Given that SEC football coaches have long had the capacity to rankle — remember Jackie Sherrill? Charley Pell? Tommy Tuberville? — you wouldn’t have thought one offseason could wreak so much havoc in the venerable league’s pecking order. Well, you’d have been wrong. Here’s the new world order among SEC mentors, ranked from least irritating to most:
12. Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt. Everybody likes him. Even rival coaches like him. Except when they lose to him and his intramural team. Then they hate him for getting them fired.
11. Rich Brooks, Kentucky. The only nettling thing about Daddy Rich is that he’d pretty well convinced UK grads — full disclosure: I’m one — he was a lousy hire, whereupon he takes the Cats to three consecutive bowl games. Which means we geniuses were wrong. Geniuses hate being wrong.
10. Gene Chizik, Auburn. The only folks who seem to have a problem with G-Chiz are the Auburn people who can’t believe he’s their head coach.
9. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State. Just got to Starkville. Hasn’t done anything or said anything to rile anybody. (Unlike another newly minted SEC coach.) Doesn’t matter. He came from Florida, which means there has to be something objectionable about him.
8. Houston Nutt, Ole Miss. Arkansas fans hate him for leaving Fayetteville and turning around and beating the Hogs, but that’s what they get for demanding to see his text messages. Other recruiters are mad because he signed 37 players this spring, 12 above the presumed limit. I like him because he’s the only coach in the country about whom you can write, “He’s a certifiable Nutt,” and not be sued for libel.
7. Bobby Petrino, Arkansas. In any other conference, leaving one team the day after a game and showing up in a different time zone that night leading goofy cheers would make you the biggest irritant hands-down. In the SEC, it doesn’t even put you in the barrel’s bottom half.
6. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina. The Evil Genius seems benign and toothless in his new environs. It’s clear he’s not going to win anything of note with the Gamecocks, and the folks who used to cringe at his every utterance can now just ignore him. It’s sad, really. Kind of like seeing Willie Mays stumble in center field as a Met.
5. Mark Richt, Georgia. He’s a famously affable guy, but more and more he’s trying to have it both ways. He tried to pass off a season that began with his team ranked No. 1 and ended in the Capital One Bowl as a rousing success. He has also fallen into the trap that snared his former boss Bobby Bowden — espousing morality but seeming to tolerate misdeeds among his players.
4. Urban Meyer, Florida. Gets decency points for not getting into a spitting match when the new Tennessee coach called him a cheater. Loses decency points for those timeouts he burned against Georgia. Still, he has taken his second BCS title with a surprising amount of grace, especially for a hated Gator.
3. Les Miles, LSU. On the one hand, he has a sense of humor and uses the English language with a definite flair. On the other, his teams have won two Chick-fil-A Bowls by the aggregate score of 78-6 and tried three fake kicks in the second halves of those games. That’s low, Leslie.
2. Nick Saban, Alabama. Because he makes all that money. Because he wins big. Because he never smiles. Because he never sleeps. Because he’s Coach Satan.
1. Lane Kiffin, Tennessee. He thinks the way to win is to talk trash and recruit hard. If your record as a head coach was 5-15, you’d think that, too. But he has already frosted so many people — including some who work in his athletics department — that he’d better win big immediately or he’ll be gone by 2011. Which would be unfortunate. We in the South need to hang on to Li’l Kiffy. He’s the greatest villain since Spurrier sank his fangs into Ray Goff.