In theory, no SEC coaches should be fired in 2022. In actuality? Assume it's coming
I remember saying before the 2020 season that it didn’t make sense for any SEC coaches to get fired. We were in the midst of a pandemic wherein SEC schools were making tens of millions of dollars less on ticket revenue compared to normal. Surely we weren’t about to see schools shell out 8-figure buyouts to head coaches, right?
Wrong. So wrong.
South Carolina did that for Will Muschamp, Auburn did that for Gus Malzahn, Tennessee sort of did that for Jeremy Pruitt (but not really because he was fired with cause) and Vanderbilt didn’t pay an 8-figure buyout, but it did fire Derek Mason.
To be clear, I wasn’t someone who pounded the table about university professors getting laid off while football coaches received multi-million dollar buyouts not to work. I’m aware that those are 2 separate deals with separate places in which they’re funded. I made the pre-2020 declaration that firings didn’t make sense just because how could you evaluate a coach — good or bad — in such an unprecedented season?
That’s where I was so wrong. This is the SEC, where you’re always being evaluated, whether you’re at Vanderbilt or you’ve got a $21.5 million buyout at Auburn.
In the SEC, 10 of the 14 active head coaches were not their team’s head coach during the 2010s. Only Nick Saban, Mark Stoops, Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher can claim that they were their current team’s head coach in the 2010s decade. We had 4 new coaches in 2020, 4 more in 2021 and at the start of 2022, we’ll have 2 more.
So one would look at that and assume the odds of coaching turnover are slim to none, right?
Wrong. So wrong.
A firing is coming. It almost always does.
I say that even as someone who assumes Saban & Smart, AKA the 2 coaches who just were in the national championship, aren’t going anywhere, and same with Fisher and Smart, both of whom just agreed to significant raises since the start of the 2021 season.
But the funny thing is that those 4 are the only survivors of the calm before the storm. That was the historic post-2018 stability we saw in the SEC. Not 1 coaching change. Every single SEC coach who had their job in 2018 got to keep it into the start of 2019. It was the first time that happened in the SEC since 2006.
Nope, it’s not a coincidence that the streak basically coincided with Saban’s arrival at Alabama.
So what does that mean for this year? Well, let’s probably exclude those 4 (Saban, Stoops, Smart and Fisher). Let’s also not assume that a Year 1 coach like Brian Kelly or Billy Napier is about to get the boot (see what I did there?). That leaves us with 8 SEC coaches who are in potential “firing” territory just by virtue of those parameters.
- Sam Pittman, Arkansas
- Bryan Harsin, Auburn
- Eli Drinkwitz, Mizzou
- Mike Leach, MSU
- Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
- Shane Beamer, South Carolina
- Josh Heupel, Tennessee
- Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
Those are all Year 2 or Year 3 head coaches. I’d argue it’d be stunning to see all but 1 of those coaches on any sort of preseason “hot seat” list. That 1 exception, of course, is Harsin.
Harsin enters Year 2 having just encountered one of the most bizarre, yet fittingly Auburn offseasons a coach could have. Multiple statements from the university were released following public criticism from players about his treatment of them. A whiff on National Signing Day coupled with the departure of offensive coordinator Austin Davis after 6 weeks on the job put Harsin in hot water.
If you’re picking an SEC head coach to get fired in 2022, Harsin would still be the overwhelming favorite, despite the attempt for Auburn’s administration to declare it is fully aligned with the Year 2 head coach. We’ll see what that looks like if Harsin starts off 4-3. Will Auburn fork over a $15 million buyout? Like, just 2 years after forking over a $21.5 million to Malzahn during that aforementioned pandemic season?
We should never rule it out. We should also never rule out the possibility that one of those other coaches falls out of favor in a hurry.
Pittman just delivered Arkansas its best season in a decade and Kiffin just led Ole Miss to its best regular season win total in school history, so it’s hard to imagine any world in which they get fired for on-field reasons.
Beamer and Heupel just exceeded relatively low expectations and now have all sorts of momentum to follow in the footsteps of what we just saw Pittman and Kiffin do in Year 2. Even though nobody would’ve predicted that Joe Moorhead or Chad Morris would be axed in Year 2, neither of them had a Year 1 with such exceeded expectations like those 2. And Lea inherited a program that didn’t win an SEC game in 2020, which doesn’t suggest the former Vandy fullback is coaching for his job at his alma mater in Year 2.
That leaves us with Drinkwitz and Leach. If there are any 2 SEC coaches who could fall victim to the competitive, cutthroat nature of the conference, it’s them. That’s not just because both ended the season on 2-game losing streaks. It’s because both coaches have failed to establish consistency as guys who are running their respective offenses.
Drinkwitz started to get into the “honeymoon is over” phase in Year 2 because of the lack of success in the passing game. That doesn’t mean he’s coaching for his job in Year 3. But in a division in which it feels like everyone is getting better, this would be a tough time for Drinkwitz to have another lackluster passing game, especially if Mizzou misses the postseason.
Let’s also not forget that Jim Sterk, AKA the athletic director who hired Drinkwitz, stepped down before the 2021 school year. A new boss equals a new set of expectations.
Leach’s situation is a bit more complicated. He’s still got his same boss (John Cohen), which would suggest he’s got a little more leeway. But contracts in the state of Mississippi cannot be longer than 4 years. Leach didn’t get any years added to his deal after 2020, and we still haven’t seen Leach agree to an extension after Year 2. In other words, he’s got 2 years left on the initial contract that paid him $20 million over 4 years ($5 million per season). That would make his buyout $5 million if he didn’t agree to an extension before the start of 2022.
But even if Leach does get an extra year added to his contract before 2022, we could still be talking about a $10 million buyout. Then again, the majority of Power 5 coaches have 8-figure buyouts (33 coaches entered 2019 with 8-figure buyouts). That’s standard now.
The good news for Leach is that unlike Drinkwitz, he has an established quarterback who just helped improve the offense by more than a touchdown per game. Does that, however, mean that expectations for MSU are higher and the disappointment could be greater? Also yes.
Leach and Drinkwitz might not be safe from a dumpster fire of a season. Shoot, who really is in the SEC?
As we enter 2022, we should remember that change is always imminent. At least it is as it relates to SEC coaches. Let’s all hark back to the words that Ed Orgeron repeated from Steve Spurrier after Orgeron took over at Ole Miss in 2006.
“Folks, look around,” Orgeron remembered Spurrier, then at South Carolina, saying at a 2006 meeting of the league’s coaches (via The New York Times). “It ain’t going to be like this next year.”
He’s not wrong.