There may be no greater pressure cooker than Southeastern Conference football.
No matter the school, no matter the history of the program, winning is the standard.
Four coaches made their SEC Media Days debut this week: Auburn’s Bryan Harsin, Josh Heupel of Tennessee, Shane Beamer of South Carolina, and Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea.
Those schools combined to go 11-29 (.275) last season. That might make for a solid batting average, but it doesn’t keep football coaches employed.
Before they face the gauntlet that is the SEC, the coaches had to face the media in Hoover.
They say you only get one chance to make a first impression, so how did the quartet do?
Auburn Tigers head coach Bryan Harsin has known consistent success everywhere he’s been.
As the head coach of his alma mater Boise State, he led the Broncos to seven straight bowl game appearances, and five ten-win seasons. The Tigers have only six seasons with at least 10 wins in the last 24 years.
Of course, the Mountain West isn’t exactly the same as the SEC West.
Now, he’s traded one set of blue and orange for another; taking over an Auburn program that has lost six of its last eight bowl games. Is he finally the coach that the school on the plains has been looking for to compete with Alabama for more than just the Iron Bowl?
“I’m proud to be here in the SEC.” said Harsin. “When you drive up here and it says it just means more, I really believe that. That was something from afar, being in the Mountain West and being at Boise State.”
Harsin can’t change the course of history in one day, so his focus is on what he and his staff can accomplish over their 25 practice sessions.
“We’re getting ready for September 4th against Akron,” he added. “That is the focus at Auburn. I know the other games we play. I know the other teams on the schedule, but you’ve got to win the first one. You’ve got to go out there and put on the field your very best performance so we can evaluate that and learn from it. So that is our number one focus.”
Shane Beamer has the bloodlines. He’s the son of Frank Beamer, the architect of Virginia Tech football.
Beamer is no stranger to the SEC, with a dozen years of experience as an assistant with Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi State, and South Carolina, so he knows the pressures and competitiveness of the conference as well as anyone.
“There is no conference in America like this league,” he said. “I’ve been a part of multiple leagues, and the passion, the intensity 365 days a year, the way this league is covered, there’s nothing like it. I couldn’t be more excited about being back here.”
The Gamecocks have threatened to join the SEC elite at times, but haven’t gotten over the proverbial hump. Beamer believes he can lead South Carolina to its first conference title.
“Then the plan, I’m not talking about something that hasn’t been done before at South Carolina,” said Beamer. “In the last ten years, or my last year at South Carolina, we played for the SEC Championship. We beat Alabama when they were No. 1 in the country at Williams-Brice Stadium. We beat Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and our in-state rival all in the same season. Within the last ten years, we’ve been in the midst of consecutive 11-win seasons. Within the last ten years, we were in the midst of beating our in-state rival five years ago.
We’re not talking about something that was 40 years ago. It was recently done here in South Carolina. We’re not far from getting back there and doing it again. That’s our plan, to not just get back to that point, but to be better than we’ve ever been, and that’s what we’re working towards every day.”
As a first-time head coach, Beamer is full of energy. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to overcome the disadvantages he suffered in recruiting, and the one he has in returning talent.
Tennessee’s last few years have been rocky, and they’ve spent very little time at the top, but Josh Heupel has been brought in to make Tennessee football relevant again.
“I’m honored to be the head coach of Tennessee football,” said Heupel. “This is one of the great and iconic logos in all of college football, steeped in tradition. It’s a great honor to be the care taker of Tennessee football at this time and really proud of what our players and our staff have done in six months. Just couldn’t be prouder and really excited about getting back onto the football field.”
Heupel led Oklahoma to a national championship as quarterback of the Sooners in 2000, two years after Tennessee won its last title. The Volunteers have gone 12 years since their last 10-win season, with only two top-25 finishes in that time.
Tennessee poked its head into the transfer portal and added some talent to the roster, hopefully taking advantage of there being more talented players seeking a new home than places ready to take them.
“I feel really good about what we’ve added,” he continued. “A majority of those guys we really feel like are going to play meaningful snaps right from the get-go when we kick off in September. A handful, or a couple of those guys, I should say, are guys that will have to earn it, like they all will, but guys that are going to develop in our program.”
The adjustment to the size and speed of SEC players up front is the one thing that Heupel has keyed on.
“Having been in the Big 12, this league, and then having been in the AAC, the line of scrimmage is different, and it’s the size and the length of the bodies, you know what I mean? Up front, inside, it’s their girth. On the edges, it’s their ability to have length and speed. I thinks that the difference in the league, or the number one thing that jumps out to you. You can tell that just by the NFL Draft.”
Building the team from the trenches is a logical direction for a former quarterback. Can that direction lead Tennessee back to glory?
Vanderbilt has always existed like an island of misfit toys when it comes to football in the SEC.
The conference’s slogan, “It just means more,” should probably read “It means something” when referring to the Commodores.
Vanderbilt tabbed one of its own in Clark Lea, when they named him head coach.
Understanding the tough road ahead, Lea wasn’t prepared to make any bold predictions for the group he calls “Team one.”
“We’ll say that every game that we play we’ll have a plan to win, and we’ll measure our results off our execution of that plan to win,” Lea stated.
“There are measurable things that show growth as a team, and there are things that can’t be measured. I think both are important. In the end, I’m a competitor, and I didn’t come to Vanderbilt to do anything other than win. So for me, it’s about how we design this team, how we design our tactics, how we develop as people and as teammates to put ourselves in the best position to win games in the fourth quarter.”
Lea sounded all of a proud alum, and a smart coach, as he repeatedly returned his thoughts to his long-term goals for the program, rather than a quick turnaround for a team made up of players who came to play under a different coach and under a different system.
“Let me say first there’s no better program in the country than Vanderbilt football, so that’s why I’m back,” Lea said. “There’s an unyielding belief in what’s possible there. That’s through my experience.”
Clark Lea has his eyes wide open when it comes to the lay of the land in Nashville. He hasn’t returned to relive the past. He’s come back to build the future of Vanderbilt football.
“I jump in with, I guess, an accelerated perspective,” he added. “I know the intricacies of what that program is about, how it fits in our university, what the recruiting profile should look like, and where the resources are.
So for me, it’s seizing the opportunity we have to build something different to give this program a chance to be at its potential. I didn’t return home to have a homecoming.”