These things tend to go in cycles, and it was not that long ago that the cycle was all about offense. The head coaches came from that side of the ball. Their stock in trade was putting points on the board.
Now, however, at least as far as the SEC East is concerned, the pendulum has swung back the other way. When Mark Stoops came into the league three years ago, the Kentucky head coach was the exception to the rule, a coach who made his name (more) famous by coordinating a top-five defense at Florida State. Now, Stoops has plenty of company.
All three new SEC head coaches are former defensive coordinators. Just in the past week, Missouri promoted defensive coordinator Barry Odom to replace retiring head coach Gary Pinkel, a former offensive coordinator. Georgia hired Alabama’s defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to replace Mark Richt, a former quarterbacks coach. South Carolina hired Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to replace Steve Spurrier, another ex-Florida head coach who revolutionized the league with his offense.
Odom, Smart and Muschamp join Stoops and Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, Stanford’s former defensive boss, as SEC East coaches focused on keeping points off the board.
Odom is the lesser-known guy, a 39-year-old who played linebacker for Larry Smith at Missouri. In 2003, Pinkel hired Odom as an administrative graduate assistant. Odom climbed the ladder from there, from recruiting coordinator to assistant AD for football operations to safeties coach.
In 2012, Odom became defensive coordinator at Memphis, where he turned heads by helping execute a Tigers turnaround. In 2014, Memphis ranked fifth in scoring defense and 22nd in total defense. When Dave Steckel became head coach at Missouri State, Pinkel lured Odom back to coordinate the Mizzou defense.
Now, Odom is the head coach. Despite an inept offense, Missouri was ninth nationally in total defense last season, a feat that surely helped Odom ascend to the big chair when Pinkel unexpectedly stepped down because of health reasons.
Meanwhile, SEC champ Alabama is No. 2 nationally in total defense under Smart, who has been the Tide’s DC since 2008. Yes, Alabama head coach Nick Saban is considered one of the better defensive strategists around, but Smart calls the defensive signals. He’s earned Saban’s trust and respect. Eight years as a coordinator is a long time.
Now we know why Smart passed on so many head coaching opportunities. A former Georgia safety who got his first coaching job under former UK assistant Chris Hatcher at Valdosta State, Smart patiently waited until his alma mater called. While the 39-year-old — Smart turns 40 on Dec. 23 — has never been a head coach, he has the necessary tools to make Georgia AD Greg McGarity look Smart for firing Richt.
Muschamp is the mystery hire. The 44-year-old was fired at Florida after going 10-13 over his last two seasons. He was 28-21 in his four years at Gainesville, which happens to sit in an area rich with talent. If Muschamp couldn’t win at Florida, how is he going to win at South Carolina?
Ah, but sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know. Spurrier, who walked off the job at midseason, was an important Muschamp backer. And South Carolina AD Ray Tanner said he had a relationship with Muschamp dating back to last year after “Coach Boom” was let go at Florida.
By the way, not only was Smart on Hatcher’s staff at Valdosta State in 2000, so was Muschamp. He was Hatcher’s defensive coordinator for one season before being hired at LSU by Saban, the man who is probably responsible for this current trend.
After all, when Alabama beat Florida in the SEC Championship game last Saturday, it marked Saban’s sixth conference title in 15 seasons. It also put the Tide in a College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan State on New Year’s Eve, the first step toward what would be Saban’s fifth national title.
Maybe that’s why, when it comes to coaching hires, what’s trending now is defense.
SEC head football coaches (first season at school)
- Alabama-Nick Saban (2007)
- Arkansas-Bret Bielema (2013)
- Auburn-Gus Malzahn (2013)
- Florida-Jim McElwain (2015)
- Georgia-Kirby Smart (2016)
- Kentucky-Mark Stoops (2013)
- LSU-Les Miles (2005)
- Mississippi-Hugh Freeze (2012)
- Miss State-Dan Mullen (2009)
- Missouri-Barry Odom (2016)
- South Carolina-Will Muschamp (2016)
- Tennessee-Butch Jones (2013)
- Texas A&M-Kevin Sumlin (2012)
- Vanderbilt-Derek Mason (2014)