Commentary

SEC coaches come, go and return

Updated: August 21, 2009, 11:15 AM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

Coaching football in the SEC is a lot like signing the guest register at the Hotel California.

The Eagles sang about it in their 1977 classic, which remains one of the best rock 'n' roll songs of all time.

You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Likewise, coaches come and go in the SEC all the time. Head coaches. Coordinators. Position coaches.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
AP Photo/Dave MartinGene Chizik returned to the Plains after stops at Texas and Iowa State.

They go from one rival to the next. They go from the Eastern Division to the Western Division. They get fired, stay away for a few years and come back. They try their hand in the NFL and come back. They explore other conferences and come back.

The common denominator is that they always come back.

The SEC might as well be one giant magnet for coaches. Once you get a taste, there's nothing else like it.

"This is the pinnacle, not only for the players, but also for the coaches," said Georgia's Mark Richt, who enters his ninth season as the Bulldogs' head coach. "It's where everybody wants to be."

There's also no league in America that recycles coaches the way the SEC does. Take a quick gander around the league. The number of familiar faces at different addresses this season is staggering.

Where do we start?

Two of three new head coaches in the league have strong SEC pedigrees.

Gene Chizik played at Florida in the early 1980s, spent three seasons (from 2002 to 2004) as Tommy Tuberville's defensive coordinator at Auburn and is now back at Auburn as head coach.

Dan Mullen was Florida's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the past four seasons, tutoring a guy by the name of Tim Tebow, and was hired in December at the age of 36 to be Mississippi State's head coach.

"You want to be in the best league in the country," said Mullen, who had coached at Bowling Green and Utah with Urban Meyer before following him to Florida. "You challenge yourself that way. Sometimes, you scratch your head and wonder why on a Sunday morning when you just played LSU the night before and turn on the film the next week and there's Alabama's defense looking at you.

"You wonder, 'Where's the off week?' But that's the competitive nature that makes this league what it is."

Three head coaches -- Alabama's Nick Saban, Ole Miss' Houston Nutt and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier -- are at their second stop in the league.

Spurrier and Saban both won national championships at their previous schools (Spurrier at Florida and Saban at LSU) before giving in to the lure of the NFL.

Neither made it past two seasons in the pros before eventually resurfacing in the SEC. But it's where they resurfaced in the SEC that sent so many shockwaves across the conference.

The sight of Saban strolling up and down the Alabama sideline is still hard for many on the Bayou to stomach.

The Arkansas fans, on the other hand, were ready to buy Nutt a one-way ticket out of town. After 10 years in the Ozarks, they were tired of him, and he was tired of them.

"When you've been at a place over eight or nine years, your words get old," Nutt said. "The newness wears off, and if you're not exciting enough in the entertaining part of it and winning the right way and pleasing certain people, there's probably going to be a group that comes after you."

Nutt stayed unemployed about the length of time it takes to play a football game. Less than four hours after he announced that he was leaving Arkansas, he'd already agreed to become Ole Miss' next coach.

The turnover with the head coaches in the league is one thing. But try keeping up with the assistants changing addresses within the league this season or the assistants who've come back to the league.

[+] EnlargeCarl Torbush
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesCarl Torbush took North Carolina to the Las Vegas Bowl in 1998.

John Chavis was Tennessee's defensive coordinator for 14 seasons under Phillip Fulmer, but was part of the purge when the Vols cleaned house.

He'll be back on the sidelines this season as LSU's defensive coordinator.

"It's almost like having a second honeymoon," Chavis said.

Carl Torbush is the ultimate SEC journeyman.

The 57-year-old Torbush was the Ole Miss defensive coordinator from 1983 to 1986, the Alabama defensive coordinator from 2001 to 2002 and now he's back for his third tour through the SEC as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator. Torbush was working at his alma mater, Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., when Mullen called.

"It's the best of the best," said Torbush, who was the head coach at North Carolina from 1998 to 2000. "I was supposed to be a football coach in the SEC. Now, does that make it easy? No. But as far as competing against the best, coaching against the best, the religious-like atmosphere at the different schools, it doesn't get any better.

"I think one of the reasons coaches do recycle so much in this league is that you better know what you're getting into in terms of the fans, the media and all the scrutiny. I just think the guy who hasn't been in this league before ... it can suck him up in a hurry.

"You just can't ever understand how important it is to these people until you've been in the middle of it."

All told, there are 58 coaches currently on SEC staffs who've worked at more than one school in the conference.

And sometimes it's easier to pick out where they haven't been as opposed to where they have been.

Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, for example, started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Florida in 1983. He returned as outside linebackers coach in 1988, coached receivers at Ole Miss in 1990, returned to Florida to coach defensive ends and later defensive tackles in 1991, went to South Carolina as defensive coordinator in 1999 and gravitated back to Florida in 2003 as defensive coordinator. He's been there ever since.

Kentucky defensive line coach Rick Petri was a defensive line coach at Ole Miss in the late 1980s, returned to the league in 1996 as defensive ends coach at South Carolina, went back to Ole Miss as defensive tackles coach in 1998 and joined the Kentucky staff in 2005.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
Jason Parkhurst/US PresswireCharlie Strong has made multiple coaching stops in the SEC.

Vanderbilt is the only school in the league that doesn't have a coach on its staff who had previously coached at another SEC school. Mississippi State has nine and South Carolina seven.

It's always sure to heat up tensions, especially on the recruiting front, when a coach goes from one rival to the next.

First-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin took particular glee in raiding other staffs. He hired away Lance Thompson from Alabama, Frank Wilson from Ole Miss and David Reaves from South Carolina.

Eddie Gran, who's already proven to be a force on the recruiting trail for the Vols, had been with Tommy Tuberville at Auburn and Ole Miss, and Ed Orgeron was the head coach at Ole Miss for three seasons before he was fired.

Kiffin also tried to lure Georgia's ace recruiter, Rodney Garner, back to Tennessee. In the late 1990s, Garner recruited some of the key players that helped the Vols win the national title before leaving for Georgia following the 1997 season.

He thought long and hard about returning to Tennessee, but elected to stay put.

Kiffin wasn't the only one in the league doing the raiding. Alabama, after losing Thompson to Tennessee, plucked James Willis from the Auburn staff as his replacement.

Auburn also came after Georgia offensive line coach Stacy Searels in the offseason, but Searels received a pay bump to stay with the Bulldogs.

Lorenzo Ward left Arkansas to be the defensive coordinator at South Carolina, where Ellis Johnson moved up to the assistant head coach for the defense.

Johnson is another one who's seen the SEC from just about every corner. He served two different stints at Alabama, the last one as defensive coordinator from 1997 to 2000. He was also the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State from 2004 to 2007 and spent a month as the Arkansas defensive coordinator before coming to South Carolina to be closer to family.

"I really can't imagine not coaching in the SEC," Johnson said. "I'd probably be lost."

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covered Tennessee from 1997 to 2006. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.

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