SEC basketball programs are firing coaches like it's football, which is a sign of the new era
John Calipari did not approve.
Ahead of Kentucky’s opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the conference’s elder statesman addressed South Carolina’s decision to fire Frank Martin. It was Martin who entered the month hoping to make a late push to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, losses in 3 of 4 games to end Martin’s 10th season on the job ended up being all she wrote. The SEC’s second-longest tenured coach was given the boot after 1 NCAA Tournament appearance — it was an improbable run to the Final Four in 2017 — in a decade.
Calipari, though, saw it differently.
John Calipari: “Frank Martin should have been Coach of the Year in our league. No disrespect to who won it, but South Carolina was picked to finish 12th.”
Martin was fired today. USC was the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament, lost to Mississippi State.
— Jack Pilgrim (@JackPilgrimKSR) March 14, 2022
(We could play devil’s advocate and ask why it’s defensible for a Year 10 coach searching for its first NCAA Tournament berth in 5 years to be picked to finish 12th, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.)
In December 2020, Auburn fired football coach Gus Malzahn after posting a 6-4 record in an SEC-only season. He had 3 wins against Nick Saban and he went 68-35 in 8 years at Auburn. Ultimately, Auburn paid over $21 million to fire the second-longest tenured coach in the SEC.
The conference’s elder statesman did not approve:
Nick Saban: “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gus. They were always tough to play against.
“Sometimes you wonder why people do what they do.”
— Aaron Suttles (@AaronSuttles) December 13, 2020
See the similarities?
If MSU is indeed moving on from Ben Howland, which Outkick reported, 6 SEC basketball programs (!) will have a coaching change. That’s similar to when Malzahn was 1 of 4 SEC football coaches fired after a pandemic season.
Whether Calipari approves or not, it’s clear that SEC basketball is taking a page out of the football playbook — short leashes for coaches, aggressive hires/extensions and a never-ending desire to be relevant. That standard in SEC football helped yield unprecedented buyout figures, but it also helped yield national titles in 12 of the past 16 years.
If we include Howland, 4 SEC programs (Florida, Georgia, Mizzou, South Carolina, MSU) will be moving on from their coaches for on-court reasons. Martin was the only one of those coaches who won an NCAA Tournament game.
Of course, that group didn’t include Mike White, who left Florida for Georgia, nor did it include Wade, who was fired after a 3-year NCAA investigation revealed several Level-1 violations that went public the weekend of the SEC Tournament.
At the root of both of those moves, though, was high expectations. Wade wasn’t fired when the investigation began because he was in the midst of making LSU basketball more consistently relevant than it had been in 4 decades (LSU can win an NCAA Tournament game 3 times in a 4-year stretch for the first time since 1981). White bailed for Georgia after 7 seasons of hearing about how he wasn’t Billy Donovan even though he never had a losing record in SEC play and he won an NCAA Tournament game 4 times in 6 possible chances.
A few months after Florida and LSU paid 8-figure buyouts to get rid of their football coaches, don’t be surprised if both of them swing for the fences with their basketball hires (don’t tell me Scott Woodward is going to take the cheap route because of potential sanctions). Abundant resources will do that type of thing.
USA Today reported that the SEC had 12 public schools paying basketball coaches at least $3 million annually in 2021-22. The ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 only had 14 such coaches combined.
That number actually might get more lopsided. When the new media rights contracts kick in during the latter half of the decade, Navigate projected the SEC to pay out $105.3 million annually to its member schools by 2029 while the Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 could still be roughly half of that.
It’s not just hiring and firing coaches where the SEC has been aggressive with compensation.
Look at coaches like Eric Musselman, Nate Oats and Bruce Pearl. In the past 13 months, all of them squashed rumors of them potentially leaving for more historic basketball programs by signing lucrative extensions. Oats got a 31% raise to $3,225,000 million annually, Musselman got a 60% bump to $4 million annually and Pearl got a 55% increase to $6,275,000 annually.
And as many noted, Pearl’s contract is now richer than Bryan Harsin’s (and 8 other SEC football coaches). Hashtag basketball school.
Mind you, this is the conference that hasn’t had a football coach get poached by another league since James Franklin left Vanderbilt for Penn State at the end of the 2013 season. Including Rick Barnes spurning UCLA to stay at Tennessee a few years ago, it’s fair to say we’re seeing that trend develop with SEC basketball coaches, too.
