5 SEC assistants who would have no problem stepping in if a head coach tested positive for COVID-19
My hope is that this list is nothing more than a backup plan. That is, no SEC team has to decide which coach will take over in the event that its head coach tested positive for COVID-19.
But after Toledo coach Jason Candle tested positive last week, this is something that SEC teams at least have to consider. Nobody wants to be caught flat-footed in the event that their coach is subjected to a multi-week quarantine.
Coaches always preach “next man up,” which would be the mantra of a program that loses a head coach in the middle of the season to a mandated quarantine. Obviously there are health issues that would be at the forefront of those conversations, but in the event that there was a season to continue, it’s fair to say some teams are built to handle that better than others.
I came up with 5 SEC assistants who could roll with that sudden reality:
1. Barry Odom, Arkansas DC
Odom was one of the best assistant hires this offseason, and in times like these, Arkansas could do much worse than having the former Mizzou coach on the sidelines. Let’s not forget that Odom got the Mizzou job after being promoted from defensive coordinator in the wake of Gary Pinkel’s sudden retirement. That was the result of of his non-Hodgkins lymphoma diagnosis. Odom stepped in and got Mizzou back to relevance by 2017-18.
When Mizzou got the stunning announcement that it was given a bowl ban from the NCAA last year because of an investigation into a former tutor, Odom handled that mess extremely well. He defended the program, he called out Tennessee for trying to poach his players and not a single player transferred.
That’s a glue guy if I’ve ever seen one.
2. Steve Sarkisian, Alabama OC
Not many programs could turn to someone who has head coaching experience at 2 respected Power 5 programs. Sarkisian battled his personal demons, but he turned his career around the past few years. He has experienced a lot and would understand the scrutiny of taking on the head gig at a place like Alabama having been the head coach at USC.
One trait I think is important for something like this is getting someone who already truly has control over the entire side of the ball. Sarkisian already runs and has the respect of Alabama’s offense. He’s in a position of power where he makes plenty of big in-game decisions. He’d be asked to do a lot of that in the event that he’d be called upon to step in as the Alabama head coach.
3. Matt Luke, Georgia OL
Put Luke in the Odom department as someone who took over at his alma mater after an unexpected exit/firing of a head coach. Luke was thrust into a difficult situation at Ole Miss, and if he had to take over at Georgia, it would again be a big challenge, albeit for different reasons. In terms of having the support of the locker room, Luke would absolutely have that. He is, by any stretch, a players-coach who has experience making some of those difficult in-game calls. That’s been an Achilles’ heel of the Kirby Smart era in Athens.
Luke could take over without necessarily forcing Todd Monken, who also has FBS head coaching experience, into that role and adding more onto a plate that already consists of implementing his new offense. Having someone who already has multiple years of SEC head coaching experience should be considered a blessing.
The former Ole Miss coach would be an obvious fit in this role.
4. Bo Pelini, LSU DC
Before you tell me that this is an awful idea, remember this: Pelini spent the past 12 years as a head coach. In terms of the day-to-day, that wouldn’t be an issue. Did he handle the Nebraska fishbowl as well as he could have? No, but he didn’t lose favor within that locker room. Like Luke, there was strong player opposition to him leaving Nebraska. As animated as Pelini gets on the sidelines, any belief that he’s some Bobby Knight-level disciplinarian who is more feared than loved is simply incorrect.
I say that because in the event of a situation like this, any replacement coach would need to have the trust of those players. You can’t have someone step in and immediately divide the locker room. I don’t believe Pelini would do that. Someone who understands what’s at stake at a place like LSU would have a grasp on the magnitude of every game.
And for all those saying Pelini was a failure at Nebraska, his 7 teams all hit at least 9 wins. Even if he’s hot-headed, you don’t win that many games unless you have a clue what you’re doing between the lines.
5. Kevin Steele, Auburn DC
Yes, I’d rather roll the dice on Steele than turn the team over to Chad Morris. And no, I don’t care about how much Steele struggled 20 years ago as Baylor’s head coach.
Steele already has total control over the defense, and based on his track record of cranking out top-20 units, he clearly knows how to roll with the punches. Unlike some of the previous names on that list, he’s someone who has been in that locker room for the past 4 years. No Auburn player knows a time when Steele didn’t have a presence on Gus Malzahn’s staff.
It’s possible that Auburn would elect to go a different route and leave Steele and Morris in their current roles and instead promote co-offensive coordinator Kodi Burns into that role. Burns, the former Auburn quarterback/receiver, is someone who is considered an up-and-coming head coaching candidate at 31 years old. Malzahn trusts Burns, who is entering Year 5 as an assistant on The Plains. But Steele would be the most seamless transition given how valuable he’s been the last 4 years.
Here’s hoping nobody has to turn to “Plan B” in this weird, unpredictable year.