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December 8, 2012

HURT: Coaches don't need SEC experience

The annual coaching carousel hasn't quite stopped - there are still vacancies at Colorado and Texas Tech among the big schools, and those hires may create yet more holes at other places. Still, the Southeastern Conference seems to have done well, pursuing the best coaches no matter where they were from and landing them.

At least that is what I thought - until I read Bruce Feldman.

Feldman is a college columnist for CBS Sports and is one of the very best in the business. Just last week, he wrote a feature on the football gossip gurus, the Roussell brothers, that should win every award given out by the profession. On top of that, he has been cordial and gracious in every interaction (admittedly limited) we have ever had. I wouldn't start a feud with him, and would lose 100 times out of 100 if I did.

But, as the coaching searches started, he said something on Twitter that I couldn't grasp firmly.

"Curious if SEC power brokers will cling to idea that coach candidate will need SEC experience," he tweeted Nov. 12. "Urban, Saban, Miles & Sumlin had none."

Who, I wondered, are these power brokers "clinging" to this idea? In the past two decades, here is a list of all the current 14 SEC institutions who have hired a coach without SEC experience. Wait - rather than listing the 11 schools that have, here are the three that haven't: Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State. All the others - Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and the rest - have hired at least one. It seems to me that most of the power brokers are on that list, and aren't "clinging" too tightly.

In the coaching search that led to Nick Saban being hired at Alabama (apparently he somehow managed to survive the zombie bite of SEC experience at LSU with his coaching prowess intact), which I covered closely, "SEC experience" was never mentioned and "being the best coach available" was 99 percent of the criteria. But I mentioned it and moved on, thinking little about it until Friday, when Tennessee hired Cincinnati coach Butch Jones.

That meant three of the four new hires in the league had no SEC experience, a remarkably high percentage given the way that coaches move around these days. The one exception was Auburn, and I attribute the hire of Gus Malzahn more to the fact that he had Auburn ties than I did "SEC experience." So I thought most of the league had sought out good, qualified candidates wherever they might have worked. Bret Bielema, it seemed to me, was about as far out of the box as it was possible to go.

Then I read Feldman again, on the Tennessee search. Turns out, he says, that the hold-up on hiring Jones was his "lack of experience" and, far more curiously, about the success of Saban, Miles and Meyer. There is no mention of misfires (Lane Kiffin, Dennis Franchione) or of successful coaches with SEC backgrounds both in the league (Steve Spurrier, Will Muschamp, the "Alabama" Saban) or outside it (Bob Stoops, Mike Riley, Jimbo Fisher, Dabo Swinney). What's more, while I did not cover it closely, I never thought Tennessee's Jon Gruden fixation was because of his two years as a UT grad assistant 25 years ago (surely we aren't counting that). I thought they had real interest in Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy, and that the interest in Louisville's Charlie Strong was based on his good work there, not on his years at Florida. But no, we are assured by Feldman's sources, it was about SEC experience - and don't forget Saban, Miles and Meyer.

It wasn't until I saw a response to that original tweet that things became more clear.

"Great point!" was the reply from ESPN analyst (and Michigan alum) Desmond Howard. "More B1G (Big Ten) experience than anything else."

In other words, here is the point in this SEC-fatigued world. Sure, the SEC has won six BCS championships in a row, but even though it has the great talent in abundance, huge stadiums and rabid fan bases, the land of Jethro and Elly May and Deliverance (or choose your own stereotype) doesn't have anyone of sufficient brain power to coach those great players and use those great facilities, some seem to be saying. It takes a Saban, a Miles, a Meyer - all with Big Ten roots. (Gene Chizik is already a forgotten afterthought in the conversation.) Get it, SEC?

Maybe that isn't the subtext. Maybe what I picked up on wasn't Feldman's point at all. Maybe by "power brokers," he just meant Jay Jacobs at Auburn and, according to his sources and contrary to the eventual hire, Dave Hart at Tennessee, although he seems to be applying a lot of power (and Saban/Miles/Meyer references) if he is driving at no more than that.

In my own naivete, I think that SEC administrators, like society in general, aren't as narrow-minded as they were two decades ago, and that the competitiveness of the league dictates that you'd better hire the best available candidate, and that the vast majority of the league does so. If there are still some holdouts who think in strictly provincial terms, they need to move forward, whether they are athletic directors, or whether they do something else.

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