Why are three top coaches on the hot seat? Explaining the SEC West's critical coaching mass; Punt, Pass & Pork
As the SEC's coaches modeled their finest cabana wear last week and headed into a meeting room where they would spend entirely too much time talking about satellite camps, everyone looked so familiar. Eleven of 14 had been in the same room in a Destin, Fla., hotel the year before. One of the other three, first-year South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, was back after a one-year break following his firing at Florida. One of the new guys, first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart, had been defensive coordinator at Alabama so long that it already felt as if he were an SEC head coach. But come next year, the population of that room could be quite different.
Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Derek Mason at Vanderbilt face the pressure of winning at schools that don't usually win at football, and they may find themselves getting churned to reinvigorate donor bases who will likely be just as disappointed by their replacements. But those are standard situations. The oddity is in the SEC West. Consider the cases of these three coaches:
- One coach has a national title, two SEC titles and has averaged 10 wins a season since 2011.
- One coach won an SEC title in his first season and came within 13 seconds of winning a national title that same year. That all happened less than three years ago.
- One coach has averaged nine wins in his four seasons at his school and is only the second coach in his school's history to win at least eight games in each of his first four seasons.
What do those three coaches have in common—other than apparent success? They'll all start the season on the hot seat as the SEC West approaches coaching critical mass. You've probably already figured out that the first coach is LSU's Les Miles. The second is Auburn's Gus Malzahn. The third is Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin. And the odds are that at least one and possibly more of these coaches won't be in that room in Destin next year. If they worked almost anywhere else, Miles, Malzahn and Sumlin would be perfectly safe. But they work in the SEC West, where every head football coach makes at least $4 million a year and everyone expects results commensurate with compensation.
Allow Mississippi State's Dan Mullen to explain what happens when seven excellent coaches get crammed into the same division together. "Every SEC West team had a winning record last year," Mullen said. "Somebody's got to finish last." That team last year was Malzahn's Auburn, which won the conference in 2013 and was in the playoff hunt as late as early November 2014. Last year, the Tigers went 7–6 and 2–6 in the SEC. Another similar season likely will prompt a change.
Meanwhile, Miles was nearly fired last year and probably would have been had his enemies been a little better organized. Despite how close he came to getting fired last year, Miles likely is the safest of the trio. But if he loses to Alabama for a sixth consecutive time, all bets are off. Sumlin, meanwhile, has spent the past three seasons chasing the legend of his first SEC season. That year, the Aggies went 11–2, beat eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, produced a Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny Manziel) and convinced a fan base that life in the new league would be easy. It hasn't been. The Aggies are 11–13 in conference play since. That Sumlin had two potential starting quarterbacks leave in the same week in December only aggravated the situation.
Add these issues to unreasonable expectations, and it jacks up the temperature on the backside of a handsomely paid coach. "The expectations within the league, especially in the west, are so high," Mississippi State's Mullen said. "You have seven teams, seven student bodies, seven administrations, seven alumni bases and seven fanbases that expect to win the west this year." Mullen is neither kidding nor exaggerating. "That's a true statement right there," he said. "So six of them are going to be disappointed."
Only the lunatic fringe of the fanbases at Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss expect national titles. The mainstream groups have more realistic goals. So Bret Bielema, Mullen and Hugh Freeze* aren't in any danger unless they preside over particularly disastrous seasons. Alabama's Nick Saban, with his four national titles in the past seven seasons, is obviously safe. The rest work at places with the resources and recruiting bases to compete year-in and year-out for SEC titles. So they had better win (more) now or risk getting fired. Of course, firing them might not create the upgrade their fanbases or administrations desire. It will, however, cost a lot of money.
*Freeze's employment also should remain constant as long as the NCAA doesn't find anything else as it investigates the text messages leaked on former Rebels tackle Laremy Tunsil's Instagram account on the first night of the NFL draft. If the NCAA finds more violations, the situation might change dramatically.
Miles's contract calls for a $12.9 million buyout, payable over a six-year period, if Miles is fired before Dec. 31. Malzahn's deal calls for a $6.7 million buyout, payable over three years, if he is fired after this season. Sumlin's buyout is the real whopper. If he's fired after this season, Texas A&M would owe him $15 million, payable within 60 days. Why would a school spend all that money knowing the next guy may have the same trouble beating all the other quality coaches in the division? Because of human nature.
