SCOTT: Hiring The Right Coach Matters Most

A university chancellor or president can lead a major donor drive, build new buildings and bring an institution to new heights.

An athletic director can do the same things within his department. In the SEC landscape, many of those things will go unnoticed.

The one thing that matters most is hiring the right football coach. Or the wrong one.

In the case of Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat, a former Rebel offensive lineman and kicker, and athletic director Pete Boone, the wrong one was Ed Orgeron. Orgeron lost his job after three curious seasons at Ole Miss and ultimately made Khayat and Boone look bad for hiring an inexperienced defensive line coach who made himself look bad time and time again for his confounding decisions as a first-time head coach.

Only time will tell if their next hire turns out to be the right football coach for Ole Miss; but on paper, the decision to bring in former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt looks like a good one.

Nutt's future success or failure at Ole Miss will ultimately be the general public's measuring stick for both Khayat and Boone, regardless of how well they perform the other tasks that come with their jobs.

"To maintain our status as a great American public university, we must be successful in football," Khayat said at the press conference to introduce Nutt at Ole Miss. "This university community is confident that Coach Nutt will lead an integrity-based, competitive and successful football program at Ole Miss."

In the SEC, only Vanderbilt has the "luxury" of losing at football and then resorting to the high-road fallback motto of "we're all about academics." At the other 11 institutions, fans care about academics – as long as the football team doesn't suffer (or, in the case of Kentucky, the basketball team).

In an ideal world, they work together. In the SEC, it's just as Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone in "The Godfather: Part II," "This is the business we've chosen." Whether the academicians like it or not, football is a window to the university. Tens of thousands of people show up on fall Saturdays to tailgate, spend money and walk the campus – all because of football. They aren't there to attend an academic lecture, but many of those children will be back to sit in those lecture halls as students someday.

"People really are so passionate about it," Boone told The Associated Press last week. "Sometimes that's good, sometimes that's bad, but overall it's great. There's just this relentless pursuit for everybody – and not only athletics but across the campus – of just trying to get better and better and better."

The business SEC fans have chosen will hold Boone's feet to the fire waiting for Nutt to make the Rebels competitive again after an 0-8 finish in the SEC this fall.

"I think there's no question that in the SEC and in sports you have to be successful in football, almost for the university's sake," Boone said. "And certainly I think defining an athletic program, you just have to be in the top half of the SEC on a regular basis."

If his success in the banking business is any indication, Boone is no dummy. He gave the AD job a try for four years in the late 1990s but returned to banking because of his frustrations with the job, especially all the obstacles that had to be hurdled just to get something done.

He went back to the banking world only to return once more to the AD job in 2002. This time, he came in with a better understanding of the job and went about doing his part to reshape the athletic department, doing everything from hiring basketball coach Andy Kennedy to leading the drive to upgrade the football and baseball stadiums.

Along the way, he hired Orgeron, who will one day be known as much for ripping his shirt off at his first meeting with his new players, giving a comical performance as a Hummer salesman and being the subject of an infamous parody song as much as he will be remember for losing football games, laying the world of Ole Miss football at the feet of Brent Schaeffer and going for it on fourth-and-long against Mississippi State in his final game at Ole Miss.

Even Boone admitted the past three seasons have been "painful."

"Our expectations were to go to a bowl every year – Gator Bowl or Sugar Bowl or Peach Bowl," Boone said. "For it to get into a point of decline that it has over the last several years, it's just really hard for all of us to stomach.

"It's also my job. I'm not supposed to let things fail. I'm not going to."

If Nutt wins, Boone and Khayat can ride off into the sunset looking smart. If not, they'll be wearing a heavy saddle. Their legacies are on the line.

Last year, Khayat received a new four-year contract, but he has said he wants to work toward bringing in the next chancellor and preparing him for the job.

After stating last week that Nutt would be his last football hire, Boone told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that he can see himself staying on the job for another 3-4 years.

"Really, I think the only piece of that puzzle right now is football," Boone said. "We need to win the SEC championship; and when that happens, then I'll relax and think about going out and getting on my tractor."


Richard Scott is a Birmingham based sports writer, author and Tiger Rag's SEC expert. Reach him at

Tiger Blitz Top Stories