Oh, so you want to compete in football AND men’s basketball? Good luck. There’s a reason Florida is the only program in America with a title in both sports in the 21st century. Even crazier, of course, was the fact that it happened in the same year.
Once upon a time, a sports director’s dream would have been to sign Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan on an overall deal. Knock these rookies out of the park and you’re set. No disrespect to non-revenue-generating sports, but let’s be honest here. Hirings in football and men’s basketball often define an athletic director within the SEC.
That’s why I like to do this exercise every year.
The exercise is simple: rent the best conference package. For the purposes of this argument, both carry equal weight. For example, I can’t put Georgia in the top 5 because that would include Tom Crean. On the other hand, I can’t just put Auburn in the top 5 because that would include Bryan Harsin.
That doesn’t necessarily mean both coaches have to be at Donovan-Meyer’s level of dominance. Spoiler alert: no one is. But there are certainly SEC programs that have broken away from the pack.
Here are the top 5 SEC football and basketball coaching duos I would hire if I were athletic director:
5. Josh Heupel and Rick Barnes, Tennessee
That spot almost went to Texas A&M. But I would say Jimbo Fisher and Buzz Williams have been disappointed as Heupel exceeded expectations and Barnes has a squad that looks to be peaking at the right time with potential Elite 8 on the rise.
Let’s start with the Heupel end of this. Seven wins isn’t exactly “the feel of 1998”, but considering he took over a team with dozens of transfers during the fallout from the Jeremy Pruitt era, I’d say displaying an attack in the top 10 with one of the best quarterbacks in the country were pretty darn impressive. Heupel might have a limited cap if he can’t replace some of the Pruitt-era defensive players who stayed, but the Vols have legit momentum and seem to have one of the best offensive minds in the sport – he has 4 tops. – 10 consecutive offenses – run the show.
Barnes, on the other hand, is rolling his team. After a disappointing end to the 2020-21 season in the 5-12 first round game, his side are on the verge of a 3-4 seed having lost only 5 games since that terrible offense in the Jimmy V Classic . Barnes hasn’t topped the Sweet 16 in 14 years, but there’s still a lot to like about a coach who hasn’t had a losing SEC record since 2016-17 and appeared in 25(!) NCAA Tournaments.
Tennessee athletic director Danny White has one of the most favorable situations in the league with Heupel and Barnes both locked up long-term (probably).
4. Brian Kelly and Will Wade, LSU
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – LSU athletic director Scott Woodward is louder than “The Sandlot” Ham Porter. There was therefore no doubt that he would soon replace Ed Orgeron. Kelly is, by all accounts, one of the top 10 coaches in the sport. He probably looks more like the top 7. And if you’re claiming that a lack of playoff wins disqualifies him from that accolade, you might have missed the part where only 6 programs actually won a playoff match.
You’re not supposed to be able to hire a coach in good standing with multiple playoff spots. LSU (and USC) did. In the long run, this will pay dividends for the Bayou Bengals.
When it comes to hardwood, look, we can all agree that Wade’s track record has one pretty obvious flaw. But we’re three years away from leaking his good you-know-what offer. Considering recent developments with NIL, Wade might have had a little less public reaction than he might have. That’s not to say he shouldn’t be held accountable. This is part of this classification.
Lost in the reshuffle of a wild year on LSU’s campus, the fact that Wade got LSU somewhat quietly to a game in the round of 32 and went blow for blow with the No. 1 from Michigan. If LSU can win an NCAA Tournament game this year, it will be the third time in 4 seasons that it has happened. LSU has not had a 4 year period with such an event since the Jimmy Carter administration.
As much of a roller coaster as it has been at LSU at times over the past 3 years, there should actually be a lot of stability at Baton Rouge with Wade and Kelly in charge.
3. Sam Pittman and Eric Musselman, Arkansas
A New Year’s 6th Bowl appearance and/or a Final Four.
Oh. I assumed you asked the question “What would it take for Pittman and Musselman to land in the top 2 of this list?” That’s it there. It’s not as crazy a possibility as it was 2 years ago. What a year 2021 has been for the Hogs. Musselman led Arkansas to its first Elite 8 of the 21st Century while Pittman led Arkansas to its best season in a decade.
