John Clay

Kirby Smart and Mark Stoops know how rough SEC can be on rookie coaches

First-year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has come under fire as the Bulldogs have lost four of their last five. Kentucky plays host to Georgia on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.
First-year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has come under fire as the Bulldogs have lost four of their last five. Kentucky plays host to Georgia on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. Associated Press

No doubt Mark Stoops can feel Kirby Smart’s pain.

When Kentucky plays visiting Georgia on Saturday, the two head coaches have more in common than just being friends. Both were former defensive coordinators at traditional college football powerhouses before becoming first-time head coaches in the SEC. Both struggled out of the gate.

Smart’s struggles were unexpected. The former Georgia safety and Alabama defensive coordinator under Nick Saban inherited a 10-3 team from Mark Richt, who was 145-51 in his 15 years in Athens. The Bulldogs entered 2016 boasting two of the nation’s better running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, plus a heralded freshman quarterback in Jacob Eason.

An opening win over North Carolina jumped Georgia to No. 9 in the Associated Press poll. It has been a steep drop since, however. The Bulldogs are 4-4 overall and 2-4 in the SEC, having lost four of their last five. Two games ago, Vanderbilt won 17-16 in Athens. Last Saturday in Jacksonville, Smart’s squad lost 24-10 to Florida.

Disappointed Georgia fans scratch their heads. The rushing attack, an expected strength, produced just 96 yards the past two games, including 21 against Florida. Chubb carried nine times for just 20 yards. On a crucial fourth-and-1 late against Vanderbilt, the preseason All-America back was used as a blocker for wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, who was dropped for a loss by Zach Cunningham.

As you might expect, critics claim Smart’s teams are disorganized and ill-prepared, many of the same complaints voiced when Stoops was going 12-24 his first three seasons after serving as Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator at Florida State. Not that the circumstances are identical. UK fired Stoops’ predecessor, Joker Phillips, because he didn’t win. (Smart inherited a 10-win team; Stoops inherited one that lost 10.) Georgia fired Richt because he didn’t win enough.

Still, the SEC has had little mercy for those learning on the job. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Dave Matter pointed out last week, since it expanded in 1992, the league has welcomed 20 rookie head coaches. Stoops, Smart, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Missouri’s Barry Odom are still on that job. Nine of the other 15 were fired within five years of being hired.

“Most of the time when coaches come into the situation, it’s not because it was left just perfect, right?” Stoops said Monday. “I know that’s a big storyline and certainly true in my case. I know there’s things that I could do better. You all are very good at pointing that out to me. I appreciate that, but I think most of the time you’re not going into a perfect situation and there’s things to get fixed.”

Four years in, Stoops appears to finally have the team he wanted all along. Under veteran coordinator Eddie Gran, an old friend Stoops brought in this year, the offense has averaged 299 yards per game rushing its last three outings. The defense has been aggressive, enthusiastic and timely with stops. With just four seniors (Blake McClain, Courtney Miggins, Ryan Timmons and Jon Toth) listed as starters, there’s plenty of reason to believe the upward trend should continue.

Meanwhile, taking over a program with more talent and tradition didn’t exempt Smart from a rough rookie year.

“Some (situations) are better than others, some easier fixes than others,” Stoops said Monday. “It’s all different, but none of it’s easy.”

On that, the two friends would surely agree.

Rookie head coaches in SEC since 1992

School

Year

Coach

Record

Result

Tennessee

1993

Phil Fulmer

152-52

Agreed to resign

South Carolina

1994

Brad Scott

23-32-1

Fired

Ole Miss

1995

Tommy Tuberville

25-20

Left for Auburn

Alabama

1997

Mike DuBose

24-23

Fired

Ole Miss

1999

David Cutcliffe

44-29

Fired

Georgia

2001

Mark Richt

145-51

Agreed to resign

Kentucky

2001

Guy Morriss

9-14

Left for Baylor

Florida

2002

Ron Zook

23-14

Fired

Alabama

2003

Mike Shula

26-23

Fired

Miss. State

2004

Sylvester Croom

21-38

Fired

Ole Miss

2006

Ed Orgeron

10-25

Fired

Miss. State

2009

Dan Mullen

58-40

Currently on job

Kentucky

2010

Joker Phillips

13-24

Fired

Vanderbilt

2010

Robbie Caldwell

2-10

Fired

Florida

2011

Will Muschamp

28-21

Fired

Vanderbilt

2011

James Franklin

24-15

Left for Penn State

Kentucky

2013

Mark Stoops

17-27

Currently on job

Vanderbilt

2014

Derek Mason

11-21

Currently on job

Georgia

2016

Kirby Smart

4-4

Currently on job

Missouri

2016

Barry Odom

2-6

Currently on job

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