Speculation meets frustration in coaching search puzzle that only Yurachek can solve

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek / Flyer file photo

When Arkansas fired Chad Morris last Sunday, it almost was somewhat of a surprise to me that Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek named Barry Lunney Jr. the interim head coach.

“Surprise,” you might ask? “Lunney was the obvious, logical choice with his background as a Razorback quarterback, seven years as a coach in the program, and his ties to the high school coaches in the state. Who else should Yurachek have picked?”

If you thought that, you’d be absolutely on the mark. Lunney was the best choice to provide leadership during a difficult time because he is a Razorback to the core. It’s a move that mollifies the fan base, and hopefully energizes the Razorbacks themselves, who have been beaten down by circumstances in recent weeks.

Lunney saying his goal was to provide an opportunity for the Hogs to play their best football game of the season when they go to LSU on Nov. 23 — whatever that may look like — was the right message at the right time for the players and the fanbase.

My surprise over Lunney being named interim coach, I guess, was just a flashback to Jeff Long’s tenure as athletics director where it seemed like he was trying to run away from just about everything that made the Razorbacks the Razorbacks. He never would have looked to Lunney Jr.

Long tried so hard to get out from under Frank Broyles’ shadow that in some ways the Razorbacks just didn’t feel like the Razorbacks at times. At least that was my impression.

Even though Yurachek will soon be entering his third year as athletics director, it’s hard to shake off 10 years under Long, who I understand was well liked by the coaches on staff but never seemed to get Arkansas fans.

Yurachek and so far his biggest hire – first-year head basketball coach Eric Musselman – seem to not only accept but also embrace Razorback history. That’s a comfort to fans like me who grew up immersed in the program. Two of the first books I read cover to cover as a kid were “Hog Wild: The Autobiography of Frank Broyles” and “The Razorbacks: A Story of Arkansas Football” by Orville Henry and Jim Bailey.

If Long had touched either book, I imagine his skin would have sizzled like Dracula clutching a crucifix. Yurachek doesn’t seem to mind honoring the past while moving the Razorback program forward.

No doubt Yurachek’s decision to move the Razorbacks forward without Morris was a tough one. It’s never easy to fire anyone no matter the situation, and evidently Morris and Yurachek had become fairly close during their time at Arkansas.

However, each game the Razorbacks played this season, it became more and more clear that Morris was not producing the results that would lift the football program out of the quagmire it’s been stuck in for too much of the last decade.

Initially, I had hoped Yurachek could have waited until the end of the season to make the move, but the last three weeks of the season would have been torture for Morris, the players and fans if Morris had remained coach.

Certainly, the Razorback football staff members and their families are still living uncertain lives at the moment, but in their free time, the coaches and staffers can start efforts to line up other work. Certain members of the staff and support crew could have a role with the Razorbacks in the future, but whomever becomes the new coach will ultimately make that decision.

Yurachek really nailed it Monday in his and Lunney’s press conference when he said he has to get the hiring of the new coach right.

It seems that he did a very good job in hiring Musselman, who is the process of making the most of a small team’s assets with a 2-0 start that has featured outstanding defense. His Hogs play host to Montana at 4 p.m. Saturday in Walton Arena.

The game will be live streamed on ESPN + which can be accessed on the internet or on your TV with streaming devices such as Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Firestick. The relatively small investment in any one of those streaming devices will allow you to watch several non-televised Razorback men and women’s basketball games through the rest of this month and December as well as most Razorback baseball games next year.

But I digress.

Yurachek, again, has to get this hire right, and the removal of Morris with three weeks left in the season allows him to make contact with the agents of potential candidates to measure interest and possibly get the hiring ball rolling.

It doesn’t matters what I think about possible candidates, but I’m glad Memphis coach Mike Novell seems a bit cool to the job. Not that he hasn’t proven to be a very good coach with the Tigers, he has, but I’m biased. Growing up on Memphis’ doorstep, it’s hard for me to get too excited about any coach coming from Tiger High, as the commuter college was known when I was growing up. Certainly, my attitude would change, if Norvell accepted an Arkansas offer.

Rumors are that even if Auburn does part ways with Gus Malzahn after this season that the Arkansas job would be his third or fourth choice. Nobody wants to be anyone’s third choice no matter how strong his ties are to the area and how good a coach he is.

Of the two Butches mentioned to be in the mix, I’d take Davis over Jones, but neither seem ideal for the rebuilding job that is ahead of whomever Arkansas hires.

Washington’s Mike Leach is intriguing. He’s rebuilt programs and won in difficult situations, but I wonder how his eccentricities would play on a regular basis, particularly if the Hogs were struggling.

If Yurachek goes for an outlaw, I’d take Art Briles over Hugh Freeze any day of the week, but I hope neither are under consideration.

Lane Kiffin would be a splashy and maybe a solid choice, but would he stay in Fayetteville long enough to complete the rebuilding job?

If going for an assistant, I like the idea of Georgia associate head coach Sam Pittman or LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady. But if assistants are being considered, I’d like to see what happens over the next two weeks with Lunney Jr. at the helm.

It’s probably fantasyland to imagine Lunney Jr. getting the job permanently, but what a story it would make if the Hogs played well enough for him to be considered.

Also, don’t forget that when Jimbo Fisher turned down LSU’s overtures a few years ago, the Tigers did go with the man who wanted the job most, their interim coach Ed Orgeron. Despite many laughing at the time, that choice has worked out well, but then again the Tigers’ program was in a different situation when it parted ways with Les Miles than Arkansas’ is now.

Arkansas would have to break the bank to hire Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who recently signed a contract extension through 2027, or Iowa State coach Matt Campbell if either were interested. Rhule’s making $4.2 million with Campbell at $3.5 million. While I think Arkansas’ program has a higher ceiling than either Baylor or Iowa State, both are in better situations at the moment. Why would they leave?

I could go on listing other names who may or may not be on Yurachek’s list, but in all honesty, we’re just going to have to wait to find out. There is no perfect choice, but there are more than a few out there that would have a better than even shot of lifting up the football program.

As with every Razorback coach search, it’s going to be very interesting whom Arkansas ultimately hires. We’ve got at least three or maybe four more weeks of speculation to live through.