The SEC West is redoubtably the biggest, baddest division in college football, boasting seven tradition-rich programs that should contend for conference or national titles every four of five years.
As such, the SEC West plays a strong role in landing the best prep recruits, setting the highest stadium-attendance figures and attracting the most TV eyeballs on football Saturdays.
But here’s the thing: If this division is such a brutal, suffocating, dog-eat-dog experience for all parties involved … how is it possible that, citing the last 60 years, only three SEC West head coaches have directly jumped to college programs outside the SEC?
(Note: Arkansas joined the SEC in 1991.
1) After the 2002 season, Alabama’s Dennis Franchione left for a program that now resides in the SEC West (Texas A&M). A decade ago, the Aggies were part of the Big 12.
2) Ole Miss couldn’t hold on to Steve Sloan in 1983, losing the coach to Duke. However, this was hardly a bad thing, since Sloan didn’t post one winning campaign over five seasons with the Rebels.
3) There’s also the on-the-go story of Darrell Royal, who moved from Mississippi State (1954-55) to the University of Washington in 1956. He would then bolt the Huskies after one season for the lead job at Texas, where he would collect three national championships and 11 conference crowns over the next 20 years.
The three examples notwithstanding, you’d think the relentless SEC West would leave most head coaches kicking and screaming for a kinder, gentler conference — knowing the victories would soon pile up … and the 24/7 pressure headaches would subside.
And yet, the division encounters very few defections at the head-coaching level. In fact, citing the last 30 years, only two SEC West head coaches (Tommy Tuberville, Houston Nutt) seamlessly jumped to other programs within the conference (Auburn in 1999, Ole Miss in 2008).
Also, if you’re counting Bill Curry — who went from Alabama to Kentucky before the 1990 season, predating the SEC splitting into two divisions — those three names match the 60-year track record of head coaches from SEC West schools directly bolting for another conference.
It’s a weird phenomenon, and yet, one that could be explained with simple loyalty (perish the thought).
As such, can you name the last Auburn head coach to voluntarily leave the Tigers for another college conference the following season?
ANSWER: Johnny Floyd posted an 0-4 record in 1929 — his only season with the program — before moving on to The Citadel in 1930.
WESTERN WAY OF LIFE
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen (the primary mentor of quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott) certainly bears the look of a guy who could go the distance with the Bulldogs — at least for the vast majority of his career.
In just seven seasons with the school, Mullen (55-35 overall; three nine-win campaigns) arguably stands as the greatest coach in Bulldogs history.
As a byproduct of that success, the Hail State fans typically encounter the football rumor train, with speculative reports of Mullen bolting for places like Miami, Illinois, Washington, Boston College or even South Carolina.
The same holds true for Alabama fans … but on a considerably higher plane.
Who knows if head coach Nick Saban (four national titles with the Crimson Tide, eight straight 10-win campaigns) received serious overtures from University of Texas officials a few years ago — with rumors of an annual salary north of $12 million.
It’s also anyone’s guess if the 60-something coach (who could easily pass for late 40s) even wanted to leave a program that’s synonymous with college football (16 national championships). Especially with six straight years of the nation’s top recruiting class.
It’s the primary job of Saban’s counsel, superagent Jimmy Sexton, to maximize the speculative buzz for his client, resulting in better contractual terms (highest-paid coach in the land).
Just like it’s the primary job of every other agent that represents SEC head coaches to keep their clients happy — in the form of contract extensions (thanks to drummed-up interest from other schools) … or genuine interest from outside conferences (more money, more power).
And yet, very few head coaches willingly leave the SEC nest, short of retirement or TV gigs.
Perhaps it goes with the old saying: Coaches are at their happiest point … when they’re miserable.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.