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Grading the SEC Coaching Hires: It was a mixed bag across the conference

Did the SEC get better or worse after its upheaval?

NCAA Football: Texas A&M-Jimbo Fisher Press Conference C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

If anything has permitted other conferences to close the gap with the SEC lately it has been the diminution of its coaching ranks. When you replace Steve Spurrier with Will Muschamp, Les Miles with Ed Orgeron, Gary Pinkel with Barry Odom etc., the conference can’t help but take a step back. Still, Alabama sets the expectations, and almost half of the conference found itself searching for new captains at season’s end. But, because Alabama also sets the salary standard, buyouts and chasing trophies have led to financial difficulties for many programs, as those schools who went shopping are increasingly having to do more with less this go ‘round (or mortgage their future in the hopes of a home run.)

Well, how did we do, collectively? Sad to report, if anything, a conference which was already getting by on recruiting, did itself few favors with the moves made over the past few weeks.

Florida Gators

Incoming: Dan Mullen (9 seasons, 69-46, 5-2 bowls), Mississippi State’s second winningest coach

Outgoing: Jim McElwain (6 seasons, 44-28, 2-1 bowls,) 2014 Mountain West Coach of the Year, two-time SEC East Champion

Dan Mullen took a left-for-dead Mississippi State program and in nine years led the Bulldogs to eight bowl games (will only have 7 on his ‘State resume.) In his first season as a HC, Mullen flirted with bowl eligibility, going 5-7: ‘State hasn’t missed a bowl since, though it has limped into several postseasons at .500 and even made a bowl with a 5-7 record last year. He replaces Jim McElwain, who was never popular with new Gator AD Scott Stricklin, and was let go at the first sign of adversity -- despite flirting with .500 with a very young team and playing 53 scholarship players at one time.

Mullen mainly earned his reputation based upon a 2014 season, where he led MSU to a preliminary No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoffs and finished second in the SEC West. Prior to that, there were a few illusory 9-win seasons. Don’t dig too deeply into his record: 2014 would be Mullen’s only season with a winning record in conference play. We’ll see if the talent differential in Florida leads to a better record; that high-pressure environment almost certainly won’t improve his iffy game management or road preparation. Still, the lows won’t be too low: probably T-3rd place or so in the East, but I’m not sure how high the highs will be either. Fortunately the East is terrible.

Grade: B- This is a Top 10 job. Florida did not make a Top 10 hire, and probably will only eke out lateral production compared to McElwain’s tenure...that’s assuming it all works out. If it doesn’t work out, it’s not much of a stretch to envision the Gators being an 8-win team that falls behind both Georgia and South Carolina in the East.

NCAA Football: Florida-Head Coach Dan Mullen Press Conference
Seen here without his two trademarks: mittens and terrible play on the road.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss Rebels

Incoming: Matt Luke (1 year, 6-6, DNP)

Outgoing: Hugh Freeze (9 years, 69-39 (39-25 Ole Miss,) 2-1 Bowls) highest ranking in a half century, ranking in inaugural CFP playoff, beat ‘Bama twice (and Ole Miss will be talking about that for the next half century,) phoned a lot of hookers, cheated his ass off.

Ole Miss alum Matt Luke is an interesting case. He’s an offensive lineman that, owing to nearly 15 years under Dave Cutcliffe and Hugh Freeze, doesn’t pound the ball, rather takes to the air. We know how Hugh left, and we know how bad Matt Luke’s team looked earlier in the season. The good news? The Rebs rebounded after a ghastly start to finish 6-6. The bad news? The Rebels went 6-6 with one of the conference’s best sets of lines, Shea Patterson and All-American A.J. Brown...and sanctions haven’t even hit.

This is going to be a long few years for the Rebels, but I’m not even sure how much of that is on Luke. See, Houston Dale Nutt, Ross Bjork, and Hugh Freeze both got him a shot for an SEC head coaching job and likely killed his career thereafter.