We aren't that far removed from an age when $1 million was a lot of money for a football coach. Our perceptions haven't evolved as quickly as the salary structure in major college football, so we can't comprehend the notion that a $4 million (or $5 million in Sumlin's case) coach can't win every game. The problem, in this particular case, is the $7 million coach handing out losses every year. Saban remains the X-factor, and it might not be possible to accurately judge the other coaches in the division until after Saban retires. Since 2008, Saban has never won fewer than 10 games. He has averaged 12.3 wins a season. As long as Saban is in Tuscaloosa, those every-year expectations elsewhere in the division should remain tempered.
But they won't be. It isn't in the nature of those fanbases or those administrations to accept the possibility that their (good) coach might never overcome one of the best coaches who ever lived. They'll pay whatever buyout is required and pay someone else an obscene sum to attempt to dethrone King Nick.
A Random Ranking
For a reason that will make sense when you read the What's Eating Andy section, today's topic is National Lampoon's Vacation movies. So load up your Wagon Queen Family Truckster and read on …
1. Christmas Vacation
Because who among us hasn't had their bonus revoked in favor of a membership in the Jelly of the Month Club?
When in doubt, strap grandma to the roof.
3. European Vacation
Hey look kids, there's Big Ben.
4. Vegas Vacation
Ethan Embry carried enough of this to prove he could handle Can't Hardly Wait.
5. That reboot with Kelly Bundy and Andy from The Office.
No. Just no.
First and 10
1. The Big 12 announced Friday that it will split into divisions and reinstate its football championship game in 2017. The move probably shuts the door on Big 12 expansion for the moment, because everyone in the league is going to get more money from this arrangement. The title game is worth between $25 million and $30 million a year, meaning this conversation probably happened.
Iowa State (or Kansas or Kansas State) officials: "So we don't have to do anything, and we get an extra $2.5 million to $3 million a year? And it won't really affect what we do in any way other than pay us more?"
Big 12 TV consultants: "Pretty much."
Iowa State (or Kansas or Kansas State) officials: "DEAL!"
For Oklahoma and the other schools that aspire to make the College Football Playoff, things are a little more complicated. Since the league isn't likely to stop playing nine conference games, the Big 12 champion is going to have a tough road to finishing undefeated or with one loss. That shouldn't necessarily matter because the CFP selection committee should be able to weigh schedules accordingly, but the eye immediately tracks to the loss column.
So how will this work? The league probably wants to split up Oklahoma and Texas to help set up a title game between the biggest brands. (Ask the ACC, which separated Florida State and Miami and still hasn't had a Florida State-Miami title game, how this works in practice.) It also would be wise to keep Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the same division. Bedlam isn't moving to a different date, so it's best to eliminate the strongest possibility of a championship game rematch a week after the first meeting.
Other than that, do it North-South or East-West. Do it randomly like the ACC does. Come up with some terrible division names like the Big Ten did at first. Perhaps "Dys" and "Function" fit the bill.
2. Even though the Big 12 schools don't always work well together ... they've got a pretty sweet deal considering the number of brand-name programs and lack of population in the footprint relative to other conferences. The league announced Friday that each member school would receive $30.4 million. That trails the SEC and Big Ten, but it also doesn't account for the fact that Big 12 schools retain and sell their third-tier television rights. Every school makes a few extra million from these, with Texas leading the way at $15 million for the Longhorn Network. The most jarring revelation is that each Big 12 school will make $5 million more a year than each Pac-12 school did in the 2015 fiscal year. That Pac-12 figure includes third-tier money, which makes the Big 12 look even better. That Big 12 number will jump again once the championship game begins.
So, again, why should the Big 12 choose now from a group that includes BYU and the members of the American Athletic Conference? By the time the Big 12 and Pac-12 television deals—and the Grant of Rights provisions contained therein—expire, the Big 12 might look like the more attractive league for an Arizona or Arizona State. Judging strictly by the numbers, it already does.
3. If Ken Starr's disastrous ESPN interview last week hadn't already convinced you that he wasn't exactly trustworthy, watch this from Waco station KWTX. Also, for the students out there who want to someday work in public relations, this is what happens when a PR practitioner has no fundamental understanding of how cameras work and no idea that the on-the-record/off-the-record ground rules need to be set before the camera gets turned on.
4. Meanwhile, acting Baylor coach Jim Grobe also gave his first set of interviews. He said he planned to retain all of the Art Briles assistants he inherited. That may not be up to Grobe, though. The summary of Pepper Hamilton's report to Baylor's Board of Regents suggested that multiple coaches were involved in attempts to hamper the process of investigating sexual assault claims. Though there are some semantic differences in how the departures happened, the board has already jettisoned the president, the athletic director and the head football coach. Are board members really going to risk damaging the university's reputation more to keep a few assistants? If something out there might eventually go public, the board would be better off firing the person (or people) involved as quickly as possible.
