Tuesday was national tax day in the United States, and millions of Americans across the country were seeking the maximum amount of money possible on their tax returns. Likewise, in the SEC, the 14 member institutions that make up the conference and their fanbases are seeking the maximum amount of wins in return for the millions being paid out towards their head coaches.
In the spirt of tax season, let’s go through and see which SEC head football coaches are giving the most in return for what they are being paid, and which ones are not. This is based off of on-field success and/or current condition of the program.
Nick Saban (Alabama)
We all know the numbers by now, and they speak for themselves. In ten years at Alabama Nick Saban has won four national championships, and five SEC championships; has had nine straight 10+ win seasons, and has been 7-1 or 8-0 in conference play in eight of his ten seasons.
Saban’s near $7 million salary is worth every single penny, and not just for the on-field success, but for what the on-field success has done for the University of Alabama as an institution.
If you have ever set foot on campus in Tuscaloosa in the past six or more years, you have probably noticed that there is at least one operating crane at all times. The overall boost in student enrollment, money, and resources pouring into the university is not just a mere correlation with the football program’s success, it is a direct result of it, and it has everything to do with Nick Saban.
Jim McElwain (Florida)
How the Florida Gators have managed to get to back-to-back SEC championship games the last two years is unbelievable. Jim McElwain has gotten more out of the Gators than most coaches could, especially when you considered the extremely inconsistent quarterback play they have had.
The Gators have benefited from a top notch defense as a crutch for the poor QB play, but McElwain’s best coaching job might be ahead of him. Florida loses their highly-thought-of defensive coordinator Geoff Collins (who took the head coaching job at Temple), and they lose standouts Teez Tabor, Jarrad Davis, and Marcus Maye on that side of the ball.
Maximizing talent is the greatest testament to good coaching, and that’s why McElwain lands in the “high return” category. He’ll have to do that again in 2017.
Mark Stoops (Kentucky)
It took Mark Stoops four seasons to finally break through at Kentucky, so his placement in this category may come as a surprise. What Stoops has done goes much further than wins and losses though. He has recruited, and recruited hard.
The Wildcats have always had some solid talent throughout the years — Randall Cobb, Bud Dupree, Avery Williamson, Stevie Johnson — but the difference between then and heading into 2017 is they finally have depth now.
Those three long seasons building up towards a great 2016 season have set up Kentucky to be an SEC East darkhorse this year. Watch for Kentucky to continue to make the climb under Stoops in 2017.
Dan Mullen (Mississippi State)
Where would the Mississippi State football program be without Dan Mullen? That’s a question most State fans do not want to know the answer to. The Bulldogs have reached all-time heights under Mullen, leading them to seven consecutive bowl game appearances (a school record).
Mississippi State has gone to great lengths to keep their guy in Starkville, giving Mullen a nice $300,000 pay raise and another contract extension this past offseason. In response, he keeps churning out those W’s and has significantly improved the value of the Mississippi State football brand. More importantly than that for State fans, he has a 5-3 Egg Bowl record.
It is surprising that Mullen has not bolted for greener pastures at some point, as it can be very tough to fight for air in the suffocating SEC West. The seven straight bowl appearances speak for themselves though, and his offensive wizardry and quarterback coaching abilities will always have them in a position to compete for wins.
Kirby Smart (Georgia)
Smart’s first year in Athens was very average, thus it lands him in the “average” category. The Dawgs most notable victory from the 2016 season was a win over then 8th ranked Auburn. That highlighted an up-and-down year (especially on offense), where 5-star true freshman QB Jacob Eason went through his share of growing pains.
What Smart has done on the recruiting front is what’s got him setting up to move up a category on this list. Kirby is taking advantage of being in one of the most talent-rich high school football states in America, and has signed the eighth and third ranked recruiting classes in his first two recruiting seasons. His best recruiting job however, may have been convincing the talented RB duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to return for their senior seasons though.
Georgia’s expectations are through the roof entering the 2017 season (whether they deserve them or not). If Smart can manage those expectations, then he could be looking at a nice pay raise & contract extension.
Ed Orgeron (LSU)
Orgeron’s placement on this list is mostly a result of the unknown. We do not know what is ahead for Coach O, but we do know that no coach is going to work harder than him. Working hard does not always translate to on-field success however (and did not in his only stint as a permanent head coach).
Coach O went 5-2 down the stretch last year before having the interim tag removed and becoming permanent head coach. LSU seemed revitalized by a coach that is a perfect personality fit for a team on the Bayou.
LSU is paying Orgeron more than $800,000 less than they paid Les Miles, but that’s fine by him. That gave Orgeron more money to pay for a top notch coaching staff, as he was able to snag the highly sought after Matt Canada as the Tigers new OC for 2017.
Barry Odom (Missouri)
There is no way around it, Missouri was just plain bad in 2016, but all of that cannot be placed on Barry Odom. Odom inherited a 5-7 team that lost what talent was left from back-to-back SEC championship game appearances (under former Coach Gary Pinkel). The result of that was 4-8 season, that included a last place finish in the SEC East.
The Tigers do have some building blocks in place though. Missouri finished with a surprising win over Arkansas at home to close out the season. QB Drew Lock returns for his junior year after ranking 2nd in the SEC in passing yards per game, and they return his top target D’Mon Moore, who was one of only two SEC receivers to eclipse the 1000 yard mark in 2016.
Odom is the lowest paid coach in the conference, so the result is on par with the price for right now. However, Odom will not survive long putting together 4-8 seasons.
Will Muschamp (South Carolina)
For some reason, Will Muschamp feels like he might wind up being a better fit in Columbia than he was in Gainesville. The South Carolina job looked like a rebuilding job that Muschamp might not be cut out for, but one year in, he’s already making the case that he might be.
It has long been said that coaching legends can leave on their own time, but there’s no denying that Steve Spurrier left the Gamecocks high and dry with his midseason retirement. Muschamp getting South Carolina to a bowl game just one year after that mess made the Gamecocks the most surprising SEC bowl team in 2016.
South Carolina’s future is looking considerably brighter than expected heading into year two under Muschamp. Quarterback Jake Bentley is a gem, and the Gamecocks have a recruited well too. Muschamp’s failed tenure at Florida could be redeemed at USC.
Butch Jones (Tennessee)
This may come as a surprise that Butch fell in this category after his Vols were handed multiple opportunities to win the SEC East last year, and could not capitalize, but hear me out… The state of Tennessee football was probably as bad as it has ever been in the modern era following Derek Dooley’s tenure on Rocky Top. Not only were the Vols not winning, but morale was at an all-time low amongst alumni, fans, and current and former players.
If you can take anything away from the Butch Jones era so far, it is that they have at least be in the national conversation again. That is something that Vols’ fans have not been able to say since 2007.
With all of that in mind, the miss chances cannot be ignored. Six of UT’s eight losses the last two years have been by seven points or less. At some point, Butch has got to step up and win the nail-biters.
Derek Mason (Vanderbilt)
Derek Mason coached his way into the “average return” list in 2016. Vanderbilt was coming off the best two year period in school history when James Franklin bolted for the Penn State job, so expectations were at an all-time high for Commodores fans when Mason took the job in Nashville in 2014.
Mason’s ‘Dores laid a goose egg in SEC play his first year (going 0-8), and followed that with a 4-8 overall record in 2015. That 2015 unit was superb on defense though, and that carried over into the 2016 season (led by All-SEC standout LB Zach Cunningham). The offense finally caught up the final two games of the regular season last year, beating Ole Miss and Tennessee to clinch their first bowl bid since 2013.
Maintaining the bar set during the James Franklin era is unreasonable for Vanderbilt. Being one of the lowest paid coaches in the conference, getting bowl eligible is an appropriate return for Vanderbilt and Derek Mason.
Bret Bielema (Arkansas)
If one word described the Bret Bielema era at Arkansas, it would be “adequate”. It has been good at times, it has been bad at times, but overall when you consider the mess he inherited (from the Petrino fallout, and John L. Smith debacle), the Razorbacks have been moderately successful. Is “adequate” worth the now $1.5+ million pay differential he is receiving versus his Wisconsin salary though?
Bielema brought a championship pedigree with him from Wisconsin, winning three Big Ten titles, and having four 10+ win seasons in his seven year tenure. I tend to give Bielema a free pass for his first year in Fayetteville (when the Hogs went winless in SEC play) because of the state of the program when he arrived. I’m not saying the Razorbacks should have championship level expectations every year, but at what point does the alumni and fanbase start expecting more than average?
It has been proven before that you can win at a “higher-than-average” rate at Arkansas. Houston Nutt had the Razorbacks in three SEC championship games over a nine year period, and Bobby Petrino had back-to-back 10+ win seasons in 2010-11 (making Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl appearances). Arkansas opened up the bank to snag Bielema away from Wisconsin, and there’s no reason why the Razorbacks could not be knocking on the door in the SEC West.
Gus Malzahn (Auburn)
No one will ever be able to take that incredible and magical 2013 season away from Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers, but in a “what have you done for me lately” business, is Gus worth being the eighth highest paid coach in college football?
Since that miraculous run to the 2013-14 National Championship game, Auburn has been a very pedestrian SEC team. Following that 12-2 SEC championship season, the Tigers have gone 8-5, 7-6, and 8-5 (including an 11-13 conference record in those 3 years).
Malzahn’s Tigers made some nice strides last year, especially on defense, as that side of the ball carried the torch for the first time during his tenure. Auburn also brings in highly-touted JUCO transfer Jarrett Stidham (played at Baylor in 2015). The former 5-star recruit could be the answer the Tigers have been looking for at QB the last two years. I give Malzahn the highest probability to coach his way out of the “low return” category.
Hugh Freeze (Mississippi)
Outside of the 2016 season, Hugh Freeze’s tenure probably would have landed him in the “high return” category, but what’s gone on in Oxford, MS in the last 12+ months cannot be ignored (and mostly for off-the-field reasons). The Ole Miss Rebels’ football program is in a “state of the unknown” as an on-going NCAA investigation still looms over them. The Rebs have attempted to be proactive, self-imposing a postseason ban for the 2017 season.
On the field, the Rebels finished 5-7 in 2016 (missing a bowl game for the first time in five seasons under Freeze). This came just one year after a 10-win season, and Sugar Bowl victory. Ole Miss fell from being the SEC’s top ranked scoring defense in 2014, to dead last in 2016 (giving up 37.8 PPG vs. Power 5 opponents).
With a promising young QB (Shea Patterson) running the show on offense, the Rebels hope to get back to their winning ways in 2017. If Freeze can manage to guide his program out from beneath the NCAA’s dark cloud, his “return rate” can turn back around.
Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M)
The Aggies were hotter than the Texas summer sun at the start of the Kevin Sumlin era, but have cooled drastically as of late. Once considered one of the hottest coaching names in football (college or NFL), Sumlin now enters his sixth season at A&M, and his teams have not managed a winning season in SEC play since that 2012 Cotton Bowl winning team (led by Heisman winner Johnny Manziel).
Worse than that, the Aggies have been the ultimate tease each of the past three years, starting 5-0, only to finish with an 8-5 record.
Sumlin is the second highest paid coach in the conference, but with merely a 21-19 SEC record in his five years in College Station, the on-field return is exceedingly less than the $5 million he is currently making. He is amongst the discussion for “most overpaid” coach in college football, and will be coaching for his job in 2017.