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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/13/06
Rich Rodriguez decided to stay at West Virginia. Steve Spurrier took a pass. And Nick
Saban wanted no part of trying on Bear Bryant's famous houndstooth hat.
As Alabama enters the third week of what's been a humbling search for a new football coach, critics have suggested the job, once considered a plum, isn't so attractive any more.
That got us to thinking: In today's climate, where coaches can make more than $2 million annually (Tennessee's Phil Fulmer) but be fired a year after a 10-win season ('Bama's Mike Shula), what constitutes a good job?
The Journal-Constitution reached out to 10 former SEC head coaches and asked them to break down the best — and worst — jobs in the conference, taking into account fan support, recruiting base, financial resources, athletic facilities, expectations and backing from
administration when things get tough — as they inevitably will.
With an athletics budget of more than $66 million and a premier prospect-packed home state that rivals Texas and California, Florida was an easy choice for No. 1.
"Some schools go into the fight with a bigger stick than others," former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill said. "Florida has the biggest stick of all because they don't have to leave their state to get great players."
With a large and generous alumni base, where the biggest givers are known as the "Bull Gators," finances will never be a concern at Florida. University officials may soon make Urban Meyer the SEC's highest-paid coach now that the Gators have reached next month's BCS championship game.
Nor will recruiting ever be a problem: In February, the Gators landed the AJC's top-ranked class, which included several in-state stars (Jacksonville's Tim Tebow) plus several out-of-state peaches (Virginia's Percy Harvin).
When Vince Dooley arrived in Athens in 1964, he inherited a program that relied heavily on out-of-state recruits. Then the state landscape changed, and the job changed with it.
"We could see that the state and Atlanta were really starting to grow," Dooley said. "It was getting pretty clear that in the future, if we controlled the state, we had a chance to be successful."
When SEC football was integrated in the late 1960s and early '70s, the great black players in Georgia no longer had to leave the state to play. And they didn't. "When we were recruiting against Georgia for Herschel Walker, I think we had one alumnus in the whole town of Wrightsville," former Clemson coach Danny Ford said. "Ninety percent of that town was for Georgia."
Under the well-compensated Mark Richt, UGA has controlled the state, only losing a Calvin Johnson every now and then. The only thing missing that other SEC schools have: a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility.
Some would argue LSU should be a spot higher because of the number of top-notch high school players Louisiana produces and the financial commitment the school has made to football.
Les Miles brings in about $1.45 million a year and also has the SEC's two highest-paid coordinators. Both Jimbo Fisher and Bo Pelini earn $400,000 and work on multi-year contracts.
Nick Saban gets lot of credit for LSU's improved recruiting. But his predecessor, Gerry DiNardo, helped make this job what it is as much as anyone.
"DiNardo came in and made it his goal for LSU to control the state again," Scout.com recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg said. "Now, LSU has a wall around that state."
But there's some uncertainty around the job. Hurricane Katrina scattered many top high school players to adjoining states. No one knows if that will have an impact on LSU's future recruiting. Also, it's no secret Fisher and Pelini want to be head coaches.
Neyland Stadium, one of college football's great showplaces, seats 107,000 and is packed for every game, be it Alabama or Air Force.
When recruits come to Knoxville for visits, they also see one of the country's top indoor practice facilities and hear about the program's stability. Fulmer has been in place since 1993, making him the SEC's longest-tenured coach.
There's just one difference between Tennessee and the three schools ranked above it: The head coach has to be a tireless recruiter because he and his staff are going to rack up a lot of frequent-flier miles.
"Tennessee has to recruit nationally because there simply aren't enough great high school players in their state to compete for a championship," Sherrill said. "And the further away you go to bring in a player, the less he is going to know about your university.
"That makes it tough, but Tennessee has proven that it can be done."
Auburn gets the edge over state rival Alabama for a few reasons. First of all, the Tigers have won five in a row against the Tide and have been able to keep their coaching situation relatively stable. Since Tommy Tuberville was nearly fired in 2003, the Tigers have gone 32-5. They'll play in their third consecutive New Year's Day bowl in a few weeks, against Nebraska in the Cotton.
Former SEC coaches rank Auburn here in large part because of its proximity to Georgia, which allows coaches to recruit in Columbus, LaGrange and Atlanta.
"Used to be where if Alabama saw 10 players they wanted and Auburn wanted them, too, Alabama would get six or seven," Ford said. "Now it's at least 50-50 for Auburn."
Tuberville is the SEC's highest-paid coach with a total compensation package of $2.2 million. The school also has a reputation for grooming future head coaches, with Tuberville losing assistants Bobby Petrino (to Louisville) and Gene Chizik (Michigan State).
In 2002, Alabama committed to spend $47 million on a Bryant-Denny Stadium face-lift. So facilities, which for so long lagged behind the rest of the SEC, are no longer an issue.
"With the facilities we now have and our tradition, there is no reason why we can't [win titles]," said Gene Stallings, who coached the Tide to the 1992 national championship.
So why Alabama has struggled to get back to where Bear Bryant once had it? "The really great programs have a high percentage of the fans and administration thinking and working on the same page," former Tide coach Mike DuBose said. "That is what I still don't see at Alabama."
