Josh Kendall

Another ‘Next Big Thing’ in coaching went somewhere other than the SEC

New University of Minnesota football PJ Fleck
New University of Minnesota football PJ Fleck AP

We talk about cycles.

We talk about Alabama sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

We talk about how there’s no way the run could keep up at the pace it was on anyway.

All those things have validity, but here’s what the SEC’s collective we – media, athletic directors, boosters, coaches, whoever else is part and parcel of this monster – should be talking about: P.J. Fleck was hired to coach at the University of Minnesota on Friday.

Fleck was the coach at Western Michigan where he did a wonderful job culminating with a Cotton Bowl appearance this year. He was 30-22 in four years at Western Michigan, including 13-1 this year on the way to being a national coach of the year finalist. He’s young (36), energetic and a fan of catchy sayings. At Western Michigan, his tag line was “Row the Boat,” but he’ll have to come up with something new now because Western Michigan trademarked that phrase.

Fleck might do great things at Minnesota. He might do nothing. That’s not the point. The point is that another “Next Big Thing” in coaching went somewhere other than the SEC.

Fleck didn’t take over a proud old program just waiting to recapture its birthright glory. He went to Minnesota. The last time Minnesota was any good at football was 1960. It’s not going to be an easy place to win. It might not even be a possible place to win. (The high there Saturday was 9.) But the Golden Gophers stepped up with their wallet and are reportedly paying Fleck $3.5 million per year.

This is straight from the SEC playbook and lots more are getting in the game now. College football is a coach-driven sport and coaching movement is driven by money.

This year, Tom Herman went from Houston to Texas, Matt Rhule went from Temple to Baylor, Willie Taggart went from South Florida to Oregon. Last year, Justin Fuente went from Memphis to Virginia Tech. All have had great success as head coaches. Meanwhile, the last four hires at SEC schools – Ed Orgeron at LSU, Will Muschamp at South Carolina, Kirby Smart at Georgia and Barry Odom at Missouri are unproven commodities.

Now let’s stack that on top of the coaches who have left the league in one form or fashion in the past seven years – Urban Meyer went from Florida to Ohio State, Mark Richt went from Georgia to Miami, Steve Spurrier went from South Carolina to his beach house in Florida, Les Miles went from LSU to ubiquitous talk radio guest and serial interviewee.

Whether or not you think all of those coaches needed to go for one reason or another, there’s no denying that’s a lot of coaching talent walking out the door.

The 13 coaches in the SEC not named Nick Saban have combined for zero national titles and one conference title. That’s not to say there aren’t good coaches or coaches who will win plenty of championships. It’s to say there are as few sure bets at the top of the conference’s programs as there have been in a long time.

If you’re looking for a reason to worry about the SEC, this is the one.

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