For the first time as head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels, Matt Luke stepped to the podium at SEC Media Days in Atlanta last week. Despite being a rookie in his new role, Luke was not the newest member of the SEC head coaching fraternity.
In fact, he’s been in his current position longer than Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Arkansas’ Chad Morris and Florida’s Dan Mullen.
Those six coaches arrive at their current positions with a variety of experience and success.
Fisher is the first national championship coach to go directly from one college program to another since Johnny Majors left Pittsburgh for Tennessee in 1976.
Mullen had a solid run at Mississippi State before leaving for Florida.
Morris was 14-22 in his three-year attempt to rebuild the program at SMU.
Luke, Pruitt and Moorhead enter the SEC with no head coaching experience at this level.
Pruitt may be the most interesting case study. He is the son of a veteran high school coach in Alabama and actually has as much experience coaching high school football as he does at the college level.
“Fifteen years ago I was teaching elementary school PE,” Pruitt said at SEC Media Days. “I didn’t get here trying to be somebody else. I can probably name you 100 high school coaches who were more qualified than I am. But I was in the right place at the right time.”
Pruitt was probably being modest in that assessment, but his statement does bring attention to the fact that there is not a single track that leads to becoming a head coach in the SEC. In Pruitt’s case that means having never been a head coach at any level before signing a six-year contract worth $4 million per year.
Pruitt’s resume is as impressive as that of former Nick Saban assistants Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp. Smart reached the national championship game after two seasons, while Muschamp succeeded at South Carolina after a rough start at Florida. But his resume is also similar to those of former Saban assistants Jim McElwain and Derek Dooley, and those experiments didn’t work out as well.
When Mal Moore began his search to replace Mike Shula he famously said he was only interested in a candidate who had been a successful head coach at the highest level. That turned out to be Saban, and the rest is history.
But that means Moore wouldn’t have hired a coach like Pruitt. It also means he would have automatically eliminated Dabo Swinney when he became head coach at Clemson, Bob Stoops when he became coach at Oklahoma, Tom Osborne when he became coach at Nebraska or Woody Hayes when he became coach at Ohio State.
All of those coaches won national championships at the one and only school where they were head coaches. In other words, those coaches didn’t need previous head coaching experience before becoming legends at their major programs.
Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray made headlines at SEC Media Days by questioning Pruitt’s ability to have success at Tennessee. Murray took some personal shots at Pruitt from when Pruitt was the defensive coordinator at Georgia. But the questions are fair about Pruitt’s skills translating to a completely new role.
“I don’t know if his personality is fit to be a head coach,” Murray said. “As a head coach, there are so many things that go into it. It’s not just going out there and coaching. You have to deal with the front office. You’ve got to talk to the president of the university. You have to deal with boosters. You have to deal with the offense, the defense. It’s not just going in there and dealing with the kids and scheming up. There’s a lot that goes into it.
“I don’t think he’s the right guy to kind of be the CEO of a corporation. He’s really good managing just a defense and being a defensive coordinator. He needs to prove to me that he can handle the whole ship. For right now, I don’t think he can. We’ll see what happens this year. I don’t think it helps that he doesn’t have a lot of talent at Tennessee.”
Tony Barnhart, known as “Mr. College Football” for his work covering SEC football, has a different opinion. He believes Pruitt will answer the critics by being successful in the long term in Knoxville.
“Do you have the administrative skills? Do you have the people skills? Do you have the hiring skills? Those are all legitimate questions,” Barnhart said. “I happen to think the answer to that is ‘yes.’ But we will have to see.”
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.