Butch Jones grew up in little Saugatuck, Mich. He’s still getting used to the southern ambience of East Tennessee.
When the SEC football coaches are in a room together, however, Jones should feel right at home.
Coaches raised in the South are now in the minority in the SEC fraternity. If the 14 coaches were to vote in a geographic bloc, the Midwest would carry the day.
Three of the four newcomers are Midwesterners, bringing the total to six who grew up wearing parkas and listening to Big Ten games on the radio while they shoveled snow off the driveway.
Jones joins Bret Bielema of Arkansas, who’s from upstate Illinois; Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, born in Alabama but raised in Indianapolis; and three colleagues who hail from Northeast Ohio: LSU’s Les Miles, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel.
Alabama’s Nick Saban is a West Virginian. Vanderbilt’s James Franklin got his edge on the Jersey border in Pennsylvania. The biggest cultural adjustment has to be Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, a New Hampshire native who attended a small college in Philadelphia.
There are still a few Southern drawls to be heard in the coaches’ meetings:
South Floridian Mark Richt of Georgia; Mississippi-born Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss; Arkansas native Gus Malzahn of Auburn; Florida’s Will Muschamp, a Georgia Bulldog born and bred; South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, from Johnson City.
What does it all mean?
Perhaps only that the world is getting smaller and flatter. Football-wise, an X is an X, an O an O.
But there is a message in the geography. It speaks to how big of a business college football has become.
Follow the money, not the alma mater.
For decades the giants of Southern football were mostly Southerners.
Paul Bryant, Shug Jordan, Vince Dooley, Frank Broyles, Charlie McClendon, Pat Dye, Johnny Majors, they all grew up on Dixie football.
So did the next generation: Spurrier, Phillip Fulmer, Houston Nutt, Billy Brewer.
There were a couple of Texans in the mix, Tennessee’s Robert Neyland and Ole Miss’ John Vaught. But rarely did a coach come from north of the Mason-Dixon Line to leave a lasting impact. Go back to World War II and beyond and Vanderbilt’s Dan McGugin and Alabama’s Frank Thomas were a couple of Notre Dame men.
With Kentucky’s firing of Joker Phillips last winter, there isn’t a current SEC coach employed by his alma mater.
That’s not to say Alabama fans don’t worship the ground their West Virginia-born Kent State grad walks on. Or that UT fans haven’t embraced Ferris State alum Jones and his Michigan Mafia with open orange arms.
Speaking of Kent State, did you know Saban and Missouri’s Pinkel were Golden Flash teammates? Or that Bielema and Stoops both played for Hayden Fry at Iowa?
Or, that there are four Big Ten alums coaching in the SEC compared to two SEC alums?
LSU’s Miles, a Big Ten guy, has apparently found contentment on the bayou. Starting his ninth year, he’s No. 2 on the Tigers’ career wins chart with 85. Saban is already No. 3 on Alabama’s chart.
Bielema was No. 2 at Wisconsin and could have become No. 1 in time if he hadn’t bolted south for Arkansas.
So perhaps the more obvious message is that the SEC’s dominant decade — with no end in sight — sends out a beacon that reaches from sea to shining sea. Coaches come, like moths to a flame.
If you can win, it doesn’t matter if you’re from Saugatuck or Savannah.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.