If you pay most of your college football attention to the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-10, you probably think this is a trick question. Neither of these guys gets fired unless he orchestrates a Bernie Madoff-level pyramid scheme in his spare time. They average 10 wins a season and a conference title every five years.
If you follow the SEC, you know this is a trick question. First, you've probably already guessed that the above résumés belong to Georgia's Mark Richt and LSU's Les Miles. You probably know it's entirely possible that Richt's Bulldogs and Miles' Tigers have the talent to finish this season in the top 10. You probably also know that either one could get fired if things go sideways this season.
Don't believe it? Ask yourself this: Two Augusts ago, could you have imagined any scenario in which Tommy Tuberville would be fired at Auburn andPhillip Fulmer would be fired at Tennessee?
It may not be fair. It certainly isn't sensible. But that's the SEC. Outsize passion plus dollars equals a short leash for football coaches. This also should serve as a sign of things to come as lucrative television deals begin to kick in more money to programs in the Big Ten and ACC and soon in the Big 12 and Pac-10/12. Don't be shocked if seemingly successful coaches in other conferences start getting canned because they don't win the national title every year.
That is the blessing and the curse of the SEC. A few days ago, you read a tribute to the league that has produced the past four BCS champions and six of the 12 champs since the BCS was created. The flip side is that each year, 11 teams in the league didn't win the national title. To several fan bases, that is an inexcusable deriliction of duty by the head coach.
In any other conference, Richt's name wouldn't appear anywhere near the phrase "hot seat." "I didn't know it had," Richt said at the SEC spring meetings in June, his lip curling into a smile. "Is that true?" In his two least successful seasons (2001 and 2009), he won eight games. He's never notched single-digit wins in back-to-back seasons. Yet here he is.
At Georgia's athletic board meeting in May, then-athletic director Damon Evans issued a stern warning to every program in his department that things must improve. That's especially true for the football program, which brought in the lion's share of the $84.8 million Georgia's athletic department made in the 2009-10 school year. Despite the robust budget -- which allowed the athletic department to donate $2 million to the university -- football booster donations for season-ticket seating priority fell $500,000 to $22.8 million. At their peak in 2008, donations reached $26.1 million. The economy deserves plenty of blame, but so does Georgia's 8-5 record in 2009.
Evans is gone now, thanks to a late-night traffic stop and a pair of red panties in his lap. His incoming replacement is Greg McGarity, a Georgia alum who has served at Florida since 1992. Most of those years, McGarity was the de facto consigliere for Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley. McGarity is as steady as they come. He won't do anything irrational. He especially wouldn't jettison a football coach on a whim. But McGarity worked alongside Foley for almost three decades. When deciding whether to keep or fire a coach, Foley always has adhered to a simple philosophy: What must be done eventually must be done immediately.
After last season, the fiercely loyal Richt had to sacrifice defensive coordinator Willie Martinez and all but one defensive assistant to keep the natives happy. Richt has a very good team returning, but if that team doesn't at least compete for the SEC East title in the year 1 A.T. (After Tebow), McGarity may have to take a hard look at a program with national title aspirations and a fertile recruiting base that should make those expectations realistic.
Here's the problem with those national title expectations. In every other region besides SEC country and Austin, Texas, people understand that only one team can win the BCS title in a given season. But the people in Athens, Baton Rouge, Gainesville and Tuscaloosa legitimately believe their team should win every year. (Those in Auburn and Knoxville also felt that way at various points in the past 15 years.) This creates a mathematical conundrum.
"The expectations from '05 right on through have been the same," LSU's Miles said. "Win the West, have an opportunity to win the SEC title and win the last game." Loosely translated, that means the expectation at LSU is to win the national title.
Miles has done that, but even as he was leading his "damn strong football team" to a BCS title in 2007, his fan base had doubts. Some wondered if the superior roster predecessor Nick Saban assembled was winning in spite of Miles. After the clock-management disaster last season in a loss at Ole Miss, that fan base wondered if Miles had been miscast as a riverboat gambler. They flashed back to the 2007 Auburn game, when Tigers quarterback Matt Flynn made a perfect throw and Demetrius Byrd made a perfect catch to beat Auburn. At the time, it seemed Miles had made a brassy call and surprised Auburn coaches, who probably assumed he would call timeout to give kicker Colt David a chance to boot the game-winning field goal. But after video surfaced of Miles calling for quarterback Jordan Jefferson to run a spike play that used the clock's final second at Ole Miss last year, the revisionists in the bayou probably assumed Miles had bungled the clock in 2007 and gotten bailed out by Flynn and Byrd.
No matter what really happened that night in 2007, Miles has averaged more than 10 wins a year. He has won a conference title and a national title. He has led the Tigers to BCS bowls in 40 percent of his seasons at LSU. Yet a not-insignificant portion of his fan base wishes he'd taken the Michigan job after the 2007 season.
"The league is better now than it's ever been," said Alabama's Saban, who has coached in the Big Ten (Michigan State) and at two SEC pressure-cookers. "I thought it was an outstanding league before. From top to bottom, there's probably more good coaches, more good programs, more good teams than ever before."
That's the blessing and the curse of the SEC. As the programs improve, the expectations rise. The league has won the last four BCS titles, and a coach who claimed one of those titles might get run out of town if he wins fewer than nine games this season despite playing in a division in which all six teams are potentially good enough to play in New Year's Day bowls.
Get ready for this, fans of other leagues. The Big Ten Network has made that conference the nation's most lucrative, and with that money may come the kind of irrational expectations that previously seemed limited to areas beneath the Mason-Dixon Line. Ohio State's Jim Tressel won the national title in 2002 and played for it in 2006 and 2007. An SEC booster would ask what Tressel has done lately. OK, that's a bad example. Tressel isn't going anywhere. But Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, for example, might not have survived 6-7 in 2006 and 6-6 in 2007 had Iowa been flush with Big Ten Network cash. Ferentz obviously turned things around, and now Iowa is coming off an Orange Bowl win and will start the 2010 season ranked in the top 10. Would Ferentz have had that chance as coach at a good SEC program or in the new-look Big Ten? Probably not.
Just because a guy can't win more than 11 games a season doesn't necessarily mean there is always someone better out there. That won't stop programs with money to burn for looking for that guy. That's life in the SEC -- and soon in other leagues as well -- and not-quite-successful enough coaches must learn to ignore the pressure that comes with coaching in a cash-cow league.
"It's like a good quarterback," Richt said. "A good quarterback can't worry about what's swirling around. You've got to focus on your job. If you worry about things you can't control or that won't help you succeed, then you're really being counterproductive."