10 Most Important Coordinators in the SEC
Though head coaches rightfully get the most credit or blame for wins and losses in today’s college football, a great coordinator can completely turn around a program.
Look no further than Auburn, which fell off the face of the SEC when Gus Malzahn left his post as offensive coordinator to become the head coach at Arkansas State.
The Tigers' offense floundered as one of the worst attacks in the nation amid a disastrous 0-8 SEC slate in 2012 that cost head coach Gene Chizik his job.
Upon his return to Auburn, Malzahn lifted the program to the BCS National Championship Game in Year 1.
Sure, mitigating circumstances—such as junior college transfer QB Nick Marshall—gave Malzahn the chance for a massive turnaround. It still took the systems and buy in from the players to achieve such a recovery.
In a world of million-dollar assistant coaching contracts, it should come as no surprise that the SEC spends among the most of any conference in the nation. If winning has a price, SEC schools have consistently shown the desire to meet—or exceed—it.
Today we examine the SEC’s 10 most important coordinators.
A number of factors are taken into account when determining who belongs on this list. First and foremost, how have the coach’s units performed? Are they upper-tier in the conference or middle of the pack?
Second, how is the coach perceived on the recruiting trail. Using 247Sports’ Football Recruiter Rankings, which the site truly expanded in 2005, we will credit coordinators with the work they have done.
Recruiting is the only criteria that will consider what a coordinator did as a position coach.
Lastly, we take into account surroundings. Is the coach a coordinator or a co-coordinator? Is he truly running the show or does the head coach call the plays? How long has the coordinator been in the position, and would ranking him in a certain spot be too reliant on one season?
Based on the criteria stated above, here are our top 10 coordinators in the SEC.
10. Jim Chaney, Offensive Coordinator, Arkansas
Though Jim Chaney hasn’t always had the talent he needed to boast powerful offenses, he is capable of fielding great units at times.
While at Purdue, Chaney benefitted from an unheralded quarterback named Drew Brees, who threw the ball all over the Big Ten on his path to the Boilermakers’ second-ever Rose Bowl appearance.
However, Chaney led Purdue back among the nation’s best offenses even after Brees left, finishing in the top 25 in scoring and total offense.
At Tennessee, Chaney struggled with inconsistent talent levels. When the Volunteers boasted firepower, though, Chaney led dynamic attacks such as the one seen when Cordarrelle Patterson joined the program in 2012.
9. Mike Bajakian, Offensive Coordinator, Tennessee
Offensive-minded coach Butch Jones trusts Mike Bajakian to call the shots within his up-tempo offense for a reason: Bajakian has been up to the task at every stop until now.
Year 1 at Tennessee didn’t go as planned for Jones or Bajakian. The offense, behind three different starting quarterbacks, struggled, ranking No. 11 in the SEC in scoring and No. 12 in total offense.
Those results are unfamiliar for Bajakian, who fielded conference-best scoring offenses in two of three seasons at Cincinnati and two of three seasons at Central Michigan.
At Cincinnati, Bajakian’s offense never ranked worse than second in the now-defunct Big East.
His Central Michigan offenses ranked among the top 25 in the nation in total offense in each of his three seasons.
Bajakian is in for an uphill battle at Tennessee. The quarterback position still lacks experience, and he must now rebuild virtually the entire offensive line.
8. Neal Brown, Offensive Coordinator, Kentucky
Not even a disastrous first season at Kentucky could knock Neal Brown off this list because of the stellar results he generated in his previous five as a coordinator.
Previous stops at Texas Tech and Troy saw Brown rise to prominence.
Brown played his college ball at Kentucky under Hal Mumme and current California offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.
Before the 2013 season, all five of Brown’s seasons saw his offenses rank in the top 30 nationally in both scoring and total offense.
Last year served as the first setback along Brown’s otherwise seemingly non-stop trip to coaching stardom. The Wildcats sputtered to ranking 13th in the SEC in both scoring offense and total offense.
While Brown’s offense struggled on the field, he excelled on the recruiting path. 247Sports ranked Brown as the No. 39 national recruiter for the class of 2014.
7. Lorenzo Ward, Defensive Coordinator, South Carolina
The 2013 season got off to a rocky start for Lorenzo Ward, who had to break in all new starters at linebacker.
By year’s end, though, Ward helped the Gamecocks and coach Steve Spurrier to a third consecutive 11-win season.
Ward became South Carolina’s defensive coordinator after learning under Ellis Johnson and Virginia Tech coordinator Bud Foster.
In Ward’s first two years, the Gamecocks ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense and total defense.
Ward also built a name for himself as a recruiter, ranking 12th in 2012 on 247Sports’ annual list. He ranked 42nd as a national recruiter in 2011.
6. Josh Henson, Offensive Coordinator, Missouri
In Josh Henson’s first season as a coordinator, he was tasked with turning around an offense that lacked confidence and underachieved in 2012.
