It's always odd and sort of depressing to listen to lame-duck coaches before their final game
Saturday will mark the end of some eras in the SEC.
Arkansas fans will no longer get to yell at their TVs about Bret Bielema’s overmatched offensive lines. Texas A&M fans will no longer have to lose sleep over why Kevin Sumlin can never put together a solid month of November. Ole Miss fans will no longer have to watch Matt Luke struggle with basic head coaching duties like clock management.
Luke’s tenure will have lasted longer than some of his fellow SEC interim coaches, such as Brady Hoke and Randy Shannon, both of whom are expected to coach their final games on Saturday as well.
Barring something crazy, these five SEC coaches will no longer be in their respective positions by this time next week. Saturday will be their last chance to make a final statement. They can claim they “don’t hear outside noise” and they’re “just focused on winning a game on Saturday,” but such a mindset isn’t easy to maintain and won’t change the inevitable.
The hay is in the barn.
Of course none of them came out and called himself a “lame-duck coach.” The term itself sounds weak and defeated, which is something no coach will ever cop to being. And in many ways, it implies that they’re just riding out the year, which they would tell you couldn’t be further from the truth. But if you can come up with a better way to describe them, I’d love to hear it.
I listened to those five guys on the SEC Coaches Teleconference on Wednesday to try and decipher where exactly their heads are heading into their last hurrah. The responses were all over the place.
There was, however, one common denominator. They all sort of depressed me.
Say what you want about the “never talk about another man’s job” unwritten rule among coaches — Missouri coach Barry Odom claimed he didn’t hear any noise about Bielema’s likely firing — but they know that $5 million salaries come with their fair share of speculation. If their entire job consisted of coaching a football team with absolutely no worry over public opinion, they wouldn’t make that kind of money.
Sumlin has had to deal with such speculation all year. He was the lone coach among the current SEC lame ducks who had his athletic director, Scott Woodward, say in the preseason that “he knows he has to win this year.”
“It’s not like we haven’t dealt with this since the spring,” Sumlin said on the SEC Coaches Teleconference on Wednesday. “I think our team has done a really, really nice job on focusing on the games at hand. And we’ll continue to do that. Certainly we’ve had that experience since the beginning of the year.”
Sumlin, of course, made mid-week news when a report surfaced that he would be fired after the LSU game. Naturally, the Texas A&M coach said on the conference call that he hadn’t talked to Woodward since last Saturday’s game and that they hadn’t had any recent conversations about his future.
- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin
Whether that’s true or not, not everyone is assuming that Sumlin’s days in College Station will end when the clock hits zero on Saturday. LSU coach Ed Orgeron brought up when Les Miles saved his job in 2015 after reports of his demise surfaced before the Texas A&M game. Orgeron then took over for Miles early in the 2016 season and became the rare coach to shed the interim tag.
If either Hoke or Shannon follow suit, Knoxville and Gainesville would simultaneously combust.
After all, both of those programs are reportedly pursuing big-time names like Jon Gruden and Chip Kelly. Hoke is actually in somewhat familiar territory in that regard. It was a forgone conclusion that Michigan had already decided to pursue other big-name options during his final season in Ann Arbor. Hoke, however, didn’t see the similarities like I did.
“Connor, I’ll be very honest with you. I never have and never will listen to the noise or let the noise affect what you’re doing,” Hoke said on Tuesday. “If you start responding to other people’s opinions who don’t know how hard these kids have worked and the intricacies of a football program and the hard work the coaches do … .”
Like Hoke, Shannon has been a head coach at a big-time program before. His final days at Miami were spoiled by consecutive losses to close the 2010 regular season. Since he was fired by the Canes, Shannon has held five different job titles, including his current one as Florida’s interim head coach.
By now, Shannon knows what’s coming in a matter of days.
“In coaching, you’ve got to expect that you’re gonna change jobs. That’s part of this business … but you just make sure you do your job,” Shannon said on Wednesday. “You can’t worry about the things you cannot control. That’s the one thing I always have on my mind. The best job I have is the job I have now. After that, then I’ll focus on that when it happens.”
Luke had a similarly optimistic approach to what will likely be his final game as a head coach. He, of course, took over as Ole Miss interim coach in the wake of the Hugh Freeze fallout. That was after the program self-imposed a bowl ban and was charged with violations stemming from the Houston Nutt era.
At 5-6 and without a chance at postseason play, Luke didn’t speak like someone who expected to shed the interim tag and become the program’s next coach. He seemed a bit more reflective when he talked about what’s been an eventful 2017 in Oxford.
“It’s been great. It’s been a great experience,” Luke said on Wednesday. “I’ve really, really enjoyed just building the relationships. I kinda said that before. Just being on the offensive side of the ball, you’re not limited to, but you don’t really get to know the defense because you stay separated so much. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know everybody and the motivational part, those are the things I enjoyed and are the things I’m good at.
“I’ve just enjoyed motivating this team under such tough circumstances and really just bringing these guys together and enjoying the time that we were promised.”
Bielema, on the other hand, didn’t speak in the past tense. He spoke about hoping to build the rivalry with Missouri down the road and how he planned on recruiting this weekend.
Those are obviously tentative plans. Last week, Arkansas fired athletic director Jeff Long, which only sparked the belief that Bielema would follow the man who hired him out of Fayetteville.
- Florida interim coach Randy Shannon
“I heard our players comment. They hear things through social media, so it was interesting,” Bielema said. “And of course the way they played on Saturday, it didn’t flinch them at all. They were in it to win it and prepared that way. I had several players come up to me individually that are private conversations, that what they express, how they want to do it should the media ask them questions, and I hear the responses from those kids. …
“I realize and our players realize we haven’t won all the games we wanted to. We haven’t exactly lost to skid row, either.”
Bielema, who is 11-28 in SEC play in his five seasons at Arkansas, also talked about how “it’s going to play out and let it happen as it does” and that the administration has been “absolutely awesome.” If Arkansas makes the expected decision, Bielema won’t get a chance to recruit after Friday’s regular-season finale.
Perhaps that’s why these five head coaches were identified so early on as lame-duck coaches. Programs have to act quicker than ever with the new early signing period in effect this year. Speculation ramps up while coaches are still on the job. That dynamic will always be awkward.
The clichés aren’t going anywhere. Coaches are still going to say that they’ll “control what they can control” and they’re still going to claim that they’re “blocking the outside noise.” Of course they’re going to say that. What else would they say?
“Yeah, it’s been a fun ride. I know I’m a goner come Sunday morning. Who do y’all think they’ll get to replace me?”
I’d love to live in a world where lame-duck coaches said those kind of things. I’d also love to live in a world where I got to have dinner with Mike Leach every night. Neither of those things are happening anytime soon.
What does appear to be happening soon is that these coaches will be out of a job. In time, they’ll find new homes where they can spit out their clichés and do what football guys do.
That is, NEVER talk about another man’s job.