We’re in the final stretch. Having discussed the first three of the essential elements of the SEC’s run of college football supremacy, it’s time to examine most significant factor, THE distinguishing characteristic, that has driven the SEC to such a distant lead over the rest of the field in the sport. For your consideration, Element 1:
1. Commitment to Coaching
This is the thing. It’s the crown jewel of the SEC’s domination. As I noted in the last installment of this series, the SEC has paid well to attract the best coaches in the nation: Five years into the six-year national title streak, the SEC had three of the five highest-paid head coaches in the nation, and five of the top 7. Three years into the streak you can add Phil Fulmer, who was at the time also among the top ten highest-paid head coaches in the nation. And as a return on this investment, all six of those coaches have at least one national title ring on their fingers, and nine rings combined. And that doesn’t even include Tommy Tuberville, whose Auburn team should have been voted national champions in 2004, and who would have been the 10th-highest paid coach in the country this year had he not decided to leave Auburn after the 2008 season. But it isn’t just a willingness to pay the top dollar to bring in the best coaches that sets the SEC above the other conferences. It is the totality of what the league schools are prepared to do to get and keep the best coaches in the country.
In few other places is this more clearly demonstrated than the University of Alabama. Though they did have to take a few major lumps in the form of very bad hires to get it through their heads, the Crimson Tide brain trust finally conceded and decided to do the one thing they were most dedicated against: hiring a head coach from outside the reaches of the Bear Bryant legacy. Ten years ago and Nick Saban could never have been hired at Alabama. But in January 2007, it had been a long 14 years since their last national title. While seeing Florida win two national titles since their last crown was a tough pill to swallow, sitting on the sidelines to watch dreaded divisional rival LSU win two national championships in that same time was beyond tolerable (not to mention blood enemy Auburn almost pulling it off in 2004). They committed to bring in the best coach available in the nation, no matter how near or far he fell from the Bear Bryant tree. They brought in Nick Saban, who had proven his SEC wares while winning one of those two national titles for LSU. The rest is history.
Then there is the Florida Gators. The commitment to hiring the best coach in the nation was actually a devastating detriment to the program in early 2002, when Jeremy Foley aggressively went after national title-winning college coaching elite Bob Stoops and then set his sights on two-time Super Bowl winning NFL coaching elite Mike Shanahan. Florida reached too high, in fact, for two guys who simply were in no position to rationally leave their current situations. The very public nature of the rapid dual snubs led Athletics Director Jeremy Foley to make a panicked decision to hire someone he knew would not say “no” and whom at the time actually made sense on many levels (not the least of which was that if he failed, he would be very easily discarded, and would be a perfect buffer to erase for the next hire the pressure of replacing the living legend Steve Spurrier). Not that I think that entered into the decision at all. But when this mistake was realized, it would not be repeated. Florida did much as Alabama did a few years later by turning its back on its iconic legendary coach — and unlike ‘Bama, Florida didn’t just split off from his coaching tree, but turned him away directly — and set its sights on one target: the hottest coaching commodity in the nation, Urban Meyer. This time they went after a guy who was ripe for leaving his job and in fact had made it clear he was ready to hear offers. Fresh off a perfect 12-0 BCS-busting season, it was well known that Meyer’s self-proclaimed “dream job” was Notre Dame, and by unhappy coincidence that was the program battling Florida for Urban’s signature. But Foley flew to the Utah campus with one goal: not to leave until Meyer was Florida’s new coach. And he did what he had to do — in terms of committing money and power in amounts both of which far exceeded Foley’s comfort zone – to get him. And like Saban did for Alabama, Meyer paid it off with two national titles in short order.
Then when Meyer retired, Florida broke every internal rule and guideline to keep him in the fold. Though it backfired and Meyer washed out after a year, it was a telling commitment to retain who at the time was the consensus best college football coach in the nation. To replace him, Florida again shot for the moon and went after a coach that not only was one of the hottest head coaching commodities in the nation, he had already spent three years as the “Head Coach In Waiting” at Texas, the program that is supposed to have the most desirable head coaching job in the all of sports. Although Florida did have a stubborn Mack Brown situation to help their cause, Foley again hit the road intent on not returning until Will Muschamp was the new Florida head coach. They payoff was an incredible “fixing” of the broken program in just one year and vaulting Florida to the No. 2 ranking in the nation — the ranking they are all but guaranteed to hold when the final polls are released.
