Associated Press File Photo
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema stands on the sidelines during the first quarter of a Big Ten Conference game against Penn State on Nov. 24 in State College, Pa. Bielema, now at Arkansas, is one of four new head coaches in the Southeastern Conference as the 2013 season approaches.
Auburn coach and Fort Smith native Gus Malzahn spent part of his first turn at Southeastern Conference Media Days calling concerns about the hurry-up offense causing more injuries “a joke.”
A few hours later, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema delivered a rebuttal. He’s not a comedian, he said. He just wants “normal American football.”
Welcome to the SEC, fellas. You’ll fit in just fine.
The coaching churn was heavy in the SEC during the offseason and now four new faces make their debut this fall. Bielema, Malzahn, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Tennessee’s Butch Jones inherit vastly different circumstances at their respective schools and have different styles, but all will be judged by the same stark standard: wins and losses in the cutthroat conference.
Jones, who came to Tennessee after a successful stint at Cincinnati, said he’s asked constantly about the transition to a conference that’s won the past seven BCS national titles.
“The best analogy I can give you is every day in the SEC is like fourth-and-one for the national championship,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s practice, recruiting or game time, which I’ll experience soon … The competitive structure of this football conference, the difference between winning and losing is very slim.”
And the margin for patience might be even slimmer.
The SEC is the land of big egos, big stadiums and even bigger football budgets, and the four coaches — who have agreed to contracts worth about a combined $60 million — have quickly tried to mark their territory.
The Bielema vs. Malzahn dustup was a good example. Those two teams will meet on Nov. 2 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. The Hogs won 24-7 last season at Auburn to leave the series at 11-10-1 in the Tigers’ favor, but Auburn has lost two straight in Fayetteville and hasn’t won there since a 9-7 triumph in 2007.
It’s certainly possible to have quick success in the SEC and, in fact, it’s demanded. Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze, Florida’s Will Muschamp, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin have vastly improved their programs despite being on the job for three years or less.
Bielema, 43, might be the SEC’s most intriguing hire. The Razorbacks pried him away from Wisconsin after a successful seven-year run with the Badgers.
In some ways, it was a strange move. The square-jawed, wide-shouldered Midwestern man is almost the antithesis of the SEC and seemed a perfect fit for the Big Ten.
His power offense is almost a complete 180 from former coach Bobby Petrino’s air-it-out philosophy and he has virtually no experience recruiting in the areas that are normally fertile for the Razorbacks, like Texas and Oklahoma.
But as his passionate display at media days showed, Bielema will not be intimidated.
“This team has all the ingredients as a head coach that can make teams win,” Bielema said. “I haven’t been through an SEC schedule, through the stadiums, I haven’t been through an away game schedule quite like the one we face. I do know this: We have a team that’s very hungry, a group of coaches that are very gifted, we have a staff that is very talented and a lot of years to back that up.”
While Bielema is decidedly old school, Malzahn, the coach last season at Arkansas State, represents what’s new in college football.
The 47-year-old has had a quick rise through the coaching ranks, achieving stardom when he helped develop an offense at Auburn that utilized quarterback Cam Newton and led the Tigers to a national title in 2010.
His hurry-up, no-huddle approach that produced multiple high school state championships at Shiloh Christian Academy and Springdale High School is getting popular in the SEC — Freeze, also a former Arkansas State coach, and Sumlin are also devoted disciples of that offense.
And Malzahn plans on winning quickly at a place not known for patience. The previous coach, Gene Chizik, was fired just two years after winning that 2010 national championship with Malzahn running the Tigers’ offensive fireworks.
“I think when you take a head coaching job, you know exactly what you’re getting into,” Malzahn said. “You’ve got to be prepared. You have to have a plan. The bottom line is you have to be successful. I think all coaches — especially in this league — understand that.”
The 45-year-old Jones takes over a proud Tennessee program that’s fallen on hard times over the past five seasons.
Jones’ main task has been providing some stability. The Volunteers have had four different coaches over the past six seasons.
Tennessee desperately needs to win some football games — and not simply because of pride. The athletic department has had money problems of late, which the school attributes to three consecutive losing seasons in football, and a decline in ticket sales and donations.
The 46-year-old Stoops takes over a Kentucky program that has struggled to maintain sustained success. The previous coach, Joker Phillips, lasted just three seasons.
Stoops, the brother of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, had a successful run as the defensive coordinator at Florida State under Jimbo Fisher before taking the Kentucky job. He’s also caused a stir on the recruiting trail, picking up commitments from several high-profile players.
At a school known for its basketball program, that’s no small feat.
“We have to get better in all areas of our program,” Stoops said. “We have to continue to build more depth. But what that being said, it’s our job to develop the players that we have, to put them in a position to be successful, and to go out there and compete each and every week.”
At A Glance
Southeastern Conference Rookies
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
COLLEGE: University of Iowa (1989-92), nose guard.
CAREER W-L: 68-24, Wisconsin, seven seasons, 37-19 in Big Ten Conference play. Hired to replace John L. Smith.
IN 2012: Wisconsin, 8-5, 4-4 Big Ten.
2013 KEY GAMES: Aug. 31, Louisiana-Lafayette; Sept. 28, Texas A&M; Oct. 19, at Alabama; Nov. 2, Auburn.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
COLLEGE: Arkansas (1984-85), Henderson State (1986-87), wide receiver.
CAREER W-L: 9-3, Arkansas State, one season. Hired to replace Gene Chizik.
IN 2012: Arkansas State, 9-3, 7-1 Sun Belt Conference champions.
2013 KEY GAMES: Aug. 31, Washington State; Sept. 7, Arkansas State; Nov. 2, at Arkansas; Nov. 30, Alabama.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
COLLEGE: University of Iowa (1986-88), defensive back.
CAREER W-L: First season as head coach. Hired to replace Joker Phillips.
IN 2012: Headed up a Florida State defense that helped lead the Seminoles to their first Atlantic Coast Conference title in seven seasons.
2013 KEY GAMES: Aug. 31, vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville; Sept. 14, Louisville; Oct. 24, at Mississippi State; Nov. 30, Tennessee.
Butch Jones, Tennessee
COLLEGE: Ferris State University (1986-87), offense.
CAREER W-L: 50-27 overall, six seasons (Cincinnati, 23-14, 12-9 Big East Conference from 2010-12; Central Michigan, 27-13, 20-3 Mid-American Conference from 2007-09). Hired to replace Derek Dooley.
IN 2012: Cincinnati, 9-3, 5-2 Big East Conference, won second straight conference title.
2013 KEY GAMES: Sept. 14, at Oregon; Nov. 9, Auburn; Nov. 23, Vanderbilt; Nov. 30, at Kentucky.