Money talks. So does winning. So does fan interest.
Even though the SEC is still searching for its first national title in a decade, the league just put 6 teams into the NCAA Tournament field for the 6th consecutive year. That hadn’t happened since 1999-2004. Go back to before that streak began.
In 1996, Lon Kruger left Florida for Illinois. Why? It wasn’t money. Kruger made $500,000 in annual compensation at Florida, and he made $750,000 in his final season at Illinois. It wasn’t winning, either. Illinois was coming off an NIT berth and had gone 3 consecutive years without an NCAA Tournament win, while Florida had also missed the NCAA Tournament, but was just 2 years removed from a Final Four berth.
It was fan interest. Go back and read this Orlando Sentinel article following Kruger’s move to Illinois:
In recent seasons, Kruger has noted the lack of consistent fan support. Average home attendance dropped nearly 2,000 this past season to 7,896, down from 9,838 in 1994-95. But even in the Gators’ first Final Four season in 1993-94, when they went 13-0 at home, average attendance was less than 10,000 at the 12,000-seat O’Connell Center.
Illinois, a member of the Big Ten Conference, averages about 15,000 fans each season at 16,450-seat Assembly Hall. The Illini were 18-13 last season and finished ninth in 11-team Big Ten.
Don’t feel too bad for Florida. The Gators hired a 30-year-old guy named “Billy Donovan,” who casually led the program to 6 SEC regular-season titles, 4 SEC Tournament titles, 4 Final Fours, 3 national championship berths and 2 national titles during a 19-year run that completely turned around a once herky-jerky program.
Ideally, every SEC athletic director with a vacancy to fill would find their version of Donovan. Realistically, he was more the exception than the rule. The same probably goes for Pearl, Musselman and Oats, all of whom took their programs to new 21st century heights early into their respective tenures.
Last year after Oats gave the school its first sweep of the regular season and conference tournament titles since 1987, he made waves by saying Alabama doesn’t have to be a “football school” or a “basketball school.”
“We’re a championship school,” Oats said on the ESPN broadcast.
Those are the things you can say when you sweep SEC titles in football and men’s basketball.
Georgia athletic director Scott Brooks will never admit it, but he’s chasing the year Alabama had in 2020-21. The first part of that mission (win a football national title) happened, but the second part was never remotely on the table. Tom Crean was fired after winning 1 SEC game in Year 4 on the job. Even that move, which became inevitable for more than just on-court reasons, was a sign of the times.
Since 2010, all of these SEC basketball coaches were fired for performance-based reasons after 4 years or less (excluding interim coaches and coaches fired for sanctions):
- John Pelphrey, Arkansas (2007-11)
- Darrin Horn, South Carolina (2008-12)
- Tony Barbee, Auburn (2010-14)
- Rick Ray, Mississippi State (2012-15)
- Kim Anderson, Mizzou (2014-17)
- Bryce Drew, Vanderbilt (2017-19)
- Avery Johnson, Alabama (2015-19)
- Tom Crean, Georgia (2018-22)
In the 20 years prior to that, here are all the SEC basketball coaches who were fired for performance-based reasons after 4 years or less (excluding interim coaches and coaches fired for sanctions):
- Ron Jirsa, Georgia (1997-99)
- Buzz Peterson, Tennessee (2001-05)
- Billy Gillespie, Kentucky (2007-09)
We’ve seen as many SEC basketball coaches fired after 4 years or less from 2019-22 than we did from 1990-2009. That says it all. I don’t expect that to change.
We’re heading into an era with SEC basketball coaches that rivals the turnover we saw in football. In football, only 4 coaches coached a game for their current team in the 2020s (Saban, Mark Stoops, Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher). In basketball only 4 coaches coached a game for their current team in 2018 or earlier, assuming that Howland is out at MSU (Pearl, Calipari, Kermit Davis and Barnes). And go figure that Davis had to answer questions about his job security just 3 years removed from earning SEC Coach of the Year honors.
Something tells me Calipari wouldn’t have approved of Davis being fired, either. Whatever the case, Calipari and his fellow SEC coaches are being held to a different standard than any before it.
It might not ever mean quite as much as football, but SEC basketball sure as heck means a lot now.