SEC 360: Kiffin and Leach and Bear, Oh My! A short history of the biggest coaching hires in modern SEC history
Last year, the trio of Aaron Tippin, Sammy Kershaw and Collin Raye performed at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., as part of the “Roots and Boots 90’s Electric Throwdown Tour.”
But it’s bigger than that.
Down in Biloxi, patrons crushed the glorious, tummy-tantalizing all-you-can-eat buffet — including the meaty crab legs — at the Beau Rivage Casino.
But it’s bigger than that.
Every year in March, the Hollywood Casino in Tunica hosts the Manufactured Housing Show, branded as the “Southeast’s premier event for manufactured housing professionals.”
But it’s bigger than that.
What I’m talking about is that Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach have descended on the state of Mississippi, in the same year, at rival schools, you’re welcome SEC football fans.
Allow me to refresh your memory. Kiffin was brought to Oxford as the head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels and if that wasn’t enough machismo on your plate, Mississippi State, not to be outdone, went out and pirated Mike Leach from his Pac-12 vessel at Washington State. Last week, Kiffin and Leach were introduced at their respective school’s basketball coliseums, and both received welcomes with such thunderous applause you’d have thought Neil Diamond was in the building.
Neither man has coached a game at their new school, but there is an inner elation every SEC-devotee feels with the arrival of Kiffin and Leach, similar to a child’s euphoria when he hears the first jingle of an ice cream truck. Perhaps we need a name for it, similar to Brangelina or Bennifer.
How about “Leachkiffin” or “The Leachkiffin”?
Anyway, these big-time hires headline an SEC coaching carousel that has been at full tilt this past season. It began with Chad Morris being let go at Arkansas on Nov. 10, followed by Barry Odom at Missouri (Nov. 30), Matt Luke at Ole Miss (Dec. 1), and Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State (Jan. 3). These vacancies made room for some splash hires and, frankly, some duds (I’ll let you figure out which is which).
Since this is SEC 360 and here we tend to think more “big picture,” the respective hirings of Kiffin and Leach have us wondering, “What are the top coaching hires in modern conference history?”
For the sake of categorization, let’s break down our list using varying levels of earthquakes. “Tremors” are big hires for the school and the football program, no doubt, but probably don’t make a huge impact on the conference as a whole. “Light quakes” are hires that transcend the school and make an impact on the complexion of the conference. And “Majors” literally change the whole complexion of the conference.
In my opinion, you can look at this principally in one of two ways, or both ways. First, how big was the hire at the time of the hiring, and second, how big did the hire become after the coach found success?
Since I’m trying to keep it in modernity, don’t expect the mention of coaches from the Paleolithic era of SEC football — Wallace Wade, John Heisman and the like. If there were no forward pass when they coached, don’t expect them on this roster (I’m looking at you, E.B. Beaumont). Remember also that some current schools were not in the SEC at the time of the coach’s hiring. Gary Pinkel at Missouri, Frank Broyles at Arkansas and Lou Holtz at Arkansas are just a few examples of coaches that would be on our list if not for that fact.
Let’s begin with a few honorable mentions that will hopefully stir some debate:
Terry Bowden at Auburn, Tommy Tuberville at Auburn, Charley Pell at Florida, Les Miles at LSU, James Franklin at Vanderbilt, Mark Stoops at Kentucky.
Now, let’s move on to our list.
Ralph “Shug” Jordan at Auburn
This hire happened long, long ago, but I feel if I do not include Shug Jordan on this list, I’ll have to answer to my Auburn-adoring relatives on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Shug Jordan was not only one of the classiest gentlemen in SEC history, he won a lot of games, too. Across 25 seasons at Auburn, Jordan won 175 games, a national title in 1957 and had a stadium named after him. That should warrant at least a tremor, right?
Ray Perkins at Alabama
Look, this might not have turned out the way Alabama fans would have liked, but anytime you pluck an NFL coach away from his team, it’s a big deal. That’s what happened when Alabama hired Ray Perkins from the glam of East Rutherford, New Jersey. In 1983, Perkins left his post as head coach of the New York Giants to become Bear Bryant’s successor at Alabama. Bryant died shortly thereafter and left a massive void for Perkins to fill. Perkins served as head coach at Alabama for the next 4 seasons, and just when you got the sense he was putting together a little scratch, winning 10 games in 1986, he bolted for the head coaching job of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In those 4 seasons, Perkins was 32-15-1. More important, he was 2-2 against Auburn.
Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher landed in College Station, Texas, like a mortar, but as of January 2020, that mortar has yet to explode. After winning a national title at Florida State in 2013, Fisher has been doing Texas A&M things at Texas A&M. What I mean by that is dropping 4 or 5 games each year and missing out on New Year’s Day bowls. That’s all going to change soon, rest assured, as Fisher continues to haul in top recruits by the truckload. The Aggies rank 6th in the 2020 composite team recruiting rankings, and last year Fisher posted the 4th-best class in all the land. Expect A&M to continue to rise up the ranks in the SEC West and lead the Aggies to their first SEC West Division Crown since joining the SEC in 2012.
Dan Mullen and Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State
Mississippi State has demonstrated a propensity to make a good coaching hire from time to time, and Dan Mullen and Jackie Sherrill were two good hires in the past, oh, 30 years of Bulldog football. I combine these two because there’s really no need to go on and on about the human resources chutzpah in Starkville, other than to say it’s been a bit spotty save Mullen, Sherrill, and now Leach. Sherrill was a big pickup for MSU and a gamble, as he had been out of coaching for 3 years at the time of his hiring. Mullen was a hot commodity but a gamble as well because he’d never been an FBS head coach. In my opinion, the Mississippi schools (Ole Miss, MSU) are finally getting serious about this football thing, and that’s a very good thing for the conference as a whole. Where can Mike Leach take them? He might not win a national title, but the SEC’s comedian-in-residence will definitely win media days this summer.
Billy Brewer at Ole Miss
In the early 1980s, Ole Miss football was in the tank, and the powers-that-be turned to a legacy to revive the program in Oxford and establish much-needed discipline. Enter Billy Brewer, who’d played for those great Johnny Vaught teams in the late 1950s and had been slogging through the coaching trenches at places like Southeastern Louisiana and Louisiana Tech for the past decade. Beginning in 1983, Brewer quickly tightened the belt in Oxford and showed campus what winning looked like. And although he never established the kind of consistency that he would have liked, Brewer elevated a program that had enjoyed only 2 winning seasons since 1971. Ultimately Brewer did much more for the Ole Miss program that had nothing to do with football, including improving campus race relations and navigating the Chucky Mullins tragedy with tremendous grace and dignity.
Paul Dietzel at LSU
It’s safe to say that Paul Dietzel had some decent training before he arrived as the head coach at LSU in 1955. He’d been Bear Bryant’s O-Line coach at Kentucky in 1951-52, and followed that with a 2-year stint under the tutelage of Army’s Red Blaik. Dietzel later returned to West Point as the head coach and served as South Carolina’s head coach for 9 seasons, but his best years were at LSU. Just four years after being hired, he led the Tigers to a national title with All-American and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon and a ravenously tough defense known as the “Chinese Bandits.” Dietzel was by no means a great coach, posting 2 3-win campaigns and 2 5-win campaigns during his time in Baton Rouge, but he won a national title and brought Billy Cannon to campus, and that’s enough to make our list.
Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier at South Carolina
South Carolina seems to be branded as one of those jobs you’d like to have in the twilight of your career. Not a whole lot of expectations, good fans, nice stadium, palmetto trees. It’s sort of the Margaritaville of coaching, a place you retire.
But sometimes Margaritaville inspires a bit of winning. Just ask Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, who ushered the Gamecock program to previously unseen heights.
Make no mistake: these were big hires. Holtz led Notre Dame to a national title in 1988 and Spurrier did the same for Florida 8 years later. After an 0-11 first season in Columbia, Holtz executed an about-face, winning 8 games the next season and 9 the following, punctuated by 2 victories in the Outback Bowl.
Spurrier is not only the winningest coach in South Carolina football history, he won 11 games in 3 consecutive seasons from 2011-2013.
Johnny Majors at Tennessee
This is the one you want to put a level higher, because of the nostalgia factor (is anyone more “Tennessee” than Johnny Majors?) but if you look at the overall performance, this hire stays in the bottom third of our list.
Was it a big hire for Tennessee at the time? Absolutely. Majors was fresh off an undefeated season at Pitt, and Tennessee was trending in the wrong direction under former Bear Bryant disciple Bill Battle.
Majors performed excellently in Knoxville when he was not performing excellently in Knoxville, and there was too much of the latter and not enough of the former. For instance, Majors followed a 10-win season in 1985 with a jalopy in ’88, going 5-6. He was outstanding in bowl games and led the Vols to 3 SEC titles, and that absolutely has to account for something.
Johnny Vaught at Ole Miss
I was a bit hesitant to put Vaught on this list, principally because he was hired first at Ole Miss as an assistant under Harold “Red” Drew in 1946. For consistency’s sake and because you can’t ignore his labor in Oxford from 1947-1970, I included him (more on another assistant who was promoted later in this essay). Vaught’s tenure included 6 SEC titles and a national championship. He symbolizes the “Golden Age” of Ole Miss football and with 190 wins, he is by far the winningest head coach in school history.
