Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The SEC's Most Mediocre Coach

Now that the Lakers removed the NBA from our list of sports to watch, leaving only baseball for the next two months, the sporting world enters the period in which anything, and I mean anything, remotely interesting become a much bigger story than it actually should be. For instance, one of the top stories on ESPN's website as I write this is a blurb about Michael Phelps being nominated for four ESPYs. No one outside of the ESPN self-promotion machine or Phelps’ mom gives a crap about that story. But because you can't have seven baseball stories as a top stories, we have ourselves a Michael Phelps story that doesn’t involve drugs or Las Vegas dancers.

This is also the period of time (and it started when the NBA playoffs reached its second round) where college football fans, at least SEC fans (I'm assuming it happens other places, but I can only keep up with so much), begin to create all sorts of lists to pass the time until late August. In the past few weeks, I've seen lists that rank the top 30 players in the SEC, what each team needs in order to have a good year and, of course, a medley of best/worst lists that cover just about every topic one can imagine. And because there are so many lists that are so similar, they all run together and basically repeat the same information over and over again.

So with looking for a fresh idea in mind, I have elected to undertake the task of identifying the most mediocre coach in the SEC. Anyone can rattle off who they consider to be the top three or worst three coaches in the league, but to consider who really is 100% blah in their coaching performances takes some effort (which is a rare thing on the Belly of the Beast).

First off, a couple of ground rules I developed. One, record isn't the only thing that matters. That would be too easy. And two, potential, talent and resources weigh heavily in my thinking, all of which cannot accurately be measured, thus leaving this list open to ridicule with no statistical evidence to back it up.

The first thing we need to do is weed out the non-contenders. Automatically, we have to toss out all the coaches who have never coached in the SEC or have only spent one year in the league. We don't know how bad, good or just plain average these guys are. Those restrictions eliminate Dan Mullen, whose slew of retread assistant coaches could have him in contention for this title in a few years, Lane Kiffin, who will certainly find himself on hundreds of "worst" lists by the end of season one, Gene Chizik, who still can't believe he transformed a 5-19 stint at Iowa State into the Auburn job, and Bobby Petrino, who spent the last year with Casey Dick running his offense. These guys are out.

Second, we need to get rid of the guys who would be considered in the "best" group of coaches. Urban Meyer (although a trained monkey could win nine games at Florida every year, but he has won big everywhere he’s been) and Nick Saban headline this group, and I think you have to throw in Houston Nutt on the level right below them. He's not Saban or Meyer and you can argue his SEC record of 47-41 is pretty mediocre, but my overall impression of his work at Arkansas, a state with little high school football talent, was he always did more with less. Eight bowl games and two trips to Atlanta. Plus, what he did with Ole Miss last year really strengthens his case to be considered in the top tiers and thus eliminated from mediocrity.

Looking at his record, I suppose it's hard to leave Les Miles out of the best group (22-10 SEC record, one national title and one SEC title in four years), but there's no way in good conscience I can include him in the "best" or even the “worst” category, for which an argument could probably be made. Les gets his own category, which will be called "lucky bastard who inherited great talent and gets away with every dumb decision he's ever made (except this past season)." So he also is eliminated from the competition.

And our last omission is Bobby Johnson of Vanderbilt. It's hard to judge someone when they're coaching Vanderbilt. He's made them competitive in many games, lost some really bad ones and lost many he should have won. I have no idea if any of that is related to coaching or just lack of talent. Or you could just argue that it's Vanderbilt and it all sucks. Whatever the reason, it’s way too confusing to attempt to break it down so he's eliminated.

That leaves us with our three main candidates: Rich Brooks, Steve Spurrier and Mark Richt. Year in and year out Richt falls short of expectations, but never truly has a bad year in the eyes of his school. Every year there’s some hype that says this will finally be the year Spurrier puts it together for a big year at South Carolina, but he never quite gets there. And in the case of Brooks, who, after a rough start at Kentucky, has consistently nailed the average season. In the words of George Costanza, these guys are producing results right in the meaty part of the curve. Not showing off, not falling behind.

First up for debate is Kentucky coach Rich Brooks. In recent years, it seems as though Kentucky has gone 7-5 every season, which, other than 6-6, is one of the true signs of mediocrity. Turns out, here’s Kentucky’s regular season record under Brooks since 2006: 7-5, 7-5, 6-6. But in all three years, they did win their bowl games to get to improve to 8, 8 and 7 wins, respectively. That, my friends, is average.

