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Southern Stories
Aug 29/12

The Kings of Saturday: Ranking the SEC Coaches Posted by: Graham Gordy | 0 Comments

We’ve heard all the clichés. “The players make the plays.” “Players win games.” “It’s what happens on the field that matters.” But if athletic directors of college programs truly believed this, Nick Saban wouldn’t be making $5.3 million this year and be the most recognized citizen in the state of Alabama.

Why do elite coaches get paid so much? The answer, and best-kept secret in sports is, “Because they don’t know they could get more.” According to Forbes, the University of Alabama made $45 million in profit last year, which is somehow still 6th in the nation behind Texas, Notre Dame, and others (apparently you no longer need wins to make money). Alabama football, like every program on that list, almost single-handedly funds every other athletic scholarship on that campus (though basketball makes a profit too), and even some of the academic ones. So, the next time you hear someone complain that college football has too much of a presence at their SEC school, remind them that their program is the reason most people know about the school nationally (it’s hard to ignore 3 and ½ hour “commercials” for a school every Saturday in the Fall), the reason a lot of students were attracted to that school, and may just be the thing that bought the microscope their child was too hungover to look through in biology lab this morning.

With the SEC football season starting tomorrow night, we thought it the perfect time to rank our (now fourteen!) coaches and see what their stock looks like for the 2012 season.

14. Joker Phillips, Kentucky

SEC Coach Joker Phillips, KentuckyWhenever you talk about Kentucky football, one phrase comes to mind: “The University of Kentucky has the most storied basketball program in history.” This isn’t likely to change anytime soon, and if it is, Joker Phillips probably isn’t the guy who’s going to do it. Beating Tennessee last year was one of his two SEC wins and likely saved his job based merely on the fact that beating Tennessee used to mean something. Kentucky won five games and paid Phillips $370,000 for each of those. That’s bad business for any program that doesn’t see the post-season.

13. Derek Dooley, Tennessee

SEC Coach Derek Dooley, TennesseeHe is ranked higher than Phillips because of a decent (not great) head coaching record at Louisiana Tech, not because I expect to see either of them coaching in the conference next season. Poor Dooley. Seven assistant coaches left for lateral positions after last season (Dooley may be the only rat not deserting this ship), Da’Rick Da’Rogers (okay, it’s just ‘Da’Rick Rogers but it sounds better my way) – one of the best receivers in the SEC and one of the few stars on this team – was suspended indefinitely last week for “breaking team rules” (read: failing multiple drug tests) and has reportedly transferred to Tennessee Tech, and if that weren’t enough, my prediction is that Dooley will be replaced by the biggest (living) lout in college football next year, Mr. Bobby Petrino. …I’m sure Phillip Fulmer still loves the Vols deeply, but over the last few years, no one could begrudge him if he’s laughing all the way to the Winchester, Tennessee Krispy Kreme.

12. John L. Smith, Arkansas

SEC Coach John L Smith, ArkansasSmith may be the only person in or outside the state of Arkansas who believes he has a real chance to be their coach after this season. Arkansas has gotten pretty used to winning over the last few years and AD Jeff Long will be willing to spend big money to replace Petrino with a name coach. The real issue is that Arkansas isn’t very talent-rich for recruiting and requires someone like Petrino who can coach-up three-star players to compete against teams full of four and five-stars. Smith’s pedigree reflects anything but that. In an era when coaches like Saban are stalking the other sideline, Smith doesn’t exactly instill confidence. One could go as far as to say that the only difference between Smith and Ralph Furley is a broad-collared shirt and a sweet neckerchief. The foundation was built by Petrino and there is now an excellent staff of assistant coaches to carry it out. If Smith can remain cheerleader to players that apparently love him, and the staff can give him the Mack Brown treatment and keep his headset unplugged, the sky is the limit for the Hogs. However, short of a National Championship berth and the promise of keeping those assistant coaches intact, Smith will either be at a different school or part of Arkansas’ administration next fall.

11. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

SEC Coach Hugh Freeze, Ole MissWith 14 consecutive SEC losses over the last two seasons, most anyone would be a breath of fresh air in Oxford, so Ole Miss chose the fresh, cold wind of the Freeze. Houston Nutt lost almost every recruiting battle to Mississippi State, and left the cupboard – as he leaves all cupboards – bare. Add to that a squad that has been decimated by injuries during the spring and summer, and Freeze’s debut seems anything but auspicious. A year or two from now, though, Freeze’s teams will win some ballgames. In just one season, he took an inferior Arkansas State squad and won their conference championship (leaving them poised to do it again under Gus Malzahn). Ole Miss wanted a bargain when replacing the king of the golden parachutes and they got a great one. The question is how well a bargain can fare in the SEC.

10. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

SEC Coach Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&MThe Aggies have been trying to get back to the heydays of Jackie Sherrill and R.C. Slocum for years now and it seems nothing has taken. Enter Kevin Sumlin. Coming off a 12-win season, and having helped rebuild a program at Houston, Sumlin has one big problem: his first season is the school’s first in the toughest division of the toughest conference this side of the NFL. Sumlin had his choice of schools after last year and chose A&M. Perhaps this is finally the right alchemy, but this first year won’t be easy.

9. Gene Chizik, Auburn

SEC Coach Gene Chizik, AuburnIn December of 2008, Gene Chizik arrived in Auburn as their new head coach after Tommy Tubberville had been fired. When he got off the plane, there were a group of Tigers fans there to boo him. It was at that moment that Chizik decided he had nothing to lose and would do whatever he needed to in order to win a Championship at Auburn. A couple of weeks later, he hired Gus Malzahn as his O.C. A year and a half later, Cam Newton arrived at Auburn from junior college after getting kicked off the team at Florida, and the following January, Auburn did the unprecedented in the SEC and won a National Championship almost entirely without a defense. The problem here is that Chizik is a defensive coach. He went an abysmal 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State, and the ring on his finger has less to do with his coaching, and more to do with Malzahn’s innovative offense, oft-questioned recruiting practices, and the most gifted athlete to ever play at Auburn. Count me among the naysayers. Chizik has a roster full of five-star players again this year. It’s the perfect chance to prove us all wrong.

8. Gary Pinkel, Missouri

SEC Coach Gary Pinkel, MissouriMizzou has won 48 games in the last five seasons. Pinkel’s offense is consistently solid, but with James Franklin at quarterback and the nation’s number one recruit, Dorial Green-Beckham, at receiver, this may become the best one he’s coached. The question, of course, is how will a team that’s used to finishing second or third in the Big 12 handle their first season in the SEC East? The answer is that the SEC powers-that-be probably wouldn’t have voted to admit them if they deemed them to be a real threat anytime soon.

7. Will Muschamp, Florida

SEC Coach Will Muschamp, FloridaToward the end of last season, Muschamp was quoted as saying, “There’s Alabama and LSU and then there’s the rest of us.” Well…actually, Will, you were 3-5 in the conference, including losses to Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina, so it looks like most of “the rest” beat you too. Muschamp is recruiting well; then again, if you’re not recruiting well at Florida, you must not be recruiting at all. People close to the Florida program realize the mess Urban Meyer left there, but how long can Muschamp’s leash be with a fanbase that’s seen two National Championships in the last seven years?

6. James Franklin, Vanderbilt

SEC Coach James Franklin, VanderbiltIt took seven years for Bobby Johnson to get Vanderbilt to a bowl game; it took James Franklin one. More importantly, Vandy lost four games by a combined nine points (to Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and of course the one the refs simply handed to Tennessee). However, what might be most impressive about Franklin is that he’s not just coaching players up, he’s stealing some recruits away from Tennessee, Florida, and even Alabama. The question isn’t if Vanderbilt is going to continue to get better under Franklin, it’s how long will they be able to keep him while it does.

5. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

SEC Coach Dan Mullen, Mississippi StateMullen has been building consistently in one of the hardest places to build a team in this conference. Troubles at quarterback meant a step backward in 2011, but being better poised for 2012 and owning the state in recruiting have kept Mullen beloved in Starkville. The Bulldogs could create a tremendous amount of buzz this year with a relatively easy first seven games, but they’ll need some serious momentum as they walk into the buzzsaw of Alabama, LSU, A&M and Arkansas in consecutive weeks. Assuming the “recruiting improprieties” that have popped up this week don’t sink Mullen, I’m betting he will remain welcome in Starkville for as long as he wants to be there.

