The experience of the Southeastern Conference’s sitting head coaches spans varying leagues and decades.
Alabama’s Nick Saban earned his first major college head coaching job at Michigan State in 1995. Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz headed to the SEC after a brief spell as the lead man at Appalachian State. South Carolina’s Shane Beamer hasn’t been a head coach at any level.
But of all the SEC’s prolific head coaches, only one has experience running a program in the Big 12 and SEC: Mississippi State’s Mike Leach.
With conference realignment news running rampant over the past week, Leach is uniquely positioned to speak on the subject. Now heading into his second year as the head coach in Starkville, he previously spent a decade as the head coach at Texas Tech and another eight years at Washington State. He was also briefly an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and Kentucky prior to his time at Texas Tech.
“It won’t be simple,” Leach told The State on Friday of how realignment might shake out should Oklahoma and Texas get added to the SEC. “Suddenly some of these people just simply get jealous and don’t want to be left out. Then in the state of Texas and Oklahoma too, some of those schools that don’t get selected are going to be battling the ones that did — (it’s a) ‘no, you can’t without us’ type of thing. Obviously the attorneys are going to make out like bandits on this.”
Before delving into the specifics of the most recent realignment news — which included Texas and Oklahoma formally requesting membership in the SEC in 2025 on Tuesday — MSU’s head coach referred back to a video from 2011.
In the 33 second clip that was a snippet of a longer interview with the Texas Tribune, Leach explained how the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 (then the Pac-10) would last. Eventually they’d add members from other leagues like the Big 12 and create a trio of larger power conferences that number between 16 and 20 teams, while the ACC and the Big East (which no longer plays football) would combine in some fashion.
Ten years later, that’s almost exactly what’s happening.
“I think the social pressure of as soon as some people start making moves, the other guys get jealous and want to make moves and things,” Leach said. “So as aggressive as this (round of realignment) appears to be, I don’t think that’s the end of it.”
Leach pointed to the popular pod-system that has surfaced of late when asked how he’d structure the potential additions of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. He didn’t specify which teams he’d align with each other, but under that format the conference would be broken into four four-team pods that would play each other annually. Those pods would then be matched with other groups to ensure teams aren’t waiting years to play each other — as has been the case under the current rotating cross-divisional game system.
In practice, Leach agreed conference realignment can be a good thing. It’s a chance for the SEC to strengthen its brand while also adding competitive, blue-blood programs in Texas and Oklahoma to a league that’s already as formidable as any in college football.
The changes, Leach said, are also a chance for added exposure.
MSU pulled more than 63% of its 22,000-plus undergrads from Mississippi in the fall of 2020, according to information made available on the university’s website. Playing games at Oklahoma and Texas would stand to bring more public consciousness to the university at-large, in addition to the football program.
“Say, I’m a Mississippi State fan and I go to Arkansas or LSU or whoever,” Leach said. “When (we play) in Starkville, they come hang out with us. Then when it’s in Fayetteville, then you go hang out with them and tailgate together and you just get to kind of reinforce the excitement of the stuff that you’re a part of in such a unique fashion that is unique (from) pretty much any other league.”
Granted there are downsides for the Texases and Oklahomas of the world looking to align with college football’s strongest brands. The SEC has produced 11 of the past 15 national champions. It’s also won more College Football Playoff games (15) than any other league.
By contrast, Oklahoma is winless in its four trips to the CFP. Texas, meanwhile, has never reached the CFP and has been through more coaches (4) since 2009 as it has Big 12 titles this century (2).
There’s also the matter of the extended travel a larger conference footprint creates. At Washington State, Leach pointed to trips from Pullman to Tuscon to take on Arizona. The flight itself from the Palouse to Arizona Stadium covered over 1,300 miles and would take the boldest of fans more than 20 hours to drive.
“You’re used to practicing on your field or your stadium,” Leach said. “Well, now all of a sudden, you’re looking at the mountains in Salt Lake (City), you’re looking at the deserts in Tucson, you’re looking at the Hollywood sign in California, you’re looking at the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean crashing.
“I mean it was really an incredible variety to the (Pac-12). That part was cool, too. But I’ve always thought the closeness and the proximity is what really created a lot of the energy and intensity that existed in the SEC.”
As conference officials scramble to make sense of the incessant rumblings and rumors surrounding the latest round of conference realignment, the wheels are already in motion to add Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC.
Both schools informed the Big 12 in recent days that they will look to depart the league. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey released a statement Tuesday confirming Oklahoma and Texas had reached out regarding joining the conference in 2025.
Eleven of 14 current SEC teams will need to vote in favor of the move to facilitate it, though it’s largely expected to pass easily. Texas A&M initially led a call in trying to stop the additions of Texas and Oklahoma, but the outcries in College Station have reportedly quieted.
“While the SEC has not proactively sought new members, we will pursue significant change when there is a clear consensus among our members that such actions will further enrich the experiences of our student-athletes and lead to greater academic and athletic achievement across our campuses,” Sankey said in a news release Tuesday.
South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer — who previously served as an assistant at Oklahoma — was also asked about the potential change on Monday during a booster event in Columbia.
“Obviously, there’s a lot happening in college football right now and across college athletics,” Beamer said. “Still trying to figure out what’s what, what’s real and what’s not real.”
During his time as the head coach at Texas Tech, Leach was a thorn in the Big 12 elite’s side. He was 7-3 against Texas A&M. His marks against Texas and Oklahoma were less prolific at 2-8 and 3-7, respectively, but his 2008 win over the Longhorns is regarded as one of the greatest college football games in history.
Leach will be 60 years old when MSU opens the 2021 season against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 4. He’ll be 64 years old should Texas and Oklahoma begin play in the SEC in 2025, though it’s largely expected both teams could join the league sooner.
Whenever the Longhorns and Sooners do end up joining the SEC — which is a seeming inevitability at this point — Leach added the past week is the latest reminder of the sweeping changes being brought to the college football world.
“I’m guessing on most of this anyway, but (it’s) just the simple fact that (college football) is not going to stay the same,” he said. “It’s going to change.”