Arkansas enters the risky business of hiring a football coach, again


Whoo, what an extended weekend it was. A lot has happened since we last spoke, and a lot hasn’t.

A short recap of things just to set the table. The football Razorbacks went down fighting in the season finale against Missouri at Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium, but like too many times over the last year the Hogs lost, 48-45. They didn’t get blown out, but the game perfectly summed up Bret Bielema’s five-year tenure as the Razorbacks’ head coach. Some good, but just not enough success on the field.

Though the writing had been on the wall since a blowout loss to South Carolina in October, Arkansas fired Bielema Friday night minutes after the loss to Missouri. National media pounced on Arkansas officials for the way it went down, but honestly, why prolong the agony for all involved? Messy or not, the deed is done, and Arkansas can move on.

Bielema handled his firing with maturity, class, and dignity. He didn’t burn bridges, and all of that will serve him well as he moves on to his next position. Every Hog fan should wish him well.

The firing was a swift move in hopes of making an even swifter move of hiring his successor. That, along with the dismissal of Long was in part to make way for the next coach, who was to be and may still be Gus Malzahn, if my sources are correct.

Prior to Auburn upsetting Georgia and Alabama in recent weeks, Malzahn was on the outs with Auburn brass and more importantly the school’s prime-moving boosters, who are as fickle as they are wealthy. Where Malzahn stands with them today, and where he will stand with them after Saturday’s SEC Championship Game is anyone’s guess. But no doubt they are happier today than they were a month ago.

Beating Alabama means everything at Auburn. An SEC West title was just gravy. An SEC Championship is big, but beating Bama is huge. The sand has likely shifted on the Auburn boosters’ support of Malzahn, and the leverage is definitely in the Fort Smith native’s hands for the moment.

A victory over Georgia on Saturday and a spot in the NCAA Football Playoffs would give him even more control. However, control for a football coach at Auburn is slipperier than a bar of soap in the shower.

Malzahn knows full well that Auburn fired Tommy Tuberville in 2008 four years after an undefeated season, and the school fired Gene Chizik two seasons after the Tigers won the 2010-11 national title. Malzahn was there as offensive coordinator for the national title, and he was smart enough to exit the plains to take the Arkansas State head coaching job before the posse caught up to Chizik and the rest of his staff.

The head coaching position at Auburn is a great job at a great school, but there is no stability and there is a ton of pressure.

Some feel Auburn’s 26-14 victory over Alabama threw a wrench in Arkansas’ plans to hire Malzahn, and that may very well be the case. However, Arkansas can wait another week to move on if Malzahn truly is THE target, and if he still has interest in the Razorbacks job.

Even if Malzahn is no longer interested in Arkansas, no doubt his agent Jimmy Sexton will continue to play the game with Arkansas for negotiating leverage with Auburn. It’s his signature move as an agent for so many key college coaches. He’ll get offers from both ends and let his client make the choice. Sexton wins either way.

Now, Arkansas probably can’t wait until January, If the Tigers make the playoffs with a victory over Georgia, there is no conceivable way Malzahn would leave his team with a possible shot at a championship on the line. No relationship is that bad.

However while waiting to see if the Gus Bus is going to stop or pass Arkansas by, those that are truly calling the shots on Arkansas’ efforts to hire a new coach should be interviewing other prospects this week so they can act swiftly one way or the other next week.

Nobody asked me, but if Arkansas can’t make a SPLASH hire with Malzahn, I would hope Arkansas’ power brokers would at least make Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables say no.

After working under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Dabo Swinney at Clemson, he is primed to take over a major program like Kirby Smart was when he moved to Georgia after serving as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama. Some think Venables is just happy being a defensive coordinator. Others say he is waiting for Bill Snyder to retire at Kansas State, Venables’ alma mater. Snyder evidently wants to bequeath his job to his son Sean, who is on his dad’s staff. That’s not a given, but with the right fit, Arkansas can be a better job than Kansas State.

I know many believe that the only way to success at Arkansas is to bring in an offensive “guru,” but I’d like to see what a defensive “shaman” would do on the Hill.

I want a coach who would put the fight back into the fighting Razorbacks, as Ken Hatfield used to call his team when he coached at the UA. If a team plays good defense, it might still lose, but it won’t be embarrassed like the Hogs have been all too often the past decade.

As for other candidates, I don’t know. If Arkansas is willing to open up the bank account for Malzahn, it can do it for someone else. I hope they look at coaches who have built programs and not just ones who sustained ones built by another coach.

We’ve seen what happens when Arkansas goes down that route with Danny Ford, who took over Clemson from Galen Hall, and Bielema, who took over Wisconsin from Barry Alvarez in football, and Stan Heath in basketball (whose table was set at Kent State by Gary Waters.)

Memphis coach Mike Norvell is a popular name being linked to the Arkansas job. By all accounts, he’s a good coach, but he did not build Memphis up, Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente did. Fuente coached under Gary Patterson at TCU from 2007-2011 before going to Memphis from 2012-2015. I’d call him before offering Norvell, who might have trouble putting together an SEC-level staff.

Obviously, Arkansas is looking for a younger coach than 66-year-old Springdale native Butch Davis, who is now the head coach at Florida International, but he is from the Frank Broyles-Jimmy Johnson coaching tree and has a wealth of college and NFL experience.

I personally would rather take a risk on experience than inexperience, and hiring a head football coach is always risky business.