However, as I mentioned before, records aren’t the only determining factor in this quest. Looking closer at Kentucky, they have more talent than maybe only Vanderbilt, who beat them 31-24 last season, and possibly Mississippi State, who they beat 14-13 in 2008. And the state of Kentucky isn’t exactly a recruiting hotbed. Expectations each year hover between the six and eight win mark. Well, at least I imagine that’s what the Kentucky fans who realize there is another sport other than basketball think. So with those expectations, results and talent level, it would appear that Rich Brooks is doing exactly what its expected of him, which means he’s not so mediocre. Plus, considering he took over a Kentucky program hit with NCAA probation and had won only 11 games in the three years before the got there, he’s done a good job at bringing Kentucky out of a hole.

Looking at their schedule from the past three years (I didn’t look at the previous three years because they were so bad), here’s a list of the SEC teams they’ve beaten:

Ole Miss
Mississippi State (2)
Vanderbilt (2)
Arkansas (2)

The biggest non-conference wins:

Louisville (2)
A collection of directional and Sun Belt schools

That’s a solid collection of victories over average to bad teams with two upsets (LSU and Georgia) thrown in. Tennessee and South Carolina are noticeably absent from that list, considering Kentucky plays them every year, and those two teams haven’t been exactly tearing it up since 2006. All of this means that Rich Brooks has feasted on bad teams, had his share of wins against fellow average teams and has pulled off a couple of upsets. Normally, that would indicate that Brooks is doing what a mediocre coach does. Beats the bad teams, goes around .500 versus other average teams and wins a few games against far superior teams.

But, given the resources, talent level and history surrounding Kentucky football, can you really say Brooks has done a mediocre job? It would be ridiculous to argue that he’s done an outstanding job (can’t beat South Carolina, a team not that far ahead of Kentucky, and hasn’t been able to pick off Tennessee when they’ve been down), but it’s not a stretch to say he’s done a good job. He coaching at a school where he’ll always be second fiddle to basketball, plays in an average stadium in an uninspiring environment and has no real talent base with which to feed his program. And despite all of that against him, Brooks has gone to and won three straight bowl games.

There’s little to no chance Brooks will ever get Kentucky to Atlanta as long as Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have pulses. But, to his credit, you won’t find Kentucky consistently getting smacked around and challenging Vanderbilt for sixth in the SEC East. He’s taken a less-than-ideal coaching situation at a non-football school and made something out of it, which doesn’t make him so mediocre.

Now comes probably the most complicated man on the list: South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier. Earlier in his career at Florida, such an inclusion on this list would have led to a horde of angry men and women in jorts and tank tops throwing hair product, earrings and fake Oakley sunglasses at anyone who would suggest this idea. But unfortunately for Spurrier, South Carolina isn’t Florida. While he has brought winning to South Carolina, a place that hasn’t really ever seen consistent winning, it hasn’t been as successful of a return to the SEC as many predicted.

At a glance, Spurrier’s records at South Carolina have been straight up mediocre. Starting in 2005 and running through last year, he’s gone 7-5, 8-5, 6-6 and 7-6, respectively. In the previous four years from 2004 and before, the Gamecocks went 6-5, 5-7, 5-7 and 9-3. Other than Lou Holtz stumbling into a 9-3 season, Spurrier has improved, although not tremendously, the consistency of football at South Carolina.

If you check a little further into South Carolina’s history, you’ll find it’s much bleaker than you could ever imagine. Since 1892 when they started playing football, they’ve compiled a LOSING record of 528-529-44. And in those years, the school has won 10 and nine games only ONCE each. Once!!! Lou Holtz, responsible for the nine-win season, won just 33 games and had three winning seasons in the six years before Spurrier arrived. Even worse than that, before Holtz got there, the football team won just 41 games DURING THE 1990s (although it was Holtz who threw up an 0-11 season in 1999).

As you can see, Spurrier is trying to win at a place that has had very little success. In fact, Spurrier is the first coach at South Carolina since World War II to not post a losing record (a guy named J.P. Moran coached only one year in 1943 and posted a 5-2 record). Even though he hasn’t won big, he’s already accomplished something most South Carolina fans have never been alive to see.

Although he finds himself in a state that traditionally is pretty strong in terms of high school football talent, Spurrier is fighting a recruiting battle against some of the other big SEC schools, ACC schools and 107 years of bad to mediocre football. He’s got the facilities and loyal fanbase that can match up with other schools, but the name Steve Spurrier doesn’t mean the same thing in 2009 as it did in 1999 and can’t cover up the stink of the school’s football history.

