SEC 360: SEC coaching hires that totally (well, maybe) could have happened
The 2019 college football hiring season was one of the more colorful in recent memory. As we all know, Lane Kiffin ended up in Oxford, Mike Leach in Starkville, Eli Drinkwitz in Columbia, Mo., and Sam Pittman in Fayetteville.
Rumors also swirled, and, like always, teams flirted with coaches that they eventually did not hire. This year’s Florida State coaching search was a prime example, as it was rumored that Kentucky’s Mark Stoops might dart to Tallahassee from his comfortable perch in Lexington. That, of course, didn’t happen, as Mike Norvell became the new chief of Seminole land.
Reflecting on these events, my memory was jogged to several other almost-hires throughout the years, and for this week’s SEC 360, let’s take a look at several of them …:
Bobby Bowden at Auburn
Ralph “Shug” Jordan needed an offensive coordinator.
The year was 1965, and back then offensive minds good enough to coach in the Southeastern Conference weren’t exactly hanging on trees. Jordan was the head coach at Auburn, and anyone he hired to run his offense would have to strategize against the meanest, toughest defense in the country on the other side of the state, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
As Jordan was going through his Rolodex of possibilities, his mind centered on the young receivers coach at Florida State, Bobby Bowden, who had become a bit disgruntled in Tallahassee, feeling, as he stated plainly in his book, Called to Coach, “I was not getting any breaks.”
So Bowden drove from Tallahassee to Auburn to interview for the offensive coordinator’s position at Auburn, one that had all the luxuries and prestige that an SEC job had to give at that time. After a conversation between the two men, Jordan extended an offer.
Around the same time, Bowden learned that Jim Carlen had just been hired as the head coach at West Virginia. Carlen had been an assistant at Georgia Tech under legendary coach Bobby Dodd, and wanted to gauge Bowden’s interest in becoming his offensive coordinator.
Bowden now had two offers: one with an SEC school in Auburn, and one with West Virginia, a program that competed in the Southern Conference.
Though the Auburn job was closer to home, Bowden felt a leaning toward West Virginia. Auburn was clearly the bigger job, but Bowden felt like there was more opportunity for advancement at WVU.
After praying about it, Bowden felt led to West Virginia. He spent the next decade in Morgantown, sharpening his skills before coming back to Tallahassee, this time as the head coach of the Seminoles in 1976.
Vince Dooley at Auburn
“I can honestly say that after the Oklahoma offer in 1965, I never seriously considered a job at another school — until Auburn called in 1980 to offer me a position as both coach and athletic director. Any other calls I would just dismiss. I was happy at Georgia. We were having a great season. We were undefeated and getting ready to play Notre Dame for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl. Things couldn’t have been better.”
This was Vince Dooley’s recollection of how he almost left Georgia in 1980 to return to his alma mater, Auburn University, as the head football coach. That year, Auburn was searching for a replacement for Doug Barfield, who had struggled in his 5 seasons, posting a 29-25-1 record. More important, Alabama had won the last 8 in a row against Auburn, and the Tigers were looking for someone to reverse the team’s fortunes.
At the time, Dooley possessed the top freshman in the country, Herschel Walker, and with a win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, Georgia could claim its first AP national title in school history. Though untimely, when the call from Auburn came, Dooley at least had to listen. After all, it was the place he’d played college football. It was the place he began his coaching career. And it was the place he’d met his wife.
To make matters more enticing, Fob James, the governor of Alabama who was Dooley’s roommate and football teammate at Auburn, was “recruiting” him to come home.
As negotiations between the two sides increased, a member of the selection committee told a trustee that “the situation looked good” and the press got wind of it.
“Unfortunately it got into the press that I had taken the job, which was absolutely not true,” Dooley wrote in his book, Dooley: My 40 Years at Georgia.
Taking a hard look at the offer, Dooley concluded that he’d simply invested too much at Georgia, the place where he’d spent the previous 17 years of his life. All of the pictures on the walls of his home displayed players dressed in red and black. His entire family, including his children, cheered for Georgia. Even Derek, his youngest, had cried on the way to the airport when his father went to visit Auburn.
“I hate Auburn,” the 10-year-old lamented.
So Dooley stayed. Auburn, on the other hand, turned to the head coach at Wyoming, Pat Dye, a Georgia native who’d been an assistant under Bear Bryant at Alabama.
Dye turned out to be a terrific hire, reversing the course of the Iron Bowl and bringing Auburn’s version of Herschel Walker to The Plains, a multisport phenom named Bo Jackson.
Mike Shanahan at Florida
How do you replace a man who was once the greatest player at your school, who, after coaching at other places for a few years, returned home and led the program to its greatest years ever, who won a national title and recruited players like Danny Wuerffel, Shane Matthews, Chris Doering, Fred Taylor, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green?
The answer? You don’t.
Nevertheless, Florida and athletic director Jeremy Foley were tasked with finding a brave soul who could replace Steve Spurrier as the head coach of the Gators in 2001. Make no mistake: The search would be national and the job glowed with a shiny patina now that Spurrier had won 122 games in 12 seasons in Gainesville.
