Thrill of Victory

Rating the Southeastern Conference football coaching hires

In the dog-eat-dog Southeastern Conference, memories are short: just ask Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who was fired two seasons after winning a national title. But Chizik wasn’t the only coach who was asked to leave after this season, as Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky each fired coaches. Of course, each school also hired a new coach.

Here’s a look at each of the four men, with my grade for each school on each hire.

Arkansas: Bret Bielema
Background: Head coach at Wisconsin from 2004 through this regular season, where he went 68-24 and won Big Ten titles his last three seasons there.

Pros: Arkansas was looking to hit a home run with its hire, and reportedly threw a lot of money at a lot of coaches. Boise State’s Chris Petersen was one of those targets, as was Vanderbilt’s James Franklin. Other names like John Gruden and Gary Patterson also popped up as people of interest to Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, who was able to keep the search quite close to the vest.

So when Long hired Bielema, he not only hit his home run, but stunned the college football world as well; Bielema’s name was never publicly connected with the job as far as I know. At a school without a great recruiting base in his own home state, the Badgers finished ranked in the Top 25 in all but one of his seven seasons (if you include Wisconsin’s No. 23 ranking in the current Coaches’ Poll).

It’s quite rare for even an established school like Arkansas with tons of resources to pull a feat like Long did, especially since Wisconsin has been a better program over the last decade.

Cons: There aren’t many, but Bielema has at several points in the past made disparaging remarks about the SEC when it comes to its ethics in recruiting and how he didn’t want to stoop to some of those levels. Is it evidence of hypocrisy that he took the job? That’s about all I’ve got, because there’s not much to dislike otherwise.

Grade: A-plus

Auburn: Gus Malzahn
Background: Former offensive coordinator at Auburn (where he helped the Tigers to that national title) and Arkansas before a successful 9-3 season at Arkansas State this season.

Pros: Two years ago, Malzahn was generally regarded as the top offensive mind among all college assistants after the Tigers went 14-0 and won the whole enchilada. His reputation as an offensive genius preceded him even before that: Malzahn parlayed building an offensive juggernaut on the high school level at Shiloh Christian and Springdale (Ark.) before lighting up scoreboards in brief stints as offensive coordinator at Arkansas and Tulsa before coming to Arkansas.

In his first chance as a head coach, Malzahn fared well: ASU won the Sun Belt, averaging 482 yards and 36 points per game, even though it’s typically been a tough place to win. Malzahn also attracted talent like former Tennessee running back David Oku and Auburn’s Michael Dyer, who followed him there last season.

Meanwhile, the Auburn offense was pitiful this year without Malzahn on staff.

Cons: Was Malzahn just capitalizing on coach Hugh Freeze (who won 10 games the year before Malzahn) and his efforts? Probably not, since the Red Wolves returned just 10 starters from the year before, but with one year, it’s hard to say for sure.

Malzahn also isn’t the most outgoing guy, which might put him at a disadvantage in the toughest league in America. And even some of his success at Auburn is questionable, since the offensive numbers dropped off a cliff in Malzahn’s last year after Cam Newton left.

Grade: B

Kentucky: Mark Stoops
Background: Defensive coordinator at Florida State from 2010-12, and before, that, a defensive backs coach at his five previous FBS stops from 1996-2009.

Pros: If you want to hire from a particular family, the Stoops family tree isn’t a bad one from which to pick, as both of his brothers have been quite successful at Oklahoma. Mark himself did quite well in two years in Tallahassee, transforming a defense that gave up 30.1 points and 421 yards per contest the year before his arrival to one that yielded 14.4 and 255 this season.

Stoops obviously will not inherit Florida State’s talent, but he will benefit from having a squad full of freshmen and sophomores who played considerable roles in 2012 on that side of the ball. On the offensive side, he’s hired former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who had huge success in his three seasons there.

UK should show patience, as nobody expects the 2-10 Wildcats to win big next season. Stoops also have recruiting ties to Florida, which should aid in rebuilding the Kentucky program. When the ‘Cats have been good, it’s generally been through offense. But that only got UK limited success for brief periods of time, so trying a defense-first approach could be the right idea.

Cons: The biggest strike against Stoops is that he’s never been a head coach, but look no further than Vanderbilt to see where hiring an assistant at a perennial SEC doormat isn’t always a bad move. On the other hand, the world is full of great assistants who didn’t have the managerial skills to lead an entire staff. Recruiting to FSU is also a lot easier than it is to Lexington, so there’s that piece as well.

Grade: B-minus

Tennessee: Butch Jones
Background: Head coach at Cincinnati, and before that, Central Michigan. Jones posted a 50-27 record between both stops.

Pros: Jones was a guy I had my eye on before UT did, a second-tier head coach who’s done very well for himself out of the national limelight. CMU went 8-6, 8-5 and 12-2 in Jones’ three years there and 3-9 in successive years after he left. A 4-8 season his first season at UC was a damper (the Bearcats were rebuilding after a 12-1 season with a lot of lost seniors the year before), but it ended well with 10-3 and 9-3 seasons afterwards.

The perception is that Tennessee settled for Jones after getting turned down on lots of other fronts. That may be true, but Jones did about as well at both of those places as anyone would have. The “splash” hire is often overrated, while the steady, unsexy coach who wins tends to be underrated. Jones definitely fits in the latter category.

Cons: The main concern for Vol fans is whether Jones can recruit. His two full recruiting classes ranked 49th and 50th at Cincinnati, and the 2010 and 2013 classes (for which he is partially responsible) are No. 59 and 91 respectively, and the feel among some is that he won with former coach Brian Kelly’s players. The counterpoint to that argument is that Kelly’s classes, from 2006 to 2009, ranked 60th, 67th, 89th and 108th, in reverse, meaning that Jones actually recruited better than his predecessor.

Still, Kelly went 10-3, 11-3 and 12-1 in his last three years; could that mean that Kelly did more with less than Jones did?

Grade: B-plus