The 2013 SEC Media Days is the official welcome to the SEC moment for the four new head coaches—Mark Stoops at Kentucky, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Bret Bielema at Arkansas and Gus Malzahn at Auburn.
All four were before the media on Day 2 of the massive media gathering. It’s not like the rookie head coaches are strangers to big-time college football. After all, Stoops has been a defensive coordinator at Florida State the past three years. Jones has been the head coach at Cincinnati in the Big East. Bielema has been a head coach at Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Malzahn, after serving as an offensive coordinator in the SEC at Arkansas and Auburn, won a Sun Belt Conference championship in his only year as head coach at Arkansas State in the Sun Belt last season.
But no matter what their individual backgrounds, there is nothing quite like the circus that is the Media Days to fully hit home the responsibility of being a head coach in the SEC.
Jones, Stoops, Bielema and Malzahn all passed their first Media Days test with flying colors.
“It is an honor and a responsibility to be the head football coach at Tennessee,” said Jones. “We have to focus on the process. We can’t worry about the end result. We have to focus on the process day by day. We have to be a better football team minute-by-minute, day-by-day, month-by-month. If we do that then we will like our body of work.”
Jones has been pleased with the way his players have responded to the new coaching staff and its philosophy.
“It’s been great,” Jones said. “They have answered every challenge that we have asked of them and more so. Everything is about earning trust and we started earning that trust right away.”
Stoops has been particularly impressed with the way the fans at Kentucky have embraced the coaching change. The Wildcats are coming off a 2-10 overall record and they went 0-8 in the conference.
“Excited about the opportunity we have at Kentucky. We understand there’s a lot of hard work that lies ahead, but we’re embracing that process and working hard each and every day to improve this team.
With that being said, very encouraged with the way things have gone so far.”
The Kentucky Spring Game drew a record crowd of 50,000 fans, which was a shock to Stoops.
“I thought it was a game day. I had to check and make sure we weren’t playing a game,” he said. “Tremendous fan support. Blew us away at the spring game. So that’s been incredible.
Great support from our administration. Excited about the renovations that are going on in our program. So good things are going.
“Really excited about the way recruiting has gone for us. Really happy with the way 2013 ended, that momentum has carried into 2014. So excited with the way that’s going.
“I’m not sure of all the dynamics that went into play last year. Obviously, it wasn’t the year that anybody wanted around Kentucky. It’s our job to improve that from there. From what I’ve seen in the first 15 days of spring practice, we need to improve. I think everybody understands that. We have to get better in all areas of our program. We have to continue to build more depth.
“But with that being said, it’s our job to develop the players that we have, to put them in a position to be successful, and to go out there and compete each and every week. That’s what we plan to do.”
Malzahn has one advantage over the other new head coaches in that most of his players are familiar with him from his three years as Auburn’s offensive coordinator.
“I am real excited about our players,” he said. “We’ve asked a lot of them since we’ve been back. They have really bought in to the new day theme and putting the past behind them.”
Auburn’s past does include a national championship in 2010 but a highly forgettable 2012 that saw the Tigers fail to win an SEC game and only three games overall.
“The number one thing that our players have to do to be successful this year is to get our edge back. That is the mental and physical toughness, the blue-collar, hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-mouth Auburn style football. That’s what has made Auburn great. Worry about your teammate and not worry about yourself and lose the entitlement issue. That’s what we’ve been striding on and history shows that if Auburn has their edge they can compete for championships and win games,” said Malzahn.
Bielema had great success at Wisconsin, leading the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls, but now he has to pick up the pieces from the disastrous end to the Bobby Petrino regime and the one-year run of John L. Smith that produced just four Razorback victories last season.
Bielema took part in several Big Ten Media Days but this was his first exposure to the SEC media gathering.
“I saw a stat yesterday that there were more credentials for this than there was for the national championship game,” he said. “I had a feeling it was going to be big.”
And big is the appropriate word for the task Bielema has before him at Arkansas.
“I’m not trying to have a plan for four or five years down the road. I walked into that team meeting room and saw that I had group of 20 seniors, guys that when they came to Arkansas, Arkansas was really good. Last year they had to go through a season that was very tough on the players, coaches and fans. I know they are ready for something special. A lot of people don’t think that is going to be delivered but we are going to take it one game at a time and see where it goes,” he said.
“Our plan is to play solid football. Don’t give the game away. Our players understand that. They have done a tremendous job and are real excited about getting into fall camp.”
The four new coaches all had good introductions to SEC football at the Media Days and each came out with their first SEC win. Now the true tests will come this fall.