Grade: C+ It’s nice to have someone who wants to be there in these bleak times, and his experience coaching lines, tight ends, and running offenses aren’t to be despised. Holding that team together was a monumental success. For now, Luke’s a downgrade in Oxford, but it could wind up being a solid-ish hire if he is more Cutcliffe and less Freeze.

Tennessee Volunteers

Incoming: Jeremy Pruitt (—)

Outgoing: Butch Jones (84-54, 4-2 Bowls) 2007 & 2009 MAC Championships; 2011-2012 Big East Championships

Of all the hires made in the SEC so far, this is the one that’s both the biggest head-scratcher and holds the most uncertainty. Pruitt has just five years of major experience coordinating, but they were under Mark Richt, Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban. Still, three jobs in five years really leads you to believe that, unlike Kirby Smart or Will Muschamp were, he’s not been stable enough or around around one program long enough to know how to actually run his own.

Sure, the Vols will recruit well -- but recruiting hasn’t been the issue in Knoxville: it’s the systemic program-building stuff and in-game management. There are many reasons the Bulldogs interviewed him and then passed on further consideration. There are many reasons why his name was only recently being dropped in connection with head coaching gigs (and none for jobs as big or as pressure-packed as Tennessee.) Again, it may seem a real head-scratcher — but that’s only if you don’t see the game Fulmer is playing.

Grade: C- Tennessee wants to think of itself as a destination job. 2017, more than any recent year, has a lot of fluidity and high-powered veteran coaches in the marketplace. This is not a hire wannabe top powers make, and certainly not when guys like Miles, Sumlin, even Mullen -- hell, anyone with a resume -- are out there. As Butch showed, even years of championship experience are difficult to translate to wins in Knoxville. And Pruitt doesn’t have those. The odds are against him: bad boss, ridiculous expectations, very little learning curve, and the SEC’s worst fans. Those odds suggest that Pruitt will be more Dooley/Florida-Muschamp than Dantonio, Smart or even McElwain.

NCAA Football: Jeremy Pruitt Tennessee Head Coach
This is awful and he should feel bad.
Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Texas A&M Aggies

Incoming: Jimbo Fisher (8 years, 83-23 (56-22 without Jameis Winston), 2013 National Championship, 2014 CFP Playoff, 2013 Coach of the Year, 2013 Heisman Trophy

Outgoing: Kevin Sumlin (10 years 86-43 (51-25 SEC,) two-time AAC West Champions, 2012 Heisman Trophy

You could not pick two guys with more parallels and similarities than Jimbo Fisher and Kevin Sumlin. Both built their career on the backs of generational Heisman-winning quarterbacks. Both have seen their productivity and wins decline without Winston and Manziel. Both seem bored at times. Both take terrible losses as their teams come out completely flat. Both are exceptionally stubborn with their offensive systems. Both recruit at a high levels. Both have defenses that get lit up like Roman candles one game and then play commensurate to their talent the next. Both have well-documented (or well-sourced rumors of) off-field personal problems. Hell, they’re even a year apart in age. And both are the beneficiaries of stupid contracts awarded by Texas A&M.

There are very few things that separate the two men: Jimbo got to coach in a limp ACC; the color of their skin; and the strength and conditioning program. Jimbo’s Aggies’ will be a more physical team, and, judging by his non-Jameis record, his A&M squads should be good for about 1 more regular season win per year. Is that worth the additional $2.5 million per year he’ll make ($7.5m) over Sumlin ($5m), A&M’s second-most successful coach in school history? Who knows, but you can’t fault Jimbo for taking the Ags to the cleaners. A fool and his money, yadda yadda.