4. Mark Richt, Georgia

SEC Coach Mark Richt, GeorgiaRicht is starting his 12th season at Georgia. His record is 106-38 with a winning percentage of .736. He’s 7-4 in bowl games, he’s won the East five out of those twelve years, he’s been SEC Coach of the Year twice, and he’s won the SEC Championship twice. If you offered every program in the SEC that kind of record over the next 12 years, twelve out of fourteen would probably take it. Yet Richt’s job wasn’t secure at Georgia until he managed to win the East again last year. He gets another solid shot at it this year, ranked 6 in the preseason, and with what is by far the easiest schedule in the SEC. Richt should be able to punch another ticket down the road to the Championship game, but there’s a circled game the first Saturday in October standing in their way…

3. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina

SEC Coach Steve Spurrier, South CarolinaSpurrier won six Conference titles and a National title at Florida, coached a Heisman-winning quarterback, and changed the nature of the college offense. So why, after eight years as head coach at South Carolina, does every question still seem to come down to offense? The trend has been that a heralded quarterback comes to South Carolina, impresses early, then slowly withers under Spurrier’s scrutiny. After all, Spurrier was a Heisman-winning quarterback himself and, at least in his mind, there’s not one of these players that are him. However, sophomore Connor Shaw is businesslike, the son of a coach, and someone who has long worshipped at the feet of the Spurrier and his legacy. If Marcus Lattimore had stayed healthy last year, Carolina would’ve likely made their second consecutive trip to Atlanta. These elements, combined with the best defense in the East, make them the team best poised to do that this year.

2. Les Miles, LSU

SEC Coach Les Miles, LSUIt’s hard to argue with a record, but man, when it comes to Les Miles, you really want to. Even with two Conference titles and a National Championship in seven years, you can’t help but think that Miles has underperformed. Maybe it’s the grass-eating on the sidelines, or that his slow, cryptic press conference performances generally come off like a series of George W. Bush’s bloopers. Maybe it’s that his standing countenance is befuddlement, or that his “Mad Hatter” mentality was forged in the white-hot fire of some really idiotic decisions. That LSU seemed unprepared in last year’s National Title game certainly doesn’t help, and that he didn’t pull Jordan Jefferson is still something that will send a Tiger fan’s blood-pressure soaring. The state of Louisiana is full of talent and most of that talent grows up loyal to LSU. Despite the loss of Tyrran Mathieu’s drug-addled dominance, they are absolutely stacked on defense again this year, and will get an upgrade at quarterback with Zach Mettenberger. This exceptionally talented staff should lead this team to another National Championship game, but with Miles at the helm, nothing is ever certain.

1. Nick Saban, Alabama

SEC Coach Nick Saban, AlabamaAfter winning the National Title in 2010, ESPN did a “Training Days” special on Alabama practices before the 2011 season. In it, Saban is driving his Mercedes into work and is talking about his love for the Little Debbie miniature oatmeal cream pies. “I think that’s why I get up every day,” he says, “You gotta enjoy something in life, I guess.” …Not the love of family. Not success in work. Eating Little Debbies. …Nick Saban is either nihilist, or robot, or both. I have a theory that Michael Fassbender based his android character in this summer’s “Prometheus” on Saban. When you pour Gatorade on him, he doesn’t dance, or embrace his players, or even smile. Even though the game is over, he simply grabs a towel and continues to furiously pace the sideline. The reason is because winning is not pleasure for Nick Saban; winning simply is. It’s oxygen. (Or it’s fuel, depending on your belief if Saban does or does not possesses a human heart.) Alabama lost a lot of their starters to the NFL, but it doesn’t matter because he’ll probably still win a National Championship. If it makes you feel better, though, he won’t enjoy it. Only the oatmeal cream pie the next morning will. After all, something has to make us human.


Graham Gordy is a screenwriter who lives in Little Rock with two stark raving toddlers a woman sweet enough to sit through the first quarter of almost any game. His articles have been published in “Oxford American,” “Imbibe Magazine,” “Arkansas Life,” and “The Arkansas Times.” He currently writes for the Sundance series “Rectify,” which will premiere in early 2013.



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