Stay or go: Which SEC coaches I'd fire and which SEC coaches I'd keep beyond 2019
It’s that time of year.
You know it. It’s the pre-holiday, “who’s getting fired” season.
It’s not an easy question to answer. It’s not as simple as looking at a win-loss record or what fans are saying on social media. There’s athletic director loyalty, buyout figures and preseason expectations to take into account.
With several athletic directors facing that all-important question, it’s shaping up to be a fascinating few weeks in the SEC. It seems like there are a handful of coaches who could get fired.
So, I put on my athletic director hat and made the tough decisions for them (all buyouts are for if coaches are fired before Dec. 1, 2019 according to USA Today):
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Stay or go: Stay
Unpopular opinion, I know. If we were talking about normal circumstances here — like a buyout that was $10 million or less — it might be a different discussion. But paying Malzahn that much money not to coach is still too rich for my blood. Even with a loss to Alabama, Auburn is still in position to have its 3rd Top 25 season in the past 4 years. I realize that’s not what Tiger fans want or expect, but if you’re going to pay a buyout that unprecedented, the program needs to be a complete dumpster fire.
People questioned why Florida State was willing to pay Willie Taggart a buyout north of $17 million. Imagine adding another $10 million on that for a coach who is probably a victory from making his 3rd New Year’s 6 Bowl in 4 years.
To me, that’s what this is about. I understand the frustration Auburn fans have. The lack of offensive development is worth being upset about. I thought Bo Nix and this offense would be further along, especially with that entire starting offensive line back. But because of that price tag, I’m hanging on at least another year.
Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State
Stay or go: Stay
Speaking of unpopular opinions, I realize this is one. MSU fans want him gone. They’re right to be angered about the offensive struggles. It hasn’t met my high expectations, either. I thought we’d be talking about a legitimate Top 25 team and not a 4-win team in need of a couple of victories just to make a bowl game.
I think MSU fans have always had a bit of a short leash on Moorhead for a couple of reasons. They remember what it was like before Dan Mullen arrived. The last thing they wanted is to revert to those days. I’d also argue some were skeptical of Moorhead given his lack of southern ties.
I would give him another year because I don’t think MSU has been bad enough to fire a coach after 2 years like Arkansas did, and I’m still not totally dismissing Moorhead’s offensive vision. That’s obviously been an issue, and nobody would need to tell him that he needs to succeed in Year 3 to stick around.
But is MSU about to cut a nearly $10 million check to start over? As awkward as of a showing as it was from John Cohen on Finebaum a few weeks ago, I tend to think he’s not going to punt on Moorhead after 2 years, especially if he wins these next 2 games.
Barry Odom, Missouri
Stay or go: Go
I get the feeling that something weird is going on in Columbia. How else can you explain this second half free fall? I don’t pin it all on the loss of Cale Garrett, nor do I think Kelly Bryant being banged up for a couple of games tells the full story. The common denominator is Odom, who had a team that looked Top 25-worthy and watched it crash and burn. Few teams can lose 3 games as double-digit favorites, but that’s what Mizzou did. That’s an awful, awful sign.
Odom deserved credit for holding Mizzou together and not having players enter the transfer portal following the bizarre NCAA bowl ban. He deserved credit for bouncing back after the Wyoming win. But in Year 4, what have we seen from Odom that suggests Mizzou will ever be able to get to where it was after it joined the SEC? The Florida win last year and winning streaks against bottom-feeder teams have been the high of the Odom era so far.
Jim Sterk might not have hired Odom, but he stood by him amidst some roller coaster seasons. Consider this — Odom had the benefit of the SEC’s single-season touchdown pass leader (Drew Lock) and one of the top transfer quarterbacks (Kelly Bryant), and none of those teams came close to competing for a division title.
Some might wonder if Mizzou can do better, but at this point, I have to think big picture if I’m Mizzou. I’ve got a $98 million stadium renovation. The last thing I want is empty seats and a fan base who knows that mediocrity is the ceiling.