Several coaches say the program is micromanaged and that it will take a strong personality to be a consistent winner in Tuscaloosa. "My dad always told me that regardless of how much money they pay you, you have to know who's your boss," ex-Georgia coach Jim Donnan said. "And it can only be one guy."
Unlike Alabama, there's no doubt about who's in charge in Fayetteville.
Frank Broyles, 81, is in his 50th year at Arkansas and 34th as athletics director. Having a former football coach as an AD is a good thing, the ex-coaches said. Broyles also knows how to find money and how to spend it. He has used his powerful political connections to raise more than $200 million and turn Arkansas' athletic facilities into the country's finest.
Arkansas high school football can't compare to that of Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, but it is improving due to the influx of people to the state who either work directly for Bentonville-based Wal-Mart or for companies who do a major portion of their business with Wal-Mart.
"In order to compete for the championship, you have to set up recruiting bases in East Texas and Louisiana," said Ford, who took Arkansas to its first SEC final in 1995. Getting top players out of Texas has been tougher since Arkansas left the Southwest Conference in 1992.
8. South Carolina
The Gamecocks have captured only one title of any kind in their long football history. They've won more than eight games in a season just twice. And if Steve Spurrier takes them to a bowl in 2007, he'll be the first coach to accomplish that for three straight years.
Still, ex-coaches say, this is an underrated job because the fans always show up and support the program.
"They are the most optimistic and supportive people I've ever been around," said former Georgia coach and Gamecocks assistant Ray Goff. "Regardless of how things are going, they are going to fill up that stadium and have a good time."
Those fans also have money. It's not uncommon for them to pay $25,000 to own one of the precious parking spots next to the stadium.
The downside to the job? "There are usually only eight to 10 top-level prospects in the state, and you have to fight Clemson, North Carolina, Georgia and the Florida schools for those," Goff said.
9. Ole Miss
From 1947-63, Ole Miss won six SEC titles. Since then, the Rebels have zero.
There's a lot to sell in Oxford: a tradition that includes Archie and Eli Manning; Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which was expanded in 2002; an $18 million indoor practice facility. And tailgating on a Saturday at The Grove is one of the most unique experiences in college football.
"They have everything you need to win now," said Billy Brewer, who took Ole Miss to five bowls in 11 seasons as coach. "They have private planes flying in and out of here. They have luxury boxes, weight rooms and a beautiful stadium. It's all here."
But there's also a lot to overcome. Ole Miss has one of the smallest athletic budgets in the SEC ($33.8 million). Ed Orgeron is the second-lowest paid public school coach ($905,000).
Recruiting is also problematic. Mississippi is the second smallest state in SEC country (population: 2.8 million) and is home to three Division I-A programs.
The "basketball school" label isn't the only obstacle a coach has to overcome in Lexington.
First of all, Kentucky isn't known for shelling out big bucks, with Rich Brooks the SEC's lowest-paid head coach ($729,000). Second, with Steve Spurrier now at South Carolina, Kentucky will find it tough to be better than fifth in the SEC East.
"Anytime you look at a job, you have to assess where your place is in the league and how long it will take for you to improve on it," said Donnan, who considered the UK job in 2003 but decided to remain out of coaching.
The good news: The UK football fan base is totally different than the basketball fan base, and they'll turn out if the team is competitive.
"There is an opportunity to win at Kentucky if you schedule correctly and recruit hard," said Bill Curry, who went to one bowl in seven seasons as UK's coach. "The people at Kentucky were very supportive. They gave us a chance to win. Despite what others may say, they really care about football."
11. Mississippi State
Like its sister institution in Oxford, Mississippi State must overcome being located in a small population area while being in the SEC West, which also includes Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Arkansas.
"The thing you have to learn at Mississippi State is that when you play teams like Florida, with all of those great athletes, you are not going to run faster or make more athletic plays," said Sherrill, who took MSU to six bowls in 13 seasons as coach. "You can't get in a track meet with those people. The style at Mississippi State can't be the same style at Florida."
Sylvester Croom, the former Alabama player who came from the Green Bay Packers, makes $940,000 per year, which is third-lowest among the league's public school coaches.
Sherrill used a combination of high school and junior college recruits to improve the level of play. Some years, it worked. Others, it didn't. In 1998, the Bulldogs reached their one and only SEC title game, losing to Tennessee.
Vanderbilt is by far the SEC's toughest job, the ex-coaches said, because of its high academic standards, relatively small alumni base and puny stadium.
It also hasn't helped Vanderbilt football that the university administration decided to do away with the position of athletics director and bring the entire department under the office of vice chancellor for student life. Rival schools used that against Vandy in recruiting, questioning its commitment to football.
Since the SEC went to divisional play in 1992, Vandy has finished better than 2-6 in the league only once — last season when quarterback Jay Cutler, a first-round NFL draft pick, led the Commodores to a 3-5 record in the league and 5-6 overall.
"The tough thing about the Vanderbilt job is that you can improve a lot from year to year and still finish last in the SEC East," Brewer said. "For what he has, I think Bobby Johnson does a heck of a coaching job."
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