Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Ranking the coaching jobs: SEC
By ESPN.com staff
It's Coaches Week on ESPN.com and today we're going conference by conference to rank the best and worst coaching jobs, as voted on by 14 of our writers and television analysts.
A few important notes: This is not an attempt to rank the programs or their histories. A school's tradition was taken into account of course, but more emphasis was given to recent years and how hard or easy it is for a new coach to win there. Current recruits don't remember much beyond, what, 2008?
When voting, our 14 panelists were asked to take into consideration facilities, expectation level, athletic budget, wins and losses, recruiting base, fan support/pressure and all of the other factors that go into determining the "best" jobs in the ever-crazy profession of college basketball coaching.
In short: If you were an agent and every single job was open in a particular conference, where would you direct your client? Where would you tell him to avoid if there are better options?
There's no right or wrong answer of course. These rankings are very much up for debate and we're sure you'll do so in the comments section. But at the very least, this polling of 14 people clued into the inner workings of college basketball offers a glimpse into how the coaching position at your favorite school is perceived on the national scene.
(Editor's Note: Realignment makes the college landscape a confusing one these days, but for the purposes of this poll, panelists were asked to vote based on what each conference would look like for the 2012-13 season.)
1. Kentucky: No school in the country has as loyal and passionate a fan base -- the Big Blue fans will camp out for practice. Kentucky’s job pays as much if not more than any other job in the country. Local talent in the state isn’t an issue since UK recruits nationally. There have been blips in recruiting, but that was on the coach, not on the school. If the right coach is in place, Kentucky can and should be in contention for any player it wants, regardless of locale. Rupp Arena could use some more frills (and will get plenty in the near future), but it has history and is as loud as any arena. The Joe Craft Center is a top-notch practice facility. And the Wildcats are coveted by tournaments and television executives looking for a ratings winner.
2. Florida: Billy Donovan has made UF the second-best job in the SEC. Florida has always been a solid destination for recruits. There is talent in the region, but the Gators can and do recruit nationally. The school is a big-time draw with its football program a national name. The fan base gets up for big games and the O-Dome can get rocking for special opponents. Athletic director Jeremy Foley is easily one of the most respected administrators in the country. He takes care of his own and rewarded Donovan with one of the richest contracts in the country after his two national titles. The Gators have their own practice facility that is more than enough for their needs. Expect Florida, coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, to remain a national program.
3. Missouri: The Tigers immediately leap into the top three in the SEC. The fan base is passionate and Mizzou Arena will be one of the toughest places to play in the SEC. The salary structure at Missouri can be an issue due to the budget constraints at the school. You’re not going to see Mizzou outbid other schools for a coach. The Tigers will never be able to compete with Kentucky and Florida in salaries, but the facilities can match the two schools. Mizzou is also in a hot recruiting territory with the ability to draw from St. Louis to Chicago to the Southeast, as well as Texas.
4. Tennessee: The Vols have traditionally been able to recruit, but talent-rich Memphis is six hours away from Knoxville and the Tigers are an institution there, so that can be a tough nut to crack. Thompson-Boling Arena was remodeled a few years ago and has the look of an NBA facility -- and the surge in fan interest that began under Bruce Pearl has continued as the Vols were again among the nation's leaders in attendance during Cuonzo Martin's first season. The athletic programs at Tennessee are usually high end, but it's been a rough go lately. Still, the commitment to winning in men’s basketball is much more apparent at UT than it was before this past decade. This has become a solid job.
5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks have a rich talent area that it can draw from in the region. Arkansas also has as rich a basketball tradition of any program in the SEC outside of Kentucky. The fan base, when there is a worthy product on the floor, can be as passionate as any in the country -- their traveling party in the 90s was truly a sight to see. Bud Walton Arena gives Arkansas one of the toughest homecourts in the country, let alone in the SEC. Arkansas has also been willing to pay its coaches well. This should always be a top-five job in this conference.
