Some call it a siren’s song. Others would call it a black hole.
SEC coaching has become a bit of both depending on your perspective. If you are a fan, the jobs offered at college football’s top conference are the pinnacle of the sport: a place where a good football man can gain wealth and status that would make the Sun King blush. But if you are on the outside looking in, the conference can seem like a dense vortex where everything enters but nothing ever escapes. Recent news out of region only bolsters both claims.
Nobody thought Bret Bielema would leave Wisconsin, especially after making his third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten was once the conference every great coach aspired to land. Now, it’s a training ground for 4-8 SEC programs.
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He enters with a lot of pressure. Arkansas had been on the cusp of breaking through under Bobby Patrino. They reached as high as No.3 in the national rankings last year. There was only one problem: the two teams ahead of them were Alabama and LSU.
Then there is Butch Jones, who bid adieu to Cincinnati, a school where he had a 19-6 record the last two seasons. Tennessee would give anything for a 10-3 record right now. But three years from now, three losses will be just as unacceptable under Butch Jones as it was under Phil Fulmer.
Perhaps that’s what Charlie Strong and Mike Gundy knew, and why they avoided the black hole at warp speed. The SEC is a conference that treats its winning coaches like demigods, lionizing them long after they are dead and gone by making things like hounds-tooth a reverential symbol.
Losers they send packing.
If you’re Steve Spurrier or Nick Saban, you can stay. Spurrier just received another two-year extension at South Carolina, a deal that will keep him in Columbia until 2017 if he so chooses. That contract is reportedly worth $3.3 million a year, and by the time it runs its course, the Head Ball Coach will be 72 years old.
Saban makes $5.62 million a year and is under contract at Alabama until 2020 when he will be 69. And it isn’t just the money that keeps these guys from roaming. As someone joked on the sidelines of the SEC Championship game, if Nick Saban said he thought the governor of Alabama should be impeached, the Honorable Dr. Robert Bentley would be gone by Monday.
It was only funny because it was so close to the truth.
But look at Mark Richt and the vitriol coming his way after what was arguably the best football game of the year and the best his Bulldogs had played since Matthew Stafford and Knoshawn Moreno turned in their red-and-black jerseys for the riches of the NFL. Nobody but homers gave Georgia much of a chance, but they came within one tipped ball of playing for the BCS National Championship. Still, talk shows and chat rooms are ablaze with livid fans who want blood because Richt didn’t call for a spiked ball with seconds ticking away at the end.
Will Muschamp walked away from the coach-in-waiting position at Texas to take the job at Florida and there was grumblings that he should leave after one season. Now his team is ranked No.3 in the BCS Standings and all is forgiven.
That is what Bielema and Jones have ahead of them, because that is what SEC coaches live with every day.
Granted not every job is a great one. Kentucky will be thrilled with three or four losses and a bowl appearance for some time to come. And Vandy fans are ecstatic about their second straight trip to the Music City Bowl. Most expect quite a bit better.
But as former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden told me over a cup of coffee, “That’s why you get in this business, to coach in the Swamp and Death Valley, and Bryant-Denny, and be a part of that kind of environment, that kind of atmosphere.”
And once you get a taste of it, the addiction takes hold. It’s why so few leave until they are booted out the door, and why so many clamor to get the call when an opening becomes available.