The Southeastern Conference could be getting another makeover, and this one would have nothing to do with expansion.
The league that has won six consecutive national championships has more coaches on the proverbial “hot seat” than in any recent year, with potential openings at Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Razorbacks seemingly are in disarray, while the Tigers, Wildcats and Volunteers have had all sorts of on-field problems.
With the season a little past the halfway point, talk about possible replacements is more rampant than speculation about the upcoming recruiting class or even basketball season. Well, not at Kentucky.
Still, all that conjecture can make a long season feel like it’s never going to end.
“There can be outside distractions whether you’re doing great or whether you’re doing not as well as you certainly would like to be doing,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “The great thing about college football is everybody’s got an opinion. It’s the greatest sport on the planet, and part of what makes it so great in this part of the country is that everybody does have an opinion.
“When you get into this, if you’re not strong enough to handle that, then you’re in the wrong business – both as a player and as a coach.”
The way things have unfolded at Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee, it could be gut-check time for all four coaches and their assistants.
The Razorbacks fired coach Bobby Petrino in April for hiring his mistress to a position in the athletic department and initially lying about her presence during a motorcycle accident. Athletic director Jeff Long then hired former Michigan State and Louisville head coach John L. Smith to a 10-month contract.
Arkansas (3-4, 2-2 SEC) went 1-4 in September, including home losses to Louisiana-Monroe and Rutgers. Making matters worse for Smith, he mistakenly referred to Arkansas as Alabama during a speech and told reporters to smile two days after a 52-0 loss to the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Smith also is making headlines for his $40.7-million bankruptcy.
Long said Monday he would like to have the team’s next coach in place two weeks after the regular season. He has not ruled out Smith as a candidate, but given all that has happened this season, it’s hard to fathom any scenario in which Smith stays in Fayetteville.
“In the end, it becomes who is interested in us,” Long said. “Even though I have had quite a long time to look at and research coaches, I don’t know who is truly interested in us, and we won’t know that really until almost the end game because we’ve all seen other searches within this conference where they’ve ended up with their second, third choice so to speak.”
Auburn secretly interviewed Petrino late in the 2003 season – while Tommy Tuberville still was the Tigers’ head coach – and many wonder whether Auburn would go after the offensive-minded coach again.
Of course, that would mean firing Chizik two years after winning a national championship.
The Tigers (1-5, 0-4 SEC) rank last in the SEC in total offense, clearly struggling with the transition from Gus Malzahn’s spread offense to Scot Loeffler’s pro-style system. Auburn has lost six consecutive SEC games by a combined score of 192-68 and is trying to avoid the program’s first 1-6 start since 1952.
Maybe the most telling mark is Chizik’s 17-15 record sans 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
“You have to be strong enough to be able to block out the positives when they’re telling you how great you are because you’re never that great,” Chizik said.
“You have to be able to block out the negatives when they tell you how bad you are because you’re never that bad. That’s the message that I give to our team on a daily basis. How much they choose to listen and buy into what everybody’s opinion (is), I can’t control that.”
Kentucky (1-6, 0-4 SEC), meanwhile, has lost 13 of its last 17 games under coach Joker Phillips. The Wildcats have failed to build off that 2010 bowl berth, prompting the fan base to clamor for change.
Phillips said Monday he talks with athletic director Mitch Barnhart a couple of times a week, but just about “small talk.”
“He’s been very encouraging,” Phillips said. “It’s nothing which you want to get at. One thing Mitch and I are: We’re friends. That’s more important to me than anything on the business side. We are friends.
“And I can tell you this: There are not a lot of people out there that can say that they’re friends with their AD. There are not a lot of them. One thing that I do cherish and I do appreciate is our friendship.”
Expectations at Kentucky hardly compare to those at Tennessee, where coach Derek Dooley has come under fire after conference losses keep piling up.
The Volunteers (3-3, 0-3 SEC) are 14-17 in Dooley’s three seasons but just 4-15 in SEC play. They also are 0-13 against top-25 opponents, and Dooley’s first two years produced the program’s first consecutive losing seasons since 1909-11.
There have been signs of progress, though.
Tennessee, outscored by an average of 19 points in seven SEC losses last year, led Florida in the second half and trailed by a score in the fourth quarter against Georgia and Mississippi State.
But will that kind of improvement be enough to keep Dooley in Knoxville?
“More than anything, you have to define who you are, not somebody else,” Dooley said.
“It’s a life lesson. You can’t let somebody else define who you are. The best way to define who you are is when you make a mistake or you don’t play well, you don’t dwell on it. You don’t make an excuse. You don’t try to defend it. You just focus on the next mission and be proud of what you put into it every day.
“When you do that, you feel good about yourself as a man. You feel good about yourself as a player and you go do the best you can. Right now, we haven’t done the best we can. That’s what we ought to be concerned about.”
The Volunteers have plenty of company in that department.
Four coaching changes would be rare in the SEC, which hasn’t had that many since Florida, LSU, Mississippi and South Carolina hired new coaches after the 2004 season.
“I’ve been through tremendous, fantastic things as a coach in college football,” Chizik said. “I’ve been through some battles. I understand how the whole ebb and flow of the nature of a college football season may go, good or bad.
“I think most of our kids hear that, and they understand it, and they learn lessons, because a lot of our guys on our team have heard the same story two years ago, but it was flipped.”
AP Sports Writers Gary Graves in Lexington, Ky., Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., and John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., contributed to this report.