Entering the 2017 college football season, it was plainly undeniable that in the Southeastern Conference, attempts to replicate the Nick Saban formula had not been powerfully validated on a broader and more pervasive level.
By Matt Zemek
To be clear, this is not a specific focus on former Saban assistants. This is more a focus on style of play and identity. It is widely known what Saban prefers to do, so when other SEC programs considered which coaches to hire in recent years, their choices — in most cases — revealed very clear philosophical preferences.
Auburn stood apart from the majority of SEC teams when it hired Gus Malzahn to replace Gene Chizik several years ago… and while the Tigers have not been an annual juggernaut, they have been able to break through on occasion against Alabama, doing better than most schools in the conference. One other school which has had success against Bama in recent seasons: Ole Miss, led by Hugh Freeze, whose approach is much closer to Malzahn’s than Saban’s.
In contrast to Auburn and Ole Miss, several schools — Tennessee (Butch Jones), Florida (Jim McElwain, a Saban assistant), Vanderbilt (Derek Mason), Arkansas (Bret Bielema), and Kentucky (Mark Stoops) — hired coaches whose fundamental intent was to create powerfully physical teams with robust defenses cut more from a Saban cloth than a contrary approach from the Malzahn-Freeze school. The focus was less on offensive innovation and more on defensive dominance.
What’s the old saying? Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. The idea of creating a program with a nasty, fire-breathing defense and a snot-kicking mess of big uglies on the offensive line sounds great in theory, and it fires up fan bases during the newly-hired coach’s first press conference, but the difference between aspiration and implementation is often vast. So it was for those coaches listed above. Jones, McElwain, Mason, Bielema, and Stoops did not achieve equal levels of results, but none have become runaway successes. It is true that Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M did not pan out, either — he was more of an anti-Saban hire — but for most of the SEC this decade, the attempt to fight fire with fire failed. The attempt to beat Saban by trying to be LIKE him, not the opposite, generally fell short.
Then came 2017.
Will Muschamp moved South Carolina forward, exceeding expectations since his replacement of Steve Spurrier, a coach who pervasively opposed Saban’s methods and became the most successful coach in Gamecock history. In many years, what Mushcamp did in Columbia would have received a lot more attention. South Carolina has not deteriorated the way many people thought it would when Muschamp was announced as the program’s coach.
However, another school in the SEC East clearly stole South Carolina’s thunder last year. The author of that story was a man who spent several years at Nick Saban’s side and waited for the right head coaching job to jump to.
Kirby Smart’s prove-it year at Georgia came quickly. When a coach has Sony Michel and Nick Chubb and Roquan Smith, that’s not an inappropriately large burden to heap upon a coach in Year 2 at a big-name school. The bigger and even more appropriate reason why it was entirely reasonable to view Smart’s second season as a must-produce campaign is that Georgia fired Mark Richt for going 9-3. If one coach is fired for going 9-3, the successor needs to be 11-1. Smart didn’t HAVE to be 11-1 to justify the Georgia fan base’s faith in him, but he did need to come close. He needed to make a clear statement that a Saban-like template could succeed on a high level in the SEC, because examples outside Tuscaloosa were hard to find.
Smart won the SEC title, won the Rose Bowl, and came within one coverage bust of very probably winning the national title in Atlanta against his former boss and mentor. Malzahn turned in a solid 2017 season — one in which he defeated both Saban and Smart — but Alabama and Georgia were the two teams left standing at the end of the season. The Saban template — mostly in Athens and Tuscaloosa and only marginally in Columbia, South Carolina — gained substantial new weight.
The Empire Struck Back.
It was fascinating, then, to contemplate the 2017-2018 coaching carousel, because in a holiday season when Alabama and Georgia were preparing for the College Football Playoff, new SEC vacancies opened up… and welcomed anti-Saban coaches into the fold.
Dan Mullen at Florida, Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State, and Chad Morris at Arkansas cut against the Saban mold. Jimbo Fisher is one of the most successful Saban disciples around — Mark Dantonio of Michigan State exists on the same plane — but he was hired chiefly because of his falling out with Florida State players and administration, not as a product of a “normal” coaching search.
If one school wrestled with its identity during the past offseason’s coaching carousel, it was Tennessee. No SEC program hiring a new coach had more of a problem installing its man. No school met with more friction from its fan base. No school encountered more instability and dysfunction in its athletic department.
One could say with considerable accuracy that Tennessee’s coaching search was hardly normal, but this was abnormal in a way which was very different from A&M with Jimbo. However, as weird as the Vols’ search was, the initial desire to hire Greg Schiano — a tough-as-nails coach with a history as a distinguished defensive coordinator — stood much closer to the Saban column than the contrarian silo. After a flirtation with Mike Leach of Washington State, the Vols and new athletic director Phillip Fulmer moved to the place Georgia went two years earlier: Tuscaloosa, and more specifically, Saban’s defensive coordinator. After the 2015 season, it was Kirby Smart. The Vols’ move after the 2017 season was to pull in Jeremy Pruitt, a former position coach for Saban who then became a defensive coordinator for Fisher at Florida State and for Mark Richt at Georgia before returning to Saban in 2016.
Pruitt continues one of the more fascinating and enduring long-term historical realities in SEC football: namely, that schools are unafraid to hire coaches with histories at rival schools, accompanied by the companion reality that these men are willing to cross boundaries and coach for schools they once opposed.
Georgia alumnus Pat Dye coached for Auburn. Auburn graduate Vince Dooley coached for Georgia. Will Muschamp attended Georgia and coached at Florida before moving to South Carolina. The list goes on and on… and now Tennessee has gone to Tuscaloosa to ask a Crimson Tide coordinator to be the savior of Vol football. More than that, Fulmer — whose history is profoundly intertwined with Alabama in numerous adversarial ways — was the man willing to bathe in the Crimson flood to find a new Big Orange commander. Needless to say: If Pruitt’s tenure doesn’t get off to a good start, the fan base in Knoxville will get very anxious, and probably won’t give Pruitt that wide a berth.
It’s true that Pruitt will find it hard to be worse than Butch Jones, who was a train wreck, but Vol fans aren’t interested in clearing a relatively low bar — they shouldn’t be. They need to see that Pruitt can climb much higher than Jones ever did, displaying competence in an SEC East whose level of coaching quality has risen in recent years with Smart’s success in Athens and Mullen’s arrival in Gainesville.
Coaches inheriting complicated situations will get a pass in Year 1 for hiccups and rough edges. Smart had to endure a bumpy ride in his first go-round at Georgia. Heck, even a fellow named Saban had to swim through mediocrity and frustration in his first season at Alabama before the rocket ship took off in 2008. To this extent, Pruitt has a built-in buffer — not necessarily a honeymoon, but freedom from extreme pressure — in 2018.
Yet, precisely because of Smart’s two-year elevation of the Georgia program, it is critical that Pruitt can walk away from this regular season in early December with a strong foundation in place for 2019. If he falls short of that basic goal (the win-loss record doesn’t have to reflect such a condition, but it probably won’t be irrelevant in shaping the ultimate assessment), this Saban assistant could find life to be rocky on the top of the Tennessee hills.
Pruitt has to prove his chops sooner rather than later. Fair or not, that’s the reality of the SEC, especially in Neyland Stadium.