Alma Mater Allure: Checkered history means no guaranteed success as SEC coaches return home
With the holiday season in full swing, thoughts of home are near impossible to escape. Why fight it?
Whether it’s the nostalgia of returning to the spot where so many memories were developed or the taste of home cooking, home is special. Yes, that smell from the couch is Uncle Pete, but all is good … you’re home.
An equivalent feeling can be attained professionally too.
Kirby Smart hauled in 11 interceptions in his final two seasons between the hedges in Sanford Stadium. He recently jumped at the chance to return to Athens, Ga. and coach at UGA, his alma mater. Around the same time Smart was patrolling the secondary for the Bulldogs, Barry Odom was enforcing the middle of the defense at Missouri. He just got the opportunity to follow legendary coach Gary Pinkel and run the show in Columbia, Mo.
Mark Richt – who was removed from power at UGA, opening the job Smart filled – found solace in a job with Miami. Richt attempted 229 passes over four seasons with the Hurricanes and was a member of one of the more prominent passing corps ever assembled. Richt rubbed elbows at practice with Vinny Testaverde, Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar – a trio that went on to win the Heisman Trophy, enter the NFL Hall of Fame and win a Super Bowl, respectively – to name a few fellow Miami quarterbacks from 1978-82.
The path of returning home has been paved previously, most recently and notably by Jim Harbaugh. Michigan won 36 games while Harbaugh was enrolled, but more paramount to his wins as a passer were the nine wins in 2015. The Wolverines had only enjoyed one nine-win season in the previous seven, and Harbaugh’s ballyhooed arrival in Ann Arbor, Mich. was met with as much pomp as a presidential cavalcade.
Heck, Harbaugh’s khaki pants were so popular they warranted their own dedicated camera during games. Imagine how popular Harbaugh will be if he can return Michigan to its former glory.
Returning to campus as a coach isn’t as facile as Harbaugh made it look. For every rock-star homecoming there’s a journey fraught with peril (think Frodo Baggins’ adventure through Middle Earth before he successfully tossed the ring into the chasm or any time Kanye West hops on a stage to spew his awkward sentiments).
Going home isn’t easy. But it can be an extremely enjoyable experience. How will Smart, Odom and Richt fare? We’ll watch to find out. While we do, let’s look at some other famous homecomings as either cautionary tales or harbingers of hope.
Bear Bryant, Alabama – After winning 71 percent of his games at Kentucky (60-23) and 63 percent at Texas A&M (25-14) Bryant returned to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to take over the Crimson Tide, a place he roamed the defensive line and contributed to a 1934 national title as a player. His coaching record was far more impressive.
By the time Bryant left Alabama, he was the all-time winningest coach in college history and had delivered 13 SEC championships and six national titles to his alma mater.
Steve Spurrier, Florida – Spurrier was a Consensus All-American and Heisman Trophy winner in 1966 for the Florida Gators. After leading Duke to an ACC title (he won at a predominantly basketball school well before it was fashionable to do so) as a coach in 1989, he got the call to come home to Gainesville, Fla.
Success immediately followed.
In Spurrier’s 12 seasons with Florida the Gators never won fewer than nine games and he won the SEC’s Coach of the Year award five times. Florida also won the 1996 national title under Spurrier’s watch.
Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech – Was it his one rushing attempt for 11 yards in 1967 or three seasons in the defensive backfield that prepared Beamer for a legendary coaching career? We all know the answer.
Beamer returned to Virginia Tech in 1987 and struggled with a 2-9 record to start and only 24 wins in his first six seasons. But after he stumbled out of the gates, Beamer posted 22 consecutive winning seasons, went to a bowl game in each of those and won seven conference championships on the way to 237 victories.
Ray Goff, UGA – Goff was a run-first quarterback for UGA who won 1976 SEC Player of the Year honors and finished seventh in Heisman voting. His return to Athens as a coach wasn’t a fruitful.
Outside of two bowl wins – and a combined 19-5 record – in 1991 and 1992, Goff coached the Bulldogs for five seasons of 27-29-1 football. Goff found that not only is it tough to middling at your alma mater, it’s even rougher to follow a living legend. Goff took over from one of the greats at UGA, Vince Dooley.
Gene Stallings, Texas A&M – Stallings hauled in a whopping 11 passes – his numbers were actually crazy good … two touchdowns on just 11 grabs and an 18.5 yards-per-catch average – during his playing days at Texas A&M. Nine years after he last strapped on a helmet for the Aggies, he returned as head coach.
In seven seasons he only offered one winning campaign, a 7-4 record in 1967 that finished with a Cotton Bowl victory. Otherwise, he only won 20 games in six losing seasons and was ousted from College Station, Texas after a 27-45-1 record.