SEC needs Meyer/Harbaugh-like coaching rivalry
Remember when Florida-Alabama was as titillating a matchup as we’ve seen in college football? A de facto play-in game to the national championship every year, pitting Urban Meyer and Nick Saban?
Those epic battles in ’08 and ’09 produced some of the greatest SEC teams in recent memory. Both teams had NFL talent stacked three deep at some positions. It’s no coincidence that in our ranking of the 10 best SEC teams of the last decade, four of them are Gators and Tide teams from those two seasons, including No. 1 and No. 2.
The Meyer-Saban tussle of the minds was so intense that the former Florida coach ended the ’09 SEC championship game with a hospital visit. Both coaches were forced to find another gear in recruiting and preparation to have a chance at beating the other, and in doing so lifted the entire conference, propelling the league to seven consecutive national titles, of which UF or Bama won five.
The new No. 1 coaching rivalry in college football still involves Meyer, but in spite of his January meeting with Saban in the College Football Playoffs, this time it’s new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on the other side of the equation.
In spite of the fact that Michigan State has provided far tougher competition since the first season of the defunct Brady Hoke era in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the Wolverines are a year away — at least — from seriously threatening to win the Big Ten, Meyer and the Buckeyes sure have been spending a lot of time discussing Michigan publicly. You probably haven’t heard much from Columbus, Ohio, about the Spartans.
The day after Ohio State signed four-star running back Mike Weber, Buckeyes running backs coach Stan Drayton announced he was headed for a new job with the Chicago Bears. Harbaugh used it as material for one of his first major shots at Public Enemy No. 1.
Thought of the day – What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive! – Sir Walter Scott
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 7, 2015
Thought of the day… pic.twitter.com/fA1yJD6SBr
— Mark Pantoni (@markpantoni) February 7, 2015
The SEC has had other interesting, intense coaching rivalries:
- Tommy Tuberville vs. Alabama was interesting until Saban moved in and shut him down
- Bret Bielema-Gus Malzahn flared briefly
- Steve Spurrier-Dabo Swinney is great for non-conference rhetoric
- Saban-Les Miles makes for some great games
- Spurrier-Mark Richt represents a long, compelling history between two SEC stalwarts
- Saban-Malzahn has potential
The list goes on. But there’s nothing currently as intense, public or dramatic as Meyer-Harbaugh.
Despite winning the ’14 season national championship, and with Ohio State and Michigan State expected to play as true title contenders in the fall, the Big Ten has a ways to go before we can discuss the conference in the same conversation as the 2006-12 run by the SEC. But it’s difficult to imagine the renewed Buckeyes-Wolverines blood feud not lifting all boats with such buzz, passion in recruiting and awareness across the country.
Huge coaching rivalries are not something a conference can just manufacture. It’s not every year that a single conference includes two of perhaps the five best coaches in the entire sport at any level, but the Big Ten can make a case right now.
I don’t know that the SEC can expect a rivalry quite that large in the current landscape. Perhaps if Malzahn’s Auburn and Saban’s Alabama enter the Iron Bowl each with a chance to make next year’s College Football Playoff, and the Tigers steal away with another dramatic win.
But there are plenty of tremendous coaches in the SEC. Every job opening — OK, maybe not Vanderbilt or Kentucky — has the potential to attract a Harbaugh type candidate. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have made huge strides in recent years in terms of hiring and attracting big-time coaching talent, and finding the dollars to pay such coaches. The on-field product has followed.
The SEC, though, claims eight of the 20 highest-paid head coaches in college football, according to data provided by USA Today. And that’s not to mention a pair of defensive coordinators in Texas A&M’s John Chavis and Auburn’s Will Muschamp, both of whom reportedly will make more than $1.6 million this year as assistant coaches.
There’s nothing wrong with Bielema and Malzahn working to defuse what was beginning to come across as petty high school bickering. Rivalries don’t have to be childish. (Then again, it seems to be working for Meyer-Harbaugh, and any of the three-letter “wrestling” federations or junk-food reality TV shows will tell you it sells.)
But perhaps the SEC coaches should remind themselves that more contention, even good-natured, only helps the conference. Not that SEC fan bases need any encouraging to strongly dislike — OK, hate — each other.
It will be interesting to see just how far and how fast Meyer-Harbaugh lifts the Big Ten, and whether the SEC’s myriad of big-name head coaches can reclaim the title of college football national champions before the Buckeyes add another pelt to Meyer’s belt.
All of this is a great reminder that in college football, players do matter, but coaches are the real superstars.