You can be the most diehard homer for the SEC and still acknowledge that the degree to which this conference loves the smell of its own farts is a problem.
Last week I laid out for you why the timing of the “It Just Means More” campaign is so problematic. This week, we’ll talk about what got us to this point. To do that properly, we have to turn the clock back to 2008.
Consider who the coaches in the SEC were at that point: Nick Saban was in his second season at Alabama. Bobby Petrino was in his first at Arkansas. Urban Meyer would win his second national title at Florida that year. Mark Richt and UGA were fresh off a #2 finish. Les Miles had just captured his first title at LSU. Steve Spurrier was building towards the most successful era in South Carolina history. James Franklin, who is now one of the top 5 coaches in the game, was just about to begin his first season at Vanderbilt.
And then there was Tommy Tuberville.
When the 2008 season began Tuberville had been at Auburn for 9 years. In that time he had compiled a record of 80-33 with the Tigers. That included an undefeated campaign in 2004 and 5 SEC West titles. The Tigers went 5-7 in 2008 and when it was over Tuberville was out of a job.
Auburn did a nationwide search and heavily considered hiring Turner Gill, who was a hot candidate after leading the University of Buffalo to its first bowl game in 50 years. As I’m sure you’re aware, Gill did not get the job and Charles Barkley had a not-at-all absurd theory as to why.
Instead Auburn hired Gene Chizik, who to be fair did win a national title at Auburn in 2010, but to be more fair, whatever team had Cam Newton was going to win the national title in 2010.
Chizik was Iowa State’s head coach at the time and had managed to amass a glorious 5-19 record in his 2 years in Ames.
Auburn fans were less than pleased.
Somewhere, if you search hard, you might find the clip from The Paul Finebaum show of a caller saying Auburn needed to make a splash and Chizik “ain’t no more than a fart bubble in the bathtub.” I wish I could have found it for you. It was glorious - truly peak Finebaum!
Racial issues aside, Chizik was hired for a simple reason. He had Auburn ties. He was Tuberville’s defensive coordinator from 2002-2004. When Auburn realized its terrible mistake in 2012 and fired Chizik, AD Jay Jacobs replaced him with Gus Malzahn, who was Chizik’s offensive coordinator from 2009-2011.
And that, folks is the perfect picture of why the SEC is where it is right now.
The talent in the coaching ranks has fallen tremendously in this conference. Some have theorized that this is a result of Nick Saban’s success. Maybe there is a little truth to that, but even if that alone is the reason, I ask you this: do we blame coaches for being afraid of what competing with Saban may do to their career trajectory or should we blame ADs for not swinging for the fences anymore?
The last major coaching shuffle in the league came after the 2015 season. Steve Spurrier up and resigned from South Carolina less than halfway through the season. Georgia fired Mark Richt. Health concerns forced Gary Pinkel to step away from Missouri.
In each of those cases, the school lost one of the most successful coaches in its history. In each of those cases, the departing coach was replaced with a guy that struck fear into the hearts of absolutely no one.
South Carolina hired Will Muschamp, a guy with a great resume as a defensive coordinator and recruiter at LSU, Texas and Auburn, but also a guy that had already failed in his first go ‘round as a head coach in the SEC. Georgia replaced Richt with Nick Saban’s right hand man, Kirby Smart. Mizzou simply handed its head coaching job to defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
Now, it is safe to say brighter days are ahead for both Carolina and Georgia. Hell, UGA’s brighter days may already be here. Odom seems like a lost cause. These facts neither negate my point or explain the problem.
SEC ADs seem to be a little too hung up on the idea that SEC ties trump all else when finding a coach for an SEC football program or maybe in the ADs’ minds understanding that “It Just Means More” is as good an indicator of future success as past success is.
The reason the SEC no longer dominates the top ten is because it no longer dominates the coaching carousel. LSU AD Joe Alleva gave one of the most coveted jobs in college football to an assistant - not even a coordinator - of the guy he had just fired, because the guy wanted to be LSU’s coach REALLY REALLY BAD! How foolish is that?
In the aforementioned coaching carousel of 2015, the ACC had four openings. Virginia Tech replaced the retiring Frank Beamer with Memphis’ Justin Fuente. Upgrade! Virginia replaced Mike London with BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall. Upgrade! Miami replaced Al Golden with Mark Richt. Upgrade! Syracuse replaced someone I had literally never heard of with Bowling Green’s Dino Babers. Upgrade!
Can you really say that about any SEC coaching change since Butch Jones replaced Derek Dooley at Tennessee after the 2012 season? No, and really should you even count that one? I mean, Derek Dooley is a blithering idiot!
There is a scenario that could play out this year where eight SEC teams change head coaches. I have outlined it on the legal pad below.
Now, I cannot stress enough how unlikely eight openings will occur is. If I were a betting man, I would set the over/under at 3.5. I truly believe that this will be the season Mullen parlays his success into a bigger job, but I won’t count on that yet. By the way, I am totally a betting man if anyone is taking action on this.
Whatever the real number ends up being, the targets for those schools have to be big. The hires have to blow you away! The last time anyone in the conference did that was 2008 when Arkansas lured Bobby Petrino out of Atlanta in the middle of the night.
The SEC is in the perfect geography to start to dominate the top 25 again, so the conference can become the destination for coaches again. Hell, if you look at any recruiting service’s rankings, talent is still coming to these schools in droves. They are just lacking the right leadership at this moment.
The end of the 2017 season can be the chance for the SEC to make the pundits, fans and other talking heads that are reveling in its current state stand up and take notice. It can be what the end of 2015 was for the ACC - the line in the sand that says “we’ve crossed into a new era.”
To make that happen though ADs are going to have to take names like Jeremy Pruitt and Dave Aranda off their wish lists and replace them with the names of guys that have taken traditionally weak Power Five programs as far as they can, like Mike McIntyre at Colorado or Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State. They need to find the names of guys that are overachieving at Group of Five schools like Mike Norvell at Memphis or Jason Candle at Toledo.
Or maybe you swing for the fences. PJ Fleck is the second coming of Jim Harbaugh. Actually, he is like the result of an experiment to clone Harbaugh and Dabo Swinney into one person. He can coach and he can recruit. Do you think Minnesota has the pockets to keep that guy around if a school like A&M comes knocking?
“It Just Means More” means nothing. The eleven states that make up this conference’s footprint are not the only places where good football is played. The longer ADs in this conference act like it is, the more likely it is that eventually the results on the field will fall behind the ACC and the Big Ten and the Big 12 and the Pac 12.