Ranking the top 5 SEC football-basketball coaching duos who I'd want to hire as an athletic director
What a difference a year makes.
Last year when I did this column, we still expected to have an NCAA Tournament. Basically, the day after this came out was when everything shut down because of COVID-19.
Now, we have a full year of new perspective. We watched some teams struggle through the pandemic (LSU football, Kentucky basketball) while other teams thrived (Alabama football, Alabama basketball).
Ok, that’s not fair. Arkansas can say the same thing about both sports. Hence, why the Hogs are worthy of a spot on this list.
Oh, that’s right. I should probably explain this list.
Here’s my disclaimer that I use annually for this column:
My focus is to rank the basketball-football coach combos who I’d want running my teams if I were an athletic director right now. It’s a fascinating question that factors in what I believe a coach’s potential to be in both sports. That’s an important caveat. This isn’t strictly résumé of past accomplishments. This is about right now and how they project moving forward.
Longevity, stability and program ceiling is factored into the equation. And yes, basketball and football are weighed 50-50 here. That can absolutely impact a rating for a coach.
I’ll add this isn’t strictly a list of most accomplished coaches, and it’s also not strictly a list of who performed best in the 2020-21 school year. It’s both.
So if I were an athletic director and I had to hire SEC duos, this is who I’d go with:
5. Ed Orgeron and Will Wade, LSU
Last year’s ranking: No. 3
This is probably the trickiest duo to rank. There’s a world in which LSU could have this duo for another decade and they could be a yearly top-4 team in the conference in both sports. That’s rare. Orgeron has the ring and Wade is on the brink of what should’ve been his third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. It won’t count as that because of last year’s canceled tournament, but under normal circumstances, we’d be talking about something that hasn’t happened since the Dale Brown era in the early 1990s. There’s no question that Orgeron and Wade both led their respective programs to some impressive heights. That’s why they’re in the top 5.
Having said that, there’s also no question that the off-the-field stuff hasn’t exactly been an athletic director’s dream. At all.
The ongoing NCAA investigation into Wade’s recruiting violations caught on an FBI wiretap, which is more than 2 years in, hasn’t resulted in a Notice of Allegations (yet). LSU can still fire Wade with cause if this results in Level I or Level II violations. If Wade were a lesser coach, he would’ve been fired already. Three consecutive years of double byes in the SEC Tournament show that he’s elevated the floor of the program, and has done so as public enemy No. 1 in the SEC.
As for football, the 2-game winning streak to end the season didn’t wipe away what was an embarrassing year for Orgeron. In addition to LSU’s mass exodus, Orgeron is being investigated for his handling of Title IX protocol after an alleged sexual assault involving multiple players, as reported by USA Today. That’s far more serious than the Level III violations that LSU admitted to for Odell Beckham Jr. handing out a couple grand to LSU players after the national championship.
If not for the off-the-field/court stuff, you could make a case that the LSU duo belongs in the 2-3 range on this list. But that can’t be ignored.
4. Sam Pittman and Eric Musselman, Arkansas
Last year’s ranking: Unranked
I’ll be honest. I had a hard time not putting the Pittman-Musselman duo even higher. If I’m betting on anyone to rise on this list in the next few years, it’s this duo. Hunter Yurachek deserves an immense amount of credit for taking a pair of stale programs and hiring the right people to turn that around.
The only reason they aren’t even higher is it’s still such a small sample size. Pittman, who surpassed expectations just by getting to 3-7 against all-SEC competition, looks like exactly what the Hogs needed. He’s not as reliant on recruiting elite talent in Texas, and his ability to build a culture that players and coaches want to be a part of already looks to be at an elite level. Hence, why Barry Odom stayed at Arkansas when he had better offers.
If not for Nate Oats having the year he’s having at Alabama, Musselman would be a slam dunk for SEC Coach of the Year and perhaps even national coach of the year. For all we know, Moses Moody and the Hogs might not lose another game this year. The Hogs are already fully entrenched into Musselman’s high-scoring style in Year 2. We’ll see how much of this decorated freshman class departs for the NBA, but still, this is a team capable of a deep March run.
Musselman has an extension on the way, and nobody would be surprised if it rivaled Oats’ new deal at Alabama.
Things have changed in a major way in Fayetteville. It appears the headache that was the 2010s is in the rearview mirror.
3. Jimbo Fisher and Buzz Williams, Texas A&M
Last year’s ranking: No. 2
I know what you’re thinking. Why would I drop the Fisher-Williams duo after Fisher just delivered A&M’s best finish in the Associated Press Top 25 in 81 years? It’s a fair question.