Kirby Smart and Mark Richt at Georgia
I really don’t mean to be long-winded in this section, and for the sake of more brevity let’s combine the Smart and Richt hires in Athens into one. Neither coach arrived at this post as a well-respected head coach at another school (both were assistants under legendary coaches) and neither has won a national title, but both men have turned in very good 10-, 11-, 12-win seasons at Georgia. Georgia is now the powder keg just sitting over in the corner waiting to explode, and mark my words: Kirby Smart will win a national title at Georgia.
Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee
Phillip Fulmer’s tenure at Tennessee is like a juicy hamburger between two moldy buns. In other words, it did not start nor end smoothly (the way Fulmer got the job was a bit wonky and the exodus was a bit wonky), but the middle was fantastic. After head coach Johnny Majors was sidelined by heart surgery, Fulmer filled in for the first 3 games of the 1992 season, directing the Volunteers to a 3-0 record. After Majors returned, however, Tennessee suffered 3 consecutive losses — against Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina — and many fans felt that Fulmer, and not Majors, should be the head coach in Knoxville. Thus Majors resigned the night before the Memphis State game on Nov. 13, and Fulmer, a longtime assistant, was handed the keys to the kingdom.
A national championship in 1998, 2 SEC titles, 5 SEC East Division championships and one Peyton Manning followed. It was the greatest era in the history of the program. It produced 9 10-win seasons. And then in 2008, it was all over.
After a 5-7 campaign that season, Fulmer agreed to step down. It was a tearful exit, safety Eric Berry alluding to how painful it all felt with this comment: “I feel like I just lost one of my ribs, my kidney or something.”
Bear Bryant at Kentucky
Bryant might not get the Alabama job in 1958 if he didn’t first build a coaching résumé in Lexington. Listen to author Russell Rice as he describes the scene as a young Bryant was introduced as the head coach at Kentucky in his book The Wildcats: Kentucky Football:
When tall, wavy-haired Paul Bryant stepped through the front door of Alumni Gym shortly after noon on January 18, 1946, he was greeted by 3,000 wildly cheering, horn-tooting, placard-bearing University of Kentucky football fans. Co-eds in the predominantly female crowd, which filled the sidewalk and spilled onto the street, squealed and cheered. The band struck up, “On, On, UK,” and everybody began to sing the school song. The president of SuKy placed a cardboard good luck “hoss” shoe around Bryant’s neck, and the vice-mayor fumbled for the Key to the City.
The biggest game of Bryant’s Kentucky career came on Jan. 1, 1951 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans against the Oklahoma Sooners, led by icon Bud Wilkinson. Kentucky won, 7-0.
Vince Dooley at Georgia
Don’t get me wrong: I love Vince Dooley, and this was an important hire (Vince Dooley would easily be in my Mt. Rushmore of SEC legends). But do I put it on the level of a Bryant, Saban, or Spurrier? I put the overall job he did as a coach and athletic director on the level of a Spurrier, but probably not the hire by itself. At the time, Dooley was an assistant coach at Auburn under Ralph “Shug” Jordan and Georgia was 3 years removed from replacing a legend, Wally Butts, with Johnny Griffith, who was 10-16-4 in his 3 years in Athens. The selection of Dooley turned out to be the right one for Georgia, as he won 201 games, 6 SEC titles and the national title in 1980.
Gene Stallings at Alabama
This 1990 hire was large. After Bill Curry left to take the job at Kentucky, Alabama needed to return to its roots. It needed an “Alabama” man, and even though Gene Stallings was a Texas A&M grad, he had worked as an assistant under Bear Bryant in the early 1960s.
Stallings’ tenure began inauspiciously, however, as the Tide dropped their first 3 contests. But then the team got on a roll, winning 11 games in 1991 and capturing Alabama’s first national championship in 13 years the next season. Stallings retired after the 1996 season, but the hire helped Alabama to get through the flux of the post-Bryant years.
Ed Orgeron at LSU
Let’s face it: This has been a good hire. Anyone who still thinks Orgeron is a joke simply cannot face the facts — and that is that this man can coach. Sure, he could he end up being the Larry Coker of the SEC, winning only 1 national title and falling later into coaching obscurity, but this season and the subsequent success of Orgeron on the recruiting trail gives no indication that that will happen.
