SEC Network anchor: Hottest coaching seats at LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee
Seats in other leagues take a while to warm up. But in the SEC, they tend to get scorching hot in a hurry.
Long gone are the days when simply fielding a football team for State U pride was enough. Each program — from traditional powers to yearly doormats — is demanding results. Expectations? Higher. Ropes? Shorter.
It doesn’t matter if you’re LSU, which won two national championships in the BCS era. The Bayou Bengal fan base is never satisfied. It doesn’t matter if you’re Kentucky, which has always been a basketball school. UK administrators would likely trade some of its hardwood success for a few more victories on the gridiron.
Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina all have new coaches for 2016.
Chances are, more turnover lies ahead.
“Three names come to mind: Les Miles, Kevin Sumlin and Butch Jones,” Peter Burns, an anchor for SEC Network, told Saturday Down South.
Miles survived a coup d’état last year at LSU. But another three-game losing skid may lead to his ouster.
As for Sumlin, he made his Texas A&M debut in 2012 — that was the Aggies’ first season in the SEC, too — and wreaked some havoc with an 11-2 record. However, he’s been 9-4, 8-5 and 8-5 in three campaigns since.
Jones is in the critical fourth year of his reign at Tennessee. The Volunteers have shown improvement each season, from 5-7 to 7-6 to 9-4 in 2015. With 17 returning starters and the rest of the division in some state of the rebuilding process, Jones and Co. need to finally break through and win the SEC East.
These coaches are in vastly different situations. Nevertheless, the outside influences are quite similar.
“Miles has the most talent top to bottom in the SEC this year and gets Alabama at home,” Burns said. “Sumlin has to right the ship fast after the debacle at the QB position over the past year. Jones has a lot of pressure as well. He’s built a ton of hype around this program and this year. Needs to deliver.”
With today’s standards, former coach Vince Dooley probably would have never made a 25-year run at Georgia.
Dooley went 10-1 and took the Cotton Bowl in 1966, his third season in Athens. But he didn’t win more than eight games again until 1971. Winning just five times each in 1969 and 1970, it was the valley of his career.
A coach that tastes 10-win success in the SEC nowadays is expected to repeat that level of performance on an annual basis. Taking a step back to seven and eight wins the next two years is one thing, but five wins the year after that? Followed by another five-win disappointment the next year? Time to update the résumé.
LSU, a public school residing in a cash-strapped state, considered spending $15 million to buy out Miles.
“I think we saw that play a role in the LSU situation last year,” Burns said. “Louisiana had budget issues, and it became a talking point when evaluating their decision.”
Coaches make more money than ever, yet buying them out is also much easier than ever. The SEC paid each school $31.2 million in 2015, according to AL.com. Thank you, TV deals.
Rarely does a coach get anywhere near the final year of his contract. That would be a major disadvantage on the recruiting trail. Prospects — from blue-chippers to walk-ons — commit to a coach, not a program.
As a result, extensions galore are handed out each and every offseason. It’s not unusual for even a mediocre coach to be signed for the next three, four or five years. Alabama’s Nick Saban seems to get a big bump each and every January. By now, he might as well be inked through the dawn of the next millennium.
But all it takes is a down season or two for the seat to warm up. There are too many cooks in the kitchen.
“Never underestimate the power of regents and boosters at any major university, not just in the SEC, if they feel like the time has come,” Burns said.
The aforementioned Kentucky, hoops royalty but pigskin commoners, is ready for Year 4 under Mark Stoops.
He inherited a two-win team — at a school that hasn’t won 10 games since 1977 — from Joker Phillips, who never got the Wildcats to the .500 mark in three tries. Stoops has finished 2-10, 5-7 and then 5-7 again.
Big Blue Nation hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2010. The ‘Cats last won a bowl in 2008. Stoops is navigating the East alongside Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Asking him to make noise in the division is tough, but he better get over .500 and earn a postseason appearance. Otherwise, he’s a defensive coordinator elsewhere in 2017.
Other coaches from bigger programs have higher bars to jump than Stoops. But his pressure is no less real.
“We live in a more microwavable society than ever before,” Burns said. “Fans and schools want success right off the bat. Social media has a lot to do it with it.”
According to Burns, unless there is some sort of irreparable scandal, all coaches deserve a four-year run.
“First year: clean out all the junk,” he said. “No pressure. Second year: truly your first year. Starting to get the recruits you want. Third year: second recruiting class is in. Should see results. Fourth year: make or break. Third recruiting class is in. Coaches are set. Put-up-or-shut-up time.”
It’s Year 4 for Jones in Knoxville. Unlike Stoops, he is expected to make it to the SEC Championship Game.
He has a senior QB in Joshua Dobbs. Jalen Hurd moves the chains — Alvin Kamara, too — in the backfield. Derek Barnett is a top sack man. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is the heart and soul on D from his linebacker spot.
Nevertheless, the Vols have sometimes failed in spectacular fashion the past few years, particularly to reigning East champion Florida. The Gators have won 11 consecutive times in the rivalry, including a pair of one-point victories in 2014 and 2015. Neyland Stadium won’t put up with that streak extending to 12.
Miles can always point to his ring. Jones doesn’t have that luxury, so expect some itchy trigger fingers.