“Four” Better or “Four” Worse? Part 1
Every team in the SEC wants to hire a high impact head coach
Southeastern Conference coaching changes since 1980–Western Division
This article started as statistical investigation into the coaching changes that have occurred on Southeastern Conference teams in recent history. As it progressed, I widened my search into the way coaches were hired, what the expectations were from the various administrations and how each and every team progressed over the years. As it progressed, I was surprised that what I found had almost no relation to what I anticipated. My expectations were that I would find good coaches that were retained, bad coaches that were fired quickly, and great coaches that led their teams for up to a decade or two until happy retirement.
I must admit to an historical bias in this expectation. In my youth, I saw such Southeastern football legends like Charles McClendon, Shug Jordan, Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley do precisely that: retire in honor from their respective schools to lasting acclaim by the fan base. Similar exits from the college football coaching ranks for coaching greats like Tom Osborne, Ara Parseghian and, seemingly, a host of others over the years were the norm, or so I thought. Good coaches were hired and either did well and aged into a graceful retirement as “great” coaches or were quickly fired.
It seemed that only Johnny Majors was the exception, and at the time his firing was deemed an insult by the media.
But as I progressed back from the present time and looked at each team’s coaching changes, I began to notice a troubling pattern since the 1980 season. It turns out the “graceful retirement” model is an incredibly rare and almost impossible event. The fact that four SEC coaches did so in a span of just thirteen years between 1975 and 1988 was actually an incredible aberration and a tremendous tribute to their legacies at the schools they coached. In this light it is little wonder that Georgia named its playing field after Vince Dooley this season. When that man left the sidelines for the last time, it was actually the last graceful exit the Southeastern Conference would witness until Gary Pinkel retired from Missouri in 2015.
And those two gentlemen have been the only ones to do so in the Southeastern Conference since Bear Bryant left the game in 1982.
Between 1980 and 2019, forty seasons of college football have been played and 94 coaches have been hired onto Southeastern Conference teams. What I sought to determine was a means to judge how well a coach did initially, how was this measured against the team as they found it when first hired, and what impact their efforts had as their time with the team progressed.
In choosing my measurements, I wanted to avoid a strictly won-loss record approach in relation to all other teams. Depending on the team, school and depth of booster pockets, few measures would be fair to expect a coach of Vanderbilt to compete in terms of wins alongside of programs like Tennessee, Alabama or Georgia. So since this was team specific, I decided on an approach of a class of seniors for each coach – in other words, the four years before a coach arrived and the subsequent four years after his hiring. In this way, the measurement of success or failure had relevancy specific for each team. Likewise, I only considered coaching experience as a head coach with a given team currently in the Southeastern Conference after 1980.
The question I wanted to know was: Did the coach improve or diminish the team in the same environment as previous or subsequent coaches? Additionally when deciding if a coach was a good hire, how would that be judged? Was the team better off than before? If so, how about longer-termed coaches with many years at a given school? What if they were subsequently hired at another SEC school (there are actually quite a few of these)?
There were many variables, but in the end, I decided to keep it as simple as possible while still giving meaningful feedback on the relative merits of any given coaching hire. So I came up with the following questions:
What happened four years before a coaching change (winning percentage)?
What happened in the first four years after a coaching change (winning percentage)?
Was the team better or worse when the coach left than when he arrived, or was there even any difference at all?
Lastly, as I looked through the data, I set a bar that I think has given me a sound measurement for determining the differences between a good hire and a great college coach for a program. Namely, that he was there for longer than four years, showed significant improvement from when he was hired, left the program where he served at a better state then when he arrived, and won at least at .600 in the last four years he was there. In the tables below, great coaches are highlighted in the school colors, and current coaches with the potential for greatness due to current win-lose records are highlighted in green.
Due to the length of this analysis, I’m going to break it down into three articles: SEC West, SEC East and the conference as a whole.
Alabama Crimson Tide
It doesn’t take much football acumen to determine that Nick Saban is considered a great coaching hire for the University of Alabama. But until I did this analysis, it wasn’t evident just how much of an impact he has had until you put his numbers on the page. In his first four years, he took a barely .500 club and hit almost .800 as his first full recruiting class grew into seniors. But that’s only half the story. In the last four years, he’s exceeded that by reaching a nigh impossible .910 winning percentage withr his current class of seniors. The only other person I found who did anything like this was Bear Bryant in a bygone era.
He is and remains the gold standard for all coaches in this analysis. What makes him even more unique is that this is the second time he’s done so in the Southeastern Conference. Not just that he was a second-time coach, but he had unrivaled success in both places. Three other Alabama coaches since Bear Bryant also had other SEC teams they coached, but none of them approach the success that Nick achieved. In this respect he rivals Bear Bryant, who was successful at three SEC teams (Kentucky, Texas A&M and, of course, Alabama).
The surprise for me was how Gene Stallings fared in this analysis. I always thought well of him, but his improvement was actually the lowest allowable improvement for a coach to be considered good as opposed to simply marginal—a .080 improvement in winning percentage in his first four years at a school.
