A late-night discussion over beers with some friends at SEC media days a few weeks ago yielded an interesting debate topic: Is the current collection of the SEC head coaches the most formidable group one conference has ever had? The subject materialized after my buddy remarked that for as successful as Bret Bielema was at Wisconsin -- he left Madison after winning the past three Big Ten titles -- he's up against a lot stiffer competition now that he's in the SEC at Arkansas.
That is true. Bielema is now in a league that has won the past seven national titles and he's in a division, the SEC West, that has won five of them. Still, best collections of coaches ever?
Let's take a step back from this for a second. What's happening right now often is touted as the "best" this or "greatest" that. Maybe it's human nature for us to get caught up in the moment especially since in this media age we get bombarded by sensory overload and we have short memories.
This stuff is very subjective and it's impossible to gauge the merits of many of these coaches since most of them are still in their 40s (James Franklin, 41; Will Muschamp, 41; Dan Mullen, 41; Bielema, 43; Hugh Freeze, 43; Butch Jones, 45; Mark Stoops, 46; Gus Malzahn, 47; Kevin Sumlin, 48). Obviously, the legacies of Nick Saban (four BCS titles) and Steve Spurrier (he won big at Duke) are secure. Les Miles (85-21, one BCS title) and Mark Richt (118-40) are also strong.
The reality is some of those guys in their 40s are going to struggle because somebody has to in a league so top-heavy. Look what happened to Gary Pinkel, who averaged almost 10 wins a season the five years before Mizzou entered the SEC. Last season, the Tigers went 5-7 and 2-6 in the easier of the SEC divisions. If any coach in the league is on the hot seat, it's Pinkel.
Fair? No, but the league is that stacked, especially when you're talking about coaches right in their prime with huge backing and commitment from their schools.
Look at the résumés of the 40-something group. Among them: Sumlin just led A&M to its first top-five finish in 56 years; Franklin took over a Vanderbilt team that had lost 20 games the previous two seasons and by Year 2 had the Commodores No. 20 in the final coaches poll; Bielema won 74 percent of his games (ninth highest among active coaches) at a Big Ten school; Muschamp just led Florida to an 11-win season his second year and Jones comes to Tennessee having won four conference titles in his six seasons as a head coach. That is some impressive stuff. Throw in Mullen once leading Mississippi State to a top-15 finish, Freeze reeling in a top-five recruiting class last year for Ole Miss and Malzahn winning nine in his debut season before taking over at Auburn and it's even more intriguing.
I had my colleagues who cover college football rank the SEC's coaches from 1-14. Saban, not surprisingly, was a unanimous No. 1. Spurrier was rated anywhere from No. 2 to No. 6 and had an average ranking of No. 4. His teams have gone 22-4 the past two seasons and have had back-to-back top-10 finishes at a program that had never had a top-10 finish before his arrival. When Spurrier, even at 68, is your fourth-best coach, you've got a loaded league.
I was curious to see how this group would stack up with some of the other best conference coaching groups of all-time. Start with these two: The Southwest Conference in 1972, where half its teams were coached by guys who ended up in the Hall of Fame: Arkansas (Frank Broyles), Texas (Darrell Royal), SMU (Hayden Fry) and Baylor (Grant Teaff); and the '83 Big 8, which also had four of eight teams led by HOFers: Nebraska (Tom Osborne); Oklahoma (Barry Switzer); Colorado (Bill McCartney) and Oklahoma State (Jimmy Johnson). On the other hand, those leagues had more of a dropoff. Then again, the SEC now is almost as big as those two leagues combined. The SEC also recently had a group featuring Saban, Urban Meyer, Phil Fulmer, Miles and Richt. What has changed, I think, is the depth of the league and the commitment of the "second-tier" SEC programs to compete with the elite now.
It'll be interesting to see which of these 40-somethings thrive and which end up getting pushed out. A few of these guys who many expected to fail in the SEC are doing so well now people speculate that they're more likely to leave because they'll get a better offer, not because they're getting shown the door.