Easy to fire. Harder to hire.
That’s the mantra every good athletic director has to live by when making a coaching change. Firing is unpleasant but, except in situations involving NCAA violations or ethics, it’s usually a popular move with a fan base. (Fan bases are not noted for patience.) Even when firing is expensive, as most are these days, fans generally aren’t reluctant to see buyouts paid off in the hope of something new.
It’s getting to the “something new” that’s hard. Ostensibly, the whole purpose of the exercise is to get something better than you had. The market offers lots of possibilities but few guarantees. The problem for an AD is that the same fans who wanted a firing also want a grand slam at hiring time. You can’t hit a grand slam every time. Thus, the worst-case scenario, wherein a program finds itself spinning its tires in a hire-and-fire cycle that can last a decade or more.
With that said, here is a look at the six (!) vacancies in the Southeastern Conference now that the smoke has (mostly) cleared.
FLORIDA: The firing of Jim McElwain, who seemed as if he’d burned out at midseason this year, was unavoidable. Dan Mullen, who comes with plenty of SEC experience from years as a Gator assistant and then a Mississippi State head coach, is a solid choice. The question is whether Mullen is a championship coach who was constrained by some of the economics and recruiting demographics in Starkville, or whether he is just “solid” and not “special.” So it’s not a grand slam, but I’d call it a solid double.
OLE MISS: The fans didn’t want to fire Hugh Freeze (see “ethics” and “NCAA” exceptions above) but seem to have enough sense to realize that trying to sell the job to someone without knowing the dispensation of the NCAA case was like trying to sell someone a car by showing them a crayon drawing of a car. Thus, interim Matt Luke is a way of settling on decent, reliable transportation until you can get things squad away at the bank. The players like him, he did a nice job of holding things together when quarterback Shea Patterson was injured, he won the Egg Bowl and he deserves a shot as much as anyone Ole Miss could have persuaded with more money. No grand slam, but call it an intentional walk.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: Didn’t fire Mullen, he walked. Trying to replicate the formula that worked before — hire a hot name from the assistant ranks — seems to be the route here.
ARKANSAS: Bret Bielema couldn’t outrun his SEC record. The Razorbacks seem to be waiting before wading into the hiring fray for some reason.
TEXAS A&M: Kevin Sumlin was a really good September-October coach. Aggies are swinging for the fences on FSU’s Jimbo Fisher so they can be good from November on.
TENNESSEE: In this coach-hiring circus, Orange is the lowest-hanging fruit. They’ve been bashed, largely for spending the half-season that elapsed after Butch Jones’ fate was sealed lusting after Jon Gruden, then botching the near-hiring of former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano who was unwanted because of his career record, or a connection to the Penn State scandal, or both. I will not pretend to judge the motives of the mutinous fans that scuttled Schiano. I will note that the latest move seems to be for a “family” hire off the Phil Fulmer tree, which sounds like a shallow fly to left field, not a grand slam.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.