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Basketball Coaches and their Football Counterparts: SEC West

On the most recent episode of 11 Personnel, Nick Roush and I came up with a very interesting topic. The offseason is now in full swing following the cancellation of all spring football activities as everyone is giving their best social distancing efforts. So with basketball still fresh on everyone’s mind, we decided to give football comps for every head coach in SEC hoops.

The goal for this exercise was to find who was the closest corresponding coach in the other sport. When coming up with this list, I heavily weighed the results on the field combined with their personality and fit with their current and past programs. The results were some very good matches with a few that are eerily similar.

On the podcast, we gave out just a few of our best but here we are going to release the complete roster. First up is the SEC West.

Alabama’s Nate Oats and Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins

Nate Oats took over at Buffalo for Bobby Hurley and was there for four seasons with a winning percentage of .691 with two MAC titles, three NCAA tournament appearances and a couple wins in the Big Dance. He wasn’t the most popular mid-major head coach, but he was near the top of the list. In one season at Alabama, Oats produced mixed results as the Tide transitioned to a high octane tempo that led the SEC in pace. The early returns on recruiting have been very strong with Bama landing transfers from West Virginia and Villanova in addition to three four-stars in the class of 2019.

Geoff Collins was a former Alabama staffer who would become a defensive coordinator for Dan Mullen at Mississippi State and Jim McElwain at Florida. After producing two top-10 SP+ defenses in his two years in Gainesville, Collins landed the head coaching job at Temple. He would go 15-10 in two seasons and then Georgia Tech came calling. The Yellow Jackets are in a slow rebuild moving away from the triple option and they showed obvious growing pains in year one. However, Collins reeled in a top-30 haul with with five blue-chip prospects in his first full recruiting class as the new staff is trying to turn Georgia Tech into a cool brand by embracing Atlanta and everything it offers.

The similarities between the two are obviously there. Both Alabama basketball and Georgia Tech football have won at a high level, but each has been disappointing in recent years. Each coach has proven to have some recruiting chops while trying to change each of their program’s brands with a new style of play in conferences that are each known for the other major sport.

Arkansas’ Eric Musselman and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck

Eric Musselman began his career coaching semi-professional basketball before moving to the NBA and eventually becoming the head coach of the Warriors from 2002-04. He would then find himself as a G League coach before finally deciding to make the move to college hoops. After being an assistant at Arizona State and LSU, he took the head job at Nevada and responded by winning 110 games in four years with a Sweet 16 appearance in 2018. He’s fresh off his first season at Arkansas and he’s not afraid to be different.

P.J. Fleck was the wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012 and then took the Western Michigan head coaching job at age 32. He would be in Kalamazoo for four seasons winning 30 games and taking a team that went 1-11 in 2013 and transformed them into a team that ran the table in 2016. He moved on to Minnesota and in three years the Gophers have improved their record every season and are fresh of an 11-2 year with an Outback Bowl win and a top-10 finish for the first time since 1962. He’s not far away from being a legit coaching candidate for a few blue blood programs.

Both Fleck and Musselman were big hires for each of their schools and they are proving to be worth the hype. You add that in with the off the field marketing and there’s plenty of commonalities. From Fleck’s “Row the Boat” to Musselman’s self proclaimed “Muss Bus” they’ve excited their fan bases and given media plenty of content to produce. Both are extremely high energy that wear against the grain sideline wardrobe. There were skeptics for each, but to this point their brash styles are working very well.

Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly

Bruce Pearl is one of the most popular coaches in college basketball and in many ways he is a self-made man. After being an assistant at Stanford and Iowa, Pearl moved to Division II and was the head coach at Southern Indiana for nine seasons and won a national championship in 1995. He moved on to Milwaukee and made the Sweet 16 before becoming an SEC coach for 12 seasons with two SEC titles and a Final Four appearance. He has turned Auburn, one of the toughest jobs in the SEC, into a top-15 program with three consecutive 25-plus win seasons.

Brian Kelly also started his head coaching career in Division II at Grand Valley State where he would go 118-35-2 in 13 seasons with two national championships. He would move to Central Michigan where he would win a MAC title and then to Cincinnati where he would take the Bearcats to consecutive BCS bowl games. That landed him the Notre Dame job where he’s been for a decade with two undefeated regular seasons and a 33-6 record in the last three years.

Kelly and Pearl have had identical rises when it comes to their careers. Thanks to the NCAA sanctions that costed Pearl his job at Tennessee he has been unable to land a top tier job, but he’s been able to build top-15 programs at two separate SEC schools. Kelly had wins stripped off his record at Notre Dame due to NCAA violations, but he’s been able to survive and has done his best work in the last three years. Both coaches are career overachievers, but I’m not sure any of the top 5-7 programs in their sport are chomping at the bit to hire either.

LSU’s Will Wade and Florida State’s Mike Norvell

Will Wade is a Clemson alum who did not played college ball, but was offered a graduate assistant position for the Tigers. He would become an assistant at Harvard and VCU before before heading to Chattanooga. After two years, he returned to VCU and led the Rams to consecutive NCAA tournaments. That landed him the LSU job where he won an SEC title in year two. He has a career .674 winning percentage in seven seasons and has proven to be a quick winner, but there are dark clouds hanging thanks to cheating accusations.

Mike Norvell played at Central Arkansas before beginning his career as a graduate assistant under Todd Graham at Tulsa. He was quickly promoted and followed Graham to both Pittsburgh and Arizona State. He was eventually promoted to offensive coordinator and that allowed him to land the Memphis job. In four seasons he won 38 games and a conference title plus a New Year’s Six bid in 2019. He was an excellent recruiter at Memphis and a quick winner. However, big schools had always stayed away for unknown reasons until Florida State called this past offseason.

