So, you want to coach in the SEC, do you? Eager to test yourself in the nation’s best league? Well, first consider that the four most recently deposed coaches lasted a combined 11 years and posted an aggregate record of 65–72. Take away Auburn’s 2010 national title season, and it’s 51–72.
It’s not easy in college football’s toughest neighborhood. Four coaches were fired after last year, leaving their replacements to rebuild against the best competition around. Mark Stoops at Kentucky (replacing Joker Phillips), Gus Malzahn at Auburn (Gene Chizik), Butch Jones at Tennessee (Derek Dooley) and Bret Bielema at Arkansas (John L. Smith) are optimistic and ready to go. How far they can go remains to be seen.
Butch Jones, Tennessee
Someone suggested to Butch Jones that a good person to include in the Tennessee football history lesson he is providing for his players would be Herman Hickman. The big guard was named an All-American in 1931 for the Vols, and legendary coach Robert Neyland once called him “the greatest guard football has ever known.”
“I’m going to Google him right away,” Jones said, enthusiastically.
If you’re going to play for UT this season, you had better know about the people who went before you. Better have memorized the history of your number, too. That means quarterback Justin Worley better know that his number 14 was worn by the school’s most recent unanimous All-American, Eric Berry. And both Drae Bowles and Michael F. Williams have to realize that Condredge Holloway made lucky 7 a magical number for Vols fans.
Jones’ look back means more than just building team unity. He wants to make sure every player who pulls on the “power T” helmet understands that he is part of a program that belongs among the best in college football history. Tennessee isn’t some school that needs orange turf to gain attention (although those checkerboard end zones are cool) or has to play its games on Wednesday afternoons in order to get some TV time. Since 1927, UT is the winningest D-I program in America. The Vols have won or tied for 13 SEC titles. Their list of prominent football alumni is long and distinguished.
“When we go on the recruiting trail, we don’t have to sell that we are building a tradition,” Jones says. “We have tradition.”
Jones took over in December for Derek Dooley, who was fired after three straight losing seasons — his only three at the helm — leaving many wondering why the Vols had dipped down to Louisiana Tech to get Dooley in the first place. Some fans were livid that a reported four candidates to replace Dooley (Mike Gundy, Charlie Strong, Jon Gruden, Larry Fedora) turned down the position before Jones came aboard. While Jones’ head coaching pedigree — 50–27 in three seasons each at Central Michigan and Cincinnati — has no SEC hue, there can be no arguing with his results. When it comes to running a program, he knows what to do. He won two division titles at CMU and tied for two Big East titles at Cincinnati.
“It’s about having a plan and not wavering from that plan,” Jones says. “This is not the first time we’re doing this. It’s the third.”
Jones brings an infectious enthusiasm. Watch tape of him at a practice, and you see constant energy. His idea of having the UT players learn about the program plays well with his vision for them. He wants to recreate the Tennessee glory days, when double-digit win totals were de rigueur, and All-Americans dashed across the pristine Neyland Stadium turf. To do that, he has had to eliminate the torpor that characterized Dooley’s tenure, eradicate the brief (one year) memory of Lane Kiffin’s time in Knoxville and give amnesia to those who recall the last days of Phillip Fulmer, which included two losing seasons in four years.
“There is definitely a change in the culture,” senior offensive lineman Ju’wuan James says. “These (coaches) are connected to us. There are a lot of young guys who can relate to us. It’s a family-oriented atmosphere, and everything here is about tempo, especially at practice.”
Jones wants to move quickly into the future with an eye on Tennessee’s past. His offense will play fast. His defense will run swiftly. And everybody — including the head coach — will soon know who Herman Hickman was.
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
When Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas, he wasn’t too shy about his reasons. Sure he was making more money himself — $3.2 million per, up from $2.6 mil — but more important, he wouldn’t have to worry about losing assistants to other schools because of salary concerns.
But would that really be the case in Fayetteville? In February, Bielema found out. Another SEC school — reported to be Alabama — was after offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who had joined the Razorbacks staff after working at Tennessee. The Tide were certainly offering more than the $275,000 Pittman was scheduled to earn in 2013 and ’14.
