The SEC held an informal orientation session Wednesday during the second day of the conference’s Media Days.
All four new head coaches in the league — Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn — faced the biggest news conferences of their lives here in the Wynfrey Hotel.
“It’s the wow of what it is,” fifth-year Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said, thinking back to his first SEC Media Days. “One thing that makes the SEC what it is, is that wow factor.”
More than 1,000 media members are credentialed for Media Days.
“If you don’t already, when you walk out of the door after your first Media Days, you understand exactly what kind of passion you are walking into as a football conference,” Mullen said.
Stoops, the only one of the quartet to be taking his first head coaching job, didn’t get to ease into the day. The opening question of his news conference asked him to answer for his brother Bob’s summer critique of the SEC.
“That’s got to be my first question?” Stoops joked, before sidestepping it.
Stoops was Florida State’s defensive coordinator from 2010-2012 and before that served in the same role at Arizona. He replaces Joker Phillips, who was fired after a 2-10 season (0-8 in the SEC) last year.
“I think the educated fan knows where we’re at as a program, knows we have a lot of work to do,” Stoops said. “But the flipside of that is I want the excitement. I want them there. I want them to support our players that we have on our team right now. I want them at all of our home games. We plan on going out and competing each and every week. We understand that the challenges are there.”
On the opposite end of the experience scale is Bielema, who comes to the Razorbacks after seven years as the coach at Wisconsin, where he guided the Badgers to the Rose Bowl the past three seasons. Bielema is cleaning up the mess left by Bobby Petrino’s departure two years ago. Interim Arkansas coach John L. Smith finished 4-8 last year (2-6 SEC).
Bielema has been outspoken about his admiration for the SEC.
“We got a quarterback out of Egg Harbor, New Jersey, that we tried to recruit at the previous institution I was at. He reached out to us once I switched because he wanted to play in the SEC. I said, ‘Well, I got a heck of an opportunity for you. He switched, decommitted from another school, became a part of what we did. That was all because of the SEC on our shirt,” he said Wednesday.
Jones won Wednesday’s Mr. Congeniality Award, at least from his players.
“Coach Jones, he’s an easy guy to get along with,” offensive lineman Tiny Richardson said. “He’s always texting my phone, calling me, seeing how I am doing. That’s the kind of coach you will run through a wall for, the kind that really cares about you.”
Jones compiled a 23-14 record the past three years at Cincinnati and before that served as the coach at Central Michigan for three years. He replaces Derek Dooley, who was 16-21 in three seasons.
The new coaching staff is “more personable,” offensive lineman Ja’Waun James said. “You almost feel like family. You feel like you have known these guys for years, like they recruited you. They have done a good job ever since January of making it feel like home.”
Jones does not expect the process of building a winning program to be any different in the SEC than in any other league, although he acknowledges that process might be harder.
“Everyone asks me, what’s it like to be in the SEC?” Jones said. “My constant phrase is, ‘The best analogy I can give you is every day in the SEC is it’s like fourth-and-one for the national championship.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s practice, recruiting, game time which I’ll experience soon, the competitive structure of this football conference, the difference between winning and losing is very slim. Everyone is making commitments to their football program. That’s what makes this the best football conference in America.”
Malzahn is the most familiar newcomer to most SEC fans. He served as Auburn’s offensive coordinator before taking the head coaching job at Arkansas State for one season and now replaces Gene Chizik, who won a national title two years prior to being fired.
“When you take on a head job, you know exactly what you are getting into,” Malzahn said. “The bottom line is you have to be successful. I think all coaches, especially in this league, understand that.”