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For SEC's coaches, ante just got raised

Petrino hiring adds to loaded league lineup


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 12/15/07

Fayetteville, Ark. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the hiring of former Falcons coach Bobby Petrino at Arkansas. But this much is clear: The SEC, considered by many to be the toughest college football conference in America, just got a lot tougher.

"Every year that I've been in this league the coaching has gotten a little bit better," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said Thursday. "Now we've got three guys in our league (Petrino, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban) who left the NFL to come back to the SEC. This is the place that guys want to coach. Next season is going to be incredible."

Tuberville's belief was echoed by a number of people who either coach in or cover the SEC. With Houston Nutt moving from Arkansas to Ole Miss and then having his old job filled by Petrino, who won two Big East championships at Louisville, the SEC has an incredible NINE coaches who have either won a conference title or have taken their team to the SEC championship game.

And if LSU's Les Miles wins the BCS championship game against Ohio State on Jan. 7, the SEC will have an unprecedented five coaches (Spurrier, Saban, Miles, Phillip Fulmer, Urban Meyer) who have won national titles.

"This is the most incredible lineup of coaches I have ever seen," said former Falcons quarterback Dave Archer, who is an SEC analyst for Lincoln-Financial sports. "There is no question that the SEC is better now that it was a month ago."

Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, who has battled for four seasons just to get his Bulldogs to 7-5, admits that his job just got harder.

"You want to coach in the SEC because you want to prove yourself against the very best," said Croom, whose team is headed to the Liberty Bowl to play Central Florida. "When I came into this league I knew it was tough but I expected it to get tougher. And it has."

SEC shows coaches the money

The best coaches come to the SEC because it has the greatest competition. But the league can also show them the money.

Of the 11 coaches whose compensation is a matter of public record, seven coaches make more than $2 million per season. Five make $2.8 million or more. Five of the 11 highest paid college football coaches in the country are in the SEC, according to a recent USA Today story, which was published before Petrino signed his five-year, $2.85 million contract.

"Next to the NFL, the money is the best in this league because people care about football so much," Tuberville said. "We've got the biggest stadiums and the best fans. "

The gap between college football money and NFL money for coaches used to be vast. But when it comes to the SEC, that gap has become pretty narrow.

"Some general managers in the NFL have told me they are concerned about the amount of money the SEC is paying," Archie Manning, the Ole Miss legend, said. "It's going to make it tougher for the pros to get these guys out of college ball. And if they want one, they are going to have to pay dearly for him."

But with that kind of money comes great and sometimes unrealistic expectations from fans.

"Here is the thing the fans don't want to hear," said Gary Danielson, the color analyst for the SEC game of the week on CBS. "No matter how many good coaches you put in this league and no matter how much you pay them, the SEC is going to play the same number of conference games this season as they did last season. There are going to be the same number of wins and the same number of losses every year."

Fans understand that somebody has to lose, said Croom. But those fans believe the reason you pay a coach the big bucks is make sure that the team that loses isn't THEIRS.

"That's exactly what this all comes down to," Croom said.

Recruiting kicked up a notch

You think recruiting is tough now in the SEC? Wait until the coaches get cranked up in January.

"This is ridiculous," said recruiting expert Jamie Newberg of Scout.com. "You look at that list of coaches and it includes some of the best recruiters in college football. January and February are going to be really interesting."

Tuberville said this could be the most competitive recruiting season since he joined the SEC as head coach at Ole Miss in 1995.

"Recruiting in this league ain't never been easy," said Tuberville, about to begin his 15th season as a head coach in the SEC. "But when you look at the pedigrees of all our coaches ... it just makes things that much tougher. Our coaches have a lot to sell."

That's where Petrino may find the sledding a little tough as he tries to catch up after his cup of coffee in the NFL. Recruiting in the SEC has always been a contact sport and his controversial exit from the Atlanta, which brought out more than a little vitriol from the Falcons players, will not help when the parent of a prospect brings up the issue of stability.

And if the parent of the recruit doesn't bring it up, you can bet that one of Petrino's competitors will.

"Oh, he's going to have to take the hit on that," Newberg said. " If it comes down to Arkansas and another school for a kid, the other school will start pulling out newspaper clippings about Petrino leaving the Falcons."

Staying within the rules

But the unprecedented pressures of winning and the pressures of recruiting do crack the door on an old concern involving the SEC.

"These coaches now know that by taking this amount of money they are accepting a new dynamic," Danielson said. "They will become slaves to their won-loss record, just like a pro coach. They won't be able to talk about graduation rates and kids staying out of trouble. "

And if coaches know they are going to get fired for not winning enough, they may be more inclined to cut corners when it comes to following the rules.

"This conference is on an unprecedented high right now," said Danielson, who just completed his second season in the SEC. "But you have to be careful because the pressure of producing wins along with the stadium sizes, the TV ratings and all that can produce a climate of anything goes. "

Since Mike Slive took over as SEC commissioner in July of 2002 he has worked extremely hard on rules compliance. In May of 2003 he set a goal of having no schools on NCAA probation within five years. If nothing else goes wrong the SEC will have no teams on probation after June 11, 2008, when Mississippi State's probation ends in football.

Contacted Thursday, Slive said he understands the concerns of those who worry about cheating.

"Competition and compliance go hand in hand and it is something we think about every day across every sport we sponsor," Slive said. The culture of the SEC has gotten better when it comes to playing by the rules. But with every new hire of a big-time coach, the pressures in this high stakes game of poker go up.

"This (the Petrino hiring) just upped the ante," Archie said. "When you come to play this game you better have enough chips to put on the table because there are no weak coaches in this conference any more. Next season the weekly chess game among these guys is going to be something to see."

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