on it.

So no pressure, Coach, it’s a long century.

Thing is, no one in the SEC gets a long leash.

First-year Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who was Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama for the 2017 national championship season, is the fifth different Vols coach since Saban took over the Crimson Tide. Pruitt is also one of four former Saban assistants, along with Georgia’s Kirby Smart, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, and Fisher, to lead his own SEC program this season.

Matt Luke, elevated from interim coach to the full-time gig, is the fourth different choice at Ole Miss since 2007 after Hugh Freeze’s career melted down under an NCAA investigation. Chad Morris is also the fourth different Arkansas head coach in that timeframe.

It’s all evidence that turnover begets turnover begets turnover.

Joe Moorhead enters the SEC fray this season as head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, following the departure of Dan Mullen to Florida. Moorhead was offensive coordinator at Penn State before coming to Starkville. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Razorbacks senior offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt didn’t grow up on the SEC, nor on college football in general. He’s from Svendborg, Denmark. But even he takes the constant coaching changes in the SEC as expected – or just more fodder for the Paul Finebaum Show and all those crazy callers that love eating things wrapped in bacon.

“That’s the business,” Froholdt said. “You gotta win. It’s the sad truth of the game, but that’s how it is.”

UNIQUE CHALLENGES

Stoops and Malzahn traveled different paths to reach this sixth season on the job. Kentucky is a noted – some would say notorious – basketball school. Stoops survived three losing seasons and in each of the last two years has gone 7-6 and reached a bowl game.

At Kentucky, at least for now, that’s good enough.

College football being the small world that it is, Malzahn lost in the national championship game after the 2013 season to Fisher’s Florida State Seminoles. His job was in such jeopardy most of last season that when he sat down for an interview at the recent SEC Media Days in Atlanta, one of the sports talk radio hosts admitted to keeping a countdown to the day Malzahn would be fired.

But then Auburn beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl and won the SEC West title. That not only saved him, it earned him a seven-year $49 million contract extension – despite losing to Georgia in the SEC championship game. The new contract also prevented Malzahn from taking the Arkansas job, and cleared the way for Morris to leave SMU and come to Fayetteville.

It took Morris three seasons to get the SMU program turned (2-10, 5-7 and 7-5). Now, he arguably has the toughest job of all the new coaches after the Razorbacks went 4-8 and 1-7 in the last of Bret Bielema’s five seasons.

“Right now, I would say our biggest rival is the Arkansas Razorbacks,” Morris said. “We talk about the team that is capable of defeating us (is us).”

At Ole Miss, Luke managed to steer the Rebels to a 6-6 season as he auditioned for the job. Now, like then, Ole Miss is under a bowl ban.

“Sometimes the fear of the unknown is the biggest issue,” Luke said, recalling the early days after Freeze left. “Once all the (NCAA) actions were delivered and everybody knows what you’re dealing with, you can then move forward.”

There is also a steep climb to be made at Rocky Top. The Vols’ 4-8 record in Butch Jones’ fifth and final season was historically bad. Tennessee ranked last in the SEC and 118th nationally in scoring offense with 19.8 points per game. The defense wasn’t much better as UT ranked ninth in the SEC and 83rd nationally in scoring defense, allowing 29.1 points per game.

Pruitt vows to draw on all that he learned from Saban.

“I could write a book because I worked for him the longest,” Pruitt said. “Eight years. Everything in coach Saban’s program is defined. He’s relentless. Nobody works harder than he does. Great coach, great teacher.”

Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher disagrees with a call in an NCAA college football game against North Carolina State in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Fisher is the new head coach at Texas A&M. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

Pruitt joked at the notion Saban would continue to offer help. After all, Pruitt is now just another foe on the schedule to be defeated. “You think coach Saban is going to give me advice?”

But at the point his former assistants get their head coaching jobs, Saban is more than willing. And though he doesn’t say this explicitly, it’s clear that he understands they will be tempted to model too much of themselves after him.

“What I tell every guy when they leave, whether it was Jim McElwain or Kirby or whoever, I said the most important thing is you have to be who you are,” said Saban. “You have to be yourself.

“Just because your in charge of the whole team instead of one side of the ball, it’s not something you need to overthink.”

FINDING THEIR WAY

If there is a universal truth for new head coaches, it is that even their mentors cannot teach them what they will feel and how they will react when they get in the big chair. The saying that you don’t know what you don’t know applies to running your own SEC program.

And then there’s this: Football coaches are not wired to ease into a challenge gently. Mullen, who is perhaps better prepared for the pressures at Florida because he was an assistant there, led Mississippi State to eight straight bowl games after going 5-7 in his first season in Starkville.

“In year one, I kinda came in like a bull in a china shop,” Mullen said. “I was somewhat of a control freak or just paranoid. I had my hands on every single detail of every aspect of the program and a lot of times maybe didn’t let people do their jobs to the best of their abilities.”

For all of Mullen’s success at MSU, there were still things left undone.

“You walk into the building and the Egg Bowl trophy is not there,” Moorhead said. “We’ve never won an SEC championship, we’ve never competed for a national championship.

“So part of our task as a staff is to elevate the program, which has a very solid foundation, from good to great.”

That’s what Smart, a former defensive coordinator for Saban, aimed to do at Georgia. In his second season he was a play away from beating Saban for the national championship. You know what happened. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw a 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime for a 26-23 victory.

Smart has tired of discussing the national championship near-miss and that play. Yes, he’s watched it several times. Too many times, in fact.

SMU Mustangs head coach Chad Morris gets a Gatorade bath after his first SMU victory against North Texas State  in Dallas on Sept. 12, 2015. Morris becomes the fourth head coach at Arkansas since 2007.  (Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Rather, he has tried to embrace the benefits to recruiting by coming that close while not letting the final result weigh too heavily.

“We’re on to the next year. We are on to the new recruit,” Smart said. “We’re on to the next strategy.”

And so it must be for all 13 SEC coaches not named Nick Saban.

His former assistants, including those outside the SEC, are a combined 0-12 against him. Pierschbacher, the Alabama center and who has two national championship rings, says the collective burden on other SEC coaches, be they former assistants or new guys about to get their first chance, is real.

It is also not his problem.

“We can’t take much stock in that,” Pierschbacher said. “It’s nice to have a guy that has a proven record. We’ve seen the results. We’ve been part of the results.”

Meantime, the rest of the SEC coaches move closer to the start of the season with the same view: looking up at Saban. Soon, numbers will be going under W and L and will be listed next to their names.

Ole Miss defensive lineman Josiah Coatney is thrilled that Matt Luke got the Rebels’ job, says he deserved it. He also knows that for his head coach and all the rest, it is just a starting point that all too soon can flip to an end game.

“Deserving it in this league is not enough,” Coatney said. “You have to earn it.”

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