Shadow of Nick Saban looms large for SEC coaches

Mark Richt's legacy at Georgia

Mark Schlabach looks back at Mark Richt's legacy as the second-winningest coach in Georgia history, but as a coach missing the expectations of big-time wins.

Sometimes the truth hurts, and sometimes the truth causes seismic shifts in a league that considers itself the best football conference in the country.

Either way, this just in: Alabama coach Nick Saban's shadow in the SEC has grown to epic proportions.

It's a prime reason administrators and power brokers at some schools have gone into full panic mode, creating the kind of starry-eyed climate in which not even veteran coaches who've won more than 70 percent of their games and SEC championships (and national championships, in some cases) are safe.

Mark Richt is out at Georgia despite averaging nearly 10 wins per season and winning 74 percent of his games during his 15-year career. He won two SEC championships at Georgia, but neither came in the past 10 years. He had also lost three in a row to Saban, including a 28-point rout back in October.

Les Miles was almost out at LSU. Miles -- with his athletic director going underground and LSU's board of supervisors talking openly about Miles potentially being on his way out -- was marched to a slow, public death for weeks. Or so it seemed. As the backlash grew against LSU and cooler heads prevailed regarding the amount of money it would take to buy out Miles and bring in, say, Jimbo Fisher, suddenly LSU athletic director Joe Alleva reappeared after LSU's 19-7 win over Texas A&M to tell us that Miles would continue to be LSU's coach.

Good thing he cleared that up in a timely fashion.

After all, Miles is even more accomplished than Richt. The Mad Hatter has won 78 percent of his games, including a pair of SEC championships and a national title within the past nine years. It's true his last SEC title came four years ago, and it's also true that his record in the SEC the last three years has dipped to a very pedestrian 14-10. But most egregiously, he has lost five in a row to Saban.

Hard to believe a coach could go from No. 2 in the country (with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class for 2016) to the brink of being unemployed in a matter of four weeks, but Miles did. It's also yet another reminder that the trajectory of this league changed forever when the late Mal Moore lured Saban back into the college game in 2007.

Really, though, who in the SEC has beaten Saban with any consistency? In his last 40 games against SEC competition, he's 35-5. And as one veteran coach in the SEC told me last week, if Saban coaches another 40 games in the SEC, he'll probably be 35-5 again.

In a lot of ways, it's reminiscent of what happened to the SEC when Bear Bryant was running roughshod over the rest of the league. Everybody was chasing the Bear to no avail.

Now they're chasing Saban, and it's the mother of all chases, the kind that sends second-, third-, and fourth-place finishers who pay their coaches $4 million a year into red-faced tantrums, making them willing to go to any length to find their own Saban.

Consider this: Since Saban was hired in 2007, there have been 20 head-coaching changes in the SEC. With Richt out at Georgia, every school in the SEC but LSU has had at least one coaching change since Saban arrived at Alabama. And we know how close Miles was to being shown the door. Seven of the schools have had multiple changes. (Missouri and Texas A&M aren't included in this exercise since they weren't members of the SEC when Saban was hired.)

Granted, the coaching changes have come for various reasons. But of the 20, 13 were because coaches simply didn't win enough (or win enough of the right games) to satisfy the administration and key boosters.

Only two of the 20 changes came because coaches left to take higher-profile jobs. Lane Kiffin left Tennessee for USC following the 2009 season, and James Franklin left Vanderbilt for Penn State following the 2013 season. Urban Meyer left Florida following the 2009 season for health reasons. His last loss with Florida, coincidentally, was to Saban and Alabama in the 2009 SEC championship game.

If you haven't noticed, that has been a trend.

Two of the past five national-championship-winning coaches from the SEC have been fired -- Gene Chizik at Auburn and Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee. Both were canned after Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. And that doesn't even count Tommy Tuberville, who went 13-0 at Auburn in 2004 and won the SEC championship that season. His Tigers never got a chance to play for a national championship, but he was out at Auburn four years later.

Tuberville's final loss on the Plains? A 36-0 beatdown by Alabama and Saban in 2008, which was Saban's second year on the job. And by the way, Tuberville had won six in a row over Alabama heading into that season.

Most close to the Tennessee program will tell you the final blow for Fulmer came in a 2008 home loss to Alabama. The Crimson Tide hammered the Vols, but even more damaging for Fulmer was that there were more than 25,000 Alabama fans in Neyland Stadium that night, and they took over the place in those final minutes. In Saban's first year at Alabama, even though Tennessee went on to play in the SEC championship game that season, the Tide whipped the Vols 41-17. And that was an Alabama team that finished .500 in the regular season.

The Saban factor cuts particularly deep at LSU because he was theirs for a while and won a national championship on the Bayou in 2003. But now that he's back in the SEC, and now that he has raised the stakes at one of LSU's biggest rivals, the people who make the decisions at LSU have squirmed as the losses to Saban and Alabama have mounted.

There are those close to the LSU program that will tell you that Miles has never been viewed the same in the eyes of power people there after the 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in January 2012. Memories are short, and while the Tigers were abysmal offensively in that game, they also went 13-0 in the 2011 regular season against one of the toughest schedules anybody in the SEC has faced in the past decade. They won at a neutral site against Oregon, at West Virginia and at Alabama.

But in the ultimate stroke of bad luck, they had to play Alabama again in the national championship game, and yes, laid an egg.

Imagine how differently Miles would be viewed now had the Tigers played somebody else that year in the national championship game and won, giving him two national titles.

The same goes for Richt. His Georgia team was a tipped pass away from beating Saban and Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game. If the Bulldogs win that game, well, we saw how easily Alabama disposed of Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game.

Much like Miles, the narrative surrounding Richt at Georgia would have changed dramatically had the bounces gone the Bulldogs' way in 2012. But they didn't, and Saban's stranglehold on this league has only grown tighter. If he wins another national championship this season, that would be his fourth at Alabama in the past seven years.

It's a hell of a standard to live up to, but that's where it is in the SEC right now. And it's not going to change until schools go through enough coaches that they finally find somebody who can start beating Saban as much as he's beating them.

Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze has beaten him the past two years, but the Rebels haven't been to the SEC championship game. That's the catch. If you beat him, you also have to bring home the hardware.

Of course, there's always the chance that Saban simply decides to retire in the next few years, or -- hold your breath, Alabama fans -- seeks out a new challenge.

Either way, for a guy short in stature, Saban has created a Goliath-like shadow in the SEC.