Even after Henson helped Missouri get off to a fast start, he had to rally his offense around freshman quarterback Maty Mauk when senior quarterback James Franklin went down in the middle of the season with a separated shoulder.
Despite the setback, Henson led Missouri to become the SEC’s No. 3 scoring offense and also finish third in the league in total offense.
The Tigers finished the season ranked 13th nationally in scoring and 16th in total offense.
Before coming to Missouri, Henson established a reputation as a high-end recruiter. 247Sports ranked Henson—then at LSU—in the top 15 nationally in 2007 and 2008.
5. Ellis Johnson, Defensive Coordinator, Auburn
Statistically speaking, Ellis Johnson’s fourth stop in the SEC didn’t get off to a great start in 2013.
Auburn’s second-year coordinator watched his defense struggle to ninth in the conference in points allowed.
Then again, teams had little choice but to try to outscore the Tigers thanks to their dynamic offense.
Johnson’s defense improved over time, peaking at the right time to help Auburn win pivotal games down the stretch on its path to the BCS National Championship Game.
Johnson previously served as coordinator at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama, Clemson and Southern Miss.
He has led five defenses to top 25 scoring standings and on five occasions has fielded top 25 units in total defense.
Johnson’s best year came in 2011, when South Carolina ranked 11th in the nation in scoring defense and third in total defense.
Though Johnson isn’t known as an elite recruiter, he is certainly capable. 247Sports ranked him the No. 34 recruiter nationally in 2009.
4. Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
Sure, Jeremy Pruitt has only been a coordinator for one season, but the long-time high school coach enjoyed one of the greatest all-time first seasons in such a role.
Pruitt replaced Mark Stoops as Florida State’s defensive coordinator in 2013, and he led the Seminoles to the BCS national championship by fielding the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation and a No. 3 finish in total defense.
Pruitt, who played at Alabama and eventually coached under Nick Saban before heading for Florida State, built a name for himself as a recruiter before taking the coordinator post in Tallahassee.
He finished as 247Sports’ No. 1 national recruiter in 2012 and repeated the feat in 2013.
Two other times, Pruitt has ranked in the top 40 as a recruiter.
No wonder Georgia did everything it could to land Pruitt’s services when former coordinator Todd Grantham left for Louisville.
3. Mike Bobo, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia
Though former Georgia quarterback Mike Bobo has fielded good offenses at Athens, he earns his spot on this list primarily as a recruiter.
Bobo’s Bulldogs offenses consistently rank in the top third of the SEC. His best results came in 2008 when an offense led by eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick Matthew Stafford finished second in total offense and third in scoring.
247Sports has ranked Bobo in the top six nationally as a recruiter five times. Additonally, the recruiting service crowned Bobo as the nation’s top recruiter in 2011.
2. John Chavis, Defensive Coordinator, LSU
John Chavis has spent his career building a pair of defensive empires in the SEC.
Whether at Tennessee or, more recently, at LSU, Chavis has installed championship-caliber defenses built on great secondary play and pressure from everywhere.
Chavis, who will serve his 20th season as an SEC defensive coordinator this year, helped Tennessee to the national championship in 1998 and guided LSU to an undefeated regular season in 2011. The Tigers ultimately fell in the national championship game to Alabama with little blame falling on a tremendous defense.
In 15 of Chavis’ 19 seasons, his units have ranked in the top 25 in total defense or scoring defense.
Chavis’ best statistical season came in 2011, during LSU’s run to the BCS National Championship Game. He guided the Tigers to finishing second in the nation in points per game and total defense.
247Sports also ranked Chavis as the No. 33 recruiter nationally in the class of 2013.
1. Kirby Smart, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
Kirby Smart emerges atop coaching search wish lists for good reason: he is the complete package as a coordinator.
That’s why numerous media outlets, including al.com, reported that Smart was one of the finalists for the Auburn job two years ago that ultimately went to Gus Malzahn. Al.com columnist Kevin Scarbinsky wrote that Smart reportedly might have gotten the offer Malzahn accepted, had Smart not demanded additional information.
Since 2009, Smart’s Alabama defenses have led the SEC in both fewest points per game allowed and total defense. The Crimson Tide has finished in the top 10 in both scoring defense and total defense every year he’s been defensive coordinator, and they led the nation in both scoring defense and total defense in 2011 and 2012.
Alabama has won three BCS national championships with Smart commanding the defense.
He won the Broyles Award, given to the most outstanding assistant coach in the nation, in 2009, and 247Sports has also consistently rated Smart among the nation’s top recruiters. He finished in the top 10 as a recruiter five times.
Smart currently ranks third in the class of 2015 recruiting.
One day, a very good program will lure Smart away from Alabama. When it does, it will land a coordinator who has accomplished everything he can in that role.