Names began to circulate on who would replace the “Ol’ Ball Coach,” including then-Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan. On Jan. 8, 2001, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the Florida job was “Shanahan’s to have” and that the Broncos head man was “seriously contemplating the job.”
Foley flew to Denver and met with Shanahan for 2 hours at his home in Cherry Hills, a Denver suburb.
After talking with Shanahan, Foley then taxied to New Orleans to interview Ron Zook, who was the Saints defensive coordinator under Jim Haslett. Zook, an Ashland, Ohio, native, had been Spurrier’s defensive coordinator from 1991-93, but had no head coaching experience.
Another name in the mix was Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, fresh off a national title in 2000 and who had coached under Spurrier from 1996-98.
In the end, Shanahan decided to remain in Denver and Foley chose Zook as Spurrier’s replacement. Zook lasted only 3 seasons, posting a 23-14 record.
Rich Rodriguez at Alabama
Hold your thumb and your index finger in front of your face and close the gap so as to see the least amount of daylight possible. That’s how close Rich Rodriguez was to becoming the head coach at Alabama in 2007.
At the time, Rodriguez was the head coach at West Virginia and on his way to his second 11-win season in a row.
After the exodus of Mike Shula, Mal Moore, the athletic director at Alabama, was scrambling to find a proven coach who could rescue the embattled but tradition-rich football program in Tuscaloosa, and at the top of Moore’s wish list were Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban. Names like Rutgers’ Greg Schiano and Rodriguez, though second tier, were considerations as well.
In early December 2006, Moore flew to New York to attend the National Football Foundation’s annual banquet. While at that event, he met with Rodriguez and Schiano in a private suite. At the time, Moore was also in contact with Saban’s agent, Jimmy Sexton. Moore scheduled a phoner with Sexton, but when the agent did not call at the allotted time, Moore offered the job to Rodriguez.
Later, when Sexton did call, Moore probably wished he could have had a mulligan.
Destiny smiled on Alabama, however. For whatever reason, Rodriguez decided to remain at West Virginia and Moore tenaciously lured Saban away from the Miami Dolphins to become the head coach of the Crimson Tide.
To this day, Alabama fans recollect about how they dodged a huge bullet with the Rodriguez offer and how the stars were perfectly aligned to bring Nick Saban to Tuscaloosa.
Mike Leach at Auburn
Though many football fans cheered when Mike Leach took the job at Mississippi State in January 2019, the truth is Leach could have come to the SEC much earlier. Let’s rewind to 2008 when Auburn was looking for a new head coach after the dismissal of Tommy Tuberville. A New York Times article proclaimed that Auburn had “set its sights” on Texas Tech’s Leach, who had been the head coach in Lubbock since 2000.
Eventually Auburn chose Gene Chizik, Tuberville’s defensive coordinator at Auburn from 2002-04 and who had spent the previous 2 seasons as the head coach at Iowa State.
A few years ago, Leach admitted via Twitter how much he enjoyed the Auburn battle cry: “It feels like how college FB should feel,” Leach said.
For a moment, it appeared as though Leach would have been saying that catchphrase much more frequently.
Bobby Petrino at Auburn
Speaking of Auburn, who could forget “JetGate” in 2003? That was the incident where Auburn representatives David Housel and William F. Walker secretly flew to Louisville to talk to Cardinals’ head coach Bobby Petrino about the Auburn job. Housel, the athletic director, and Walker, the school president, utilized Bobby Louder’s private jet to make the clandestine voyage to the Bluegrass State.
At the time, Auburn had lost 3 out of the last 5 games on the way to an 8-5 season. Louisville, on the other hand, wasn’t faring a whole lot better, but Petrino was only in his first year. To make matters worse, he was only one year removed from being Tuberville’s offensive coordinator at Auburn.
Tuberville ended up staying at Auburn for the next 5 seasons. Petrino remained at Louisville for 4 seasons until he was hired as the Atlanta Falcons head coach in 2007. He is currently the head coach at Missouri State.
Ed Orgeron at Tennessee
Hiring internally is not always the most advocated practice in college football, but retrospectively it could have been an awesome move for the University of Tennessee in 2009. If you remember, head coach Lane Kiffin had just bolted to take the head job at USC, and Tennessee probably could have convinced Orgeron, who was serving as Kiffin’s defensive line coach, to hang around and become Kiffin’s replacement. But that did not happen, and Orgeron followed Kiffin to USC.
Tennessee instead turned to Derek Dooley, who had posted a 17-20 record as Louisiana Tech’s head coach from 2007-09. The son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, Derek spent only 3 years in Knoxville, went 15-21 and was replaced by Butch Jones in 2013.
Bobby Bowden at LSU
Bobby Bowden had been at Florida State for only 3 full seasons but had already begun to turn the program around. In 1977, FSU posted its first 10-win season, punctuated with a win in the Tangerine Bowl over Texas Tech.
