[caption id="attachment_280171" align="alignnone" width="1794"] (Photo: © Logan Kirkland | Mississippi State University)
The college football season officially ends when LSU and Clemson go at it in New Orleans, but the coaching carousel proves to us yearly that this sport hardly ever sleeps. After no changes last season, we saw four SEC schools replace their head coaches in the last month with some big names getting back into the league.
Eli Drinkwitz, Mike Leach, Lane Kiffin and Sam Pittman were all hired by Missouri, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas and each was a very interesting addition. The silly season is always exciting and one way or the other each of these new ball coaches will make an impact on the SEC. To say it won't be exciting with this group is a gross miscalculation.
Ole Miss got the party started on December 7th when they named the Florida Atlantic head coach the new man in charge of their football program. Despite being just 44 years old, Kiffin has the resume of a grizzled vet after holding head coaching positions for the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee, USC and FAU. This also includes time as a play-caller at USC and Alabama. They had an excellent hype video when the reported hire was leaked.
The man they call Joey Freshwater won two Conference USA titles in three years in Boca Raton with a 5-7 campaign stuck in the middle. Every coaching stop he's been at has been an absolute roller coaster with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There's no denying that he is one of the best offensive play-callers in football, but it is all of the other stuff a head coach needs to do that Kiffin struggles with. Expect plenty of peaks and valleys.
The decision making is being called into question early with Kiffin making a questionable move by bringing D.J. Durkin back into college football
. However, that hasn't tempered expectations from the Hotty Toddy fan base. From being told to get a burner phone and hold a guy's baby to making the jokes about being fired on a tarmac, Kiffin has won the public portion of the hire. Up next is the recruiting and product on the field.
Of all the hires, it's quite easy to see Kiffin winning the biggest in a single-season, but the bust factor might be bigger than anyone else. It's all managing ups and downs for the guy on his fifth major head coaching job before the age of 50 and proving he can do it consistently. It's important to keep in mind he's never been one place longer than five years and he's been fired in two of his last three jobs. No matter what happens between the white lines, he's going to be a content machine and will have a unique social media presence.
The most surprising coaching hire in quite some time occurred down in Fayetteville when Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek was turned down by most of his top candidates. Once Lane Kiffin decided to roll with Ole Miss instead of Arkansas, the Hogs went with someone who was very familiar with who exactly the Razorbacks are.
Sam Pittman was the offensive line coach for three seasons under Bret Bielema in Fayetteville and has spent the last eight seasons in the SEC. The popular offensive line coach might have been the best in the sport, but he is making a big jump forward. The hope for the Hogs was that he could dive into his deep book of contacts after serving as a Power Five assistant at seven different programs. They announced the hire in a very unique way.
At the introductory press conference, Pittman absolutely killed it. He cried, called his wife a five-star, delivered some terrific one-liners, showed love to Arkansas legend Ken Hatfield and was a perfect fit when it was the time to call the Hogs. The guy they were calling the new Head Hog was most assuredly humbled by the opportunity and that is what you would expect from a 58-year-old offensive line coach who probably thought he would never get a shot to run his own program.
Whatever doubt was there with Pittman might have gotten squandered when he put together his staff. Pittman reeled in two very talented coordinators on both sides of the ball (Kendal Briles and Barry Odom) in addition to stealing Derrick LeBlanc from Kentucky to coach the defensive line. It seems like he has a plan and the best offensive line recruiter in the country should get plenty of talented line of scrimmage players on campus.
It's most definitely a rebuild in Fayetteville, but Chad Morris left behind a good amount of skill talent while it seems like the new coaching staff will be an obvious upgrade. The Hogs have the deck stacked against them in the SEC West, but they hired a coach who will establish an identity (strong line of scrimmage play) and should have a well-coached team. That will give him a chance to succeed a lot of people's expectations.
Just eight years ago, Eli Drinkwintz was a quality control coach at Auburn working under Gus Malzahn and making very little money . Fast forward to just a month ago and the Appalachian State head coach signed a deal with Missouri to become their new head football coach and will make $4 million dollars per season. What a career trajectory.
Drinkwitz has deep ties with Malzahn and was his offensive coordinator at Springdale High School back in 2004. After that, the Arkansas Tech alum was a quick riser who worked for Malzahn and Bryan Harsin at Arkansas State before moving to Boise State when Harsin was hired. After a successful run, he became the play-caller at NC State and brought along Boise State QB transfer Ryan Finley. The Wolfpack would win 25 games in his three years in Raleigh and that would land him the App State head coaching job. Drinkwitz would go on to beat two Power Five teams as the Mountaineers won 11 regular season games and will finish the season ranked. He has accomplished a lot at the age of 36.
