From time-to-time somone makes the observation that every head football coach in the Southeastern Conference Western Division is making at least $4 million per year, and reasonable expectations of their fan base being not to finish last – which one, inevitably, will.
That leads to the popular topic of “Coaches On The Hot Seat,” meaning those head football coaches who may be coaching for their jobs.
This is one of the rare comments on college football at any level that does not center on Alabama Coach Nick Saban. Indeed, there is likely no college football coach in the nation who has earned a more secure situation than has Saban with his 10-year record at Alabama. Saban was rewarded this year with a contract extension to 2024 and raise that puts him in a league of his own.
But otherwise, there are those head football coaches at various other SEC schools with a measure of discomfort heading into the 2017 season.
Also in a league of his own is Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze, who is more prominent in NCAA Infractions charges than any would want to be. In addition to the likelihood of Freeze and Ole Miss suffering severe penalties at the hands of college football’s governing organization, the old “We beat Alabama two years in a row” chant wears a little thin on a team that went 5-7 last year, including a 2-6 mark that put the Rebels at the bottom of the SEC Western Division.
No one is predicting much better this year. Not only is the NCAA situation (shall we say) distracting, the reason for that NCAA investigation is Ole Miss having outstanding players – players who have now departed.
To outsiders, it is somewhat strange that the Ole Miss administration has not hedged its bet on Freeze. In fact, it has doubled down with a pay raise and extension announced almost as the NCAA ax was falling. Moreover, Rebels supporters are standing firm behind their man, convinced there will be lawsuits and confessions that will have the NCAA groveling for forgiveness.
Inept as the NCAA can be, that’s not happening.
It is interesting that likely the most secure coach in the SEC other than Saban is Ole Miss’s cross-state rival, Mississippi State Coach Ed Mullen. Mullen has had a mild reputation as a man who does more with less than most of his SEC brethren, and he got a big boost last year when the Dallas Cowboys had extraordinary success with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who had come from Mississippi State. Mullen was dubbed a “quarterback whisperer” because of his success with Prescott, even as his 2016 team was finishing with a 6-7 record.
That was only Mullen’s second losing season at a traditional loser football school. If there is one speculated flaw in Mullen it has been his reluctance to move to a job where he might have championship opportunities, but the likelihood is he never will be pressured to depart Starkville.
Otherwise, the SEC West coaches have their problems, not all of it Saban fatigue.
Rare is the list of “hot seat” coaches that does not include Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin took over at the helm of the Aggies in 2012 and found lightning in a bottle in quarterback Johnny Manziel, who led A&M to a win over Alabama and an 11-2 record and won the Heisman Trophy. Sumlin was 9-4 the next year before Manziel left for his NFL career (which was about the same as mine). Since then Sumlin has had three straight five-loss seasons and an 11-13 SEC record.
Many Aggies believe that with the amount of money thrown at the department in terms of facilities and salaries and the natural advantage of being the only SEC school in talent-rich Texas, that the on-the-field results should be better.
Bret Bielema ended his Big Ten coaching career directing the Wisconsin Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls ((2010-12). It was a surprise that Bielema then made a move to Arkansas, where success has been more difficult. The Razorbacks are 10-22 in SEC play and 25-25 overall in four years under Bielema, and Hogs are recalling the days of Frank Broyles and the Southwest Conference.
Sometimes a coach’s contract saves him, and speculation is that Arkansas does not want to have to pay Bielema the big buyout. With each year, though, that buyout shrinks, and the highlight of a career being an 8-5 record and Liberty Bowl appearance isn’t going to keep the Razorbacks satisfied.
Speaking of schools paying men to not coach, there’s some uncertainty at Auburn, where Coach Gus Malzahn has perhaps the SEC’s toughest job since he is in the same state with Alabama and Saban.
It is interesting that most readings of fan bases speculating on their coaches do so in terms of how many wins are needed. A psychiatrist could probably explain why the Auburn faithful consider how many losses Malzahn can sustain and keep his job. The usual number is four, with some adding the requirement that Malzahn end his three-year losing streaks at the hands of Auburn’s two main rivals, Georgia and Alabama.
