Ranking the SEC's head coaches, 1-14
They don’t wear helmets, they don’t graduate after four years and, most of the time, they don’t bolt early for the NFL.
I’m talking about college football coaches, which are the biggest stars of the game and the most famous and powerful figureheads of any American sport.
As of this year, every SEC West coach is getting paid at least $4 million, including the men in Oxford and Starkville, Miss. Even assistant coaches are making $1.5 million or more in the lucrative SEC.
As such, there’s not much room for a beloved, once-successful coach to bumble through a few seasons and remain beloved. Just ask Steve Spurrier if South Carolina misses a bowl game this year.
At Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald finished with a losing record in three of the last four seasons, yet the Wildcats largely adore him. Even at Kentucky, if Mark Stoops fails to reach six wins for a few more seasons, there will at least be some loud grumblings.
If a coach sticks around in the SEC, it’s because he has achieved some modicum of success. And given that there’s only one new coach (Jim McElwain) and one second-year coach (Derek Mason), there are a lot of successful, respected head football coaches in the conference.
Which makes ranking them a monumental task. The difference between the No. 2 and No. 11 coaches on this list is minimal. But we’ve slotted every head coach from best to worst, based on who would produce the most success if he were handed a random SEC program and got three years to guide it, starting in 2015.
Recruiting, public image, dealing with the media and meeting the relative expectations at their current program all are important factors that we considered. But, for better or worse, winning is the trump card.
Here are is our ranking of SEC head coaches entering 2015:
1. Nick Saban, Alabama: The three national titles are great. “The Process” isn’t as unique as Tide fans would have you believe. But what sets Saban apart is his relentless drive. He’s always on: every play, every press conference, every recruiting trip, every late-night office meeting (just ask some of his former assistants). Alabama has finished in the Top 10 for seven consecutive seasons. And it’s not as if the Tide was rolling before he arrived — coach Gene Stallings brought the last non-Saban national title to Tuscaloosa in 1992. He’s been getting on a soap box a little too often for the taste of some, but he seems re-energized by the proclamations that Alabama no longer is a Top 5 program. Oh, and he may be the greatest recruiter in SEC history. Just don’t bring up the Ohio State game.
2. Les Miles, LSU: Let’s not get short-sighted here. Miles remains the only SEC coach to consistently compete with Saban in recruiting and on the field. He’s far from the best game manager in the conference, and the quarterback play has been subpar during his 10 years in Baton Rouge. He’s an unconventional guy at an unconventional program. But it’s worked — LSU has collected seven Top 10 finishes, a national championship and two SEC titles under his guidance. The NFL loves his players. And boy, does he win games (103-29 with the Tigers).
THE FIESTY (RELATIVE) NEWBIES
3. Gus Malzahn, Auburn: There are some parallels to be drawn between Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin. But remember, Malzahn piloted a team that didn’t win a single SEC game in 2012 to within seconds of a national title the next year. And he seems poised to turn around a lax defense much faster than Texas A&M, thanks to the return of some veterans an influx of other talent across all three levels. Most are split preseason on which team is better — Alabama or Auburn. If Malzahn can claim another iconic Iron Bowl win this November, he’ll be 2-1 against Saban and may boast of a second SEC title in three years.
4. Gary Pinkel, Missouri: The school wins leader at Toledo and Mizzou, Pinkel claims 186 overall wins entering 2015. His teams have won five division titles in the last eight years, including back-to-back in the SEC East. Seemingly at risk of losing his job after a 5-7 season in ’12, Pinkel now is considered perhaps the best talent developer in the conference. Despite some recent changes, his assistant coaches tend to be profoundly loyal — like Craig Kuligowski, who stuck around for a 24th year despite getting passed over for the coordinator opening.
5. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina: Spurrier is an SEC legend, as synonymous with the logo as any person alive in 2015. Historically, he’s one of the best. As a strategist and talent evaluator, he remains good. But, as competitive as he is on the field, he doesn’t have the recruiting drive of some of the conference’s other top coaches. And a rare media misstep after the 2014 season has made it more difficult for Spurrier in recruiting. Whether or not he insists he’ll coach for another five years, there’s always going to be an undercurrent of skepticism for the rest of his career. If things go badly this year or next, will he still be coaching?
6. Mark Richt, Georgia: What would our perception of Richt be if the Bulldogs had scratched out those final five yards against Alabama in the 2012 SEC Championship? Because surely UGA would’ve waxed Notre Dame, just as the Tide did, in the BCS title game. Still, evidence that Richt isn’t one of the best handful of SEC coaches seems to emerge each year — as it did when Spurrier, with a lesser team, managed to upset Georgia and spoil the team’s title hopes in ’14. Richt, though, is a respectable man who fields consistently good football teams. If Georgia were to ever get rid of him, would they find anyone better?