Since 1960, only 11 men in the universe can say they won a national title while coaching an SEC team: Johnny Vaught, Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley, Gene Stallings, Steve Spurrier, Phillip Fulmer, Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Gene Chizik, Nick Saban and Ed Orgeron.
That’s pretty good company, if you ask me.
Urban Meyer at Florida
Sure, he left the program under bizarre circumstances, but the guy won 2 national titles and brought Tebowmania to Gainesville. In 2005, then-University of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley chose Meyer, Utah’s head coach who had just completed an undefeated season, out of a handful of interested parties that included Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and the Cleveland Browns’ Butch Davis. He might not have been a household name at the time, but ask anyone who had to play Meyer’s teams while he was coaching in the MAC or the Mountain West Conference and they’d have told you he’s got coaching chops out the wazoo.
Meyer promptly won the 2006 national title and added another one 2 years later.
Bear Bryant at Alabama
Is this the biggest hire in SEC history? You could certainly make that argument. First, it saved Alabama’s football program (the previous 3 years under Jennings Bryan “Ears” Whitworth, the program was 4-24-2). It brought SEC football to national prominence for the first time in the television era. Lastly, it ushered in an era of conference domination that hasn’t been seen until the Crimson Phoenix rose from the ashes again in 2007.
Overall, Bryant was 232-46-9 at Alabama. He won 6 national titles and 14 SEC championships.
Pat Dye at Auburn
Why is this hire so important? Because it changed the complexion of the Iron Bowl, which, in turn, changed the complexion of the conference. Alabama totally dominated Auburn in the 1960s and 1970s, but since Pat Dye arrived, Auburn holds a winning record against the Tide (20-19). For Auburn, the “Dye Factor” meant no longer being intimidated by the Tide, and Dye’s ability to wrest the Iron Bowl away from the clutches of Birmingham (and create a home-and-home environment that pleased Auburn fans greatly) should not be understated. Dye won 4 SEC championships in the 1980s and is considered by many to be the best coach in Auburn history.
Steve Spurrier at Florida
Like the Blue Angels over Pensacola, the arrival of Steve Spurrier at Florida was like an aerial show over the SEC. Forget the tedious nature of toss-sweep left and toss-sweep right, let’s throw bombs, Spurrier said. Enter gunslingers Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Terry Dean, Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer, who threw for enough passing yards to stretch from Perdido Key to Lake Worth.
Spurrier, who captured the Heisman Trophy as a Florida player in 1966, was brought back to Gainesville in 1990 by Bill Arnsparger, a Kentucky native who’d previously been the head coach at LSU but was brought in to restore order to an NCAA-beleaguered program. Previous to the hire, Spurrier had for the previous 3 seasons helmed the program at Duke, where he went 20-13-1 and led the Blue Devils to a bid to the All-American Bowl in Birmingham.
Nick Saban at Alabama
Massive. Phenomenal. Conference-shaking. And largely because of the tenacity, perseverance and flat-out guts of then-Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore. A few years ago, I wrote an interesting piece about this hiring saga entitled 38 Days: How Alabama pulled off the Great Heist of Nick Saban. This rather daunting research project stemmed from my interest in the minutiae of the hiring, the near-misses (Rich Rodriguez, Greg Schiano?), the conversations between Terry Saban and Mal Moore and the necessary covertness of it all.
It would do this hire a serious injustice to deem its importance solely on the 5 national titles that have been produced as a result of it. Saban’s presence has affected the growth and exposure of not only the University of Alabama but the city of Tuscaloosa and the state of Alabama as well. It’s affected the way other coaches around the country run their football programs. It’s affected the way CEOs of businesses run their companies. Simply put, “The Process” is not only a way to run a football program, it’s a way to approach life.
Nick Saban at LSU
Legitimate question: Does LSU win the national championship in 2019 if Nick Saban isn’t hired by the program in the year 2000? In my opinion, the answer is no.
Before Saban, LSU was operating at middling level, going 3-8 and 4-7 in the 2 seasons previous to Saban’s arrival in Baa-tone Rouge. Over the next 5 seasons, LSU went 48-16 and won the 2003 national title.
Honestly, this is probably the biggest hire in the history of the conference, because you could make the argument that 8 national titles are a product of Saban’s decision to come to LSU. Had it happened in, say, State College, Pa., instead, you might be talking about those titles being in Big Ten trophy cases and not the SEC.
So there it is, SEC fans. The biggest hires in modern conference history. By all means, have fun with the debate, and be sure and mark your calendars for Nov. 26.
That’s when Leachkiffin tangles in the Egg Bowl.
Cover photo: Nick Saban’s introductory press conference as Alabama’s head coach. Photo courtesy of Bryant Museum/UAA.