SEC boasts nation’s top assistants

Great coordinators don’t always make great head coaches. Charlie Weis struggled at Notre Dame, and Will Muschamp took his lumps in his opening season at Florida, as did Derek Dooley at Tennessee. Remember Sylvester Croom, the can’t-miss coordinator who took over as the head coach at Mississippi State? He’s currently coaching running backs for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

There are always extenuating circumstances: Muschamp is expected to turn the corner with the Gators quickly and Weis has been given a second chance at Kansas. And there are plenty of success stories: Mark Richt did very well in his first few years at Georgia after being offensive coordinator at Florida State, and James Franklin exceeded expectations in his inaugural season at Vanderbilt.

The truth is: it’s a crap shoot. Gus Malzahn might have tremendous success at Arkansas State, just as you shouldn’t bet against Ellis Johnson at Southern Miss. But they might fall flat.

Management and public relations are not required skill sets for an offensive or defensive coordinator. They take up more than half the head coach’s time. Plus, the head coach sets the personality of his team, whether it is the controlled fury of Nick Saban, the visor-throwing perfectionism of Steve Spurrier, or the icy stare of Gene Chizik. In Muschamp’s first year, Gator sidelines were one profane eruption after another, while Franklin had his players and assistants ready to run through walls at Vandy.

No one knows how last year’s rookie head coaches will fare this coming season, just as no one can predict how the new crop of first-timers will adjust to being the most recognized figures at their universities.

What is known is that the SEC remains a breeding ground for great assistants, with a wealth of coordinators that are ripe on the vine. If one or two programs get off to a shaky 2012, expect the standard cadre of names to be floated as potential head-coaching replacements.

Among them: Kirby Smart, coordinator of the best defense in college football at Alabama, and the highest paid assistant coach in the country after Malzahn and Weis stepped into head jobs.

Smart’s name comes up early and often in every vacancy, just as Malzahn’s did the two years prior. But the Tide defensive coordinator makes north of $850,000 a year, and has the added advantage of coaching under Saban, who takes off his head-coach hat to teach the cornerbacks and safeties.

Smart is a prize catch and he knows it. Expect him to hold out for a great job with an even better contract.

Also, Georgia’s Todd Grantham has gotten himself noticed, not just for turning around a Dawg defense with more leaks than a New Orleans levee, but for his fiery demeanor. He is credited with bringing a long-lost passion back to the Georgia sideline. Again, it will take the right situation – Grantham has a crust that won’t play well at a lot of husband-wife booster dinners – but with Georgia expected to make another run at the SEC Championship, this is one coordinator who will be high on the future-head-coach list.

John Chavis from LSU should also generate plenty of buzz. He’s another defensive coordinator who appears to have all the tools needed to be a formidable head coach.

That’s not to say any of these guys are looking to leave. Grantham made $755,900 last year, and Chavis took home $708,000. They all seem to love where they live and what they do. Chavis will turn 56 in the middle of the 2012 season, a little long-in-the-tooth for a rookie, should he choose to go that route, but his children are grown, so he should have no problem moving.

Grantham is almost 46, the perfect age to make the head-coaching jump, but he has young children – a son and a daughter – in school in Athens. Of course the average head coaching salary in the country is $1.47 million, with the six conferences that have automatic BCS bids paying their head guys $2.125 million on average. So, kids can be convinced to move.

Good money is on Smart. A former defensive back at Georgia, the 36-year-old has all the traits an athletic director and college president could want: brains, looks, youth, and temperament. Oh yeah, and he has two national championship rings, which never hurts.