PROGRAMS ON THE RISE
7. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss: In the hardscrabble SEC West, Freeze has recruited well enough to build a sustainable Top 25 program with a chance to finish at least middle of the pack every year. And he’s done it all without a Johnny Manziel or Dak Prescott at quarterback, which is the only pathway other teams in the division have been able to use to compete with Alabama and Auburn. The Rebels came one heartbreaking play away from beating both of those schools in ’14, and could be even more talented this year. Freeze lost the credit he would’ve received for last season due to a late-season cocktail of injuries and disappointment, but he’s got a chance to cement a slight program advantage over Dan Mullen this year.
8. Bret Bielema, Arkansas: It’s difficult to parse Bielema and Butch Jones. Both coaches have undertaken massive turnaround projects and appear on the verge of a major breakthrough, replete with preseason Top 25 rankings. But a) Bielema’s overall career is more impressive — he compiled a 68-24 record at Wisconsin with three Top 10 finishes — and b) Arkansas lost four one-possession games last season, but just as easily could’ve won at least a couple of them and finished with double-digit wins. The discipline of this program on and off the field in just a few years under Bielema is hard to fathom.
9. Butch Jones, Tennessee: The Vols are doing precisely what Jones has preached, building brick-by-brick. He’s brilliant at marketing the program and rallying the fan base. If not for Derek Dooley’s off-the-charts bad recruiting, Tennessee would have the depth to compete for an SEC East title — and maybe more — in 2015. Instead, Jones and UT are one more great recruiting class away from rejoining the conference’s elite. That gap is far from guaranteed, though; the gains are exponentially harder to make from here. Assuming he continues stocking the roster with talent, Jones soon will have a chance to match those ahead of him on this list with pretty even teams — then we’ll see who’s better on the field.
10. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: It’s a tough league when a coach can lead the Bulldogs to its first-ever No. 1 ranking, make it deep into November unbeaten and still not rank near the top half of the league? But, here we are. Life in the SEC. Speaking of which, Mullen holds an SEC record of 22-26. He is 4-2 in the Egg Bowl, but Freeze has out-recruited him since 2013. And what happens this year now that so many good starters have departed? What about next year without Dak Prescott? Mullen is a good coach, but unless he can sustain something close to last year’s peak, we’re not ready to anoint him as one of the conference’s elite.
COULD SWING EITHER DIRECTION
11. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: It’s only funny if there’s some truth to it. And for Sumlin’s Aggies, the team always is one year away from accomplishing something great. Granted, the 11-2 season in 2012 was outstanding. But the team has trended the wrong direction (9 wins in ’13, 8 wins in ’14), and football is all about the narrative. Plus, for all of Texas A&M’s talent and flash, this team was softer than a pillow the last two years. Sumlin has acknowledged that publicly and made efforts to change it. And at some point one has to figure the talent level is too high for the team to stay stuck near the bottom of the SEC West, right?
12. Mark Stoops, Kentucky: It’s difficult to rate Stoops. He’s entering just his third season at UK, which is one of the most difficult coaching jobs in the country. The Wildcats play in the SEC, but harbor higher expectations than Vandy — even though basketball has been king ever since Bear Bryant left Lexington. Stoops has proven to be a savvy recruiter. At a program with a higher baseline, it’s possible he’d rank higher on this list. But first he’s got to solve a defense that allowed at least 40 points in five of its last six games last season, all losses.
13. Jim McElwain, Florida: I think McElwain has a chance to be a very good coach for the Gators. He’s a smart offensive mind who sets high standards and did a terrific job as head coach at Colorado State. But I stashed him here because he’s new to the SEC as a head coach, and as such he’s done less than the 12 coaches ranked ahead of him. Also, I’d like to see more from McElwain as a recruiter between now and National Signing Day in February. If he can start to compete with teams like Georgia and LSU in recruiting, Florida is going to improve a lot in the next three years.
FIGHTING FOR HIS JOB
14. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: The former Stanford defensive coordinator failed to in an SEC game in 2014. Even at Vanderbilt, that’s not good. But it’s not so much that the Commodores lost, it’s how they lost. Temple came to Nashville and forced seven turnovers in a 37-7 opening-game embarrassment. The team rotated quarterbacks more often than a teenage girl changes outfits. And after the season, Mason fired seemingly half his staff. Failing to find a suitable replacement at defensive coordinator, he’s taking on that role himself. Houston and Middle Tennessee State suddenly look like challenging non-conference games, which isn’t a great sign.