Ranking the 14 SEC football coaches is not easy, but Steve Spurrier (left) and Nick Saban have to be at the top of the list.
SOMEWHERE ALONG I-65 (WDRB) – John Lewis and I are on the road to SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Ala. Mark Stoops and three of his University of Kentucky players are scheduled to introduce themselves to more than a thousand media members on Wednesday morning.
But John and I aren't playing License Plate Bingo as we make our way to Alabama. We're talking SEC football. The league has assembled the best collection of coaches in the game. We had this debate about how to rank commissioner Mike Slive's legendary batting order. Please join in.
1. Rick: Nick Saban, Alabama; John: Saban. If you have to ask why, we're not sure this story is for you.
2. Rick: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina; John: Les Miles, Louisiana State. John likes Miles' track record, at least the good part of his track record, not his daffy play-calling. Rick prefers Spurrier and his national title with Gators. And his 22-4 record the last two seasons in Columbia. And never forget the Head Ball Coach also won at Duke. And his sharp tongue.
3. Rick: Miles, LSU; John: Spurrier, South Carolina. John says Spurrier deserves to be in the top three because of what he did at Florida. But John puts Spurrier third because although he's been good at South Carolina, he has not been Florida good there. Rick says Miles has gone 85-21 in Baton Rouge and people talk about him as if he's gone 55-51. If winning at LSU is so easy, what happened to Gerry DiNardo, Curley Hallman and Mike Archer?
4. Rick: Mark Richt, Georgia; John: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. John says Sumlin has given us Johnny Football, a victory over Alabama and a smashing bowl win over Oklahoma. Rick says it's fashionable to complain about Richt, but his 69-32 record in the SEC is hard to knock. And he likes the Bulldogs to win the SEC East this season.
5. Rick: Sumlin, Texas A&M; John: Will Muschamp, Florida. John says Muschamp has done an impressive job of stepping in for Urban Meyer, but can't forget the Gators' Sugar Bowl surrender against Louisville. Rick says Sumlin went 35-17 at Houston. He wonders how many other coaches on this list could do that. Give him names.
6. Rick: Bret Bielema, Arkansas; John: Bielema, Arkansas. John says that if Bielema can have 75 percent of the success in Fayetteville that he had at Wisconsin, he'll be a legend. Rick wants to see how Bielama's smashmouth style of football translates into the ultimate smashmouth league. Rick thinks he has an idea – not very well.
7. Rick: Will Muschamp, Florida; John: Richt, Georgia. John says Richt had an impressive bounce back last season but deserved some heat after slumping in 2009 and 2010. Rick says he is waiting for evidence that Muschamp can develop a quarterback, at least a guy who doesn't throw a pick on the first play of the Sugar Bowl.
8. Rick: Dan Mullen, Mississippi State; John: James Franklin, Vanderbilt. John says any coach who can get Vandy out of the SEC cellar deserves much love, but Franklin has to prove he can do it again. Rick says Mullen has delivered three straight winning seasons in Starkville and needs to get out of the SEC West ASAP. Run, Dan, run.
9. Rick: Gary Pinkel, Missouri; John: Mullen, Miss State. John says folks outside the SEC do not realize what Mullen has accomplished but that until he gets to a BCS game that's not going to change. Rick says Pinkel slipped to 5-7 last season, but that the guy had delivered seven straight winning years – and that's in Columbia, Missouri isn't Columbia, S.C.
10. Rick: James Franklin, Vanderbilt; John: Mark Stoops, Kentucky. John says Stoops' recruiting success at UK and the way he fixed the Florida State defense have created a buzz around Lexington. But he wonders how long it will take somebody who lacks head coaching experience to build a winner in the SEC. Rick stood and gave Franklin an ovation for going 9-4 last season, but he will hold his applause until he does it again.
11. Rick: Butch Jones, Tennessee; John: Jones, Tennessee. Rick says Jones won at Cincinnati, he won at Central Michigan and he's got a killer flat-top. John says Bearcats' fans were sorry to see Jones go, but they weren't heartbroken. There's a difference.
12. Rick: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss; John: Pinkel, Missouri. Rick says Freeze has created jumbo expectations with his recruiting success but he can't overlook the Rebels' home loss to Vandy. John says his expectations for Missouri are as low as the Tigers' fan base, the same fan base that made a T-shirt after Missouri beat Kentucky. Yes, Kentucky.
13. Rick: Mark Stoops, Kentucky; John: Freeze, Ole Miss. Rick says Stoops has done nearly everything right since taking over from Joker Phillips, but he's the only guy in this shark tank who lacks head coaching experience. John wonders if anybody has been excited about Ole Miss football since Eli Manning left town. Probably not.
14. Rick: Gus Malzahn, Auburn; John: Malzahn, Auburn. John and Rick finally agreed on something – somebody had to be last and it needed to be the guy who went 9-3 at Arkansas State and somehow got the job in the same state as Nick Saban.