By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 29, 2017
As Sunday rolled along and the sports world tried to figure out whether Florida’s Jim McElwain had been fired or not (he had), the focus of the day suddenly turned to the SEC’s coaching carousel.
And this is October.
This is not December. Usually these things come down later in the year, after Thanksgiving, sometimes after Christmas. But Florida moved to fire Jim McElwain now, ostensibly to get first in line to select a new coach and get as much of a head start as possible on recruiting, which will sputter along until McElwain’s eventual successor is named.
And when that successor is finally named, maybe it will be one without ties to Nick Saban, as Florida’s last two coaches have been, along with seemingly half the schools across the country with job openings.
Moreover, it’s time to talk about expectations. McElwain led Florida to two consecutive SEC East division titles, despite not being the preseason favorite to win either one. He opened the 2017 season 3-4, which got him canned. Sure, there was the fateful press conference last week where McElwain talked vaguely about death threats he had received, but could not substantiate them on paper. Still, if Nick Saban made the same claim in a press conference this week – one, people would believe him, and two, he’d most definitely be the coach next week against LSU whether he could prove it or not.
The press conference was just an excuse for Florida to threaten McElwain with a firing for cause. The release on McElwain’s firing said the two had “mutually agreed” to separate. What that translates to in this business is, Florida probably threatened to fire him for cause and McElwain’s legal team probably threatened to haul the school into court, and the two sides met in the middle.
This could have all been avoided, though, if the rest of the schools in the SEC – to say nothing of those who compete with the SEC – would just come to the realization that until Nick Saban retires from Alabama, nothing substantive is going to change. College football is the ultimate momentum game, and that force extends off the playing surface as much as it does on it. Alabama fans are wringing hands at the moment worried whether its recruiting class will break into the top eight or so this February. Think about that for a second: A ranking of ninth or lower would trigger panic.
If anything, that’s where McElwain failed Florida – recruiting. He wasn’t especially good at it. He also repeated the errors of Mike Shula at Alabama in the mid-2000s, and decided to die on the hill of being overly loyal to his assistants, especially offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who got exposed at Florida when he didn’t have the best talent in the conference around him.
Yes, those were problems; no, Florida isn’t going to fix anything until Saban goes away. Alabama has too much power, too many resources, and way too much of that key ingredient, momentum.
But Florida isn’t the only school chasing ghosts. Texas A&M, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Missouri could all be changing coaches after this year. Auburn will consider it if the Tigers lose in an ugly fashion to either Georgia, Alabama or both.
And what names are already coming up as possibilities for other schools to hire? Jimbo Fisher. Jim McElwain’s name is in play, too. Current Alabama assistants Jeremy Pruitt and Brian Daboll. Lane Kiffin. This comes a year after South Carolina hired Will Muschamp and two years after Georgia hired Kirby Smart. The common denominator, of course, is a tie of some kind to Saban.
Much of this is somewhat the fault of Smart, who after a so-so debut year, now helms a potential powerhouse in Georgia. To be fair, Smart is winning on the back of Mark Richt’s groundwork, but Smart still gets credit for learning from Saban and applying those principles to his own program. But in doing so, he re-lit the fire of the Altar of Saban – really for the first time since Jimbo Fisher capitalized on his time as Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU, got hired at Florida State and eventually won the 2013 national championship. Between Fisher’s rise and Smart’s recent ascension, there has been relatively little success from former Saban assistants. For that matter, the guy holding down second place on that list behind Fisher is probably still Mark Dantonio at Michigan State.
But now, the momentum of college football extends to Saban’s ties, and if Smart proves he has the “it” factor at Georgia, you can expect Saban to have to replace assistants on an even shorter timeline.
The question, though, is why? Why are other schools, especially those in the SEC, so determined to make changes so quickly? There are now nearly 130 FBS schools in the country, and the FBS division hasn’t even been in existence that long. If every school took its turn winning a single national championship, the list still wouldn’t have cycled through to the beginning. Yet many schools, chief among them Alabama, have won multiple titles and will win multiple titles again in the future before some of the schools making moves this offseason ever win a first one.
That’s why McElwain’s dismissal at Florida is not about death threats, or a 3-4 record, or a picture of a guy lying on top of a shark that McElwain swears isn’t him. It’s about Florida thinking it had hired the next Nick Saban, finding out it hadn’t, and potentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater before the end of the third year of his contract.
But at least Florida has been nationally competitive lately. Arkansas has not, and will not. Ole Miss has not, and will not. Missouri has not and probably never will. Texas A&M and Auburn both could be, but a lot will be known about the mindset – and the willingness to panic – among their leaders after the initial list of coaching candidates pops out at those schools. Auburn tried to hire Kirby Smart before, and has employed Jimbo Fisher in the past. McElwain’s name is in the early mix at both Arkansas and Ole Miss. Leaders at both those schools would show real wisdom by going in an entirely different direction, one that leads away from Saban entirely.
But if the leaders at schools in the SEC are truly smart, they’ll handle this round of hiring thusly: Bring a guy in, and tell him the expectation is to compete for second place in the SEC. Occasionally Alabama will run into a rash of bad injury luck, as it did in 2010, and the opportunity will be there to post a season to remember.
But if the goal is really to supplant Nick Saban at the top of the conference, the end result will be nothing more than a whole lot of money paid to settle a whole lot of buyout clauses. Florida knows all about that already.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN