This season has seen another massive shift in the SEC coaching ranks. Counting last season and this, almost half of the SEC has changed coaches.
There's nothing like coaching SEC football. It remains a treacherous career path through which few coaches can survive. This is the reason Tribal Fever has been examining the SEC coaching situation since our inception.
While the Houston Nutt/Bobby Petrino shuffle that happened to Ole Miss and Arkansas last year made some national noise, this year's changes at Tennessee, Ole Miss, and especially Auburn has made for some serious grist for the sports world's media mill.
We've written about the increasing cost of coaching and the high level of SEC coaching, and how it was going to effect programs going forward. Like it or not, the SEC remains the biggest risk/reward opportunity for coaches - either pro or college. If an SEC coach's record matches the expectations of his fan base, he can write a ticket for life. If he falls short, no past accomplishments will save him.
We started tracking the coaching situation starting last year. The reason being is two trends. First, the SEC's rise as the best college football conference during the BCS era became totally apparent. Currently, the SEC has the last two BCS champs in its ranks with a potential third in a row if Florida can win next month in Miami.
The second factor has been the change in the type of coaches. Nick Saban and Urban Meyer define the best of today's SEC coaches. Neither have roots at their respective schools. Both are very workmanlike in how they approach their jobs. They command respect, but they do it quietly, without much personality.
What do they do?
1. They recruit
2. They win critical rivalry games
3. They keep strong relationships with key boosters
4. They have national titles on their resumes
Simply put, they have the whole coaching package. Both of these men can and have won elsewhere. Their alliance with their current schools is based upon smart business over cultural ties.
Recently, Urban Meyer had the gumption to admit that Notre Dame is his dream job. This was interesting since he chose to come to Florida over Notre Dame when both jobs were offered to him a few years back. Meyer gave this reason:
[B]eing able to recruit the best athletes in America within a 5-hour radius of my home, that's why I came to Florida.
Meyer is a Catholic boy from the midwest who has served as an assistant at ND. He has every reason to go to Notre Dame except one - he wants to be able to win consistently, and he wants to be set for life financially. It's risk/reward. He's been around enough to know that Florida provides him the best opportunity when he's in the prime of his coaching career.
Our friend Mike Bianchi may consider Meyer's words as a "slap in the face" to Gator Nation, but deals with Meyer and Saban are mutually beneficial - their coaching greatness is independent of Florida's and Alabama's great football histories. Together, both coach and program become elite.
Perhaps Nick Saban's career is a better example. His career includes assistant coaching stints in both college and the pros. He served as a college head coach at Toledo, Michigan State, and LSU before becoming the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
Nick Saban rewrote the rules of coaching compensation when he came to Alabama. They paid him more than he was being paid as the Dolphins' head coach. His hiring coincided with Alabama's realization that it's HC job wasn't enough on its own to ensure success. Rather than expecting Alabama's history to bolster thin resumes (ie Mike Dubose and Mike Shula), they used Alabama's might to hire and equip the best coach they could find.
The 2008 season proved that Alabama and Florida have made worthy and sharp investments. These two schools met earlier this month in the SEC Championship game which served as a defacto "play in" game to the BCS Championship. Florida won this epic clash, but both schools walked away winners. The standard for elite college football coaches, not just the SEC, has now been set.
It was in that light that TF began to look at the SEC last off season. Saban's first year had mixed results on the field, but his recruiting, his presence, and his staggering contract had already changed the landscape. Last season was a transition year, staving off the inevitable 2008 purge.
Ole Miss quickly dumped Ed Orgeron, a great recruiter who couldn't seem to coach on game day, with an established winner, Houston Nutt, who came from Arkansas. Arkansas countered by going for broke, bringing in Bobby Petrino who had been a consistent winner at Louisville. Petrino's move from the Atlanta Falcons brought about serious outrage. We at TF defended the move knowing that Arkansas had to right to hire the best coach they could find and that Petrino had the right to take the best possible job.
In the off season, standing coaches were already shifting and making changes due to the rising temperatures in their always hot seats. Coaches shook up their staffs. Most prominently, two older guard coaches, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Tennessee's Phil Fulmer, hired OCs that brought new systems in hopes of revitalizing their offenses.
Tennessee even brought things a step further by creating a contract for Fulmer that would automatically rollover each year if he won 8 games. Although many thought this rewarded mediocrity, TF defended it as well knowing how hard it is to win 8 games in the SEC. (How right we were when only 4 out of 12 SEC teams won more than 8 games in 2008. South Carolina and LSU can both reach 8 wins if they win their bowl games.)
At the beginning of the 2008 season, we wrote about how the SEC had upgraded to College Football 2.0, meaning that they were playing by a different set of rules. They were spending tons of money and making tons of money. Simply put, they were leveraging their assets.
This brings us back to our topic, one that we will later explore by individual 2008 coaching change. Some accomplished coaches fell as victims to this upgrade.
Saban and Meyer are a new breed by SEC standards. There's no flair or personality. There's no "good ole boy" persona. It's all numbers from recruting rankings to wins to poll numbers.
Until recently, the hope at Auburn and Tennessee was that Phil Fulmer and Tommy Tuberville would be bridges from the older era to the newer one. However, sub par seasons from both coaches this year convinced their respective schools decided their bridges were heading to nowhere. Both of their off season offensive staff shake ups were dismal failures. Worse, they lost to all their key rivals and finished with sub-.500 records.
It really should not have surprised anyone that both were fired, er.. resigned.
As far as Sylvester Croom goes, his winning record from a year ago along with an Egg Bowl win, a Liberty Bowl win, and an SEC Coach of the Year award weren't enough to overcome a belief at Mississippi State that the SEC, especially rival Ole Miss, was passing Croom by. A devastating shutout to Houston Nutt's new team in the 2008 Egg Bowl was enough to end his tenure as the SEC's first African-American coach.
Passsions are high. The national media has been looking under rocks. However Arkansas and Petrino looked last year is nothing compared to the scrutiny these programs find themselves under:
So why do passions lead to coaching volatility?
The Wall Street Journal recently published two great articles about college football and the SEC. In the first entitled What the Rise of Southern Football Says About America, it exposes a critical economic fact about college football, the SEC vs the rest:
Only three SEC member schools have endowments larger than $1 billion as of the 2007 fiscal year, while half or more of the schools in other major conferences like the Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-10 and Atlantic Coast Conference do. Their average undergraduate enrollment of roughly 18,000 is significantly smaller than the averages for the Big 12 and Pac-10 conferences. The median household income in Ohio, the poorest state represented by the Big Ten, was $4,500 higher than the average median income for all the SEC states last year.
Nonetheless, in 2006, four SEC schools -- Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU -- raised $35 million or more in athletic donations, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey. That figure beats every school in the Big 12, Big East and Pac-10 that responded to the survey.
Folks, SEC college football remains the bond that connects these universities to their supporters. The proof lies in those numbers above.
Over the next week, we'll look at each new coaching situation individually. As always, it comes down to expectations. Fulmer, Tuberville, and Croom all fell below their critical level of expectations. Schools may have pulled the trigger too soon for some people's liking, but all must at least accept how much is at stake for each program.