Auburn's dynamic duo takes top billing
The SEC in general is regarded as the nation’s most football-mad conference. That much is true, but no longer is that coming at the expense of basketball.
Football coaches in the league generally will have among the highest salaries in the country and the most tools at their disposal to contend for national championships.
Outside of Kentucky, basketball hasn’t been as much of a consistent priority.
All it takes to see that this is changing is a quick peek at Auburn. The Tigers have one of the top football coaches in the league in Gus Malzahn, arguably the best offensive mind in the SEC. Now, they have one of the top basketball coaches.
After rolling the dice on Jeff Lebo and Tony Barbee, Auburn went with a proven winner in the SEC and a big-time personality in Bruce Pearl. That move gives Auburn the best one-two coaching punch in the SEC.
The goal of our coach tandem rankings is to look at each football and basketball duo as a pair. In general, we’re looking at the duos most likely to keep each school’s fans happy and entertained from the start of football season through the end of basketball season.
So even though Alabama has a great football coach and Kentucky has a great basketball coach, their counterparts on the other side of the athletic department are working to pick up the slack — with varying degrees of success.
Football: Gus Malzahn | Basketball: Bruce Pearl
During the course of two seasons, Auburn made two hires that changed the trajectory of its football and basketball program. Football had been relatively consistent back to the Pat Dye era, but it was clear Malzahn and his up-tempo, run-oriented offense brought something special to the Tigers. He was the offensive coordinator of the 2010 championship team and took Auburn back to the title game in the first season after his return in 2013. The ascent won’t be as rapid for the basketball program under Pearl, who has reached the Sweet 16 or better in four of his last seven seasons as head coach. Still, he’s brought in elite recruits and already has Auburn basketball fans following his cult of personality.
Football: Mark Stoops | Basketball: John Calipari
Calipari has simply led the Kentucky basketball program to an undefeated start this season — and that’s on the heels of an appearance in the national championship game. Simply put, no one in the game is better at recruiting top talent, and he may never get the credit he deserves in managing the egos of players who are one step away from the NBA Draft lottery. The football program is a tougher sell, but Stoops is doing good work. Stoops signed a top-25 class in 2014 and kept the 2015 class respectable. Kentucky improved from 2-10 to 5-7 in Stoops’ second season and could have been bowl eligible if not for close calls with Florida and Louisville.
Football: Bret Bielema | Basketball: Mike Anderson
Say this about Arkansas’ coaching duo: They create a clear identity. Bielema knows exactly what he wants to do with his program — build a punishing run game behind an imposing offensive line. That led to a surprising turnaround in his second season with the Hogs, going from 3-9 to 7-6 in 2014. Anderson has a similar identity with the 40 Minutes of Hell inspired by his mentor Nolan Richardson. The turnaround has been a little slower for Anderson, though this will be his best season — and first NCAA appearance — in four years at Arkansas.
4. South Carolina
Football: Steve Spurrier | Basketball: Frank Martin
We liked this duo a little more a year ago. At that point, Spurrier had South Carolina on a streak of three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 finishes. On the basketball side, Martin deserved the benefit of the doubt as he tried to revive South Carolina’s moribund basketball program. History still says these guys will figure it out, but this has not been a great year for South Carolina’s football and men’s basketball programs. Six combined conference wins makes this a year to forget.
Football: Nick Saban | Basketball: Anthony Grant
Saban has few peers in college football coaching. In a ranking of football coaches alone, Saban would be at or near the top, depending on where Ohio State’s Urban Meyer fits. Basketball is another story. Grant arrived at Alabama as one of the hot young coaches in the sport after his tenure at VCU. The Crimson Tide, though, have been inconsistent on the court despite talented rosters. One NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons might not be enough for Grant to stay in Tuscaloosa.
Football: Jim McElwain | Basketball: Billy Donovan
The Spurrier-Donovan and Meyer-Donovan duos were among the best tandems in the country. The constant has been Donovan, who is having an uncharacteristically subpar season after three Elite Eights and a Final Four. That said, he should win 500 career games by the time he’s 50. McElwain’s track record as a head coach is only three years long, but he took Colorado State from four wins to eight to 10.
