The season is over, recruiting has wrapped up and spring practice has come to a close. With the doldrums of the summer upon us, what better way to keep the college football discussion going than to review the decade that was?
Here's a look at the top five SEC head coaching hires of the last decade. Keep in mind, this is my take on the best hires, not necessarily the best coaches. Does your list look a little bit different? Feel free to e-mail me.
1. Urban Meyer, Florida
It's never easy to replace a legend. Just ask Ron Zook. However, as Urban Meyer has proven, replacing the guy that replaced the legend is a much more desirable path. When Meyer was hired to coach the Gators, he was a young, upstart head coach coming off successful stints at Bowling Green and Utah. With just four years of experience as a head coach, he was given the keys to the Gator kingdom, taking over at the helm of the Gators following the failed Zook experiment. All he's done since taking over in 2005 is win two BCS Championships, two SEC titles, beat intrastate rival Florida State in all five meetings and coach a Heisman Trophy winner. In just five years, Meyer has built the Gator program back to a level equal to, if not greater than, the one reached during the glory days of the Steve Spurrier era. Off-season retirement drama aside, the turnaround that Meyer has orchestrated in such a short period of time is mighty impressive.
2. Nick Saban, Alabama
With the Crimson Tide coming off probation and a 6-7 season in 2006 under former head coach Mike Shula, Alabama lured Nick Saban away from the Miami Dolphins, where he amassed a 15-17 record in his two seasons. After a rocky start in 2007 that saw the Tide drop games to Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State and their sixth straight loss to intrastate rival Auburn, Saban got the Crimson Tide cooking in 2008 and hasn't looked back. They brought home the crystal football and an SEC Championship in 2009; but what might be more impressive is the back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in the SEC. In this day and age, that's about as close to impossible as you can get. The only reason Saban is not No. 1 on this list is because his college coaching ability, as opposed to Meyer's, was already well-known when he landed in Tuscaloosa and was welcomed by the Crimson Tide fan base.
3. Nick Saban, LSU
And where did Saban's coaching ability become well-known? Why, at LSU of course. Okay, so technically he was hired in 1999, but his first season was the 2000 season, so it still counts. When Saban was hired at LSU, the Tigers were coming off a decade of anonymity under former coaches Curley Hallman (1991-1994) and Gerry DiNardo (1995-1999). In just his second season, Saban led the Tigers to an upset victory over Tennessee in the 2001 SEC Championship Game. Two years later, he won the National Championship – LSU's first since 1958. Considering all the high school talent that comes out of the state of Louisiana and relative lack of in-state recruiting competition, LSU was a sleeping giant when Saban arrived in Red Stick. They're not sleeping anymore. No matter how much LSU fans resent Saban for leaving and then returning to the SEC West, they have him to thank for the level that their program reached during the 2000's.
4. Mark Richt, Georgia
Mark Richt has taken a lot of heat this off-season. Some have even gone so far as to say that he is on the hot seat this season. That's a little extreme, although I suppose that it's possible. Regardless of his job status in 2010, Richt was still one of the best hires of last decade. Consider where Georgia was coming from. Under former coaches Ray Goff (1989-1995) and Jim Donnan (1996-2000), the Bulldogs averaged just over seven wins per season. Since taking over the Bulldogs in 2001, Richt has averaged 10 wins per season and won SEC Championships in 2002 and 2005. Does he occasionally have inexplicable letdowns? Sure. Does he have difficulty beating Florida in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party? Absolutely. That doesn't change the fact that Richt's winning percentage at UGA (.769) is 54 points HIGHER than Bulldog legend Vince Dooley (.715). That's mighty impressive company, especially considering that Richt had no head coaching experience whatsoever when he took over at Georgia.
5. Rich Brooks, Kentucky
Take a breath...it shouldn't be that much of a shock to see Rich Brooks on this list when you think about it. Okay maybe it is, but his career at Kentucky was impressive by basketball school standards. When Brooks took over the Kentucky football program in 2003, he had been out of football for two years and was inheriting a team that was entering the grips of probation. After only nine wins during his first three years, Brooks led the Wildcats to four consecutive bowl games (2006-2009), becoming the first head coach in Kentucky history to accomplish that feat. Not even Bear Bryant was able to do that during his eight seasons in the bluegrass state. His 31-38 overall record at Kentucky leaves a lot to be desired, but Brooks made Kentucky competitive again. He never beat Florida, Tennessee or South Carolina; but Brooks still deserves recognition for what he did for the Kentucky football program.
Les Miles, LSU - Yeah, he won a National Championship. But did you see the Ole Miss game last year???
Bobby Petrino, Arkansas - Petrino takes a lot of heat (justifiably) for his unceremonious departures from Louisville and the Atlanta Falcons. All that aside, he's still a pretty darn good college football coach.
Derek Dooley, Tennessee - Okay, so he was hired in 2010 and not really eligible. But he's not Lane Kiffin. That's gotta count for something.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
Off-Season Column Archive:
Top 5 SEC Hires of the Decade – May 5, 2010
Georgia In A Gray Area – April 26, 2009
Taunting Rule Goes Too Far – April 16, 2009
Memorable SEC Press Conferences – February 20, 2009
2010 Early SEC Picks, Part 2 – February 18, 2009
2010 Early SEC Picks, Part 1 – February 16, 2009
Florida Reaches For DC – February 12, 2009
Vols Go West For New DC – February 3, 2009
Early 2010 SEC Predictions – January 31, 2010
Chizik Doing It Right – January 21, 2010
Georgia's DC Debacle – January 12, 2010
SEC Bloggers: Do Over – January 8, 2010
Trouble In Baton Rouge – January 2, 2010
Meyer Calls A Reverse – December 27, 2009
Urban Meyer's SEC Legacy – December 26, 2009
End Of The Season Accountability – December 26, 2009
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 18, 2009
2009 SEC Superlatives – December 13, 2009
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive
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