SEC Basketball Coaches Are Infinitely Better Than SEC Football Coaches

Mar 26, 2017; New York, NY, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin celebrates after beating the Florida Gators in the finals of the East Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports Brad Penner

The 2017 NCAA basketball tournament is already the most successful NCAA tournament since 1986 for the SEC and we haven’t even finished the Final Four yet. For the first time since 1986 three different SEC teams advanced to the Elite 8 and while the league would have loved Kentucky to not collapse down the stretch against North Carolina, the South Carolina Gamecocks moved on to the Final Four, defeating the Florida Gators in an all SEC regional final in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. For a basketball league that has been struggling for much of the past decade, the success caught many by surprise. 

But if you’ve been paying attention to the recent hires in SEC basketball, it shouldn’t have surprised you. 

That’s because the SEC basketball coaches are really good. In fact, they’re infinitely better than the SEC football coaches from top to bottom. Don’t believe me?

Let’s take a look at the basketball coaches first. 

If you were to rank the basketball coaches taking into account both what they’ve done at their present jobs and what they did at previous jobs, a top 14 would look something like this. (Essentially I am ranking these guys based on NCAA tourney trips and success once they get there. So my top four, for instance, are the only four to ever advance to the Final Four of the NCAA tourney. Your list my differ, but probably not too much from my own):

1. John Calipari

2. Rick Barnes

3. Ben Howland 

4. Frank Martin

5. Bruce Pearl 

6. Mike Anderson

7. Mike White

8. Cuonzo Martin

9. Avery Johnson

10. Bryce Drew

11. Mark Fox

12. Andy Kennedy

13. Billy Kennedy  

14. Will Wade

Now you can argue with these rankings — should Avery Johnson’s NBA coaching tenure count for more or should his back-to-back NITs at Alabama count for more? How do you balance out the consistent success Rick Barnes had at Texas with his relatively new tenure at Tennessee and how do you handle Bruce Pearl’s mediocre performance at Auburn compared to his run of six straight NCAA tournaments at Tennessee? Have I ranked Mike White and Frank Martin too highly based on just one year of successful NCAA tournaments? Again, you can quibble with the rankings here, but my point is there are a lot of really good resumes on this list. 

In fact, if I told you that your school’s coach was leaving and you could only hire a replacement from the list of current SEC coaches, you’d have a ton of great options. The SEC’s list of coaches compares favorably with just about every major basketball conference in the country. It may not be the best collection of power five coaches 1-14, but it’s not far off.

How does that happen?

Because the SEC has realistic basketball goals. Just get to the NCAA tournament and see what happens. Great may be the goal, but good is enough to stay employed.

Moreover, unlike in football where Nick Saban’s success dominates the conference and it’s impossible to win a championship without toppling him, John Calipari’s success doesn’t really impact the rest of the basketball coaches negatively. That is, even if Calipari wins the SEC and the SEC tournament it doesn’t really matter. Because you can still get into the NCAA tournament and advance farther than him. Just like Frank Martin did this year.

Indeed, the Gamecocks, in their fifth year under Martin, really didn’t get good until year four, when after three seasons of 14-18, 14-20, and 17-16 they suddenly jumped up to 25-10, narrowly missing the tourney. (If you’re an Auburn basketball fan, Martin’s SEC record after three season at South Carolina was just 15-39. Bruce Pearl’s SEC record after three years at Auburn is 16-38. Will Auburn see a big jump in years four and five like South Carolina did under Martin? We’ll see. My bet is yes.)

Why did the SEC stink for a decade? Because the hires stunk. I’d argue that this is where we’re seeing the biggest impact of SEC Network money, there are a lot of good coaches who can be persuaded to come coach in the SEC because the league is trending up, the facilities are great, and the pay is extraordinarily good. 

But what about SEC football?

It’s moved the exact opposite direction because many schools — Tennessee with Phil Fulmer, LSU with Les Miles, and Georgia with Mark Richt — have decided that good seasons aren’t enough in the age of Saban. Toss in the fact that Saban almost killed Urban Meyer when he was at Florida and we’ve entered into an era of Nick Saban and all the mini-Sabans beneath him. (Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee have all hired Saban assistants to attempt to beat him). The result has been, for the most part, abject failure.   