It’s time to start over.
(Now watch Mizzou win the last 2 games of the regular season and lose a hard-fought bowl game that earns Odom another extension.)
Matt Luke, Ole Miss
Stay or go: Stay
I know Ole Miss fans are ready move on. They’re eager to see what the market looks like. That’s something they didn’t get to do in the wake of the Hugh Freeze scandal. And I realize the dynamics of Mississippi contracts are complicated because they can only be 4 years, which means the Rebels likely have to add another year onto Luke’s deal to keep him around (because recruiting).
But keeping Luke has a lot to do with the staff he hired around him and the fact that it’s starting to take shape. Rich Rodriguez and John Rhys Plumlee look like a potentially special combination. Fire Luke and that electric combination is gone. Fire Luke and Mike MacIntyre’s rebuilt defense is also likely gone. That unit is much improved from a year ago, despite the rough showing against LSU.
As cliché as it sounds, but I truly believe Ole Miss is much better than the record shows. An extremely young offense is going to improve if it gets another year, and I think MacIntyre can continue to at least make the Rebels average on defense, which is miles ahead from where they were the past couple of years.
Even with Ross Bjork off to Texas A&M, if I’m an interim athletic director making this decision, I’m looking at those factors closer than most would. I’m also thinking about how that buyout with Rodriguez and MacIntyre on board would actually be around $12 million total. That’s too steep a price for what the Rebels have shown with a young team this year.
Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Stay or go: Stay
Buyout, buyout, buyout.
Despite all the wild stories that came out about South Carolina reaching out to Florida State about how it covered Willie Taggart’s similar buyout, I’m waiting one more year if I’m athletic director Ray Tanner. Part of that is the belief that getting the money won’t be difficult if he struggles again next year, albeit with a more manageable schedule. Even though that buyout would still be a price north of $10 million, public support would be on your side with a move like that.
Muschamp is still in position to sign another top 20 recruiting class and with Ryan Hilinski back, there would be expectations that South Carolina could at least have a potentially decent season? Maybe?
I don’t know. This one is super tricky because if the money is there/if Muschamp is willing to negotiate the money down and receive it as a lump sum instead of over the remainder of his contract — that’s the current buyout agreement — then that changes things. South Carolina has invested heavily into the program with its new $50 million football operations center. Accepting mediocrity long term isn’t the vision.
But if I’m betting on the decision that’s made behind closed doors, I’m betting on the one that involves South Carolina not paying someone nearly $20 million not to coach.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Stay or go: Go
I like Mason. A lot. I don’t like that he basically said, “how dare you all question if I’m the right man for the job” after he miraculously beat Mizzou. I’m still questioning if Mason is the right man for the job. That’s natural when a team is sitting on 2 wins and has an average scoring margin of -23.9 points in SEC games this year. It’s even more natural when you consider this is Mason’s first season with Malcolm Turner as his boss.
I realize that Turner came out and said that Mason will be back. This time of year, it’s a smart thing to do from a recruiting standpoint to come out and say it instead of having people wonder if it’s coming down to the final 2 games.
But for the sake of this argument, this is how I’d see it.
If I’m putting myself in Turner’s shoes, I’m making a change. I’m looking at a stadium that’s half-full thanks in large part to visiting fans. I’ve seen paid home attendance below 25,000 for each of the past 4 games. That’s for a team that was supposed to have its most exciting group of returning skill players in recent memory. That’s awful.
Even worse is the fact that if I’m Turner, I’m wondering why a defensive-minded coach has the 3rd-worst rush defense in all of Power 5. Mason has had 6 years, and if his vision was really taking shape, his team would at least be somewhat competitive against middle-of-the-pack SEC teams like Kentucky and South Carolina.
It’s been an awful year, and while Mason might say and do things the right way, I’d want my performance as an athletic director to be based on someone who I hired who could win games and put people in the seats.
As difficult as it would be, I’m firing the coach who won 36% of his games (21% of his SEC games) and can’t even fill half the stadium.