Every December and January, millions of dollars change hands between schools that hire and fire football coaches, a money funnel that includes agents taking their cuts, often on both sides of a transaction, and firms that get hired to do much of the logistical dirty work on coaching searches.
With so much at stake, bar-table conversations each summer at the major athletics directors conventions tend to focus on the college football coaching landscape. Who’s in trouble? Who needs to win now? Which schools are hamstrung by big buyouts?
This year, the particular focus of those conversations was the Southeastern Conference, a league that almost single-handedly changed the college football coaching pay scale while also making one questionable hiring decision after another.
The confluence of historically big money doled out to coaches at the same time the league’s power outside of Alabama is visibly eroding has turned the atmosphere in the SEC “silly,” according to one person in the industry who monitors coaching searches closely and spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity.
Three weeks into the season, as it turns out, dissatisfaction around the SEC is worse than anyone even imagined in June and July. Among those who were perceived to be on the hot seat - Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Arkansas’ Bret Bielema and Tennessee’s Butch Jones - nobody has done anything thus far to help their case.
Meanwhile, antennas have already been raised about Missouri’s Barry Odom and LSU’s Ed Orgeron following disastrous starts. And industry perception is that Ole Miss’ second-half flop at Cal almost assures that interim coach Matt Luke, who took over for Hugh Freeze following the escort phone call scandal, won’t be retained.
Add it all up, and the SEC is arguably in the midst of its lowest point since 2002 when Georgia won the conference title over Arkansas, which was only in the championship game because Alabama, then coached by Dennis Franchione, was ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA violations.
Though the SEC still has six teams in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll, the league is 5-6 in games against other Power Five opponents. The vaunted West accounts for just one of those wins, with Alabama beating Florida State in the opener.
While Georgia’s Week 2 win at Notre Dame boosted the perception that Kirby Smart’s program is on the rise, it’s still Alabama and everybody else.
A half-decade of lazy, unimaginative hires has left the SEC unable to keep pace with the makeover that has taken place in the Big Ten, ACC and even Pac-12 to a certain degree. LSU panicked after getting played by Tom Herman and handed the job to an interim coach that already failed once in the league. South Carolina went to the recycling bin for Will Muschamp. Florida and Georgia locked in on Saban disciples.
All the while, exciting coaches with proven track records were scooped up by other leagues: Justin Fuente from Memphis to Virginia Tech, Willie Taggart from South Florida to Oregon, Jeff Brohm from Western Kentucky to Purdue, P.J. Fleck from Western Michigan to Minnesota.
Outside of Alabama, the gap has now closed completely, which is interesting since SEC rosters are still populated by top recruits and the most future NFL draft picks.
Though chronic underperformance has left half the league with critically wounded or wobbly coaching situations, it’s unlikely there will be more than three or four firings this year. Here’s how USA TODAY Sports assesses each potential SEC situation, with input from several people tuned into the coaching search industry.
Arkansas: While the program has not progressed as much as expected after Bielema’s early splash, athletics director Jeff Long and other decision-makers are more realistic about the situation than Arkansas fans. Despite the howling following an ugly 28-7 loss at home to TCU, Bielema’s hefty buyout ($15.4 million through 2017, dropping to $11.7 million on Jan. 1, 2018) plus uncertainty about the ability to upgrade likely will keep him in place at least another year.
Auburn: Though the Tigers haven’t yet lost a game they were supposed to win, the offense still looks ugly. That doesn’t reflect well on Malzahn, whose entire coaching career was built on being an offensive guru. Fans were steaming after Auburn’s 117-yard performance at Clemson, and it didn’t calm the waters when Auburn fooled around with Mercer last weekend in a 24-10 win.
It’s unclear how this will play out, as Auburn could still end up as the SEC’s second-best team. But if Malzahn does get fired, will athletics director Jay Jacobs get to hire a third football coach? Jacobs may not be on the most solid ground himself at the moment with his public handling of an ugly softball scandal. How much does Steven Leath, Auburn’s new president who took office in June, want to shake things up in athletics right off the bat?
LSU: It’s hard to believe LSU will continue to be as bad as it was last weekend in a 30-point loss at Mississippi State. And Ed Orgeron is in no real danger of getting fired this year. But if the Tigers fail to meet expectations, questions about giving one of the nation’s best jobs to a coach who went 3-21 in the SEC a decade ago at Ole Miss will come down hard on athletics director Joe Alleva.
Missouri: Quite simply, the Tigers have been awful through three games and haven’t shown any signs of righting the ship, losing 35-3 at home to Purdue last weekend. Second-year coach Barry Odom is a highly respected alum and was a terrific defensive coordinator, but impatience is growing with his failure so far to fix a defense that ranks 102nd nationally.
Athletics director Jim Sterk isn’t considered a quick-trigger guy, and there are extenuating circumstances with Odom inheriting the program right after the Mizzou football boycott and some poor recruiting in Gary Pinkel’s last couple of years. However, Sterk didn't hire Odom, and he’s in the midst of raising big money for a stadium renovation. Missouri can’t afford apathy right now, and here’s the biggest potential factor working against Odom: It would only cost the school $1.8 million to buy him out.
Ole Miss: The product on the field right now is indicative of how crippling the NCAA investigation was to Ole Miss’ recruiting efforts in Freeze’s last couple years. There’s just not much talent there.
Though a faction of alums will stump for Luke until the end, the current winds are blowing toward a total overhaul — regardless of whether the NCAA adds a second postseason ban and more scholarship losses.
Tennessee: Monday through Friday, Butch Jones runs a solid program. It’s those critical moments in big SEC games on Saturday where the problem often comes in. That’s not an easy situation to fix for new athletics director John Currie, especially at a school where many remember the dysfunction that emerged from the Lane Kiffin-Derek Dooley era.
But as of now, the thinking at Tennessee is that the problems are not foundational, cultural or unfixable. Unless things spiral out of control over the next several weeks, the industry expectation is that Jones will be back in 2018.
Texas A&M: At this point, it feels like a slow march to an inevitable conclusion. From athletics director Scott Woodward publicly putting his coach on the hot seat this summer, to the meltdown at UCLA, to regent Tony Buzbee’s Facebook blast and a pair of sluggish performances against lesser opponents, the atmosphere in College Station is extremely toxic.
The potential good news for Sumlin is that the SEC has been so uninspiring, one could envision the Aggies stringing together a run of wins. But would that do enough at this point to change the narrative?