In honor of Frank Martin, ranking the SEC's most intense football coaches
By now you’ve seen “The Look.” Frank Martin never hides behind it. He’s never afraid to show it off at any pulsating time, and South Carolina’s men’s basketball coach is so darn intense that “The Look” hardly means things aren’t going well for the Gamecocks at that particular moment in the game.
Right now, you might have heard, things are going incredibly well for South Carolina. Historically well. Tonight, in faraway Phoenix, the Gamecocks are going to play in a Final Four, a grand stage that always seemed so faraway for a program that didn’t boast all that much in men’s basketball beyond B.J. McKie.
But here they are, with mighty Duke, menacing Baylor and SEC rival Florida in their wake. And they have the man behind “The Look” to thank for it all. Of course, the Miami-born Martin, whose competitive Cuban blood flows continuously, is a whole lot more than just intense, but for this discussion we’re going to stay on that fiery subject and run down eight of the all-time most intense sideline leaders in SEC football history.
The list can be argued forever, naturally, because what coach who has ever paced an SEC sideline hasn’t shown intensity at one or 1,000 moments, and even the outwardly calm ones have the fire burning inside. But we’re going to go with the eight who showed or still show it off for their players and fans to see, the ones who have or had “The Look” of their very own.
(To weigh in, see the poll below. You can vote for one of the eight or tell us who we missed.)
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Is Saban fiery when things aren’t going well? The man and mind who has brought Alabama four national titles since 2009 can rage when things are going well, at least on the scoreboard. Just ask Lane Kiffin. All coaches are perceived to be perfectionists, but Saban really is best in breed in that discussion. You can stare at Saban on the sideline for 60 minutes and not know what the scoreboard reads, or how much the Crimson Tide are winning by. Saban demands excellence and when he doesn’t see it, he can get a little upset.
In a countdown of crazy-eyed coaches done last year by ranker.com, Saban ranked sixth, sliding in behind the likes of Bobby Knight and Bob Huggins. Martin was eighth, by the way, and wouldn’t he like to have a national title ring like one of Saban’s come Monday night in Phoenix? Kiffin, the subject of Saban’s ire too many times last season, came in at No. 42 in a countdown ranker.com headlined, “The Most High Strung Coaches in College Sports,” which is a diplomatic way of putting it. Kiffin’s temper pales in comparison to the king of Tuscaloosa, and he won’t be in Saban’s way anymore.
But somebody will come fall, or Saban can just go berserk by himself, like he did last fall in Fayetteville in a game the Tide was winning 42-17 at one point and won 49-30 without breaking a sweat. Saban seems to sweat every last thing. Maybe that’s why he’s so great.
2. Urban Meyer, Florida
Like Saban, Meyer demands perfection and has often gotten something close to it in return, having led Florida to national titles in 2006 and 2008 before getting to the top again at Ohio State in 2014. But in between all that glory in Gainesville and Columbus came the stunning reality of a man only 45 years old who resigned from his lofty UF perch because of health concerns related to stress. The resignation turned into an indefinite leave of absence, and Meyer’s time at Florida would end soon enough after an 8-5 season in 2010. He revealed to HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” in 2014 that he was “mentally broke” and lost 37 pounds in 2009.
Fortunately, Meyer has been able to return to coaching in the Big Ten and be just as successful as he was at UF. The fire still burns and a tirade or two are never far away from the Nick Saban of the North, but those dark days of eight years ago are a distant memory as Meyer has been able to be intense without letting the results consume him.
3. Robert Neyland, Tennessee
The man for whom the stadium is named in Knoxville was also a general. You better believe he was intense. Neyland was a leader of men on the football field and in the U.S. Army, and he knew how to get the most out of his players and soldiers through intelligence (he loved to read) and, yes, by sheer intensity. Gus Manning captures Neyland’s iconic essence, talks of how he motivated his Volunteers on the field with a lot of knowledge and, yes, a little fear thrown in.
None of his players wanted to fail the general, and they hardly ever did, as Neyland won four national titles in Knoxville and left with an eye-popping .829 winning percentage. He died some 55 years ago but his legend, full of excellence and, yes, intensity, will always tower over the Tennessee program.
4. Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama
We follow “The General” with “The Bear.” Before the bombastic Saban bounced along the sidelines in the new millennium, there was the drill sergeant with the houndstooth hat whose cold stare ruled over Alabama football for a quarter of a century. Somehow, Bryant’s legend was way, way bigger than the scope of his six national titles and 14 SEC crowns, and he did it his own way. In Allen Barra’s biography of Bryant, the native Alabamian wrote: “Twenty-two years after his death, Bear Bryant still intimidates me.” Even in death, Bryant still motivated people involved with Alabama football with his intense drive to be the best.
Bryant walked the straight line in life. He was direct and bold and unrelenting, right to the end. All you had to do was watch and listen at halftime of his final Iron Bowl in 1982. Or listen to one of his many famous halftime speeches. “The Bear” always had his players’ attention. He was always in charge on the sideline, and his teams were almost always in charge on the scoreboard.
5. Steve Spurrier, Florida and South Carolina
Spurrier had a distinct, red-faced sideline look similar to the one Martin will be flashing yet again on Saturday night during the Final Four. Spurrier also had visors, many of them, and those poor visors always ended up on the field, at one or many points in a football game, no matter what the scoreboard said. Spurrier coached in Columbia like Martin is now but his legend on the field and the sidelines was born at Florida, where his name now adorns the stadium at The Swamp.
The “Head Ball Coach,” who checked in at No. 20 on the ranker.com high strung coaches list, had a presence in the locker room and on the sideline that motivated players and riled up foes, all at the same time. He could endlessly poke fun at Tennessee during his days at Florida, which he did, and he could do it with a wry grin that still let you know he meant exactly what he was saying. He was a fiery competitor who could shake his head at something or another even after an 80-yard touchdown pass, but that will helped carry that 1996 Florida team to the top to secure Spurrier’s legend.
6. Pat Dye, Auburn
In the 1980s, Auburn football was all about Bo. But a close second was Pat Dye, who often wore a hat and a blazer and always wore his emotions on his dress shirt sleeve. Dye won four SEC titles along The Plains in the 80s, and only one of them came with Bo Jackson. But Dye and Bo did combine for one incredible memory, as Jackson’s “over the top” leap at the goal line in 1982 helped the Tigers break their nine-game losing streak against Alabama, where Dye got his coaching start under Bear Bryant.
Dye, always all-business with those intense eyes, led the Tigers to victory over Bama in 1989 in the first Iron Bowl hosted on Auburn’s campus, which in turn led the rivalry game to rotate between the schools every year instead of just being played in Birmingham. His heartfelt postgame speech was epic like the win itself. Legend had it that a search committee member interviewing Dye for the Auburn job asked him, “How long will it take you to beat Alabama?” Dye replied: “Sixty minutes.”
7. Les Miles, LSU
The nickname “The Mad Hatter” automatically invokes visions of intense sideline theatrics, and a few gambles tossed in, and that’s what Miles was during his run in Baton Rouge that came to an end last year. Still, Miles won plenty, bringing a national title to LSU in 2007, and he was never afraid to tell anyone who would listen about how passionate he was. After a victory over Ole Miss in 2012, Miles let loose with a legendary rant.
Miles might have been criticized, especially at the end, for his predictable offenses, but the failures could never be blamed on a lack of trying. The man with the hat always left everything on the field on Baton Rouge Saturday nights, including those trick plays and that crazy custom of eating grass, and his intensity was a treasure along with his overall record (114-34), SEC mark (62-28) and that national title.
8. Bobby Petrino, Arkansas
Petrino has a checkered past, to say the least, but no matter what you think of him personally, nobody can deny that his intensity is ever present. All you have to do is look at the color of his face, as it turns bright red similar to that of former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Ranker.com had Petrino 12th in its intense coach countdown, two spots above Woody Hayes for heaven’s sake.
Petrino is in his second go-around at Louisville after that so-so four-year run at Arkansas, when he went just 17-15 in the SEC, and who knows if he’ll be a head coach in the SEC again. But that red face, eyes just about popping out of his head, will be his positive legacy in the conference in the absence of any titles or the motorcycle incident that will never leave Hogs fans’ heads.