Which SEC coaches will last a decade? History shows that's no small feat
On the day that he stepped down at Florida after the 2001 season, Steve Spurrier said it best.
“I simply believe that 12 years as a head coach at a major university in the SEC is long enough.”
More than long enough, I’d say.
Fast forward to Spurrier’s resignation at South Carolina a little less than 14 years later. In a 12-month stretch from October 2015 to September 2016, the SEC lost Spurrier, Mark Richt and Les Miles. Those 3 coaches have something in common. All of them spent at least a decade at their respective SEC programs before stepping down/getting fired.
Those 3 coaches represented 38% of the SEC’s 21st Century coaches who spent a decade at their respective programs. Call it a changing of the guard, if you will, but that 12-month stretch knocked out all of the SEC’s elder statesmen. Not surprisingly, that coincided with the beginning of the TV rights boom, which saw the SEC more than double its annual revenue distributions since 2014.
The number that’s relevant for today’s discussion is 8. That’s how many coaches lasted at least a decade at their respective SEC programs during the 21st century:
- Jackie Sherrill, MSU (1991-2003)
- Houston Nutt, Arkansas (1998-2007)
- Tommy Tuberville, Auburn (1998-2007)
- Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee (1991-2008)
- Steve Spurrier, Florida (1990-2001), South Carolina (2005-15)
- Mark Richt, Georgia (2001-15)
- Les Miles, LSU (2005-16)
- Nick Saban, Alabama (2007-present)
You’ll notice that only Spurrier, Richt, Miles and Saban spent all of their decade-plus tenures entirely in the 21st Century. In other words, the 12-month stretch that saw Richt, Miles and Spurrier all step down/get fired eliminated 75% of the SEC coaches who lasted a decade entirely in this century.
I bring that up because we’re at a time when the majority of SEC fan bases probably feel like their coach will be around for at least 10 years. Alabama is already in the books, but nobody would assume Ed Orgeron’s days are numbered at LSU. It’s fair to say most Florida and Georgia fans would assume that Kirby Smart and Dan Mullen will both have at least a decade at their respective programs. (Mullen would have made it to his 10th year at Mississippi State, but he jumped to Florida.)
Better yet, who are the only SEC fan bases who don’t think their current coach will last a decade? Auburn, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are the only obvious ones who come to mind because they’re offseason hot-seat regulars heading into 2020. It’s worth noting that Gus Malzahn is entering Year 8 already and Derek Mason is in Year 7 at Vanderbilt.
Fan bases with first-year coaches like Arkansas, Mizzou, MSU and Ole Miss should be exempt from this because it’s far too early to tell. But given the buzz for Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin, I’d bet a beer that the majority of each of those fan bases believe their coach will join the’s SEC decade-plus club. Who knows? Maybe they will.
I’ll bet the farm that not all 9 of these SEC coaches last a decade:
Yes, you read that correctly. Stoops is entering his 8th season at Kentucky. You’re old, I’m old, we’re all old.
Here’s something interesting to think about. In 2007, there were 7 of the SEC’s decade-plus coaches in the conference. Watch how significantly that number decreased over time:
- 2007 — 7
- 2008 — 5
- 2009 — 4
- 2010 — 4
- 2011 — 4
- 2012 — 4
- 2013 — 4
- 2014 — 4
- 2015 — 4
- 2016 — 2 (Miles’ firing in Sept. dropped number to 1)
- 2017 — 1 (currently)
Again, those numbers from 2013-15 can change in a few years if Stoops and Malzahn get there in 2022 or if Mason gets there in 2023. If I were a betting man, I’d only bet on Stoops getting there. That’s based on the fact that he turned down the Florida State job this past offseason and he’s compensated extremely well in Lexington.
Those numbers can also change from 2016-18 if the likes of Fisher, Mullen, Orgeron and Smart get there, though obviously the earliest we’d have an answer for one of those would be Smart in 2025.
Nobody in the SEC joined the decade-plus club since Saban in 2016 (that’s why I stopped the yearly tracking in 2017). And before that, Miles, Spurrier and Richt all got a change of scenery for different reasons. (Again, Mullen would have. He left after his 9th season at Starkville.)
For Miles, it didn’t matter that he won a national title and 2 SEC titles while posting an impressive 42-23 record against ranked opponents. His unwillingness to modernize his offense combined with the Alabama struggles resulted in one of the SEC’s best coaches of the 21st Century getting fired in the middle of Year 12. Richt, another one of the SEC’s best coaches of this century, was fired after Year 15 for not matching the success he had in Years 1-5 when he got Georgia its first conference title in 20 years and then repeated that feat in 2005. Spurrier, of course, ran out of gas after a decade-plus of delivering South Carolina its best stretch in program history.
All of their exits, though debated, were an undeniable sign of what the SEC has become — a ruthless, chew you up and spit you out league. Fans, boosters and athletic directors get impatient and eventually, even members of the decade-plus club fall out of favor.
Will Smart fall out of favor before a decade if the Richt comparisons gain more validity in the next 2-3 years? Will Florida fans turn on Mullen if he can’t get over the Georgia hump soon? Will Orgeron, AKA Baton Rouge’s most popular man, lose all of his juice if LSU goes back to missing New Year’s 6 Bowls?
The odds suggest 1 of those things will happen, yet I still wouldn’t bet on 1 of those scenarios playing out. Orgeron just delivered arguably the best season in the sport’s history and is 11-1 vs. top-10 teams the past 2 years. Smart just recorded Georgia’s best 3-year stretch in 15 years, and Mullen just put together Florida’s best 2-year stretch since of the post-Urban Meyer era.
Once upon a time, it seemed like Meyer was destined for the decade-plus club. He was 44 — the same age Smart is — coming off his second national championship season at Florida. The college football world collectively prepared for him to continue dominating the program that Spurrier built. Another 2 decades? Easily.
Instead, Meyer lasted 2 more years in Gainesville. Call it what you want — I call it Saban-induced stress — but the pressure ultimately played a part in him not joining the decade-plus club. Who knows if Orgeron, Mullen or Smart will fall victim to that, too.
Personally, I think we’re strapping in for a golden era of SEC coaches with those 3 and Stoops leading the decade-plus charge once Saban retires at some point during the 2020s. I have my doubts about Fisher and whether he can earn some real national championship hardware in College Station, and not just a fake plaque. If I’m betting today on Jeremy Pruitt’s future, I’ll pick the door that has the options “Saban’s successor” and “falls out of favor in Knoxville” over the door that has “decade-plus club” at Tennessee.
And while I’m not saying that Leach and Kiffin can’t join that club, I’m not assuming they’re locks for that before they ever coach a game in the Magnolia State. The same goes for Eli Drinkwitz and Sam Pittman at their respective SEC programs.
You see, it all sounds so easy early on. Elevate a program, earn the support of fans and maintain control of your future. So few coaches do it anymore. Why? We’re living in different times. These are times when $50 million annual revenue checks are handed out and coaches have 8-figure buyouts. Of course expectations are higher. It’d be weird if they weren’t higher with all that influx of money.
Getting to the decade-plus club has never been more difficult in the SEC.
Whoever’s next will have earned it.