The four teams that reached the College Football Playoff were all coached by men who were promoted from within to the head coaching position.
Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has never even been a coordinator or play caller; LSU’s Ed Orgeron was an unsuccessful head coach before returning to Baton Rouge as an assistant; Ohio State’s Ryan Day was a highly respected defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes; and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley was a wunderkind offensive mind in charge of the Sooners’ high-scoring attack.
All four hires have very clearly turned out to be successful. But none of those coaches won the press conference. Swinney’s hiring was seen as a desperate move by a Clemson program that had made a habit of underachieving.
Orgeron wasn’t the first or second choice when it came time to replace Les Miles. In fact, I remember asking if there was another Power Five school in the country that would have hired Orgeron at the time. I still believe the answer is no, though there’s no doubt he fits with LSU.
Day and Riley were highly respected assistants, but both were initially met with understandable skepticism about their ability to be a head coach.
This year’s hiring season in the SEC has not followed the formula of the four playoff teams. The three new head coaches in the league are Sam Pittman, Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach.
Pittman is a former Arkansas assistant who returned to the Razorbacks from Georgia without any head coaching experience. But Kiffin and Leach are familiar to even the most casual college football fan.
Nobody in recent years has won the press conference more decisively than Kiffin and Leach.
Will those coaches be successful beyond the initial excitement? There’s no way to know for sure. But what we do know is that Kiffin, Leach and Pittman are entering a conference and an SEC West division that has never been more competitive.
Exactly where do Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans expect to land among the following group?
Alabama has Nick Saban, who just won five national championships over a nine-year span.
Orgeron just guided LSU to a perfect season and a berth in the national championship game.
Jimbo Fisher won a national championship at Florida State before moving to Texas A&M. Fisher’s national championship came in the final seconds over Gus Malzahn and Auburn.
The coaches in the SEC East are not as accomplished, but Kirby Smart has led Georgia to within one play of a national championship before coming up short against Alabama.
Tennessee will enter the 2020 season with the second-longest winning streak among Power Five teams. The Volunteers have won six in a row, which trails only the national champions. Third on that list is Kentucky and Mark Stoops, who are riding a four-game winning streak.
Dan Mullen does not have a championship track record as a head coach, but he has Florida in position to be a contender for the foreseeable future.
So, it’s daunting to think where Kiffin and Leach might fit into that hierarchy.
Leach has been named conference coach of the year while at Texas Tech and Washington State. It’s worth noting that those two programs are similarly positioned in their conferences as Mississippi State is in the SEC.
Leach’s Air Raid offense is consistently good against average opponents, but it has often struggled against excellent defenses. He will certainly see his share of great defenses in the SEC.
While Leach has been an assistant coach in the SEC — under Hal Mumme at Kentucky — Kiffin has been both an assistant at Alabama and a head coach at Tennessee.
Kiffin made a star of Jonathan Crompton at Tennessee and Blake Sims at Alabama by focusing on what they could do and abandoning what they couldn’t do. No doubt he will be able to do the same with rising sophomore John Rhys Plumlee.
But the hiring of Kiffin and Leach doesn’t change the pecking order of the SEC West. There’s Alabama and LSU at the top followed by Auburn and then Texas A&M. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are grouped together ahead of Arkansas.
The first order of business for Kiffin and Leach is to win the state championship of Mississippi. If that leads to keeping most of the state’s top recruits at home and at the same school, then there will be a chance to take aim at Texas A&M and beyond.
For now, it’s nice to have some positive off-season news after the biggest headline of the 2019 season involved a classless act that cost Ole Miss a shot to win the Egg Bowl. The next step is winning something more substantial than the press conference.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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