7. Ole Miss
Football: Hugh Freeze | Basketball: Andy Kennedy
Freeze has led Ole Miss on a steady rise on the football field from seven wins to eight to nine. The latest season was not a hollow nine wins by any means as the Rebels were ranked as high as No. 3 and reached one of the coveted Playoff contract bowl slots in the Peach Bowl. Meanwhile, Kennedy has been Ole Miss for nine years, hard to believe as it is. He finally got over the NIT hump in 2013 with a trip to the NCAA round of 32. He should lead Ole Miss to the second NCAA berth of his tenure this season.
8. Texas A&M
Football: Kevin Sumlin | Basketball: Billy Kennedy
Sumlin has proven that Texas A&M will be a factor in the SEC and in recruiting. He’s delivered upsets of No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Auburn, a Heisman trophy and a top-10 finish — yet overall his teams are 13-11 in the SEC. Kennedy has yet to deliver a 20-win season to the Aggies in four seasons in basketball. If that doesn’t change this year, it probably will next season when the Aggies add a highly touted signing class.
Football: Les Miles | Basketball: Johnny Jones
Perhaps no coaching duo in the country causes more high blood pressure among its fans. Miles’ teams have won 10 more games in four of the last five seasons, but end-of-game situations have been — shall we say — dramatic. Jones’ teams have had the talent to go toe-to-toe with teams like Kentucky, but they’ve been susceptible to puzzling losses during the last two seasons. LSU’s conference record in football has declined every year since 2011, and the basketball program has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament under Jones.
Football: Mark Richt | Basketball: Mark Fox
The Marks make up the longest-tenured football/basketball tandem in the SEC with 19 seasons combined. They’ve also been the victim of a little bad luck in recent years. Richt has watched key injuries claim some of his top players on offense (though his team won 18 games the last two seasons anyway), and Fox watched players unexpectedly leave early for the NBA Draft (though his team should reach the NCAA Tournament this season). Georgia football hasn’t won an SEC title since 2005, and Georgia basketball hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2002.
11. Mississippi State
Football: Dan Mullen | Basketball: Rick Ray
Mullen enjoyed a breakout last season, taking a consistent bowl team to College Football Playoff contention. Mullen was already the first Mississippi State coach to go to four consecutive bowl games before going 10-3 and reaching the Orange Bowl last season. Ray has a major rebuild on his hands with the basketball program, but the Bulldogs have already eclipsed last year’s SEC win total (from three to five) and could pass their overall win total (14) from his first season.
Football: Gary Pinkel | Basketball: Kim Anderson
Since 2007, Pinkel has led Missouri to two Big 12 championship games and two SEC championship games. The Tigers are 0-4 in title games, but Mizzou’s status as an overachiever in both conferences under Pinkel is ironclad. Missouri isn’t a recruiting powerhouse by any means, but the Tigers have been competitive with the powers in two conferences at the top of their games. In basketball, Anderson gets an incomplete grade at best. Coming from Division II, Anderson was a questionable hire to begin with, and his first roster at Mizzou is hardly SEC-ready.
Football: Butch Jones | Basketball: Donnie Tyndall
For the first time since Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee may have a football coach who will stick. Jones delivered the Volunteers’ first winning season since 2009 and picked up major momentum in recruiting during the last two cycles. Optimism is at a high point, but the Volunteers are still seeking their first winning conference season since 2007. Tyndall, a standout coach at the mid-major level, has done fine work with a rebuilding basketball team in his first season, but NCAA issues from Southern Miss are following him in Knoxville.
Football: Derek Mason | Basketball: Kevin Stallings
Mason has the unfortunate task of following up James Franklin at a place that just started to get used to competing in the SEC. Mason went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in his debut season and immediately shuffled his coaching staff. Stallings is the second-longest tenured basketball coach in the league after Donovan and is generally regarded as one of the league’s best minds. Yet since the Jeffery Taylor/John Jenkins/Festus Ezeli class left, Vanderbilt is 19-29 in the SEC in three seasons.