Last year, the SEC welcomed four first-year coaches to the league. They were four fresh faces who had each taken a unique road to get there. Some enjoyed tremendous success right off the bat while others endured a much more difficult struggle in Year 1. But ultimately, it proved to be a learning experience for all four rookie coaches.
Now, as they embark on Year 2, they’re all at different places in their respective programs, and their messages reflect that.
Better in Year 2
Gus Malzahn had an advantage when he arrived at Auburn -- he had been there before. Malzahn spent three years as offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2011, so he was familiar with some of the players, the administrators and even the fans.
It showed because the transition from coordinator to head coach was seamless. Malzahn helped orchestrate one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, taking a 3-9 team the year before and winning 12 games plus an SEC championship. The Tigers came within 13 seconds of winning their second national championship in four years.
Despite how successful his first year was on the field, Malzahn learned that off the field there were a lot of things that go into being a head coach in the SEC -- things that have nothing to do with football in some cases.
The returning Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year believes he’s better prepared for Year 2 and his goal is improve on Year 1, both on and off the field.
“It definitely helps that you’ve been through it a year and you understand it better,” Malzahn said. “And like anything else, you do something once you know the challenge is being better at it the second time.”
The power of one
Butch Jones didn’t have the same success as Malzahn in his first year at Tennessee, but when asked about the biggest difference between Year 1 and Year 2, he too talked about the familiarity that he now has with the league and his team.
“I know exactly where we’re at in our football program,” Jones said. “Our improvements that need to be made, understanding the league even that much more -- the dynamics of it, the daily grind of going through an SEC season.
“I know much more about the lay of the land and where we’re at in terms of the hierarchy in the conference, in recruiting, on the field, off the field, so much more in just one year.”
Similar to Malzahn, Jones has a new challenge ahead of him albeit a much bigger one. Tennessee lost its entire offensive and defensive lines, and nearly 50 percent of this year’s players will be going through their first college football season.
The goal last year was to play in a bowl game, and at 5-7, the Volunteers came up just short. This year, the goal is simply “the power of one.”
“With us being as youthful as we are, we have to focus on each moment, one practice, one day at a time, one snap at a time,” Jones said. “We can never get ahead of ourselves. That’s going to be the challenge.”
Bret Bielema is a Big Ten guy. He was born and raised in Illinois, he played at Iowa, and he spent seven seasons as Wisconsin’s head coach. That’s what made it so surprising when he left the Badgers for a job in the SEC at Arkansas.
Nevertheless, Bielema wanted to bring that power, smash-mouth style to the SEC. The only problem is that the SEC wasn’t having it. The Razorbacks lost nine consecutive games to finish the season and failed to win a conference game for the first time since joining the league in 1992. It didn’t help that his counterpart Malzahn, an Arkansas native who butted heads with Bielema at times, enjoyed the success that he did on the Plains.
Don’t look for Bielema to start implementing his own hurry-up, no-huddle offense this season, though.
“I think the biggest thing I took away, especially after the season, is you have to be true to who you are, what you've been,” Bielema said. “Don't flinch. There's a lot of times there's some teams that go through some adversity, you know, for sure a team that doesn't win a game in their conference, they're going to change out philosophy, got a new idea, new this, new that. I believe you have to do what you do better.”
Never look back
Before Mark Stoops arrived, Kentucky went 2-10 and lost every SEC game by an average of 25 points. The cupboard was essentially bare. The fans were too busy waiting on basketball season to show up for the football games. It wasn’t a good situation.
In Stoops’ first year, the results on the field were no different as the Wildcats finished 2-10 for the second straight season and failed to win a conference game for the second straight season. However, the players’ attitude was different -- they showed fight -- and the second-year coach believes you’ll see more of that this coming season.
“We showed signs of it last year, and I know everybody at Kentucky appreciates that -- being scrappy, being tough, playing with that great passion, playing with that great energy,” Stoops told Kentucky Sports Radio last week. “This year’s team is going to have that, and we’re going to never look back.”
Stoops doesn’t want his team looking back at last season. He certainly doesn’t want them looking back at what happened two years ago. He wants them focused on the present, and it starts Aug. 30 with a home game against UT-Martin.