And other than Gene and Nick? A whole lot of bad or mediocre coaches have been hired by Alabama over the years since 1980.
Arkansas was another surprise. As I always thought well of Houston Nutt and expected that both his and Bobby Petrino’s numbers would put them into the great category. But Bobby was only there for four years before his scandal debacle, and Houston Nutt’s last few years were much worse than I remembered. The Hogs dropped a significant number of games before Nutt was fired.
Other than Ken Hatfield, no one else was close to success for the last three decades of Arkansas Football.
So two good hires and one marginal hire whose improvement to great took a season or two longer. Otherwise, a long series of poor choices has left the Razorbacks with an empty larder, a third straight failed coach, and a program in turmoil.
Hopefully Sam Pittman can turn it around. Any difference at all would be an improvement, but the odds are heavily stacked against the Hogs becoming a contender any time soon.
Auburn was a pleasant surprise when I looked at the numbers. We’ve actually been very fortunate in coaching hires. The one bad hire was not too shabby relative to others in the conference, and Gene Chizik did secure a second National Championship before he left. All of the other hires were either really good choices with immediate impact or marginal choices that actually developed positive growth over time.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t firings, as some of the former Tiger coaches above were fired for one reason or another, but the end results were either at an improved rate of return or not that far off from what they started with.
We even had two marginal, initial hires grow improved teams and became great coaches with well over the average tenure of most teams in this analysis.
LSU is where you see an interesting series of hires. I was just shy of listing Gerry DiNardo as a great coach. If either of his last two years had been more productive, he would indeed have crossed the line from good to great. He took LSU from its lowest point in the last forty years and began a rise in prominence that Nick Saban, Les Miles and, now, Ed Orgeron have continued until the present day.
Here you also see a curiosity. In addition to the excellent improvement that Nick Saban showed, Les Miles’ contributions were equally impressive and sustained until he was suddenly fired. He had LSU at a consistent level of achievement, well stocked with quality athletes that made the transition to greatness enjoyed by Ed Orgeron possible. Les Miles was a great coach whose firing was highly questionable.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
The brutal truth of the Mississippi State program is that there have been just two coaching hires that can be considered good in the last 40 years. As a team it has been over the .500 mark consistently just a few times since then. Dan Mullen was the only great coach, and he was also the only one to voluntarily leave in that time—for a much better SEC program with a deeper recruiting effort.
You’ll see this time and again with other mid-tier SEC programs. Coaching talent comes in and goes out of programs like Mississippi State. But even when it stays a bit longer, there is only so much that can be done in Starkville. With LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M recruiting in the same fields, the talent such a program can draw will be limited by the quality of programs and coaching talent in those neighboring schools.
Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss falls into the category of mid-tier programs in which coaching talent arrives and leaves for greener pastures. Only Hugh Freeze is the exception since the days of Billy Brewer. Even the likes of Houston Nutt, Tommy Tuberville and David Cutcliffe, with their experience elsewhere, could not do that much with the program.
The idea that Lane Kiffin will change this reality is unlikely. I seriously doubt he will have any sustainable success in the new reality of the SEC West with the coaches currently in the division. Once you look at the conference in general, you’ll begin to see that the Kiffin countdown clock will start almost immediately.
Much like other coaches that have been in Oxford, and even Lane himself out of Tennessee, I foresee a midnight exit in the future.
Texas A&M Aggies
Despite what you see from 1981 until 2002, Texas A&M is in an entirely different world in 2019. Since joining the Southeastern Conference, its numbers have dropped from the days of R.C. Slocum and Jackie Sherrill. As Jackie found out at Mississippi State, the SEC is not the same as the old Southwestern Conference. The talent pool is deeper, the recruiting trail is longer, and it takes a bit more to be successful year to year than in the old days.
I’m not sure the current Texas A&M culture has caught up with the speed and quality of the game as it is currently played in the SEC. Witness the numbers generated by Kevin Sumlin and realize that his dismissal had probably more to do with ancient history in the SWC than it did with his job performance in the six years he was there.
I believe this is what Jimbo Fisher is just beginning to understand.
SEC Western Division Coaching Hires since 1980
Coaching in either division of the Southeastern Conference is a tough job. It’s unrelenting pressure from fans, contributing alumni, administrations, and competing rivals in the most coveted recruiting turf in the nation. Nearly every team in the NCAA combs the southern states for high school talent, and the bar of coaching competency is higher than anywhere else.
Hurdling that level of achievement takes the very best in coaching talent at all levels, and it starts with the head coach. In the SEC West, only about one in four hires are successful, no matter what was achieved elsewhere. Only one in three achieves good results in the first recruiting class from freshman to senior.
That is, if they get the chance to do so.
Next week, the SEC East.
Note to readers: This is a change from my usual Tiger-Eye Review. Rather than summarize the season now, I am going to wait until after the bowl season to finalize that thread. In the meantime, I’ve come up with another series in three parts: an analysis of all coaching hires in the Southeastern Conference since 1980
Why 1980? Well, that’s the year I met my wife at Auburn. Hence the tongue-in-cheek title.