His coaching history has shown that if he has the players, Spurrier can beat everybody. Of course, part of being a coach in college football is also being a recruiter, which is something Spurrier has not always been highly motivated to do. And although its been reported that Spurrier has put much more time and effort into recruiting, he hasn’t landed some guys that really stand out. Certainly he’s increased the talent level, but he’s been missing what talking heads like to call difference makers, especially at quarterback.

His ability to increase the talent level yet not having some superstar players is reflected in the Gamecocks’ performance on the field. He’s 1-3 against Florida and Georgia (but he does seem to play Georgia close every year), undefeated against Kentucky and is 2-2 against Tennessee. But here are some records that really surprised me:

Auburn 0-2
Arkansas 1-3
LSU 0-2
Vanderbilt 2-2

Much like Rich Brooks, Spurrier has lived off of beating bad teams, going around .500 against similar teams and has a couple of upsets against much better teams. But unlike Brooks, Spurrier has been much more competitive than his record indicates. Since 2005, Spurrier’s record is 28-22 and Brooks’ 26-24. But, of Spurrier’s 22 losses, only six could be considered what I call a blowout, a loss by more than three scores (17 points). While of Brooks’ 24 losses, 13 were by more than 17 points.

In Spurrier’s time at South Carolina, he has increased the talent level, producing teams that are good enough at times to play with anyone, but are often wildly inconsistent and aren’t good enough to get away with bringing their “C” game. Obviously, some of that inconsistency has to fall on Spurrier, but you’ll find that just about every team in all sports goes through “C” game times. What sets Spurrier above mediocrity is that he’s actually brought competitive football for four straight years to a place that has a lengthy history of being bad at football. He gives those fans who have been eating crap for the past 107 years yet still fill the stadium a reason to think they’re going to win each game. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Steve Spurrier back in Atlanta, but he’s putting South Carolina in a position that, if the perfect storm were to arise, they’d at least have a chance, which is more than has ever been done there.

Now we come to Mark Richt, the man who might spark the most outrage or dissent over being called a mediocre coach. After all, he owns a career 82-22 overall record and a 46-18 record in the SEC, two SEC titles and three BCS bowl game appearances. Plus, his road record is something insane like 30-4. But as I said earlier, the records don't tell the whole story. And if you look closely, you’ll discover that Mark Richt is the most mediocre coach in the SEC.

At Georgia, Richt sits in one of the richest areas of the country in terms of high school talent. His program is the only major one in the state (sorry, Georgia doesn't compete with Georgia Tech for recruits) and he regularly cleans up in in-state recruiting. So his team is made up of the best players in one of the best states for recruiting. Throw in a well-funded athletic department, a 92,000-seat stadium and a huge alumni base and the guy is sitting on a pile of nearly limitless resources.

Outside of Georgia in the SEC, only LSU and Florida have all of those luxuries (A case could be made for Alabama, but with Auburn being in the state, they don’t have complete control of it just yet. Another year or two of Gene Chizik and they might move into this group). And since Richt’s arrival at Georgia, LSU and Florida have both won two national titles. Richt’s best two finishes were Sugar Bowl wins over Florida State and Hawaii. And we shouldn’t forget about the Sugar Bowl against West Virginia where Richt’s team lost to a far inferior team (Georgia was a 14 point favorite) and allowed the Big East to gain entry into the national television scene (Seriously, he’s directly responsible for South Florida once being ranked number two.)

And of course there are the head-to-head records. Against LSU and Florida, Richt has gone a combined 5-8, which includes an awful 2-6 against Florida. Yes, he does have a winning record against LSU, 3-2, but take away his wins over the overwhelmed Les Miles and he’s just 1-2 (to his credit he has never lost to Les Miles) against the Tigers. Even against rivals Tennessee and Auburn, both teams that are usually not nearly as talented as Georgia, he’s produced just 5-3 records against each.

The point of all these numbers and comparisons is that Richt has just as much talent and as many resources as LSU and Florida but never produces the same results. He’s got a great record, been to some great bowl games, but when it comes time to win a game that will make or define a season, he hasn’t been very good. Instead, he’s made a career out of beating the inferior teams in the SEC. And that’s what mediocre coaches with great talent and resources around them do. They beat the teams they should beat, occasionally get upset by one of them (which also happens to good coaches) and struggle to beat teams just as good as they are. When teams with equal talent and resources face each other, good and great coaches win, and Mark Richt has proven throughout his time at Georgia that he is not one of those coaches.

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