So what would the Hogs do? As it turns out, plenty. Arkansas gave Pittman a big raise, up to $500K, making him the third-highest compensated assistant on the staff. Bielema had his answer.
“They stepped up beyond my expectations to retain (Pittman),” Bielema says.
Now that he has his people — and a commitment from the school to keep them — Bielema can focus on erasing the horrible memories of the last year-plus of Arkansas football. What was supposed to be a glorious 2012 season turned into a nightmare, thanks to Bobby Petrino’s wild ride and the team’s inability to keep it together under interim coach John L. Smith. Last season’s 4–8 record was a disaster, especially when many were pointing at 2012 as the Hogs’ best chance to win the SEC West since ’06, thanks to a load of returning talent and home games against Alabama and LSU.
“We’ve been through a lot, this team and this state,” senior center Travis Swanson says. “To get a clean slate and a fresh start is good.”
Bielema must now stabilize the program and move it forward in the toughest environment that exists in college football. He has steadfastly refused to comment “on what happened before.” Instead, he is focused on bringing his physical style of play to the conference where that is a necessary condition. He’s happy to find a group of tight ends “that can have success” and some running backs with talent. “The offensive line has to come along,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest thing that must develop is a renewed sense that Arkansas can play winning football. Although Bielema isn’t looking back, the program has been wounded. It must rediscover the ability to be consistent and formidable. Bielema and his staff have focused on that since being hired last December.
“He wants us to be 1–0 every day,” says senior defensive end Chris Smith, who had 9.5 sacks last year. “We’re taking it one day at a time, and we want to keep moving forward. The team has been through a lot. We’re ready to move on.”
While encouraging his players to win the day, Bielema has also appealed to them with a straightforward approach to conduct. Like a man who believes in a direct running game, he has one overriding maxim: “He’s got the ‘do-right rule,’” Smith says. “That’s one of the things I like about him. He treats us like men.”
And Bielema wants them to play like men. His offense may not be a perfect replica of what he did at Wisconsin, but fans can expect the Hogs to be physical. In the SEC, that’s just fine. So is the new football building opening in July. And the 20 seniors ready to put the stench of the recent past behind them. Bielema is happy to be where he feels supported, and where he believes winning can happen again.
“I told the media when I took the job on December 5th that I was excited,” he says. “Multiply that by 1,000 now.”
Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2013
Gus Malzahn, Auburn Tigers
When Gus Malzahn last saw Auburn, before the 2012 debacle, the Tigers had followed up their 2010 national championship with an 8–5 season and a bowl win. It wasn’t quite up to the standards Cam Newton and Malzahn established, but it sure wasn’t 3–9 (0–8 SEC), with a 49–0 loss to Alabama, either. The last time Auburn went winless in the SEC, in 1980, Jimmy Carter hadn’t left the White House yet.
Malzahn spent 2012 helping Arkansas State to a Sun Belt title and a bowl victory. He returns to the Plains to find a program that fell apart last year and didn’t resemble its championship big brother one bit. Auburn is hurting, and Malzahn inherits some players more than ready to put the embarrassment and hurt in a sack and throw it into the Chattahoochee River.
“It was a rocky road,” says senior defensive end Nosa Eguae. “As a guy who was there for the national championship, to go where we were last year, you learn a lot. When you face adversity, that’s when you see the real person you are.
“Things didn’t go our way. We’re going to learn from that and get better.”
Because he spent three seasons coordinating the offense at Auburn, Malzahn doesn’t come to town wondering where he can get a good glass of lemonade. He knows the traditions, the expectations and the somewhat Byzantine alumni structure that characterizes the program. He even knows a lot of the players like Eguae, who came to campus when he was here. That’s all good news. “It’s very helpful to understand the dynamics and history and how things work,” Malzahn says.
That knowledge will help Malzahn understand that 3–9 seasons aren’t tolerated at Auburn. The good news is that he isn’t too fond of them, either. And given his ability to teach offense, it’s a good bet the Tiger program won’t be floundering for long. During his first year running the offense, Auburn jumped from 104th to 16th in the nation in yards per game. During the ’10 campaign, the Tigers led the SEC in just about every offensive category of note.
