SEC teams turn to youth movement on sidelines

Published 10:25 pm Monday, December 22, 2008

MONTGOMERY — One new Southeastern Conference football coach has won barely one-fifth of his games as a head man. Another managed a 25 percent clip.

Still, a third has never been a head coach, and two others aren’t even pushing 40.

The powerhouse football league didn’t go for splashy names like other recent hires Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer in its latest sideline shopping spree.

This time it’s Gene Chizik, Lane Kiffin and Dan Mullen — all with terrific track records and reputations as assistant coaches. But when it comes to head coaching, the experience they have is either nonexistent or negative.

It’s hard to imagine any of them drawing 92,000 fans to a spring game like Alabama’s Saban did in his first year.

They are surely intriguing nonetheless for a variety of reasons. Take Chizik at Auburn. He had a 5-19 record in two seasons at Iowa State, but was also defensive coordinator for back-to-back unbeaten teams at Auburn and Texas.

His hiring drew the most criticism of the three new guys, but he did get the endorsement of popular former Auburn coach Pat Dye, who got to know the Tigers’ new head man during Chizik’s stay as defensive coordinator from 2002-04.

“We knew more about him than anybody did,” Dye said. “I was a little bit shocked that our athletic director had guts enough to hire him. When I got the call that Gene was the No. 1 choice, I was shocked right along with everyone else. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made and the more I liked it.

“We’re all excited now.”

Chizik replaced Tommy Tuberville, who resigned after 10 seasons. Kiffin replaced a coach with even longer tenure, Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee, who lasted 17 years. All part of the SEC’s youth movement.

At 33, Kiffin is the youngest Football Bowl Subdivision head coach. Then again, he was also the youngest NFL head coach in modern history with the Oakland Raiders. Kiffin went 5-15 and was fired for what franchise owner Al Davis called insubordination.

Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton saw someone who demonstrated he could recruit nationally as an assistant at Southern California and had a plan to do the same for the Volunteers. His age also helps him relate to prospects, Hamilton said.

“Even though he hasn’t been a college head coach, he had a focused plan of how to go about that,” he said, calling his new coach “incredibly football-focused.”

The 36-year-old Mullen has helped take Florida to the BCS national championship game as the Gators’ offensive coordinator. He is a first-time head coach with plans to switch rough-and-tumble Mississippi State to a spread offense.

Mullen, a veteran assistant under Florida’s Urban Meyer, replaces the league’s first black head football coach Sylvester Croom.

Plus, he’s the fourth-youngest coach in major college football.

“One thing you always have to know is that you are always learning,” Mullen said. “You are either getting better or worse. So, every single day I have to wake up and find out a way to make myself a better coach. I have a lot of years to make myself a better coach if I can make myself better every day.”

Mullen also intends to shuck the Bulldogs’ more smashmouth offense in favor of the spread style he helped run at Florida and Utah under Meyer. Mississippi State averaged an SEC-low 15 points a game last season, while the Gators led the league.

“We are going to adapt ours to the players we have here right now,” Mullen said. “We are going to utilize our players.”

Chizik’s hire has drawn fire for everything from his record to his race. Charles Barkley, one of Auburn’s most well-known former athletes, charged that race was a big factor in choosing him over Buffalo’s Turner Gill, who is black.

Chizik also lost his last 10 games at Iowa State, but believes he left the program in better shape than he found it. And the experience leading a team helps.

“Those two years that I gained as a head coach, invaluable,” he said. “I wouldn’t change it, I wouldn’t do it over again any different. Exactly the way things were done, those were the same steps that I’d take again today.”