Those streaks to the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide might be four but for two miracle Auburn wins to end Malzahn’s first season in 2013.
No more than four losses may be a high bar for Malzahn. In the past three years the Auburn records have been 8-5, 7-6, and 8-5. In addition to Georgia and the SEC West opponents this year, Auburn has a non-conference game at 2016 national champion Clemson (albeit without super quarterback Deshaun Watson).
It may be that Malzahn is safe regardless of the record this year or beyond. Some believe the Tigers have resigned themselves to being dominated by Saban and have elected to just ride out the tidal wave, though it now extends for eight more years.
It is far too early to put LSU Coach Ed Orgeron on the hot seat, and, in fact, there is no reason to speculate Orgeron would ever be in jeopardy. He is one of their own.
LSU came within a botched last-second play at Auburn of defeating the Tigers, and following that game Les Miles was fired as head coach, four games into his 12th season. Orgeron was named interim coach and the Tigers finished 8-4 overall, earning Orgeron his second fulltime head coaching job in the SEC.
One of the worst fires in the SEC in memory was Ole Miss discharging David Cutcliffe, now doing a solid job at Duke. Cutcliffe was replaced by Orgeron, whose three-year record was 3-21 in the SEC and 10-25 overall.
There’s a school of thought that no school outside the state of Louisiana would have hired Orgeron, but he’s in the Byou State and has the job.
With the firing of Miles by LSU, Saban ascended to Dean of SEC Coaches as he completed his 10th year. Because Saban and Alabama are in the Western Division, the seats at the other six schools seem to be hotter than they are in the SEC East. Except at Tennessee, which is Alabama’s every year crossover opponent.
Thus, the coach in the East considered to be most endangered is Butch Jones at Tennessee. Jones has finished four years as head coach of the Vols with a 14-18 SEC record and 30-21 overall mark. He’s coming off his best season, 9-4 overall (4-4 in the league), but the expectations for 2016 were much higher. Tennessee was the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC East and maybe end Alabama’s nine-game winning streak against the Vols. That streak is now 10 after the Tide’s 49-10 win in Knoxville last year and the East Tennessee natives are getting a little tired of it.
Former U-T Coach Phil Fulmer being added to the staff of the university’s president doesn’t seem to be anything that would be helpful to Jones.
Three coaches in the SEC East are former Saban assistants. Kirby Smart, who had been Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama, and Will Muschamp, Saban’s defensive coordinator at LSU, completed their first seasons, Smart with an 8-5 record, 4-4 SEC, at Georgia, Muschamp at 6-7, including 3-5 in the league. Jim McElwain, former Bama offensive coordinator under Saban, finished his second year at Florida and has won the SEC East both seasons. He has a 13-3 record in SEC games, 19-8 overall.
There was another first-year coach in the league last year, Barry Odom replacing Gary Pinkel, who stepped down after 15 years because of illness. Odom had a bad first year, last in the East with a 2-6 conference record and 4-8 overall mark.
There has been no “hot seat” talk regarding Muschamp or Odom after just one year. Complaints about McElwain seem to be focused on his offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier (also a former Alabama OC under Saban), and on Florida’s concern about quarterback play.
After just one year we hear that Smart’s predecessor, Mark Richt, won “nearly 10 games a year for 15 years” and shouldn’t have been fired by new athletics director Greg McGarity. The firing was awkward, and McGarity is probably the SEC AD on the hot seat. But Smart is a Georgia hero and should have a long honeymoon with the Bulldogs.
When Bob Stoops resigned at Oklahoma earlier this month, no one suggested going after brother Mark at Kentucky. Mark Stoops has been head football coach at the basketball school for four years and has been improving. He was 2-10 overall his first year, 5-7 the next two years, and 7-6 last year. He’s another coach who may benefit from a big buyout clause, but he’s probably doing well enough to hang on for a few more years regardless.
Although there is an SEC rule that every few years the Vanderbilt head coach must be changed, to date Derek Mason has not done so well as his predecessor, James Franklin, to make a move on his own, nor has he done so badly that the Commodores are ready to ditch him and start the search for another coach who will live in futility. There is no one in Nashville with enough interest to be motivated to light the stove under Mason’s chair.