In 1979, the Seminoles were en route to an 11-win campaign, and Bowden began to draw the attention of programs looking to fill coaching vacancies, including LSU. Then-LSU athletic director Paul Dietzel, who had been the head coach of the Tigers from 1955-61, was phoning him every week (as Bowden recalls, Dietzel liked to refer to himself as “brother Paul” whenever he connected with Bowden’s secretary).
Oddly enough, Florida State and LSU were slated to compete against each other on Oct. 27, 1979, and Bowden surmised that if he could not beat the Tigers on its home turf, he probably should take the LSU job.
Florida State won, and Bowden remained in Tallahassee.
Will Muschamp, David Cutcliffe and Jon Gruden at Tennessee
In 2010, Will Muschamp was hotter than a blister bug in a pepper patch. The young assistant under head coach Mack Brown at the University of Texas was on everybody’s short list as a coordinator who would one day become some program’s head coach. For a moment, it appeared as though Muschamp would succeed Brown in Austin, the program going so far as to tab Muschamp the “head coach-in-waiting.”
But that did not happen, and Muschamp accepted the Florida job in 2011.
A year earlier, it was rumored that Tennessee extended an offer to the Longhorns’ assistant before talking to Duke University’s David Cutcliffe and Air Force’s Troy Calhoun.
Throughout that decade, as Tennessee navigated the flux of the post-Fulmer era, it was also rumored that former Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden would leave the broadcast booth and become the head coach in Knoxville. How close was that to actually happening?
According to Gruden, not very. “Nah, I did strongly consider, though, buying season tickets and just enjoying Neyland Stadium, because I love UT,” Neyland told Gentry Estes of USA Today in 2019.
A native of Sandusky, Ohio, Gruden had been a graduate assistant at Tennessee under Johnny Majors from 1986-87.
The “Grumors” never came true, though the folks in Knoxville would have been pleased to see his return to Rocky Top.
Rick Neuheisel at Ole Miss
“I was on my way to the airport,” recalled Rick Neuheisel in a radio interview with SuperTalk Mississippi. “(Ole Miss Athletic Director) Pete Boone and I were going to meet in Dallas, Texas, in a hotel there near the airport.”
According to Neuheisel, before the meeting with Ole Miss could take place, the coach received a phone call saying that the meeting was canceled. As he recalled, then-University of Mississippi President Robert Khayat got spooked when NCAA infractions surrounding Neuheisel began to swirl.
Neuheisel was later exonerated, and Ole Miss turned to Ed Orgeron, who had been an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll.
“I was disappointed,” Neuheisel said. “I’d learned the Hotty Toddy. I was gung-ho.”
Bobby Bowden at Alabama
Bobby Bowden walked into a conference room on the third floor of a building in downtown Birmingham, expecting to meet with University of Alabama president Joab (pronounced “JO-abb”) Thomas about the head football coaching vacancy left by Ray Perkins. Instead, Bowden was taken aback when the doors swung open and he saw a large contingent — 18 to be exact — of University representatives, many of whom were there to fire questions at him from all angles.
After sitting down, Bowden fielded questions for about an hour before Thomas broke up the meeting, at the conclusion of which there was no job offer.
“I left, and the only think I could think was, They didn’t offer me the dadgum job!” Bowden wrote in Called to Coach.
When Perkins resigned as head football coach at Alabama on Jan. 1, 1987, Bowden was, quite coincidentally, in Birmingham for a matchup with Indiana in the All-American Bowl at Legion Field. After the game, a reporter asked Bowden how long it would take him to consider an offer from Alabama.
“Like that!” Bowden said, snapping his fingers.
After the meeting in downtown Birmingham later the next day, Bowden flew back to Tallahassee, where a hive of reporters, perched at his home, was curious to know if he was leaving FSU to become the next head coach at Alabama.
Bowden and his wife, Ann, were startled by all the TV cameras and had to circle the block in order to buy some time to think of a proper response. The couple eventually decided the truth was the best option available. “Nobody has offered me the Alabama job,” he said. “I have not applied for the job. I will not go chasing after it. I’ve got a job, and I’m very happy here.”
Hours later, President Thomas phoned Bowden and informed him that Alabama was going to hire Georgia Tech’s Bill Curry.
“I was really heartbroken,” Bowden wrote. “I’d been so confident about getting the job that when I went to a pep rally the night before the All-American Bowl, I was sitting there nearly in tears, because I didn’t know how I was going to tell all the FSU people that I was leaving for Alabama. Of course, the way things turned out, I wouldn’t have to.”
And, like that, Alabama missed a golden opportunity to bring Bobby Bowden back to his home state.
In each of the above instances, one has to wonder how history might have been altered had these hires been made. We might have never seen Ed Orgeron at LSU, Gus Malzahn at Auburn, or Nick Saban at Alabama.
Was it fate, coincidence, or something else that barred the doors to these aforementioned head coaching openings?
Author Paulo Coelho once offered a thought-provoking distinction between destiny and fate. “I can control my destiny, but not my fate. Destiny means there are opportunities to turn right or left, but fate is a one-way street. I believe we all have the choice as to whether we fulfill our destiny, but our fate is sealed.”
Perhaps. And until those things are revealed, “What if?” will continue to intrigue us.