Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Musical SEC chairs: Coaches often reappear at different spots in conference
Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom is shown during an interview Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — When it comes to coaching in the SEC, it’s often a case of old faces in new places.
Whether it’s SEC schools hiring and firing head coaches or adding coordinators or position coaches, the names often are the same.
Coaches just move from school to school within the SEC.
All four of the new SEC head coaches had previous coaching experience in the conference. And of the four coaches they replaced, three stayed in the SEC.
Over the past nine years, Sam Pittman has gone from being the offensive line coach at Tennessee, the University of Arkansas and Georgia to being hired as the Razorbacks’ new head coach this season.
New Missouri Coach Eliah Drinkwitz — an Alma native and Arkansas Tech graduate whose assistant coaching stops include Alma, Springdale and Arkansas State University — was in the SEC as an Auburn quality-control assistant in 2010 and 2011.
Lane Kiffin is back in the SEC as the Ole Miss head coach after previously being the head coach at Tennessee in 2009 and offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2014-16.
It’s been a long spell between SEC gigs for Mike Leach, but Mississippi State’s new coach is back after being Kentucky’s offensive coordinator from 1997-98.
“I’m not comparing it to the NFL in that aspect, but it’s a little bit like the NFL,” Pittman said of the SEC coaching carousel. “In the NFL, you see a lot of coaches when they leave one [team], they go to another.
“It’s why a lot of coaches have a contract that they can’t leave an SEC school to go to another. Well, if the school fires them, obviously, they’ll have the opportunity to do that.”
Chad Morris, fired after 22 games as Arkansas’ coach because of a 4-18 record, is now Auburn’s offensive coordinator.
Barry Odom, Missouri’s coach the past four years, didn’t get to face Morris when the Tigers ended last season with a 24-14 victory over the Razorbacks in Little Rock.
But Odom and Morris will be on opposite sidelines when Arkansas plays at Auburn this season. Odom was fired the day after Missouri beat Arkansas and is now the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator.
Matt Luke, fired as Ole Miss’ coach after the Rebels lost the Egg Bowl to Mississippi State 21-20 on a missed extra point, replaced Pittman as Georgia’s offensive line coach.
“You look around the league, and I think it’s undeniable it’s the best football conference in America,” said Odom, a linebacker at Missouri when the Tigers played in the Big 12. “You’re a competitor, you want to be a part of that.
“It’s something with the fan base, the geographic area of the country, the ability to recruit, the support you receive from the administration. And then [coming to Arkansas] was such a great fit for me because of my trust and belief in Sam Pittman.
“So there were a number of factors that went into me having the opportunity to be here. I’m fortunate and honored to be here and represent the University of Arkansas and look forward to building this thing and excited a lot more now than I was the day I took the job. And we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but I’m excited to do it every day.”
Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State’s head coach, also was fired after last season and is now Oregon’s offensive coordinator.
The fact Moorhead didn’t stay in the SEC shouldn’t be surprising. He had no previous SEC experience when he was hired to replace Dan Mullen in 2018 after being the head coach at Fordham and offensive coordinator at Penn State.
Moorhead got the Bulldogs job because Mullen stayed in the SEC – of course – and moved from Mississippi State to Florida.
Before Mullen’s nine-year stint with the Bulldogs, he was Florida’s offensive coordinator.
See how this works?
Kiffin and Mullen are among five current SEC head coaches leading a conference program for the second time. Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Ed Orgeron and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp also are on their second SEC head coaching jobs. Saban previously was at LSU, Orgeron at Ole Miss and Muschamp at Florida.
Having the same coach lead two SEC programs goes back more than 100 years to Mike Donahue at LSU from 1904-06 and Auburn from 1908-22.
Other notable coaches with two stops in the SEC include Fordyce native Bear Bryant (Kentucky 1946-53 and Alabama 1958-82), former Arkansas assistant Doug Dickey (Tennessee 1964-69 and Florida 1970-78) and Harry Mehre (Georgia 1928-37 and Ole Miss 1938-45)
More recently there were Camden native Tommy Tuberville (Ole Miss 1995-98 and Auburn 1999-2008), Little Rock native Houston Nutt (Arkansas 1998-2007 and Ole Miss 2008-11) and Steve Spurrier (Florida 1990-2001 and South Carolina 2005-15).
But the trend now is bigger than ever. The five coaches currently on their second SEC jobs represent 35.7% of the conference.
By contrast, among the 51 other Power 5 schools in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, there are three coaches – 5.1% – on their second jobs in those conferences: Kansas’ Les Miles (previously at Oklahoma State) in the Big 12; UCLA’s Chip Kelly (previously at Oregon); and Colorado’s Karl Dorrell (previously at UCLA) in the Pac-12.
