1 stat shows exactly why the SEC sits atop the college football coaching mountain
When Michigan State poached Mel Tucker from Colorado after doubling his salary, it forced some (like me) to take a bigger picture look at the power dynamics at play with today’s landscape of college football coaches.
That marked the second time in a month that the Pac-12 watched one of its coaches get poached by another FBS program. Like Tucker’s move, Mike Leach’s departure from Washington State shed some light on the growing trend in college football — not all conferences are created equally.
That’s especially true with coaches. Take, for example, the Pac-12. As I mentioned, twice in a month’s time, other Power 5 leagues poached one of their coaches.
Go back exactly 10 years. That’s Feb. 18, 2010 to now. In that stretch, the SEC only had 1 coach get poached by another Power 5 or FBS program. That was James Franklin going from Vanderbilt to Penn State. With all due respect to Vanderbilt and the lovely city of Nashville, that’s a move that any coach in their right mind would make. It was an obvious upgrade.
But that’s it. That’s the only time in the last 10 years that the SEC has watched one of its coaches get poached by another Power 5 program. That says it all. And it’s why the SEC sits atop the college football coaching mountain.
(Lane Kiffin’s departure from Tennessee to USC was technically more than 10 years ago now, which is hard to believe in itself.)
No other conference — especially not the Pac-12 — can say that.
From Feb. 18, 2010 to Feb. 18, 2020, there were 12 instances of a Power 5 team who had their coach poached by another Power 5 or FBS program:
- Charlie Strong leaves Louisville for Texas (2013)
- Paul Chryst leaves Pitt for Wisconsin (2014)
- Jimbo Fisher leaves Florida State for Texas A&M (2017)
- Big 12
- Tommy Tuberville leaves Texas Tech for Cincinnati (2012)
- Dana Holgorsen leaves West Virginia for Houston (2018)
- Big Ten
- Bret Bielema leaves Wisconsin for Arkansas (2012)
- Gary Andersen leaves Wisconsin for Oregon State (2014)
- Mike Riley leaves Oregon State for Nebraska (2014)
- Willie Taggart leaves Oregon for Florida State (2017)
- Mike Leach leaves Washington State for Mississippi State (2020)
- Mel Tucker leaves Colorado for Michigan State (2020)
- James Franklin leaves Vanderbilt for Penn State (2013)
(Technically, Louisville wasn’t in the ACC during Strong’s last year there, but the Cardinals were set to join the ACC the following season. Because those pieces were in place and Strong knew that Louisville would be part of the Power 5, I believe that counts.)
Look a little closer at that list and every non-SEC Power 5 conference has had at least 1 coach leave for what many would consider a lateral move in terms of program prestige. The ACC had that happen with Fisher going to A&M, the Big 12 watched a pair of coaches leave for Group of 5 jobs, the Big Ten watched Wisconsin have 2 coaches leave for perceived lateral moves while you could argue the Pac-12 had that happen twice in the past month.
It’s important to note what I said there — a lateral move in terms of program prestige. That has nothing to do with the money offered. Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas because he felt he couldn’t pay his assistants enough, and the Hogs made sure that wasn’t an issue. Fisher went from fighting with the FSU boosters about facilities to having then-Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward write him a check for $75 million guaranteed. Mike Leach left Washington State a month after signing an extension and is now set to make more than any Pac-12 coach made in 2019 … at Mississippi State.
The SEC’s ability to poach at least 1 coach from 3 of the 4 other Power 5 programs wouldn’t have happened without that financial commitment. I’ll save the “It Just Means More” line and simply point to the fact that 5 of the 10 highest-paid coaches in 2019 were from the SEC, and 5 of the 7 highest-paid staffs in 2019 also belonged to the SEC (via USA Today).
The Big Ten also accounted for 5 of the top 14 highest-paid coaches in America last year. And like the SEC, the Big Ten also poached coaches from 3 Power 5 conferences during that stretch (it actually poached 4 coaches). Tucker’s move to Michigan State was actually the second time the Big Ten poached from the Pac-12 during that stretch. This latest move to pay a 5-7 coach more than double his previous year salary felt like something the SEC would do.
The original stat favors the SEC more than the Big Ten, but those 2 conferences have the money to do more poaching than ever. When you’re cashing revenue distribution checks in the neighborhood of $50 million on an annual basis like the Big Ten and SEC, it’s not surprising to see that money used more aggressively than the rest.
There’s a legitimate question that’s worth asking — when is the next time a Power 5 team will poach an SEC coach? And what would that even look like?
I mean, consider this. We’re a couple months removed from Florida State whiffing on poaching Mark Stoops from Kentucky. It helps when Kentucky is able to pay its football coach $5 million, which is what Stoops will make in 2020. Not a single Pac-12 coach made $5 millon in 2019.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which an SEC team, with its resources advantage, let a non-SEC Power 5 program come in and poach. If USC has an opening next year and it makes a legitimate play to poach Ed Orgeron, LSU has the resources to make sure that won’t happen.
Shoot, the NFL might not even be able to poach from the SEC. Would Florida have let the Dallas Cowboys outbid them for Dan Mullen? I wouldn’t bet on that. It’s different when we’re talking about the NFL poaching an assistant like Joe Brady. And sure, there are cases of guys who want to rise to the level of the NFL like Matt Rhule. If Rhule was at, let’s say, South Carolina instead of Baylor, would the Gamecocks have prevented him from leaving for the Panthers? Maybe not, though I guarantee they would have put up a better fight than Baylor did.
That’s what SEC programs have done better than any other conference — fight for a head coach. Does that result in overpaying sometimes? Sure. Ask Gus Malzahn about that. But has that also helped put up a wall around the conference to prevent intruders from breaking in? Absolutely.
The SEC built that wall up over the last 10 years. And nobody is breaking it down anytime soon.