In my mind, there’s a difference between being a great coach and being one of the greatest coaches ever. Bear with me here — the SEC’s had its share of great ones, but there are three I’d elevate above them all, Bear Bryant, Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban. All three won a lot of games and plenty of titles, sure, but what makes them stand out from the rest is the ripple effect each of them had on the conference they coached in. They forced their competitors to adapt to what they did.
Saban is fascinating to me in that regard. Yes, he’s an innovator on the defensive side of the ball, as pattern reading, his trademark contribution to defensive tactics, shows. Where he’s really left his mark, though, is in program management. His vision of how to run a college football program is unprecedented and came at a perfect time, when broadcast revenue went from being a steady stream to a torrent. (Would the Process have succeeded in an earlier time is an interesting question, but one I fortunately don’t need to dwell on for purposes of this post.)
As far as reaction goes, we see it all over the place. Every coach in Saban’s division makes in excess of $4 million, with the exception of LSU’s Ed Orgeron, who just got promoted. Les Miles was fired, despite having conference and national titles on his resume. Georgia went out of its way to fire one of the most successful head coaches in its program’s long history in an attempt to import the Process to Athens by way of Kirby Smart. Former Saban assistants litter the SEC as head coach hires.
But nobody’s Nick Saban. Nobody’s matched the run of success he’s had at ‘Bama. Not that anyone’s stopped trying to keep up with the Joneses. And therein lies the rub. The more the conference tries to find the next Nick Saban, or, perhaps more accurately, the coach who can keep up with Nick Saban, the farther behind it seems to get. The last two years in the SEC have shown the conference after Alabama to be more mediocre than it’s been in ages.
As this post at And The Valley Shook! indicates, a lot of that seems to be due to coaching turnover.
The ACC has now posted a winning record against the SEC in two of the past three seasons. The previous two losing seasons to the ACC were in 2002 and 1999. The ACC has overturned over a decade’s worth of utter dominance by the SEC, and it’s not looking like an accident.
At root of the problem is that Nick Saban has effectively run off all of his coaching peers. There are only four coaches in the conference who have been at their current job for five or more years, and only Saban has lasted at least a decade. Dan Mullen is the only SEC coach other than Saban who has been at his job for more than five years. He’s the sole survivor of the Saban Era.
There is a batch of four coaches with precisely four years of experience at their current job. It’s been a mixed bag. Gus Malzahn has alternated between great seasons and terrible ones, Butch Jones is dodging rumors of his imminent demise, Bret Bielema has yet to post a winning record in conference play at Arkansas, and Mark Stoops warded off the axe this year. This means that the coach with at least a four year tenure with the second-best winning percentage in the SEC is Kevin Sumlin.
Let that sink in. Kevin Sumlin is arguably the most successful coach in the SEC not named Nick Saban. Ask an Aggie fan how happy they are with the job he’s done.
Ugh. It’s not like the recent influx of new blood is a guarantee of greatness, either.
… For all of the talk that the SEC is the pinnacle of the profession, it is the other conferences with the longest careers and the longest current tenures.
Urban Meyer has Jim Harbaugh (and Dantonio and Chryst). Fisher has Dabo and Petrino. Bob Stoops has Gary Patterson (and Gundy and Snyder). Great coaches tend to have a foil, and Saban no longer has one. Worse yet, there is no young up and comer that seems to be a future threat.
The Pac-12 lacks a current coaching great, but they have younger coaches like David Shaw, Clay Helton, and Mike McIntyre. The Big 12 has Holgo and now Tom Herman. The Big Ten has Franklin, Fitzgerald, Chryst, and maybe Durkin. And the ACC is hotbed of young talent: Dabo of course, but also Narduzzi, Doeren, and Fuente.
What does the SEC have? There’s a lot of short-tenured coaches, but who looks like a potential future great? Kirby Smart? Will Muschamp? Bielema? Jim McElwain is short-tenured but he’s already 54, and is considered a subpar recruiter, which will catch up to a guy eventually. About the only guy you can make a case for is Hugh Freeze, and he’s looking over his shoulder at NCAA investigators.
I know we’re all hoping Smart breaks the mold there, and maybe he will, but even if you look at his future optimistically, you have to admit your hope stems from his applying the lessons he learned at Saban’s knee well, as opposed to him being an innovator. (I’m not sure the Georgia Way is up to handling an innovator as a head coach, but that, too, we’ll leave as a topic for another day.)
Saban’s affect isn’t just felt in Athens, of course. Take a look at what Jack Crowe, someone who’s knocked around and coached at several programs in the South, had to say about Auburn.
“Auburn’s leadership cannot get past Pat Dye and allow any coach to have this (Alabama) kind of sovereignty. In his days Pat had it as good as coach Paul Bryant. Donald Watson planted the seed of Pat’s decline. And ever since then Auburn has turned “grey” into “black,” handcuffing and eventually compromising its coach. Gus Malzahn has been compromised. Following his early spectacular success began the erosion of his influence and now the scapegoating has begun to reign instead of leadership. Still Auburn will always have a great tradition and outstanding players. The change to the next coach (with Saban’s exit) may really have a chance to give the Auburn football program sovereignty again. Auburn has to change the culture that gives sovereignty to its coach in year one, followed then by erosion to undermine the early success. Why is that? Your understanding of human nature is as good as mine. Auburn needs to let its marketing mentality on sustaining a head football coach with every authority to win. Or keep explaining why Auburn cannot sustain competitiveness. Check the stats.”
When someone can argue with an apparently straight face that a head coach at Second Chance U, of all places, has been compromised by the school’s administration, that should give you as clear an indication of the degree of Saban’s domination as you’ll see.
In comparison, here’s what Crowe writes about Alabama:
Alabama’s leadership since AD, Mal Moore, has given Coach Nick Saban the responsibility and authority to be bold and turn his “grey” regulatory issues in to “white”. And he has been given every tool and resource to do it with. Change has started this year in the offensive philosophy, and soon the coordinator. It is highly likely however that Nick will be gone to ESPN before the next frosh class graduates; as will Bill Battle. Already exited are the Chancellor and President with BOT powers that gave the UA football program total organizational sovereignty that has accounted for their dominance…
He’s not even sure the Process at Alabama survives Saban. That’s when you know someone’s King of the Mountain. Meanwhile, the lesser nobles suffer.