The beauty of it is that Malzahn’s attack isn’t just a spread-’em and shred-’em scheme. It begins with a power ground attack. Really. Last year at ASU, the Red Wolves ran the ball an average of 41.5 times, nearly 10 more than they threw it. Arkansas State averaged 206.2 yards on the ground and 260.5 through the air. That’s the kind of balance and production that wins championships.
“If you look at the last seven years I coached offense, it’s clear we’re going to run the football,” Malzahn says. “We’re committed to that, and I truly believe it’s part of being successful in this league.”
While Malzahn builds an offense physical enough to compete in the SEC, he must also restore the “edge” Auburn had when it was successful. Malzahn speaks of returning to the school’s blue-collar roots. He’ll do it with his trademark dry wit, incredible attention to detail and mandate that the players forget everything that has happened and concentrate on doing the right things to make sure wins come in the future. The year at ASU helped him learn what a head coach must do to install his plan and lead a team. Now, he must get his players to the point where they can win again.
“We’re working hard every single day,” Eguae says. “Coach Malzahn is not satisfied with a subpar day.”
And especially not a subpar year.
Related: Best and Worst Times to be an Auburn Football Fan
Mark Stoops, Kentucky Wildcats
When Kentucky’s men’s basketball team lost a first-round NIT decision to Robert Morris, there were giggles around the country. The mighty Wildcats had not only failed to defend their national championship, but they had also crapped out in the consolation tournament.
The good news for the UK football team was that the hoops squad’s ugly exit diverted people’s attention from the work that must be done to rebuild a program that was 2–10 without an SEC victory last year and came within 10 points of a conference foe only once. But make no mistake: The work is being done. And, unlike last year, it’s being done willingly and happily. Okay, so running and lifting at 6 a.m. isn’t anybody’s idea of fun, but there is no drama now that Mark Stoops has taken over the program.
“Everyone was on time for weights and training this winter,” says junior defensive end Alvin Dupree, who had 6.5 sacks among his 91 tackles in 2012. “Last year, we had conflicts, and people were doing their own things. The team mindset has changed, and we’re all buying into the new program.”
Stoops comes to Lexington after spending three seasons as defensive coordinator at Florida State, following six years at Arizona running that side of the ball. He is a decidedly no-nonsense type who believes heavily in the value of a proper mentality. In that regard, Dupree’s statements have made the new coach feel good.
But Stoops faces the toughest job of the four new coaches in the SEC. The other three are at programs that have had fairly substantial success over the past 10 years and have largely winning traditions. Although UK won eight games in both 2006 and ’07, it hasn’t been a factor in the SEC East since the conference split into divisions and hasn’t won more than four league games in a season since it went 6–0 in 1977. The program’s sole outright title came in 1950 when Bear Bryant was roaming the sidelines in Lexington. (Kentucky tied with Georgia in ’77.)
Every new coach talks about the opportunity available at the school and what it will mean when the program starts to win again, and Stoops is no different. He understands that Kentucky is a basketball school, but he also knows that the SEC is the nation’s best football conference.
“That’s a big selling point — to play and be a member of this conference,” Stoops says. “That’s definitely helped us in recruiting.”
Stoops has been a big hit with the Kentucky fans, who showed their enthusiasm for the new regime by showing up in full force (an estimated 50,000) to the annual Blue/White Spring Game.
UK fans are hoping they will have something to cheer about on Aug. 31 when the Cats battle Western Kentucky — which beat Kentucky last year in the low point of the Joker Phillips era — at LP Field in Nashville.
First, Stoops must fix a Kentucky defense that struggled in all facets in 2012.
Dupree’s efforts notwithstanding. Kentucky allowed opposing passers to complete 67.3 percent of their throws last year and gave up 25 rushing touchdowns. If UK is to compete, it must do much better than that. Stoops’ scheme will allow Wildcat defenders to play more instinctively, as opposed to last year’s more complicated approach. It’s already a big hit.
“The defense has changed entirely,” Dupree says. “We don’t have as many plays as we had. Last year, the playbook was like a dictionary. This year, it’s a coloring book. It’s easier to understand, and the easier it is, the easier it is to go out and make big plays.
“You’re not trying to learn a dictionary. You can make plays.”
Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 SEC Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 SEC season.
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