SEC football's new coaches aren't Nick Saban clones. That's a welcome change. | Toppmeyer
Saban hadn’t become Saban as we know him now – he had two national championships to his name at the time – but his coaching tree was taking shape.
Former Michigan State assistant Mark Dantonio had become the Spartans’ head coach. Another former Saban understudy, Derek Dooley, was Tennessee’s coach.
Then came Muschamp, hired by Florida in December 2010. He coached four years under Saban at LSU, including three seasons as his defensive coordinator.
Ahead of Florida’s 2011 game against Alabama, a reporter asked Muschamp if he expected the matchup to be a Jedi Master vs. Padawan situation. The “Star Wars” reference was lost on Muschamp.
“What's a Padawan?" Muschamp asked.
The Padawan never came close to beating his master. Muschamp’s Gators lost 38-10 to Alabama that season, the first of three losses to his former boss.
Saban is famously 23-0 against his former assistants, with the majority of those results coming inside SEC play. Georgia coach Kirby Smart is the only former assistant to come within a touchdown of beating Saban.
Aside from the losses to Saban, Smart has been a success story at Georgia, along with fellow former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and now Texas A&M. Lane Kiffin, another former Saban assistant, showed promise by going 5-5 in his first season at Ole Miss.
But there are notable flops, too.
Muschamp fizzled at Florida and then South Carolina. Jim McElwain, another former Saban apprentice, didn’t last three full seasons after replacing Muschamp at Florida. Former Saban aides Dooley and Jeremy Pruitt are candidates for worst Tennessee football coach since World War I.
SEC athletics directors took a different approach during the most recent coaching carousel, steering clear of Padawans.
We’re down to three former Saban assistants as active SEC head coaches: Smart, Fisher and Kiffin.
Last year, the SEC featured five former Saban assistants as head coaches, but Muschamp and Pruitt were fired.
I doubt we’re finished seeing SEC programs hire from the Saban tree. Louisiana’s Billy Napier, for instance, is a good bet to wind up in the SEC.
But athletics directors’ pursuit this offseason for the anti-Saban, rather than a Saban clone, is a welcome change, if for no other reason than to break up the monotony. Watching Saban thump his former assistants has grown stale.
You can’t out-Saban, Saban.
Here’s the list of coaches to beat Saban since the SEC expanded to 14 teams in 2012: Gus Malzahn (three times), Hugh Freeze (twice), Dabo Swinney (twice), Kevin Sumlin, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer and Ed Orgeron.
None of those coaches built their program in Saban’s image.
Of that contingent, only Orgeron came up through the defensive side of the ball like Saban did. And give Orgeron credit for hiring wunderkind offensive assistant Joe Brady and recruiting transfer quarterback Joe Burrow to fuel a high-powered offense that bested Alabama in 2019.
Nine of the SEC's head coaches hail from an offensive background. Of the newcomers, only Lea comes from the defensive side.
This batch of new SEC coaches is a crew of outsiders.
- Harsin is an Idaho native who is coaching east of the Mississippi River for the first time in his life.
- Lea is a Nashville native who played at Vanderbilt, but, like Harsin, he’s never coached in the SEC.
- Two seasons as Missouri’s offensive coordinator is the extent of the SEC experience for Heupel, a South Dakota native.
- Beamer worked as an assistant at Mississippi State, South Carolina and Georgia, giving him the most SEC flavor among the newcomers. But after three seasons at Oklahoma, you can dub him as a Lincoln Riley protégé as much as anything else.
I’m not convinced the quartet features a coach capable of winning a national championship, but at least there are no Padawans.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.