Grade: B I give this hire the exact same grade I give Jimbo as a coach...which is incidentally the exact same grade Kevin Sumlin earns. I give this fully-guaranteed $75-million dollar deal a big fat F. It really is in everyone’s best interest and the long-term interest of the sport’s sustainability if he fails. Spoiler: That’s not not going to happen. He probably won’t win a championship in College Station, but he’ll win just enough games to let administrators justify their decisions to keep doling out ridiculous deals.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Incoming: Chad Morris (3 years, 14-22 (0-0 bowls, though lead SMU to a bid in 2017).

Outgoing: Bret Bielema (12 years 97-58, (29-34, 2-1 SEC) 4-5 Bowls) Three-time Big 10 Champion 2010-2012, 2006 Big Ten Coach of the Year

Jeremy Pruitt to Tennessee is a defensible (but poor) gamble for a program with a win-now mentality. But, hey, maybe lightning will strike twice, ya’ know? Arkansas may not be swinging for the fences quite like the Vols, but nothing about this hire is inspiring. Literally not one thing. Every reason for hiring Morris, including and primarily, his recruiting in Texas, were present with Mike Leach. The difference is that Mike Leach did them a lot better, a lot longer, and with a lot more success. But Mike Leach was going to cost a lot more than $3.5 million per year.

Arkansas’ biggest problem since joining the SEC has always been assembling a championship-caliber defense. That is a task made difficult by the lack of high school talent in the Natural State. So, it makes perfect sense to hire an offensively-minded Morris, who has had one winning season in three at SMU and whose teams couldn’t play defense in the AAC or keep up offensively? Huh? Career 14-22 Chad Morris? Beat three team teams with a .500 or better record in three years Chad Morris? That Chad Morris?

As for that alleged recruiting pipeline? For a long-time high school coach in Texas, it never paid off. Period. SMU finished midway in the AAC recruiting rankings just once (2016;) the other two years, his Mustangs were 8th in a 12-team conference. REMINDER: SMU is actually in Texas and two of Morris’ teams exclusively signed Texas players.

Grade: F/D- This is despicable. Next time, match Auburn’s $7m/year for Gus Malzahn or just focus on being a basketball school. Morris, like Jimbo, has a fully-guaranteed deal. So, the Razorbacks can’t even afford to fire this guy until 2021 at the earliest. And his contract runs through an ungodly 2023. For the sake of the conference, I hope I’m wrong. As an Alabama fan, I’m LMAO.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Memphis
Costco-ass Art Briles
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Incoming: Joe Moorhead (4 years, 38-13 (all FCS), three playoff appearances) conference championship (2014, Patriot League CotY 2014, led Fordham to its best start in school history (10-straight victories).

Outgoing: Dan Mullen (see supra.)

When it became apparent early in 2017 that this would be the year for Dan Mullen to get out while the gettin’ was good, State began quietly compiling its roster. They quietly interviewed a nice mix of young and old, experienced and otherwise, defensive and offensive minds before quickly and quietly settling on one of the steals of the offseason --one of the nation’s best offensive coordinators, Penn State’s Joe Moorhead. When it was announced, we had nothing but praise for both the hire and the way ‘State conducted its search.

A week later, it’s getting even harder to fault the hire. Moorhead has already landed Penn State’s former DC, Bob Shoop. He also poached Penn State’s running back coach, Charles Huff. This may already be the third-best staff in the SEC West, and it’s not even complete.

Who would have thought that Mississippi State would be the team to give you pause down the road? You don’t see Moorhead and Co. staying in Starkville very long, but provided the recruiting is there, the Bulldogs will will be trouble.

Grade A: Just a superb hire.


Who made the best hire?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Tennessee - Pruitt
    (223 votes)
  • 19%
    Florida - Mullen
    (615 votes)
  • 10%
    Arkansas - Morris
    (319 votes)
  • 14%
    A&M - Fisher
    (441 votes)
  • 1%
    Ole Miss - Luke
    (48 votes)
  • 37%
    MSU - Moorhead
    (1171 votes)
  • 1%
    (40 votes)
  • 8%
    (269 votes)
  • 0%
    Other below
    (21 votes)
3147 votes total Vote Now