New SEC coaches under pressure to succeed

Ben Cook

February 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm.

Mark Stoops is looking to revive the Kentucky football program. (Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

Pressure is a way of life for football coaches.

The rewards are great for coaches but with those rewards come great pressure. It is the day-to-day reality of a life as a coach. If it is during the season there is pressure to win. If it is the offseason, then the pressure is on to recruit and now that recruiting pressure is 365 days a year.

It is not often that a coach can go into a season without feeling the pressure to produce enough wins to satisfy the fan base and his athletic department superiors. The possible exception is for a new coach at a new school. It’s known as a honeymoon for a coach/

There are four new coaches in the Southeastern Conference who will be in what should normally be considered a honeymoon season. Those newcomers are Gus Malzahn at Auburn, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

But this will not be a normal first year for all four new coaches. Each one will not face the normal pressure that other established coaches will be facing but they will be facing varying degrees of pressure — and for varying reasons.

Arkansas’ Bielema finds himself in a rather unique position atArkansas. After taking his last threeWisconsinteams to the Rose Bowl, Razorback fans know they have a proven winner as coach. And after the embarrassment of 2012,Arkansasis looking for a breath of fresh air and they believe Bielema will provide it.

After losing key playmakers Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton, Bielema is starting over as far as having the players buy into his philosophy. But theArkansasplayers, who suffered through last season, can read the papers and listen to the talk shows. They know what they have in Bielema.

Bielema is under pressure to prove that his approach to football, which proved to be so successful in the Big Ten, can be as successful in the SEC. Bielema has set the start ofArkansas’ spring football for Sunday, March 10.

Jones brings another strong resume to his new job in Knoxville. He has a 50-27 record in six seasons as head coach at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Five of his six teams went to bowl games, although he only coached three of the teams in their bowl games winning only one.

Tennessee struggled under the tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley and in the final years of Phil Fulmer’s regime.Tennesseefans are starving to get back to a place where the Vols annually challenged for SEC East supremacy. They believe Jones is the man who can do it.

Jones will be looking for new playmakers after Tennessee lost its three best offensive stars from last season in Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and two defensive mainstays in Herman Lathers and Darrington Sentimore.

The Vols had a dismal 2012 season, which opened the door for Jones to move from the Big East, a conference on life support, to the SEC, the preeminent conference in the nation.

Jones is expected to turn things around in Knoxville but his resume buys him some time. He doesn’t have to elevate Tennessee back into the SEC East race right away, but he will need to show significant improvement in the coming season to ease the pressure going into the next season.

Tennessee starts the Jones Era with spring drills on Saturday, March 9.

Malzahn is taking over an Auburn team that already believes in him. He won over the fans and the players while he served as offensive coordinator under Gene Chizik between 2009 and 2011. He’s known as an offensive mastermind, which brings with it pressure of a different kind.

While he was head coach at Arkansas State during the 2012 season, Auburn’s offense fell flat as the Tigers struggled through a 3-9 season and a 0-8 SEC mark. Auburn fans are expecting Malzahn to return the Tigers offense to relevance in the conference right away.

Malzahn is not going into this season with a honeymoon period. The fans will be a little more tolerant if Malzahn doesn’t challenge for an SEC West championship this year, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be expecting improvement. But by the same token, after the 2012 disaster, it would be hard for the Tigers not to show some improvement.

Auburn starts spring football on Wednesday, March 27.

The one new coach in the conference who does not face immediate pressure is the one who has the biggest job ahead of him.

Stoops steps into a job where winning is hoped for but not immediately demanded. Football at Kentucky has always played second fiddle to basketball, so Stoops’ mission is to win enough games to get the Wildcats into second-level bowl games most years. That releases Stoops from pressure for a regular honeymoon period. He has the time to put his philosophy into place and get the Wildcats to buy into it.

Whatever pressure that Stoops feels this season will be the pressure he puts on himself.

Stoops has not yet set a start date for spring drills, but he does have the spring game set for April 13th.