Four new faces behind podium in Hoover


Clockwise from top left: Kentuck's Mark Stoops, Tennessee's Butch Jones, Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Arkansas' Bret Bielema are all first-year SEC coaches.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 6:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 6:49 p.m.

HOOVER, Ala. — The SEC’s four new football coaches have shared similar experiences in their short time on the job.

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Clockwise from top left: Kentuck's Mark Stoops, Tennessee's Butch Jones, Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Arkansas' Bret Bielema are all first-year SEC coaches.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer

Acceptance from the fan base. A sense of excitement over a new start and the promise of better days ahead. Success on the recruiting trail. Positive press.

Early and encouraging momentum.

Mark Stoops (Kentucky), Butch Jones (Tennessee), Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and Bret Bielema (Arkansas) shared another experience Wednesday, getting introduced at SEC Media Days for the first time.

This introduction, of course, signals things are about to change for the league’s newbie coaches. Reality is about to set in. The difficult and sometimes overwhelming task of taking over a losing program is about to begin.

It’s time to grind in America’s toughest and most competitive conference, one that swallowed up their predecessors.

The news conferences of the four new coaches followed a similar theme: They’re happy to be here, excited about the opportunity, convinced they can succeed, realistic about expectations that have been soaring this summer.

Even at Kentucky, where basketball is king (and always will be), there is a new excitement about football with the arrival of Stoops, the former defensive coordinator at Florida State and the brother of ultra-successful Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.

More than 50,000 showed up for the Wildcats spring game. Season ticket sales are up. Expectations have reached perhaps an all-time high.

“It’s really, to be honest with you, an uncomfortable situation for me because it’s not my style to try and temper those expectations,” Stoops said. “I think the educated fan knows where we’re at as a program, knows we have a lot of work to do.

“But the flip side of that is I want the excitement. I want them there. I want them to support our players. We plan on going out and competing each and every week. We understand that the challenges are there.

“People are anticipating a good year, because we certainly are. We’re not going out there to put all this hard work in to not try to win games.”

Stoops is feeling and sensing momentum. So are Jones, Malzahn and Bielema.

The four coaches also are realistic about the fact they are all inheriting SEC programs, and that winning games and keeping the momentum going in the fall is going to be a daunting challenge.

Stoops is taking over a UK team that was 0-8 in the league last season.

“We understand that 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,” Stoops said. “We need to improve. I think everyone understands that. We have to get better in all areas of our program. We have to continue to build more depth.

“It’s our job to develop the players we have and put them in a position to be successful and go out and compete every week. That’s what we plan to do.”

At Tennessee, Jones has scored some impressive early recruiting victories that have ignited the fan base. He’s also taking over a program that’s won only one SEC game in each of the last two seasons, has lost eight in a row to rival Florida and must replace most of its offensive skill players.

“What I’ve told our football team is we’ve got to focus on the process,” Jones said. “We can’t worry about the end result right now. We have to focus on the process.

“We have to be a better football team and a better program minute by minute, hour by hour, day to day, month by month. If we just have that focus throughout the course of a long season, we’ll like our body of work as the season concludes.”

The UT schedule is not kind. Five of the Vols’ first eight games are against teams that finished in the top 10 last season.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for our football team,” Jones said. “It’s also going to be a tremendous, tremendous opportunity as well.

“Unfortunately, the situation we’re in at Tennessee, we’re going to be forced to play some true freshmen. They’re going to have to grow up in a hurry.”

When Malzahn returned to Auburn earlier this year, he probably didn’t recognize the program he helped to a national championship just two years earlier. He was the offensive coordinator on that team and coached Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.

Malzahn inherits a team that was winless (0-8) in the SEC last season. He doesn’t have Newton. In fact, he still doesn’t even know who his starting quarterback is going to be only weeks before the start of fall practice.

“The No. 1 thing that our players have to do for us to be successful this year is get our edge back,” Malzahn said. “That is the mental and physical toughness, the blue-collar, hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-mouth Auburn football that’s made Auburn great.

“Worry about your teammate, not about yourself. Lose the entitlement issue. History shows if Auburn has their edge, they can compete for championships and win games.”

Arkansas is another team looking to recapture its lost edge.

Bielema inherited a 4-8 mess that John L. Smith helped to create in the wake of the sudden firing of Bobby Petrino a little more than a year ago. Before Petrino self-destructed, the Razorbacks were starting to seriously challenge Alabama and LSU in the West.

The hiring of Bielema, a proven winner at Wisconsin, has revived excitement and expectations among Razorback fans.

Bielema said he’s going to build from the ground up, starting with establishing tough, physical play on both lines of scrimmage and establish a balanced offense.

“Our goal has been to rush for 210 yards and pass for 210 yards,” Bielema said. “If we can do that, we’ll have a chance to win a lot of games.

“We have a team that is very hungry and a staff that is very talented. This is a team that comes in with a huge chip on its shoulder. This is a team that has everything it takes to win games.”

It is all about winning.

Malzahn said he and the three other new league coaches know what they’re getting themselves into.

“You’ve got to be prepared. You have to have a plan,” he said. “The bottom line is you have to be successful. I think all coaches, especially in this league, understand that.”

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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