5. You think all that mess last week from Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh might have been for show?
6. The National Football Foundation released the ballot for the 2017 College Football Hall of Fame induction class last week. The list is pretty star-studded, so expect some ticked off fanbases because some excellent players will be left off.
7. A robbery victim who found one of his stolen guns at a sporting goods store provided a break in a case that led to the arrest of two (now former) Texas Tech football players and the dismissal of a third from the team. A gun show dealer helped lead police to Red Raiders offensive lineman Robert Castaneda, who during an interview with police early last month admitted to stealing the guns during Tech's winter break. Castaneda wouldn't give police the names of his accomplices, but he did give them their jersey numbers. Shortly after that, Castaneda, offensive lineman Trace Ellison and linebacker Dakota Allen were dismissed from the team. Last week, Ellison was also arrested.
8. Pittsburgh quarterback Nate Peterman, clearly not impressed with the jet ski throws made last week by the quarterbacks of the Big 12, has made his own trick shot video.
9. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen did his best Wilton Speight impression last week at a quarterback camp. The question this offseason is whether Michigan quarterback Speight will join Rosen as a starter. Speight and John O'Korn are still competing for the Wolverines' starting job.
10. The Big 12 (eventually) figured it out. Last week, the conference's Faculty Athletics Representatives voted on a potential rule change and made their conference look terrible. Then they went back the next day and voted correctly. That will work out well for Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who now will be eligible to play for the Sooners in 2017 if he doesn't decide to turn pro.
And y'all thought you were getting rid of me....— Baker Mayfield (@baker_mayfield6) June 2, 2016
What's Eating Andy
There will be no Punt, Pass and Pork for the next three weeks because I'm on a diet that allows me to eat only kale, butternut squash and sardines. Or maybe it's because I'll be on vacation.
What's Andy Eating
Several of you sent me a link last week to a writing contest. The winner of this contest will be named the new bacon critic at Extra Crispy, a new web vertical that will cover the Breakfast Industrial Complex. Needless to say, I was intrigued. Then I read the fine print.
3. ELIGIBILITY: Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia who are 21 years or older at time of entry ("Entrant(s)"). Void where prohibited by law. Employees of Time Inc. and its promotional partners and their respective parents, affiliates and subsidiaries, participating advertising and promotion agencies (and members of their immediate family and/or those living in the same of household of each such employee) are not eligible.
I'm a Time Inc. employee, so I'm out. Plus, the contest asked for an essay of 600 words or less. Since you're down here around word No. 2,642 of this piece, you probably already know I'm too long-winded to stand a chance. But as I headed out of Destin, Fla., following the SEC's spring meetings, I realized I have a unique opportunity. Even though I'm not eligible for the official bacon critic job, I can make Time Inc. pay me to write about bacon pretty much anytime I want.
That revelation led me to The Perfect Pig in Santa Rosa Beach. Usually I do more menu research before I select a restaurant to review. In this case, I chose on name alone. Porcine hyperbole sucks me in every time.
And while perfection remains unattainable, the cooks at The Perfect Pig come tantalizingly close with their thick-cut brown sugar bacon. In a recent pig-eating stretch that has included pork belly tacos and smoked hog jowl, the sticky slabs that landed on my plate last Friday cruised to victory in the Cured Division. Plenty of places mix sugar and bacon to create a salty-sweet mix that can cure hangovers or jump-start days of remarkable achievement. But the sugar usually serves as an accessory out of fear that it will overwhelm the bacon.
At The Perfect Pig, they know bacon cannot be overwhelmed. They use a brown sugar glaze to make the bacon as sweet as it is salty because the bacon will always win in a fight between the two on the tongue. Instead of taking away from the simple joy of the bacon, the glaze jacks up the flavor in another category your body craves just as much.
The bacon alone is reason to dream of a beach house a short walk from The Perfect Pig, but the proprietors want more. They jam that bacon and two eggs into a Parmesan-crusted sandwich that drips with cheddar. In this environment, the sweetness from the bacon provides the ideal decoration on a wall of savory. This is grilled cheese as art.
Yes, I called it grilled cheese. I know you purists believe that once the meat goes in it becomes a melt, but I have no inclination to quibble over nomenclature. You can't bring me down. I've just been paid to write about bacon—fine print be damned.