DESTIN, Fla. — On a Tuesday when officials at SEC schools always proudly don their school colors, Ross Bjork carefully selected a white shirt and khaki pants. He wanted to look as neutral as possible when he took his seat at the league’s spring meetings between maroon-clad R.C. Slocum and Keith Carter, who wore the blue and red Bjork sported for the past seven years as the athletic director at Ole Miss.
Bjork’s wardrobe choice and seating assignment were entirely intentional. Last week, Texas A&M offered Bjork its AD job, and he accepted. He’ll start work July 8. He won’t even be officially introduced as the Aggies’ AD until Monday. Bjork has spent the meetings this week helping interim Ole Miss AD Carter get up to speed and consulting with former Texas A&M football coach Slocum, who has been serving as his school’s interim AD for about a month. Why did Texas A&M need a new AD? Because Scott Woodward left for LSU.
Seeing a pattern here?
While it occasionally happens in other leagues, no one is into swapping quite like the schools and the people of the SEC. It’s the biggest key party in college athletics, and you never know when the next swing will convince a one-time rival to change school colors. The Big Ten has no current ADs, football or men’s basketball coaches who have served in the same role at two league schools. The ACC has Clemson AD Dan Radakovich (Georgia Tech). (Duke AD Kevin White, who also served as Notre Dame’s AD, counts half because the Fighting Irish aren’t a full ACC member. The Pac-12 has UCLA football coach Chip Kelly (Oregon). The Big 12 can get a little incestuous. Oklahoma men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger (Kansas State) and West Virginia men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins (Kansas State) are in the club. So is Texas AD Chris Del Conte, who as TCU’s AD helped get that school into the Big 12. Les Miles, whose first head-coaching job came at Oklahoma State, hit the double recently when he took on the task of rebuilding the Kansas football program. But this is the part where the SEC asks us to hold its beer (which it may allow schools to sell at sporting events depending on how a vote goes Friday)…
Once Bjork takes over at Texas A&M, the SEC will have four sitting athletic directors who once were ADs at other SEC schools. Bjork will join Woodward, who earlier this year joined Alabama AD Greg Byrne (Mississippi State) and Florida AD Scott Stricklin (Mississippi State).
The league also has four football coaches who have pulled off the double dip. Nick Saban has won five national titles at Alabama and won another as LSU’s head coach. Will Muschamp’s first head-coaching job at Florida didn’t go well, but after a one-year stint as a coordinator at—wait for it—Auburn, he got a second chance when he was hired as South Carolina’s head coach. Dan Mullen got the Mississippi State head coaching job based on his success as Florida’s offensive coordinator. He then got the Florida head coaching job based on his success at both places. Ed Orgeron had a horrific run as the Ole Miss head coach from 2005 to ’07, but he catalogued his mistakes and swore if he got another shot, he wouldn’t make them again. He probably should have gotten that second chance at USC (the one in California) after an interim stint in 2013, but the Trojans’ decision to hire Steve Sarkisian allowed Orgeron the chance to eventually become the interim at LSU and secure the full-time job.
Football isn’t alone, though. Two former Tennessee basketball coaches landed at other SEC schools. Once Bruce Pearl’s NCAA show-cause penalty ended, he wound up at Auburn. (And just took the Tigers to the Final Four.) Pearl’s Knoxville successor Cuonzo Martin, whose greatest sin at Tennessee was not being Bruce Pearl, ran west to Cal for a time but then found a home at Missouri.
Especially in the AD positions and in football, a knowledge of the SEC is considered a critical trait. This leads to a lot of job-swapping within the league. Is that a good thing, though? Depends on the situation. Saban got Alabama up and running quickly because he’d taken on a similar task at LSU in the same decade. Muschamp had worked at LSU and Auburn but couldn’t win titles at Florida. Who could? Predecessor Urban Meyer, who had never worked in the SEC before coming to Florida from Utah. Among the ADs, Stricklin is at Florida now because he proved his fundraising acumen at Mississippi State and understands the dynamics of the league. Meanwhile, Auburn sought an infusion of new ideas when it hired Notre Dame–educated former Buffalo AD Allen Greene. But Greene does have SEC experience. Before becoming Buffalo’s AD, he worked for two years as a fundraiser in the Ole Miss athletic department. Jay Jacobs, the man Greene replaced in Auburn, landed on Stricklin’s staff at Florida as an associate AD.