To be honest, this is more about the duo who passed them (more on them in a bit). While Fisher’s stock has absolutely risen, it’s hard to say that Williams has as well. In his defense, yeah, going a month without a game is bizarre. This season feels like a lost cause on the hardwood.
At his previous 2 stops, Williams made his big push in Year 3. At Marquette, he led the Golden Eagles to a Sweet 16. At Virginia Tech, which went 2-16 in ACC play the year before he got there, Williams led the Hokies to a winning conference record, 22 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth. In other words, I’m still optimistic he can make a big jump in Year 3 in College Station next year. The arrival of 5-star incoming freshman Manny Obaseki could help that.
Ross Bjork’s ideal situation for these 2 coaches, both of whom were hired before he arrived, would be Fisher earning yearly New Year’s 6 Bowls and Williams earning yearly NCAA Tournament bids. The latter is a bit further off at this point, but Williams is too good of a coach to bail on that possibility after this mess of a season.
2. Mark Stoops and John Calipari, Kentucky
Last year’s ranking: No. 1
Don’t get it twisted. Dozens of athletic directors would love to be Mitch Barnhart, who is the only SEC athletic director who has a basketball coach and a football coach who have been on the job since the start of the 2016-17 school year. Kentucky has had that stability since 2013-14. That’s the dream.
As frustrating as 2020-21 has been for Kentucky hoops in this lost season, Calipari isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The guy has a $52 million buyout with that “lifetime” deal.
But is it fair to say that Calipari doesn’t have as high of a floor as maybe we previously thought? Definitely. Barring some SEC Tournament run for the ages, the Cats are going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the post-title season of 2012-13. This is shaping up to be what’s easily the worst season of the Calipari era, and that came on the heels of what I’d call a minor disappointment on the football field.
This wasn’t a year to write home about for Kentucky in its 2 major revenue sports. It definitely wasn’t 2018-19 wherein the Cats had their best football season in 4 decades and Calipari led Kentucky to a 30-win, Elite Eight season.
But the good news? There wasn’t any sort of Will Wade-like scandal and neither Kentucky program fell off in the recruiting department. Nobody should be putting either coach on the hot seat because both have extremely favorable contracts, which suggests they could both be in Lexington for at least the majority of the next decade.
1. Nick Saban and Nate Oats, Alabama
Last year’s ranking: No. 5
From 5 to 1? Um, yeah. That’s what happens when you have a historically dominant year like the one Alabama is in the midst of.
Did this past season drastically change how we felt about Saban? It shouldn’t have. But it’s a testament to his ability to evolve. In a year with so many moving pieces, his team steamrolled the competition for an unbeaten season. His team lost 4 offensive players in the first half of Round 1 of the NFL Draft, and it responded by putting up the program’s best offensive season in school history. You can have Bama fatigue and still acknowledge that’s an absurd accomplishment.
Meanwhile, on the basketball court, Oats, AKA the guy Greg Byrne hired to inject some life into a program that long failed to live up to its potential, is now in the driver’s seat to complete the SEC title sweep. It’s well documented how Oats’ modern style has resonated with his team. Oats might not recruit at the level of the bluebloods, but he certainly has gotten his fair share of blue-chippers who bought into his up-tempo style (incoming 5-star point guard JD Davison could be the second coming of Collin Sexton). It’s not just that they shoot 3s well. It’s that they defend at an elite level.
There’s a reason Byrne was so quick to give Oats a lengthy extension in the middle of his second season (he’s now under contract until 2027).
Well-deserved contract extension for @nate_oats. The timing and buyout bump make me wonder if some other well-heeled school (no idea) was looking around “just in case.”
— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) February 18, 2021
Not many coaches win conference titles in Year 2, especially not at Alabama, which has just 1 NCAA Tournament win since Saban arrived in 2007 (I realize that’s a weird cross-sport benchmark, but it plays).
That might not be an annual occurrence in Tuscaloosa, but the reason Alabama fans are so excited is that Oats’ style is sustainable. The floor appears much higher. It’s not crazy to think that the Crimson Tide are at the start of an NCAA Tournament streak that’ll be better than what Mark Gottfried did in the early 2000s when he led the program to the Big Dance in 5 consecutive seasons.
Whether that happens or not, it’s becoming more obvious by the game — the dual-sport dominance in Tuscaloosa isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Photo credit: Kentucky Athletics