(Photo: © Getty Images)

Both Norvell and Wade will be 38 years old at some point next season with five-plus years of head coaching experience under their belts. They were very quick risers through the profession and are now at programs that can win big. They’ve shown the ability to attract talent to their program and they play an exciting brand of ball. Both should be staples in their sport for a very long time and could be among the next great coaches in a decade or so.

Ole Miss’ Kermit Davis and Central Michigan’s Jim McElwain

Kermit Davis is the son of a former Mississippi State head coach and he had a fast start to his coaching career. After four years as an assistant, Davis became the head coach at Idaho and made the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons. That landed him the Texas A&M job in 1990, but he only lasted one season. Davis was given a two-year show-cause after it was uncovered that he used a sports agent to land a high profile transfer. He would move to the junior college level for a bit before beginning a long journey back. Davis became the head coach at Middle Tennessee where he would stay for 16 seasons that ended with 81 wins in his last three years and a monster upset over Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. He has since moved on to Ole Miss as he tries to prove he can win at the power conference level.

Jim McElwain was a well traveled football assistant who coached both quarterbacks and wide receivers before becoming Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator in 2008. For four years, he ran the offenses in Tuscaloosa and that landed him his first head coaching opportunity. McElwain improved his record all three years at Colorado State and then Florida came calling. After two SEC East titles, the offense could not get off the ground in Gainesville and he was relieved of his duties in the middle of year three. He eventually got another opportunity at Central Michigan and took a 1-11 team to the MAC championship game in his first season in the MAC.

Both Davis and McElwain have dealt with some big time adversity when at the highest level while one was self-inflicted and the other appeared to be McElwain begging to be fired. It’s clear for both vets that they are at their best at the mid-major level and there they have built conference title contenders. Now we’ve seen Davis taking another shot at the top level while McElwain will most definitely get that opportunity if he keeps winning at CMU. Whether these will be good moves or not is to be determined.

Mississippi State’s Ben Howland and Mark Richt

After 14 years as an assistant coach, Ben Howland got his first big break at Northern Arizona and the work completed in Flagstaff landed him the Pittsburgh job. In four years, he would lead the Panthers to a couple of Sweet 16s and Big East titles. He would then make the jump to UCLA and would be the head coach in Westwood for 10 seasons with four conference titles and three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006-08. However, things got stale quick with four consecutive sub-40 KenPom finishes and he was let go. After two years off, he landed at Mississippi State where he has produced mixed results in five seasons.

Mark Richt served on Bobby Bowden’s staff at Florida State for 15 years and was the offensive coordinator from 1994-2000. He was a member of two national championships and nine ACC titles in FSU’s first nine seasons in the league. This success landed him the Georgia job and he was able to win quickly. Richt led the Bulldogs to four top-10 finishes with two SEC titles in his first five seasons. However, they had just three top-10 finishes in his last 10 seasons with no SEC titles. People got upset with the results and Richt saw the writing on the wall. He moved to Miami and had The U in the national title hunt in 2017, but things turned ugly nearly overnight and Richt again saw the writing on the wall and resigned following 2018. He is now enjoying retirement.

After serving their time as assistants, both Howland and Richt got off to fast starts and all of sudden were running programs with national title aspirations. However, they were unable to match expectations and that led to moves for each. Despite some early success, Miami got irate with their former alum and that has resulted in an early retirement. Meanwhile, Howland finds himself somewhere with lower expectations but he isn’t producing the results we saw earlier in his career. Things can change quickly in big time college athletics.

Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen

After a wild assistant coaching career that went all over the place, Buzz Williams took over at Marquette when Tom Crean left for Indiana and would post a .668 winning percentage with three Sweet 16 appearances in six years. Once the Big East lost schools to the ACC, Williams decided to move as he thought that Marquette was going to get lost in the realignment shuffle. He made a surprising jump to cellar dweller Virginia Tech and turned the Hokies into a legit basketball program. He was in Blacksburg for five seasons and led Tech to three consecutive NCAA tournaments and was a bucket away from the Elite Eight in 2019. He decided to move again and is now at Texas A&M as he looks to wake up what could be a sleeping giant at a school with a lot of money and plenty of talent surrounding the campus. He is electric on the sidelines.

Dana Holgorsen was another coach that had a strange early career with seven years spent in Division II before joining Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech. After eight seasons in Lubbock, Kevin Sumlin brought Holgorsen to Houston and his offense broke records with quarterback Case Keenum. After one year running Mike Gundy’s offense at Oklahoma State, he moved to West Virginia where he was named “head coach in waiting”. That move upset sitting head coach Bill Stewart who decided to resign turning Holgorsen into a head coach. After eight years in Morgantown where Holgorsen had a .598 winning percentage and three top-20 finishes, he decided to make a strange move to Houston for a program with a lot of money and the potential to win big at the Group of Five level.

Both Holgorsen and Williams had strange starts to their career before going to work for some very quirky head coaches (Tom Crean, Billy Gillispie, Mike Gundy, Mike Leach). They quickly proved to have some real coaching chops at each stop. However, both have decided to jump ship at weird times for jobs that would be considered a lateral move at best. They are both now back to their roots in Texas as they look to build big time programs at two schools with plenty of money and surrounding talent.

Article written by Adam Luckett

Twitter: @AdamLuckettKSR