The Southeastern Conference will play for its seventh consecutive national title this year. As the championship total has increased, so has the pressure to win.
Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee fired their coaches this year. No other league has dismissed more than two coaches thus far.
“This league, it’s a different world,” Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said.
This marks the first time the SEC’s had as many as four coaching changes in one year since 2004. Before then, the last time the SEC had four vacancies in one season was 1961.
Kentucky went out and tapped Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. He replaces Joker Phillips, who posted a 13-24 record in three years.
Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas are still looking.
Derek Dooley was let go at Tennessee after he went 15-21 in three seasons. Auburn’s Gene Chizik, who owned a 33-19 record in four seasons, was fired just two years after leading the Tigers to a national title. Arkansas announced John L. Smith wouldn’t return after he led the Razorbacks to a 4-8 mark in one season as an interim coach in place of Bobby Petrino.
“There seems to be a lot more pressure on winning and winning quickly,” Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams said. “I think if you go way back, probably not that far back, people were generally going to give people four, five years. But I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
SEC schools aren’t alone in that regard.
Jon Embree played for Colorado, but that didn’t stop the Buffaloes from firing him after he went 4-21 in two years. Southern Mississippi dumped Ellis Johnson on Tuesday after just one disastrous season, as the Golden Eagles went from 12-2 in 2011 to 0-12 this year.
Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said the college football landscape has changed considerably. He posted a 152-52 record and won one national title in 17 seasons with the Volunteers before getting fired in 2008.
“There’s a tremendous amount of financial pressure on athletic directors coming from all directions, from coaches wanting bigger and better facilities, fans wanting more and more wins, and donors wanting more return for their investment,” he said.
That investment is particularly high in the SEC.
According to the USA Today database of coaching salaries released last week, four of the nation’s eight highest-paid coaches this year were from the SEC: Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Les Miles, South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and Chizik. And Miles just got a raise. He agreed to a contract extension with LSU on Wednesday that will pay him around $4.3 million annually.
SEC coaches are even paid handsomely to go away.
Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee are paying a combined $15 million in buyouts just to get rid of their head coaches.
But the big contracts come with big demands.
“It’s probably more highlighted in the SEC,” ESPN analyst and former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. “It’s all about money. As coaches’ salaries increase, the tolerance for losing decreases. The salaries are higher in the SEC typically — not always, but generally it’s one of the highest-paying conferences — and one with the least tolerance level if you don’t win.”
That environment could affect what types of coaches are willing to pursue an SEC job.
“You do know the expectations around here at Tennessee, at Auburn and at Arkansas, I think people hiring you are expecting you to compete for a national championship,” said Gary Danielson, the analyst for SEC games on CBS. “You don’t have to win it every year, but you better be able to compete. So if you’re going to leave a cozy job, you’d better know what you’re getting into.”
Hart considers that a selling point.
“This is the ultimate challenge, which competitors embrace,” Hart said. “This is the ultimate challenge, for a football coach to come into this league. If you’re a competitor and you want to prove your worth, come into the Southeastern Conference. Come to the University of Tennessee. You’ll get that opportunity.”
Kentucky didn’t waste much time filling its vacancy.
Stoops was hired three days after Phillips’ tenure officially ended with a 37-17 loss at Tennessee. Although his Florida State defense has allowed the second-fewest yards of any Football Bowl Subdivision team, Stoops has no previous head coaching experience and has never before worked at an SEC school.
Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee figure to take more time and pursue bigger names with head coaching experience and/or ties to the SEC. Hart called previous head coaching experience “critically important” and said he wanted somebody who “knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC and can appreciate and identify what that takes.”
All three current SEC openings are at high-profile programs. Auburn captured a national title just two years ago. Tennessee won the 1998 national championship and collected at least eight wins every year from 1989 to 2004. Arkansas was ranked as high as eighth early this year.
Yet all three programs are coming off losing seasons. Any coach wondering whether to seek one of these jobs may want to heed the advice Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs offered during the news conference announcing Chizik’s firing.
“Those that are faint of heart, they need not get in line,” Jacobs said.