Holding down a coaching job is tough in the SEC
Jim McElwain won 19 games in his first two seasons at Florida, including two SEC East Division championships. His third season has been a train wreck, but he was working on his third consecutive top-15 recruiting class. Overall, there has been little about McElwain’s tenure to suggest that he was the sort of special coach who would get the Gators back to the perennial elite status that they — and apparently every other SEC team — feel is their birthright. Maybe cutting the cord now is simply being proactive, but 33 games reek of impatience. The toughest games left on the schedule are upstart South Carolina and reeling Florida State, so the final record could easily be 7–4, but they chose not to wait around to find out.
Sadly, McElwain is 0–1 in press conferences and Florida administrators would have you believe that is his undoing. The press conference in which McElwain referenced death threats against his family and his players is bizarre, but ask yourself this question: would we be debating whether that was a firing offense if Florida had beaten Georgia by five touchdowns, rather than the other way around? Perhaps of more relevance, is there any other conference in the country where a coach would think lying about death threats was a good idea?
There’s a circular aspect to this, of course. If Florida was 7–1, McElwain would not have been prompted to talk about death threats at a press conference. If they were 7–1, his athletic director would not have been diligently looking for a way to get rid of McElwain without paying him the $12 million buyout his contract calls for. The cause for terminating McElwain wavered through the course of the week, from lying about the death threats to failing to report them. There were references as well to the steady parade of Florida players who have had encounters with the justice system during McElwain’s tenure, which, oddly, wasn’t nearly as big a concern when Urban Meyer was coaching there and winning titles. However, the bottom line is that the team was 3–4.
So Florida begins its fifth coaching search of this century. At present, they are among at least five SEC schools who are already thinking about firing their coaches, which raises the question: why would anyone take one of these jobs? Bret Bielema could have spent the next 20 years at Wisconsin, winning 10 or 11 games most years — most importantly, not worrying about getting fired if he occasionally lost four or five games — made the playoff when things went well, and retired with godlike status and $20 or $30 million in the bank. Instead, he got greedy, took Arkansas’ check, and sank into irrelevance. He is likely to get fired unless the Razorbacks pull off a statement win or two before the end of this season. Instead of cruising through his twelfth season at Wisconsin, he’s looking at rebuilding his reputation, probably at a Group of Five school.
Butch Jones has probably already taken the pictures of his kids off his desk at Tennessee, so he can make a quick exit when they fire him. Mississippi is working with an interim coach after Hugh Freeze did all sorts of nasty things. Kevin Sumlin, who you would be surprised to find has actually won twice as many games as he has lost at Texas A&M, will be on the hot seat until he is either fired or wins a national title. Or maybe that won’t be enough. Gene Chizik, after all, won it all at Auburn in 2010 and was gone two years later. There’s even been a Go Fund Me drive to buy out Ed Orgeron, in his first full season at LSU and with a 6–2 record, after his team was upset by Troy. Orgeron probably should have known what he was in for when he replaced Les Miles, whose 114–34 record was deemed insufficient.
There are reports that Texas A&M will go hard after James Franklin, who has signed an extension at Penn State and has things rolling, with a 7–1 record and a great recruiting class coming in. In college football, “going hard” after a coach means giving him even more insane amounts of money than he is already making. Franklin would be wise to look at Bielema when he is deciding, if it comes to that. Penn State offers an even better situation than Wisconsin, in the midst of a fertile recruiting ground for which it has no natural rivals, at a school where football has no rivals for attention or financial support. Franklin has rescued Penn State from the depths of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, so he could probably run for governor if that made him happy. Why trade that in for a job where anything short of Nick Saban is considered failure? Thirty years ago, Texas A&M stole Jackie Sherrill away from Pitt when he had a team that was turning out guys like Dan Marino, and he felt such pressure to live up to his huge contract that he ended up on probation. That’s another risk that comes with SEC jobs because the pressure to succeed is so great.
There’s nothing wrong with taking football seriously, but where trouble arises is when perspective is lost. Hugh Freeze lost perspective at Mississippi, and his bosses were so giddy at his success that they turned a blind eye to his excesses until it overwhelmed them. Tennessee lost perspective when they decided that the nine wins a year they were getting from Phil Fulmer wasn’t good enough, and they would trade a testicle for nine wins today as they ponder their fourth coaching search since he left in 2008. Jim McElwain may have lost perspective when he overstated threats that had been made against his family or his players, or maybe his bosses lost perspective when they tried to turn that into an excuse to fire him without honoring his contract. Either way, Florida will be paying three coaches next year; one of them, Will Muschamp, is currently 6–2 with a roster full of three-star recruits at South Carolina. Will Florida’s next coach match that, even with the four and five-star kids that will be drawn to Gainesville because of its tradition and resources? Or will I be writing this story again in three years?
More importantly, will successful coaches take these jobs? LSU settled for Orgeron after they were rebuffed by bigger names. Franklin has already said he’s not interested in Texas A&M, although that can change after the bowl game. As the SEC continues to eat its own with unreasonable expectations, they may find that the mediocre coaches they are about to fire are the best they can do. Or maybe the greatest irony would be if Muschamp, who seemed overmatched at times at Florida, can find success now because everyone else gets worse with each successive hire.