SEC provides training ground for potential head coaches
They are like everyone’s fantasy prom date. Fans and players from other schools might rag on the SEC as overrated and over-hyped, but the second a school outside the conference needs a new head coach all heads turn to college football’s preeminent conference.
So, who are the SEC coaches that ADs and college presidents will be courting at season’s end? Here is the short list:
The fiery defensive coordinator at Georgia has become known as something of the anti-Mark Richt -- a boisterous and sometimes profane ying to the head coach’s quiet and ecumenical yang. But it is hard to argue with results. Grantham took a Georgia defense that was among the worst in the conference and turned it into one of the best, sparking comparisons to the old Junkyard Dawg defenses of the 1980s when Erk Russell butted heads with players in Athens.
Russell went on to win three national championships as a head coach at Georgia Southern. Grantham could do worse than following in those footsteps.
It’s early. Durkin is in his first season as Florida’s defensive coordinator, but a quick look at what he did as the Gators’ linebackers coach and at the respect he commands on the field lets you know that this is someone who will earn a head coaching job sooner rather than later. Durkin runs the Gators’ defense the way Muschamp runs the team -- passionate and in-your-face -- but he is also polished and political when the occasion warrants.
If Florida’s defense is as good as expected, Durkin could be on the short list for several jobs by Christmas.
Coaching Jadeveon Clowney can’t hurt, but South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has shown abilities that go far beyond one player. While he technically assisted Ellis Johnson until Johnson’s departure for Southern Mississippi in 2012, Ward has run the day-to-day defense in Columbia since 2009. Last year the Gamecocks held Georgia to seven points (scored late) and Tajh Boyd and his dynamic Clemson offense to 17. The one blemish was Florida. The Gators hung 44 on the Gamecocks. But other than that, South Carolina’s defense exceeded expectations.
Given how much freedom Steve Spurrier gives his defensive coordinators, Ward should be well-equipped to step into a head coaching role when the offer comes.
Only in college coaching are past failures so quickly forgotten. (Anybody remember Gene Chizik’s record when he was hired at Auburn?) So don’t be surprised if Ellis Johnson, who took over for Larry Fedora at Southern Miss and promptly went 0-12, is offered another head coaching opportunity in the near future, especially if Johnson can turn around the ailing defense at Auburn.
Most athletic directors look for someone with head coaching experience, even if that experience isn’t the best. In Johnson’s case, it could hardly be worse. Southern Miss had had 18 consecutive winning seasons before his arrival. Still, if he proves himself at Auburn, Johnson will likely get a shot at redemption.
If you visit a Georgia Bulldog online chat room, you might leave thinking offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is either inept or the spawn of Satan. Rarely has an assistant coach with a winning record and one of the most powerful offenses in the country been so mercilessly hammered by the fans. But expectations are always high in Athens.
If the Bulldogs live up to the hype, Bobo could be on the short list for several jobs. It remains to be seen which fans will be happier: those at the school that hires him or those from the school that he leaves.
It would not be unprecedented for a running backs coach to be offered a head coaching position, but in today’s competitive marketplace, it would certainly be outside the norm. Most schools look at past head coaches or, at the very least, men who have served as coordinators. Position coaches normally fall well down the list.
But LSU’s Frank Wilson is different for one simple reason: he is a recruiting machine. Wilson has helped bring more talent into Baton Rouge than anyone thought possible. That is why Wilson will likely leapfrog the traditional career path and go straight from coaching running backs to running an entire program.
At age 54, Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning is approaching the now-or-never point for a first-time head coach. A stellar play-caller at Texas A&M and an even more impressive coordinator for Dan Mullen in Starkville, Koenning appears to have all the football tools needed to take over a program.
But football is only a part of being a head coach. If he can master the booster meetings, managerial duties and political minefields that go with any job these days, Koenning would be a great candidate for any school.
As career paths go, few have made all the right moves like former New Orleans Saints quarterback and current Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. In one season in Tuscaloosa, Nussmeier opened up the Alabama offense, allowing AJ McCarron to set a school record for passing touchdowns (26) and managing what many consider to be the best offensive line in college football history.
He is 42 years old, articulate, experienced, savvy and ready. Expect Nussmeier to be offered at least one job by the end of the year.
His name comes up every time there is an opening. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has been rumored for at least six jobs in the last two years, and he was supposedly a “sure thing” for at least two of those.
That is no surprise given his resume. Smart has been named Assistant Coach of the Year twice (2009 and 2012) and has run the best defense in the country the past two seasons. During his tenure in Tuscaloosa, the Tide has had seven defensive players drafted in the first round. The question isn’t if Kirby Smart will become a head coach: it’s when and where. That answer could come as early as this season.
The only current head coach on this list, Franklin is probably one of the few SEC head coaches who would voluntarily leave his job for another school. What he has done at Vanderbilt is nothing short of astonishing, but everyone with historical perspective knows that Vandy can only be taken so far. If Franklin leads the Commodores to another winning season, expect the calls to come his way.
He won’t leave for just any program, and certainly wouldn’t vacate the SEC for anything other than a plumb offer. But if Southern California grows weary of Lane Kiffin, or if Texas nudges Mack Brown into retirement, expect Franklin to receive serious consideration if not an outright offer on the spot.