On the eve of the SEC championship, the league is a mess off the field

Give thanks for the actual football, Greg Sankey.

Give thanks for Georgia-Auburn, a Southeastern Conference championship game that is expected to be played at a high level before a raucous crowd in a state-of-the-art stadium, with the winner absolutely ticketed for the College Football Playoff. And give thanks for the constant quality of Alabama — with some help, the Crimson Tide could give the SEC an unprecedented half of the four-team playoff field when it is announced Sunday.

Give thanks for those good things, SEC commissioner. Because outside of the actual football, your league is an absolute festival of fubar at the moment.

Start with Tennessee, which is creating the new gold standard in coaching-search debacles. Messes have been made in the past, at a lot of schools and in a lot of sports. But this? This is the Exxon Valdez spilling a million gallons of New Coke and calling for help on ESPN The Phone. It is a breathtaking mashup of dysfunction, delusion, misplaced arrogance, mob mentality, panic and poor leadership.

For updates on the pathetic, angry futility of the Tennessee search, just check the spray paint on the campus rock. By all indications the student body has transformed into a feral rabble edging toward devouring the athletic department, or each other.

The SEC has had a tumultuous season off the field this year. (AP)

Forget the Fantasy Island remix of a rendezvous with Jon Gruden, a shameless ego play by the ESPN announcer and a pitiful catfishing of a gullible percentage of the fan base. Let’s just concentrate on the tortured path the Tennessee search has taken since Sunday:

* To the brink of hiring Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, only for the Volunteers to back out of a memorandum of understanding after a populist revolt fueled by dubious situational ethics. Mostly, the fans didn’t think Schiano was a good enough football coach for a school with a 62-63 record over the last decade. But that rationale was cloaked in an assertion that Schiano wasn’t a good enough human to be coach of the Vols due to an unproven allegation in a 2015 civil-suit deposition. So Schiano was out, reputation smeared, populist bloodlust temporarily slaked.

* Then it was on to at least a drive-by discussion with Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who still isn’t interested in giving up the relative sanity of a place where 6-6 is fine for a place where 6-6 is a damned disgrace.

* Into full-blown negotiations with Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, who did what he has done several times over the years — batted his eyes and twirled his fingers through his mullet to dilate the pupils of a potential suitor, then stayed in Stillwater.

* Down the road with Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, to the point where a longtime and trusted Knoxville media member reported Wednesday that a Brohm-to-Tennessee announcement was imminent. Except then it wasn’t.

* Into another full-blown negotiation, this time with North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren on Thursday. That produced two things: more howls of indignation from the fan base of a team that went 0-8 in the SEC but adamantly believes it deserves better than a guy with a 55-34 record; and eventually to a new contract for Doeren at N.C. State. That’s right, Tennessee was utterly played for cash by the coach of a school that hasn’t won the Atlantic Coast Conference since 1979.

* Now it’s on to uncharted waters. A chance remains that Tennessee could stumble its way into a good hire, a guy like Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin or Washington State’s Mike Leach. But at this point beleaguered athletic director John Currie just needs someone — anyone — to say yes. And then for his vigilante fan faction not to torpedo the deal. We may yet see the coach at Alcoa High School run through the T next September flanked by assistant coaches Jason Witten and Phil Fulmer, with new athletic director Peyton Manning looking on from a luxury box. I mean why not.

But there is more to the festival of fubar than simply Tennessee. How about Mississippi? The Rebels will provide the opening act to the SEC’s signature weekend in Atlanta by receiving their long-long-long-awaited ruling from the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Friday, 11 weeks after their hearing before the COI.

The fact that the ruling comes several weeks outside the normal (but not mandated) six-to-eight-week window has infuriated the Rebels, who say that the delay handcuffed both their coaching search and recruiting. But cheaters can’t be choosers, and there are some common-sense theories for why the release is this week: to get past the off-the-charts contentiousness of the annual Egg Bowl rivalry game against Mississippi State; and to navigate the litigious waters created by the various lawsuits filed in relation to the investigation.

Ole Miss has been remarkably unrepentant in the face of 21 alleged violations, the weight of which could bring substantial additional sanctions beyond the school’s self-imposed postseason ban for this football season. That attitude continued Thursday, as Ole Miss set up one more spin story before the ruling comes down, throwing further shade at Mississippi State in a classic case of a drowning man trying to take down someone with him.

The splashback from that story could also drag the new Florida coach back into an old Mississippi controversy. Dan Mullen, who arrived in Gainesville this week from Mississippi State, remains in the Ole Miss crosshairs until this case’s dying days.

(Speaking of Florida, a school that once had the juice to outflank Notre Dame for Urban Meyer, had to settle for Plan C in Mullen. UCLA and Nebraska — Scott Frost appears headed to Lincoln — landed the guys the Gators wanted most, which tells you the program is not where it once was. That said, Mullen is a high-quality third choice.)

Meanwhile, Mississippi’s deceitful spin stories from January 2016 could continue to haunt it. Attorney Thomas Mars, who has dealt a succession of body blows to Ole Miss this year on behalf of former coach Houston Nutt, now says he is representing multiple current Rebels in their efforts to be freed to transfer elsewhere immediately after being fed an untrue line during recruiting about the nature of the charges the school faced from the NCAA.

But there is more fubar festival to go around. Arkansas has hired not one but two search firms — one to help in replacing its fired football coach, the other to help in replacing its fired athletic director. Meanwhile, the school will try to pretend it has its act sufficiently together to woo Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, an Arkansas native and folk hero from his days as a high school coach.

It would seemingly take massive piles of cash to woo a guy who wouldn’t know his new boss — but then again, Malzahn doesn’t know who his new boss would be at Auburn, either. The school has forced out Jay Jacobs, who has overseen a smorgasbord of scandal on The Plains and will be ushered into retirement in 2018. The fact that nobody has yet put an expiration date on Bruce Pearl’s checkered tenure as basketball coach there is an enduring mystery.

There is all that going on, plus a coaching search at Texas A&M — one of at least six places in the 14-team league that has or will hire a new full-time coach for 2018. Things have gotten so turbulent that Ed Orgeron is now an anchor of stability in the SEC West — even with that home loss to Troy on his record.

So enjoy that kickoff Saturday, commissioner Sankey, and the three-plus hours of football that follow it. Because just about every SEC development outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a mess right now.

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