6. Vanderbilt: Vandy is one of the few schools in the conference where basketball is a high priority. The high academic standards does mean recruiting is a little trickier, but it also ensures the Commodores remains unique. Getting talent to Vanderbilt, which recruits nationally, hasn’t ever really been an issue. Memorial Gym may be quirky, but it also can be a nuisance to opposing teams. The fan base has been superb in creating a chaotic atmosphere. Salaries are competitive, but never going to be elite in the SEC.
7. Georgia: The talent in the region has been there for years, but the competition for it has always been intense. Getting players to stay in Georgia is a tough sell with so many options. Basketball has had its moments in Athens, but it’s never going to be No. 1. The facilities aren’t top-notch in comparison to the rest of the league, either. Salaries are competitive, but never going to be in the upper echelon. UGA will have its moments of success, but expecting the Bulldogs to be an NCAA tournament team on a regular basis is unrealistic.
8. LSU: Getting players in the area to come to Baton Rouge hasn’t been much of a problem. Louisiana has plenty of players for LSU and others (see: the 2006 Final Four team). But basketball is always going to be playing a deep second in the athletic department. LSU had its run under Dale Brown and had a few runs of success since. Alum Johnny Jones will attempt to rekindle that era, but he’s going to be at a program where modest success should be celebrated not scorned.
9. Texas A&M: The Aggies were brutal as a basketball destination until Billy Gillispie helped revitalize the program with Mark Turgeon continuing to make the Aggies relevant as an NCAA team. Now Billy Kennedy has to do the same in the SEC. The arena upgrade was a must and if the fans continue to support this program at a high level then this job has a chance to climb a lot higher than No. 9 in this league. The fan base is more committed to the program than some of the others mentioned above. Texas is a feeder ground for plenty of programs and the Aggies should be able to get their share. If you’re looking for a program and job that could become more coveted in the future in the SEC, this could be this one.
10. Alabama: The Crimson Tide have the program of record in the SEC -- in football. The basketball program has been dwarfed for years by its big brother in pads, and rightfully so. Alabama fans tend to pay attention to the sport in the time wedge between the last bowl game and spring football. That puts even more pressure on Alabama to be relevant during those months. Getting talent to Tuscaloosa hasn’t been an issue. Salaries have improved, but aren’t going to be at the top in the SEC. The facility has never been a home run, but it has improved over the years.
11. Mississippi State: MSU is one of the few schools in the bottom part of this list where basketball is very much relevant. Football has had its time in the spotlight but the basketball program has been successful enough, and certainly newsworthy, to generate interest. The Bulldogs haven’t had any problems securing NBA-level talent. And the Hump can be one of the loudest arenas in the league. The problem is the salaries are never going to be too high in Starkville and the perception of one of the smallest and more remote college towns can push this job down a few notches. Mississippi State had trouble replacing Rick Stansbury with a comparable head coach. The Bulldogs went for an assistant in Rick Ray. He may turn out to be a huge hit, but he was an obscure choice for what had become a consistent winner in the SEC.
12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have gone through a revolving door of sorts, trying to settle on a longtime head coach to ensure the program matters nationally, let alone in the SEC. South Carolina is football-first. The facilities are improving and so are the salaries. There is a renewed commitment. Frank Martin wouldn’t have left Kansas State if he couldn’t make more money the way he did this spring. But luring talent to Columbia has never been an easy chore. The Gamecocks, who haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1973 (how crazy is that?), have a way to go to become one of the best jobs in the league.
13. Auburn: The Tigers have had a few moments of relevance since their run of success in the mid-80s -- with an emphasis on the word few. Building a new arena was a major commitment upgrade and likely prevented Auburn from finishing last in voting. But the fans haven’t been flocking so far. They need a winner. Tony Barbee is recruiting well, but he has his work cut out for him to pack the arena and ensure that Auburn becomes one of the better jobs in the SEC.
14. Ole Miss: The Rebels play in what has never been a beloved arena. The Tad Pad is basically a dump. The state of Mississippi produces plenty of talent, but keeping and luring elite, NBA-level talent has always been an issue. Salaries for the coaches aren’t close to the top of this league. And as a result winning has been extremely difficult on a consistent basis. Ole Miss hasn't been dancing since 2002, the longest drought in the conference.