When discussing coaches, we tend to throw out words like “pressure” and “hot seat” without giving much thought to why we do so.
We can fall victim to groupthink in our Twitter-infused 24/7 news cycle, a beast that must be fed with fresh words, compelling video and provocative perspectives. Sometimes, public perception can resemble a wave during a hurricane. Momentum can build toward labeling a coach “in trouble,” many times without deep thought given to why that’s the case, and there’s no reversing course before the accepted opinion crashes onto the subject of the moment.
This season has included remarkable coaching renaissances at Auburn, Texas A&M and, recently, Kentucky. Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin and Mark Stoops have turned back the wave of public opinion against them and changed their perceptions for the better.
But it’s fascinating to consider how close each man was to continuing to fend off wolves from their office doors.
What if Malzahn’s Tigers lost to LSU? What if Sumlin’s Aggies completed choke jobs against UCLA and Tennessee? What if Stoops’ Wildcats didn’t beat Mississippi State with a 51-yard field goal from Austin MacGinnis on the final play last Saturday?
If all that happened, wouldn’t each man continue to face questions about his future?
Wouldn’t each man face louder groans and grumbles from his fan base?
The recent gains by Malzahn, Sumlin and Stoops show there’s a fine line between success and failure on the sidelines. Despite the grind of their work week, despite all their attempts to tilt their team’s outcome in a positive way, despite the appearance they have the power to control everything below them, coaches can be at the mercy of random acts within the universe like the rest of us. We’re all capable of being humbled.
Yes, talent, passion and preparation are important. All three are basic requirements for excelling in anything, from coaching an SEC program to cleaning dishes at a neighborhood diner. It’s impossible to fake interest and work ethic and make it big anywhere.
But talent, passion and preparation only go so far on the field and in life outside football.
Sometimes, we need luck to receive that dream job. Sometimes, we need a good break to have that cute guy or attractive girl we met at the bar text us back. Sometimes, we need a positive twist of fate to have our life align in the way we desire.
Malzahn, Sumlin and Stoops should give thanks for their recent fortune. They deserve credit for placing their teams in positions to take advantage of opportunity in high-pressure moments. There’s a certain amount of coaching skill involved in that.
But it’s foolish to think there was no other possible outcome for their squads, that there was no other possible path available than the one traveled to this point. It’s easy to envision the seasons for Auburn, Texas A&M and Kentucky unfolding much differently.
Without LSU’s touchdown being overturned at the end, Auburn would have dropped to a disappointing 1-3. Who knows where Malzahn goes from there?
Without holding on in overtime against UCLA and in double overtime against Tennessee after building comfortable leads, Texas A&M would be 4-3 and own the catastrophic “choker” label. Who knows what happens to Sumlin then?
Without MacGinnis’ foot, Kentucky would be 3-4 and scratching to avoid another losing season under Stoops. Who knows how the Wildcats would have responded?
There’s not much that separates Malzahn, Sumlin and Stoops from Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen this season. Freeze and Mullen have seen their teams plummet, with the Rebels and Bulldogs holding a combined 5-9 record. The Magnolia State features plenty of misery these days. But their situations would look a whole lot better with a few different outcomes.
It’s interesting to consider how the Rebels’ fall would have gone if they had beaten Florida State and Alabama after racing to big leads. And perhaps the Bulldogs would have more life if they had won close games against South Alabama, LSU, BYU and Kentucky.
Malzahn, Sumlin and Stoops find themselves on the sunny side of that fine line. Freeze and Mullen are dealing with the dreaded darkness.
All this reveals that coaches’ reputations are more fragile than we realize. We praise consistency, like the dominance displayed by Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. We also are quick to criticize those who appear to be moving backward.
But often, we don’t stop to realize how little can separate those in good standing with others we deem worthy of a steamy seat. We don’t consider how narrow the gap between joy and agony can be.
Malzahn, Sumlin and Stoops should relish their renaissances.
But all three men should be aware the chase to avoid failure never ends.