Mizzou was also turned down by a few of their top targets and after the first list of names athletic director Jim Sterk came up with didn't impress the decision makers at Missouri. The Tigers landed on Drinkwitz andhat probably explains the contract negotiations where he went from making $750,000 to $4 million. The press conference was a little awkward.
After a weird intro where we saw Drinkwitz walk the sideline inside Faurot Field, the new head coach seemed a little nervous at the podium and apparently did not change the notes he used at last year's Appalachian State introductory press conference. Outside of that there was not much to write home about.
Drinkwitz will serve as the team's primary play-caller and will not hire an offensive coordinator, but that was to be expected. He retained defensive coordinator Ryan Walters who has done an excellent job running the defense the last two seasons. The young head coach has a lot to prove, but he should put together some good offenses that will do a lot of creative things.
Who knew this moment was going to change everything?
[caption id="attachment_279720" align="alignnone" width="1856"] Matt Bush | USA Today Sports
This fake dog urination act caused Ole Miss to miss an extra point and lose the Egg Bowl. It immediately resulted in Matt Luke's firing and Joe Moorhead saving his job and making a weird statement directly following the huge victory.
Ole Miss would get directly into a coaching search and nearly immediately hire Lane Kiffin. That move seemed to set off some panic in the Bulldog portion of the Magnolia State. A few weeks later, Mississippi State's star linebacker Willie Gay Jr. punched starting quarterback Garrett Shrader during a bowl practice and that caused him to miss the Music City Bowl. The Bulldogs would be upset by Louisville in Nashville and before you know it, athletic director John Cohen would be conducting a second coaching search in three years.
This search was a wild ride.
Louisiana head coach Billy Napier publicly turned the Bulldogs down and they moved on to alum Joe Judge. The Patriots special teams coordinator seemed set to take it before the Carolina Panthers locked in Baylor head coach Matt Rhule. Therefore, the Giants went directly to Judge and State was on to another plan while Napier now appears to be Baylor's top target and there's a belief that there is mutual interest. Got all that?
Despite Florida's defensive coordinator Todd Grantham having his name leaked early in the process, it seemed to come down to Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and Washington State head coach Mike Leach. The Bulldogs decided to go with the Pirate.
State announced in a very similar way to Ole Miss as these two can't help but rivalry every day of the year. Leach looked super awkward getting off the plane in Starkville shaking a cowbell, but he killed it in the press conference like everyone thought he would. Going up against division opponents with the best defensive lines in the country will be a real test for his Air Raid scheme that relies on precision and efficiency in the short passing game to beat you. Unlike some of his proteges, Leach's offense does not move with tempo but they can pick you apart with about eight core passing concepts. No one is better in college football at getting quality quarterback play every season.
With three of the four hires happening in the SEC West, there won't be much effect on the Kentucky. With Eli Drinkwitz taking over in CoMo, it means that each year UK will be going up against a former Appalachian State head coach. Drinkwitz is a very accomplished offensive coordinator who should do some very good things on that side of the football, but he must first find a quarterback and then prove he can get it done on the recruiting trail. Now over to the Leacher.
The former Texas Tech and Washington State head coach coming into the SEC moves the needle and it feels like the biggest hire for the conference in quite some time. Leach has won everywhere he's been, but he'll be facing a deeper talent pool each week. With that said, State is providing him with more resources than he's ever had and he should be able to luck his way into some of the best defensive personnel he's ever acquired. Staff hires will be monumental, but stepping into a program that has always been built on power and turning them into a precision passing team will be a fascinating transformation to follow. It wasn't long ago when a lot of Kentucky supporters wanted Mitch Barnhart to fire Joker Phillips after the 2011 season and hire the former UK offensive coordinator.
Elsewhere, it will be a bit before UK sees Lane Kiffin or Sam Pittman. The Wildcats make a return trip to The Grove in 2022 for year three under Kiffin while they won't see Arkansas until 2024. Kiffin will almost automatically be a roller coaster in Oxford while Pittman has a great chance to stabilize the Arkansas program thanks to his wealth of experience and what appears to be a very strong staff.
SEC Media Days in Atlanta should be a lot of fun.