They are 14 men whose workplace is one of the most fervent, noisy, pressurized, unforgiving landscapes in college sport. The head football coaches of the SEC, where no quarter is given, or asked for.
So who are these guys? As they gathered in Hoover, Alabama this week for the SEC Media Days, it seemed a good time to play another round of name that coach.
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1. Who was a freshman eating lunch in his dorm just before the National Guard started firing on the Kent State campus in 1970?
OK, this is an easy one, since the story has made the rounds. Alabama’s Nick Saban happened upon the bloody scene where four students were killed. “I’d never seen anybody shot before,” he once said. “Even though I didn’t see them shot, I saw them after they were shot. It’s a terrible thing. There’s not a May 4 that goes by that I don’t think about it – really think about it.”
On Saban’s mind this week in Hoover, talking about the Tide’s reaction to the championship game loss to Clemson: “I think when you lose, the mindset is much more, `I’m willing to change. I want to learn. I don’t want to waste a failure. What could we have done better?’ Because everybody’s hurt by the fact that we lost, especially the way we lost that particular game, on the last play of the game. But it wasn’t the last play, it’s what led up to the last play. And I think our players realize that.”
2. Whose player bio in the media guide for his senior season at Henderson State included this little gem: “He’s the only married player on the squad.”
. . . That’d be Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who recently celebrated his 29th wedding anniversary, by the way.
On Malzahn’s mind in Hoover, about these Tigers: “Probably the biggest thing that’s standing out to me about this team, that they’re hungry. They’re hungry and they have something to prove. And really, the last time I felt this was 2013, so that’s a good comfort for me.”
You might recall the 2013 Auburn team landed in the national championship game.
3.Who just became a first-time father at the age of 47?
. . . Arkansas’ Bret Bielema. It’s a girl.
On Bielema’s mind this week in Hoover, talking about all the congratulations he received, including from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey: “My wife wanted a double veggie bowl from Chipotle – trying to get an endorsement right there – I was walking down and I recognized the FaceTime, pulled it out and I see Greg Sankey’s name. I said, this is pretty cool, the commissioner is FaceTiming me. He said `Why were you calling me?’ I said, `I apologize, I must have butt-dialed you.’ That was a unique experience.”
4.Who nearly ruined his career with his partying as a young coach, then turned his life around by living with his parents for a year at the age of 31 to get his head straight?
. . . LSU’s Ed Orgeron, who went from an assistant for national champion Miami to a volunteer job at Nicholls State, as he worked the long road back.
On Orgeron’s mind in Hoover, talking about his first SEC head coaching job at Mississippi: “I had a great job, a job in the SEC. Was given a great chance. I wasn’t ready. I went there as a defensive line coach. I did the things that I did as the defensive line coach and was very successful over the years. It didn’t work at Ole Miss. Although I recruited well, the day I left Ole Miss, I looked at myself . . . and said hey, there’s some things I have to change.”
5.Who was a college chum of radio/TV personality Colin Cowherd?
. . . Florida’s Jim McElwain. Apparently they used to talk a lot about the future back in the day at Eastern Washington. One headed for the microphone, the other for the film room.
On McElwain’s mind in Hoover, discussing LSU being named a heavyweight opponent for Florida’s homecoming while he was vacationing at his lake place in Montana: “I get off the plane -- having been gone for a week, kind of focusing on the future and actually reflecting on the past a little bit, like I do every year when I’m up in Montana -- and unlike maybe Coach Saban at Alabama, I have no choice in it. It’s a university choice. So they didn’t tell me until I got off the plane, and somebody said, guess who your homecoming game is?”
6.Who grew up sharing a bedroom with three older brothers, and all four became football coaches?
. . . Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, following Bob, Mike and Ron Jr. Football was at the core of the family, including watching game films at the kitchen table, with the refrigerator as a screen. Father Ron Sr. died at 54 from a heart attack – struck while coaching his high school team.
On Stoops’ mind in Hoover, about the recent retirement of brother Bob at Oklahoma: “It’s one of those moments you won’t forget because he called and it came out of the blue.
“It was a bit of a shock to me to be honest with you. I had to walk out of my office and walk around the practice field. Mixed emotions, I guess you would say, from myself. Very proud of him, what he’s done. And very happy for him, to be able to step away when he wants, how he wants. And that’s Bob.
7.Whose career path went from insurance underwriter to coaching a Heisman winner?
. . . Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin.
On Sumlin’s mind in Hoover, 15 losses in three seasons having heated his seat in College Station: “The pressure I’m feeling is the same pressure I feel all the time. Nobody puts more pressure on me than me. Every year, I look at what we do, what we do well. We want to stay ahead of the curve. When we’re not doing well, it’s my job to analyze it, and try to fix it. So we are looking at where we are and being open and honest about that with our team.”
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8. Who did missionary service in Russia and Australia?
. . . Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze. Not many people can say they’ve worked in both St. Petersburg, Russia and Oxford, Mississippi.
On Freeze’s mind in Hoover, talking about the upcoming season with Mississippi:
What I've constantly told our players, and that they have been the biggest encouragement to me and inspiration throughout this, is we can't control a lot of things that occur, but whatever is occurring out there has zero bearing on their opportunity to get a degree, it has zero bearing on their opportunity to develop themselves as the best player they can be, and it has zero effect on them developing themselves into the best man they can be.
9. Who ran the Boston Marathon in 4:28.35?
. . . Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, two days after the spring game and nine days before he turned 44, earning money for charity. Heartbreak Hill must have felt like game day in Tuscaloosa.
On Mullen’s mind in Hoover, about how helpful the NFL exploits of former Bulldogs, especially Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, has been to recruiting: “Whether it’s . . . looking at a lot of success – our guys had three guys in the Pro Bowl last year for us – or a guy like Dak, where you have a former player almost on a one-name basis in the sports world, it opens up a lot of doors for us with recognition of the program. I don’t know that we’ll reap the benefits of it, but I tell you what, there’s a lot more people around the country that know an awful lot (more) about Mississippi State than maybe they did three to four years ago.”
10. Who met his future wife when he came in to interview for an assistant’s job, and she was the athletic department employee in charge of arranging his travel?
. . . Georgia’s Kirby Smart. He got the job, and the girl.
On Smart’s mind in Hoover, about coaching as a man grows older: “If you get bored or mundane, first of all, you’re not going to recruit very well. So you better re-energize yourself every day you wake up, because it’s a war out there in recruiting.”
11. What coach started his working career as an intern in his alma mater’s athletic department, calling donors to tell them their basketball season ticket locations had been changed?
. . . Missouri’s Barry Odom. He likes coaching football a lot better.
On Odom’s mind in Hoover, about the challenge of competing in the SEC: “Every week, if you don’t prepare the right way, if you don’t do everything right, from A to Z, you’re going to get exposed pretty quickly. We’ve got great coaches.
“I was sitting in the back and there was a loud buzz. You could feel it. And I thought it was for me in the room, but I was quickly reminded that Nick (Saban) was before me.”
12. Who, in his college days, went from walk-on to team captain?
. . . South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, who made that leap as a Georgia Bulldog. Made the SEC academic honor role, too.
On Muschamp’s mind in Hoover, about the need for a school to have top-rate facilities: “At the end of the day, we don’t believe in bells and whistles, but recruits do. That’s a fact. They want to see new, they want to see shiny, they want to see progress. And there’s no doubt that helps you in the program.”
13. What coach worked at nine different colleges, and an NFL team, before he got the chance to be a head coach?
. . . Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who hit all four time zones. But maybe he’s found a home in his fourth year at Vandy.
On Mason’s mind in Hoover: “You have no idea what it takes to be a head coach until you actually sit in that seat. The ride has been fun. It’s been difficult at times. It’s been hard but fair, sad but true. But here’s what I know. Every year you strip it down. Your record is who you are. You take these parts, you look at it, you say to yourself how do I rebuild it?
“You’re trying to find answers, and I feel like now it’s different. I’m not searching for answers. Still looking, but not searching.”
14. Who once cleaned the Tampa Bay Bucs’ laundry at training camp as an intern?
. . . Tennessee’s Butch Jones, who was willing to do anything to get started in the profession, even if it involved a pile of sweaty socks.
On Jones’ mind in Hoover, discussing having Brady Hoke, Larry Scott and Mike Canales – all with college football head coaching experience – on his staff: ”I want individuals that have sat in that chair that understand, A, the dynamics of what I’m going through. But also, hey, if there’s a better way, a better way to look at things, you have a better way of doing things, I’m open. We’re all in it together.”
Just like these 14 men are all in this together. But not on Saturdays in the fall.