Coaching hires expose SEC underbelly

jclay@herald-leader.com,John ClayDecember 17, 2008 

John Clay

It's the best college football league in America, right?

The Southeastern Conference has the best stadiums, the best fans, the best athletes, the best tail-gating, the best rivalries, the best concessions, the best bands, the best mascots, the best traditions, the best cheerleaders, the best team walks.

So why doesn't anyone want to coach in the SEC?

Seriously.

After 17 years, a national title and multiple SEC titles, loyal homeboy Phil Fulmer is pushed through Tennessee's trapdoor because of a couple of subpar seasons and his inability to beat Florida when no one else can either.

So who does the program with the 100,000-seat stadium, the Peyton Manning-played-here tradition and the Rocky Top fight song end up hiring?

A 33-year-old named Lane Kiffin who has an attractive wife, a legendary defensive coordinator for a father and not a drop of collegiate head coaching experience.

Meanwhile, over at Auburn, after a primarily delightful decade of accomplishments, including six straight smackings of archrival Alabama, Tommy Tuberville suffers the misfortune of dropping seven games in the same season Nick Saban puts his Alabama steamroller into gear.

So Auburn slips Tubs a $5 million check to say he resigned — Tubs' own mother exposed that explanation as pure farce — then commences to the task of adding another name to the War Eagle tradition of Shug Jordan, Bo Jackson and Pat Dye.

Only the puzzling Plainsmen end up hiring Gene Chizik, the Iowa State coach plucked from atop the "2009 Hot Seat List" after Chizik finished the year in Ames with an 0-8 conference mark despite the fact the Cyclones did not have to play Texas, Texas Tech or Oklahoma.

To paraphrase Charles Barkley, that's turribble.

So if the SEC is so great, why doesn't it hire great football coaches?

Dirty little secret: It can't.

Tennessee coveted Butch Davis, but the North Carolina coach decided he'd be better off building a power in the ACC than cracking craniums with Florida and Georgia. Auburn flirted with Mike Leach, but (a.) the Tigers boosters thought the Pepperdine law school graduate with the pirate fetish too much the free thinker — Dye always thought that throwing the football wasn't really football — or (b.) Leach decided, compared to Auburn, he loved Lubbock, after all.

We'd add Mississippi State to this list, given that the school kicked out Sylvester Croom one year after the Bulldogs went bowling, but (a.) marquee candidates aren't storming Starkville, and (b.) hiring offensive coordinator Dan Mullen away from Florida to be head coach was the smartest hire of the three.

Truth is, how many coaches out there really want a job at a school that just told the predecessor that one bad year is one too many.

A school might see its athletic program as being enviably first-rate, while others see it as fantasizing. A school's fan base can see itself as being delightfully rabid, when others see it as delusional and ridiculous.

I hear you mumbling through your oatmeal about Nick Saban — don't talk with your mouth full — but the Alabama coach is the exception that proves the rule.

Saban is a different personality. Driven. Challenge-oriented. He doesn't care nearly as much about expectations as he does about making sure his assistants are eating lunch at their desks. Besides, Saban wanted to be sprung from the NFL so badly he eyed Tuscaloosa as a Taj Mahal.

Others aren't so brave, or brazen. That's why one school in the best football conference in the country is now pinning its hopes on an unemployed ex-wunderkind, while another welcomes a coach with a career 5-19 record.

Sometimes being the best means creating a monster.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or (800) 950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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