Then there is LSU. A rich prideful program that had gone down wrong coaching path after wrong coaching path for a couple decades since their last SEC title. Like Alabama, their failure revolved around pursuing a profile rather than a single coach: namely for LSU, southeastern lineage. It makes sense on paper to go after a coach that understands first-hand the SEC and the southeastern recruiting landscape, but in coaching, the paper doesn’t often translate in this way. They tried first to directly channel the successful Bill Arnsparger after he left to become Florida’s athletics director in 1987, by appointing his defensive coordinator Mike Archer to replace him. After a 10-win 1987 campaign, he went straight down the tubes and was fired after four seasons. Then they followed their regional radar to bring in Curly Hallman from Southern Miss. He had been somewhat successful, having won two-thirds of his games there, but he was hired on the headline-grabbing strength of a few big wins over ranked teams (such as FSU) through which he gained the reputation of being a giant killer. Turns out, as often it is, this was a mistake and the giant killing was really the achievement of a quarterback named “Fah-vruh” rather than a stooge named Curley. Next up, they brought in Gerry DiNardo, who had done the impossible in making Vanderbilt competitive in the SEC. And after a 10-win and a 9-win season in his first three in Baton Rouge, he also went straight down the toilet and was fired two seasons later.
This is when they had seen enough of the failed strategy of targeting a regional brand name and decided to look outside the southeast and target the best coach available. Nick Saban was a guy with extensive experience as a college assistant and an NFL coordinator. But his most recent stint as skipper of the MSU Spartans made his name: in three years, he had built up a moribund program to one that knocked off No. 1 Ohio State and highly ranked Notre Dame in 1998, then put together a 9-2 season in 1999 when the Big Ten was still a very powerful conference with wins over Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, all of whom were still elite programs at the time. The topper was beating Steve Spurrier’s high-flying Gators in Florida’s own back yard in the Citrus Bowl. And he built his Spartans program by recruiting the southeast like a homegrown back-slapper, even pulling a number of elite players from the state of Florida — quite a feat for a program in East Freezing Lansing. The reward of rebuilding the Tigers into an SEC and national power — and a national title, of course — was an easily learned message for the decision makers at LSU. When Saban left for the NFL, they looked north again, for a coach who much like Saban had ties to Michigan and the NFL. Les Miles took over a 3-win Oklahoma State team, beat No. 3 Oklahoma in Year Two, and built a nine-win campaign in his third year, being named the Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2002, back when the Big 12 was still an elite conference. LSU made it their mission to pluck the hottest coaching commodity in the Big 12, and one the biggest name on the 2004 head coaching market after Meyer and Charlie Weis, and the rest is history.
Auburn is another example of the SEC’s commitment to coaching that represents the opposite side of this coin. In this day and age, the SEC simply does not tolerate imperfection. The average tenure of an SEC coach since 1990 is three years. It is actually slightly less than that, but the math includes some skippers who never even coached a single game between being hired and fired. In the SEC, if you don’t win fast and win big, you don’t get to stay. And as Auburn can attest, even if you win fast and win big, you still better keep winning big or you will be gone. Remember Terry Bowden? He began his Auburn career in 1993 with an 11-0 season, and won his first 20 games as the Tigers’ coach. He followed that up with seasons of nine, eight, eight and 10 wins. In that 10-win season, he won the SEC West, took his team to the SEC title game and nearly beat the senior Peyton Manning-led Volunteers for the title, and capped the season with a Peach Bowl victory. He averaged over nine wins a season for five years, took back the balance of power with Alabama (wining three of five Iron Bowls, after Auburn had lost three-straight prior to his hiring), and owned two wins against Spurrier’s Gators — something that only two other coaches in college football could boast. But he started the 1998 season 1-5 and was fired on the spot.
Then of course there is former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik who is likely the only coach in the history of the sport to win a national title, win every coach-of-the-year award in the country, and then be fired a mere two years later. Firing him will cost the Tigers’ program $11.09 million, but such is the commitment to coaching in the SEC. This is the only conference in the nation where a coach like Mark Richt can win his division and play in the SEC title game two years in a row and still be the proverbial hot seat. In twelve seasons, Richt has won 117 games (nearly 75 percent), had eight seasons of ten or more wins, has finished first in the division on average every other year, and won two SEC titles to go with two SEC Coach of the Year Awards, and 90 percent of the school’s fan base wishes he would tank for a year so they can fire him and try to get a coaching upgrade.
But that is the league. To borrow from Chevy Chase, “We’re the SEC, and you’re not!” And this is a big reason why. They have the best coaches, and if they don’t, they’re going to get them and the other conferences can do nothing to stop them. They are committed to defenses that don’t just rob your house; they burn it down. They are committed to being the physically and mentally strongest programs in the country that win half of their out-of-conference games just by sneering at their opponents. They are committed to spending any amount of money it takes to be the best, whether it is on facilities, stadium expansion and enhancement, coaches’ salaries, uniforms, recruiting, marketing, anything. They are the best for the same reason the individual teams are at their best at the end of every season: competing against each other year-round makes them better and better. When other conferences talk about the pursuit of excellence, they are thinking of the SEC. The BCS title game and the Heisman Trophy award ceremony are known as The SEC Invitationals. They are the most interesting league in the world.
And thus the SEC will remain until some other conference collectively makes the same level and enormity of commitment to the four elements I have laid out in this series. I don’t believe any other conference has the wherewithal, let alone the will to do it, but time will tell. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.