Why are SEC schools six times more likely to hire a coach who previously led a program in the conference than the other Power 5 programs?
“The first thing that comes to mind is the people doing the hiring, the SEC athletic directors, know the person that they’re pursuing understands the league,” said Nutt, who is now a commentator for CBS Sports. “Coaches in the SEC know who they’re going against every week – the coaches and players – and they know the level of recruiting it takes to compete in the league.”
Of the 14 SEC head coaches, only two didn’t have previous experience in the conference: Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason.
“I just think it’s a big advantage when you’ve been there before in the SEC and you understand everything that goes into coaching in this league,” Nutt said. “The transition to an SEC job is easier.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to have great success, but there’s a lot of respect for the coaches that have been in the SEC because they have laps around the track in that league. SEC schools want to hire those guys.”
SEC West coaches have combined to win eight national championships with six by Saban (one at LSU and five at Alabama), one by Fisher (Florida State) and one by Orgeron (LSU).
Three other active coaches have won four national titles among them with Dabo Swinney’s two at Clemson, and one each by Miles (at LSU) and North Carolina’s Mack Brown (at Texas).
As a Southern California assistant coach, Kiffin was part of two national title teams. He left Tennessee after one season to return to USC as head coach.
“In the SEC, it’s like you’re supposed to hate every other head coach,” Kiffin told CBSSports.com in a story last spring. “Pac-12, we get done with meetings, and I remember sitting out there with six coaches and we’re out there by the pool hanging out in the afternoon, wives are sitting together.
“That doesn’t happen in the SEC just because — I think it’s dumb — of that mindset, ‘Oh, our fans are going to be mad if we’re hanging out with the coach from wherever.’ ”
Leach was Washington State’s coach the past eight years.
“If you think about the Pac-12, any given team might have two defensive linemen better than any SEC team has,” Leach told CBSSports.com after getting the Mississippi State job. “But you know what? They don’t have six. We’re in a situation now I have six or maybe seven better than that.”
Which gets back to the recruiting aspect in the SEC and putting together a staff that can attract the top talent from not just around the region, but the country.
“Recruiting is different, players are different, size is different, money is different,” Pittman said. “Everything is different in the SEC.”
Pittman hired five assistant coaches with previous SEC experience: Odom, offensive line coach Brad Davis and cornerbacks coach Sam Carter from Missouri; special teams coordinator Scott Fountain from Georgia; and defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc from Kentucky. Pittman also hired Jamil Walker from Georgia as Arkansas’ strength and conditioning coach.
“There’s really not any on-the-job training,” Pittman said. “If you’ve been in the league, you certainly have a much better understanding of how hard it is to recruit and how hard it is to get the best players and coach those players, and the demands to have success in this league.”
Tracy Rocker, who won the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award as a defensive lineman at Auburn in 1988, continues to work his way around the SEC. He is going into his first season as South Carolina’s defensive line coach after previously holding the same position at Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee.
“Tracy is the perfect example of a guy you want on your staff in the SEC,” said Nutt, who hired Rocker at Arkansas. “He knows what it takes to play in the SEC and how to recruit the guys who can do that.”
Nutt was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State from 1983-89 when the Cowboys played in the Big Eight before it added Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech from the Southwest Conference to become the Big 12.
“I love Oklahoma State, and I know it’s tough playing Oklahoma and Texas, but it’s a different grind in the SEC,” Nutt said. “In the SEC, you’re playing tough teams week after week after week. It’s top to bottom. There’s no break.
“Just look at the SEC players that are drafted every year. That tells you the difference in the SEC and every other conference.”
The SEC led all conferences with 63 players picked in the 2020 NFL Draft, including 40 in the first three rounds. The Big Ten, which like the SEC has 14 teams, was second in overall picks in this year’s draft with 48.
It was the 14th consecutive year the SEC has led all conferences in draft picks.
Since 2010, the SEC has 111 first-round picks. Over that span, the ACC has the second-most first-round picks with 54.
Two of the SEC first-round picks were Georgia offensive tackles coached by Pittman: Andrew Thomas at No. 4 to the New York Giants and Isaiah Wilson at No. 29 to the Tennessee Titans this year.
“I don’t know about all that,” Pittman said when asked whether the SEC is playing on a higher level than other conferences. “What I do know is the SEC has had more draft picks than any other conference by far over the last however many years.
“It’s an elite league and I’m not sure anybody can hardly argue that.”
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