Here is a thought. Here is the list of Elite 8 programs that also finished in the top 25 in football in 2021:
It’s a pretty elite 2-sport company.
(Arkansas fans will be quick to point out that if you replace it with all sports, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more successful sports program right now.)
Think how quickly Hunter Yurachek’s hires worked. In Year 2, Pittman took Arkansas to a bowling game in Florida and tripled the Hogs’ win total from Year 1 (with 3 more games, but still). The guy coached his first game as FBS head coach just 17 months ago, back when the goal was just trying to give Arkansas their first SEC win in over 1,000 days.
And Musselman might not have had the game against him as much as Pittman did, but let’s not forget he inherited a program that hadn’t been at the Sweet 16 since 1996. With the way he has building the roster through the transfer portal, Musselman now feels like his team should reach that point every year. Arkansas hasn’t even won an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive years during the 21st century. Now? Those expectations have skyrocketed, and understandably.
I will continue to believe that this is what Yurachek Saturday nights are all about:
I guess around this time, every Saturday night, Hunter Yurachek pours himself a tall glass of bourbon, sinks into an oversized leather chair, and marvels at the rookies he’s kicked out of the park.
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) February 27, 2022
2. Nick Saban and Nate Oats, Alabama
Don’t worry, Alabama fans. I think Alabama and Kentucky are pretty interchangeable for those top 2 spots. It’s really more about what Kentucky has done this school year than anything Alabama has done.
But yeah, I don’t need to sell you Saban’s GOAT status. Taking his team to 6th place in the national championship in the playoff era is truly an absurd achievement. His 2021 team, I would say, had more holes than the previous 5 that reached a playoff-era title. No one outside of Tuscaloosa will give Saban credit for this, but it’s worth mentioning. Of course, that doesn’t change his position as the No. 1 pick for any college coaching vacancy.
Oats will never be the big man on campus as long as Saban is around, but what’s impressive about his 2020-21 season is that a Sweet 16 was a disappointment. Never mind that this was the program’s first Sweet 16 in 17 years. Oats swept the SEC regular season and the SEC tournament. That hadn’t happened in Tuscaloosa since 1987… when Oats was in middle school.
It’s been a bit of a disappointing season for Oats’ recall, but at the same time, would anyone be surprised if the Tide pulled off a huge upset in the Round of 16? I do not think so. The Tide certainly has that edge, even if it was completely unpredictable.
Are there 5 training situations better than Alabama in the 2 high earning sports? I certainly don’t think so. Shoot, there might even be 3 that are better.
But there is 1 better in the SEC…
1. Mark Stoops and John Calipari, Kentucky
For the second time in 3 years, Kentucky is No. 1 on this list. Why did the Cats duo take the lead over Alabama this time around? Well, this school year really pushed her over the top.
On the gridiron, Stoops led Kentucky to a 10-win season. For the second time since the aforementioned administration of Jimmy Carter, the Cats had a winning record in SEC play. Both of those seasons, of course, were under Stoops. We saw Stoops totally overhaul his offense with a ready-made offensive coordinator hire in Liam Coen, who led Kentucky to its best offensive season in 14 years. Stoops moved closer to “statue” status with another banner year at Lexington.
Speaking of total overhauls, remember when Calipari was the one guy? Like Stoops, it also adapted with the times and moved away from a previous model. Now it’s veteran transfers and non-lottery picks that run the show. As a result, Kentucky is in position for a No. 1 seed. Of course, we’re projecting here, there’s legitimate hope that Cal is knocking on the door to the No. 2 title.
There’s a reason they’re the oldest duo in the conference (2013), and it’s not even close. The second oldest SEC duo? Crean and Kirby Smart (2018), and we all know it’s not for long because of Georgia’s terrible hoops season.
There’s a legitimate chance that Stoops and Calipari will retire as the best coaches in their respective programs’ history at Kentucky. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart nailed his 2 biggest rookies and never let them get away with it.
Now he is as blessed as they come.