College Football Coaching Carousel Revolves Around the SEC

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IJanuary 11, 2013

Alabama coach, Nick Saban has led the Crimson Tide to three BCS National Titles over the last four years
Alabama coach, Nick Saban has led the Crimson Tide to three BCS National Titles over the last four yearsStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

This year's college coaching carousel occurred with unprecedented speed and frequency. The Southeast Conference (SEC) was particularly active. The Southeast is a region where college football is king and head coaches are treated like rock stars. Schools in the 14-member conference are located in states that have little or no competition from professional sports teams. There is little patience; programs want to be successful now.

Coaches are more important in college football than perhaps any other sport, and they under tremendous pressure to win now. For example, Gene Chizik led Auburn to a national championship three seasons ago. Following a dismal 3–9 season (0–8 in the SEC) capped by a brutal 49-0 loss to Alabama, Chizik has been replaced by Gus Malzahn.

The amount of turnover has intensified. The lack of patience is not surprising. What's unusual is the migration of coaches with Midwestern roots to the South. The SEC plays a physical, hard-hitting brand of football, a characteristic it shares with schools in the Midwest, where a number of its most successful coaches cut their teeth.

Kevin Sumlin, who played and later coached at Purdue, turned around Texas A&M's fortunes and was named SEC Coach of the Year in his first season with the Aggies.

- Arkansas pried Bret Bielema away from Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin. Bielema has longstanding Big Ten roots, having played and later coached at Iowa.

- After courting Mike Gundy, Tennessee hired Cincinnati's Butch Jones, who will become the Vols' fourth coach in six years.

- Dan Mullen, who coached under Urban Meyer at Utah and at Florida, played a role in developing Alex Smith and Heisman winner Tim Tebow prior to accepting the job at Mississippi State in 2009. 

 Les Miles played under the legendary Bo Schembechler and later coached at Michigan before eventually landing at LSU.

- Alabama's Nick Saban played and coached in the Midwest at Kent State.

Urban Meyer played at Cincinnati and coached at Ohio State early in his career before he moving to Florida and winning two national championships. Now, of course, he is back at OSU.


Top college programs invest millions in head coaches and thus seek concrete evidence that the candidate is the right person for the job. The required skill sets will vary depending on the school's situation. Experience in building a winning program, a demonstrated ability to recruit and motivate players and a knack for winning close games are universally sought skills.

Programs seek coaches who can think strategically, improvise, motivate and communicate with a variety of audiences, including recruits and their parents, players, coaches, alumni and the school administration. Further, every new head coaching regime will face issues from the past that have to be rectified. Decision-makers will want a candidate who understands the institution's history and culture.

Preparation is key. Candidates must draw a blueprint of how they will approach the head coaching opportunity, the steps they will take to rebuild, and the assistant coaches they would hire.They must provide concrete examples of their successes and what led to them.

Part of the preparation is knowing who the decision makers and the most influential people are. At some schools, the university president takes a "hands off" approach and may have the AD run the process.  Winning over key donors is also very important. I advise candidates to tap into their networks, talk to other coaches, colleagues, former players and others who currently are or have been connected with the school.

The large new media deals have created a pool of money for the colleges to compete with the NFL for top coaching talent. Multi-million dollar contracts for head coaches are now commonplace, and universities are willing to make large buyout fees and spend big money to make the right hire.  The days of coaches such as Michigan's Bo Schembechler and Ohio State's Woody Hayes, who stayed at one school for decades, are likely gone forever. 

However, their legacy continues. Big Ten coaches brought their brand of tough, run-the-ball and win-by-defense strategy to the SEC as Les Miles played for Bo, while Nick Saban and Urban Meyer both coached early in their careers at OSU.

In the NFL, each team must interview one diversity candidate as part of the Rooney Rule. NFL searches, which tend to involve more executives, also have rules restricting the interviewing of current NFL coaches who are in the playoffs and even college coaches. 

In the college ranks, nothing stops a school from hiring a bowl-bound coach. Major collegiate conferences are similar to the NFL: if you keep winning, you keep coaching. Successful head coaches are rewarded with new contracts. The need to win now has created the new norm.


Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. His placements include Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and head coach Brady Hoke.  Earlier in his career, Jed coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football, serving under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), John Ralston (Stanford), Terry Donahue (UCLA), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), and Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings). Follow him on Twitter @jedhughesKF.