Here’s my best attempt at ranking the SEC football coaches 1-14:

1. Nick Saban

2. Gus Malzahn

3. Kevin Sumlin

4. Jim McElwain

5. Dan Mullen 

6. Butch Jones

7. Bret Bielema 

8. Kirby Smart

9. Will Muschamp 

10. Mark Stoops 

11. Derek Mason

12. Ed Orgeron   

13. Barry Odom

14. Hugh Freeze

Again, I don’t expect for you to agree with me on every ranking — Hugh Freeze is the hardest to slot here since you have to balance out good on field success with the fact that he’s probably going to get fired over NCAA issues and that Ole Miss is going to get hammered — but if your coach got fired and you could only hire another coach from inside the conference, other than Nick Saban who would you take and be really excited about hiring?

Amazingly, Gus Malzahn is the only coach in the SEC right now other than Nick Saban who has ever even won the conference title. (Saban, Malzahn and Jim McElwain are the only three coaches to have even had teams play in the SEC title game).

Last year every SEC coach with the exception of Saban lost at least four games. It’s a big pile of mediocrity.

How bad is it for SEC football? There are substantial segments of every fan base that want Malzahn, Sumlin, McElwain, Jones and Bielema all fired and I have those guys ranked in the top half of my SEC football coaches.

How does this happen? You can make a strong argument that the SEC’s run of seven straight titles created unrealistic expectations among SEC fans. (And it wasn’t like SEC football fans were renowned for their rational thought beforehand.) The SEC has won ten consensus national titles since 1998, by five different schools. The Big Ten has won just 2.5 national titles since 1971. Nick Saban by himself has won five titles in his last 12 years coaching in college football. That’s twice as many titles as the Big Ten has won in the last 45 years.

Put simply, Nick Saban is Michael Jordan.

It isn’t that your coach is doing a crappy job if he’s losing to Nick Saban, it’s that every coach is doing a pretty crappy job against Nick Saban. But the problem with college football is if you can’t beat Nick Saban you can’t win a title. And right now you’re being judged by how you do against Jordan. Only instead of just sucking it up and realizing that Jordan is tough to beat, the SEC schools have all gone and fired their good coaches because they weren’t great. Imagine if the Utah Jazz had kicked Karl Malone and John Stockton to the curb because they couldn’t beat Jordan and the New York Knicks had released Patrick Ewing for the same reason.

That’s effectively what the SEC has done.  

As a result of Saban’s dominance top coaches would rather go to other conferences than coach in the SEC right now. They just don’t think they can beat Saban. Look at the top four coaches in the Big Ten right now: Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, James Franklin, and Mark Dantonio would be the 2nd-5th best coaches in the SEC. (The argument against this is that Bret Bielema was very successful at Wisconsin and has stunk at Arkansas. But the counter argument to that would be that only Dantonio overlapped with Bielema at all and that was when Dantonio was building up a bad program. Put it this way, do you think Bielema would go to Wisconsin today and regularly beat Harbaugh, Meyer, Franklin or Dantonio)

How about the ACC? Dabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher and Bobby Petrino, if you look at their overall resumes, are clearly the 2nd-4th best coaches in the SEC right now. (Mark Richt would still be the second best coach in the SEC if Georgia hadn’t fired him and Richt is only top four in the ACC). Hell, even the Big 12 has better coaches than the SEC. Bob Stoops, Mike Gundy, Gary Patterson, and Bill Snyder are better than any foursome the SEC can offer. It gets even wilder — the Pac 12 is probably better at the top of the conference coaching ranks than the SEC is too. Would you rather have Chris Petersen, David Shaw, Kyle Whittingham, Mike Leach and Jim Mora or the SEC’s top five?

Amazingly, the SEC now has the worst football coaches in major college sports and even more amazingly the SEC might have the best basketball coaches top to bottom of any major conference.

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the result of Nick Saban’s dominance is crystal clear. In what may be the most remarkable of all of Nick Saban’s accomplishments he’s performed a true Southern miracle — Saban’s turned the SEC into a basketball conference.  

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.