So we’ve established that It Just Means More (to have SEC experience), but who currently holds the ridiculously overpriced belt for the title of Most SEC Person On Earth?
To calculate this, we’ll need a scoring system. We’ll award five points for holding the title of AD, head football coach or head basketball coach. Working as an assistant coach or assistant AD at a school will net three points. Being an undergraduate alum of a school is worth five points. Picking up a graduate degree at a school is worth two. But here’s the catch: Because we’re trying to figure out who is closest to earning a set of SEC-branded steak knives (Motto: They Just Cut More) by completing the set, each person can score only once per school. So the two points Byrne would get for his master’s degree from Mississippi State get wiped out by the five he gets for once being Mississippi State’s AD.
Still, Byrne checks in at a respectable 13 points. He gets five for being Alabama’s AD, five for being Mississippi State’s AD and three for serving as an associate AD at Kentucky. Unfortunately, his Pacific Northwest upbringing probably cost him a chance to ever reign as the Most SEC of Them All. Byrne’s former Kentucky and Mississippi State coworker Stricklin also earns 13 points. The Jackson, Miss., native matriculated in Starkville, and the mid-career return to his alma mater—rather than an adventure at another SEC school—cost him the title. This also kneecapped Woodward, an LSU grad who returned to his hometown this past month with a scant 10 SEC points (AD at LSU, AD at Texas A&M). Woodward’s successor Bjork ties for the AD title with 13 thanks to a short early-career stint at Missouri. Yes, Mizzou was in the Big 12 at the time, but I’ll allow it because I just made up this game five minutes ago.
EDIT: After an appeal to the rules committee, Stricklin has been awarded three additional points for the five years he spent as an assistant sports information director at Auburn. This makes him the most SEC AD. But not the most SEC person…
Moving on to the football coaches, Saban has accomplished more than anyone in the league. But spending his formative years in the Midwest cost him considerable opportunities to accrue SEC points. He has only four more than he has national titles. (Five for Alabama head coach, five for LSU head coach.) Georgia coach Kirby Smart gets three points each for his stints as a Saban assistant at LSU and Alabama, but Smart’s decision to become the head coach at his alma mater leaves him stuck at 11 points. Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, another former Alabama defensive coordinator, is tied with Smart at 11 (five for Tennessee head coach, three for Alabama defensive coordinator, three for Georgia defensive coordinator).
Orgeron breaks away from that pack thanks to a very early stint as an assistant strength coach at Arkansas—which was in the Southwest Conference at the time, but I’ll allow it—and because of a one-year stint as Lane Kiffin’s ace recruiter at Tennessee. Add in his two head-coaching stints, and he’s the second-most SEC person on the planet at 16 points.
Orgeron might have tied for the title if not for an exceptionally leisurely offseason afternoon for then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier’s staff in 1990. On that afternoon, a high school senior from Rome, Ga., who had once lived in Gainesville had scheduled a meeting with an assistant to discuss a walk-on spot. The boy and his mother waited for hours, but no one came. Finally, they left and drove home. Had that coach made the meeting, Muschamp might have walked on at Florida instead of Georgia. But because Muschamp landed in Athens, he gets five points for his Georgia degree, three points for being an LSU assistant, three points for being an Auburn assistant, five points for being Florida’s head coach and five points for being South Carolina’s head coach. That’s a whopping 21 points—that doesn’t even count Muschamp’s Auburn master’s degree, which got wiped out by points from two stints as defensive coordinator—and that makes Muschamp The Most SEC Person In The Universe.
For him, It Just Means The Most.
Muschamp’s $175 SEC belt will be in the mail just as soon as he gives me his credit card number.