2012 College Football: Who will be the next Head Coach at Arkansas


One person that will not be on the Arkansas sideline in 2013 is John L. Smith. Sep 15, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorback head coach John L. Smith watch a play during the first half of a game against Alabama Crimson Tide at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Credit: Beth Hall-US PRESSWIRE

Fayetteville, Ark. – Blame radio personality Bill King’s recent comments stating Butch Davis will be the next Arkansas Razorback head coach or point fingers at the poor performance John L. Smith has put forth as the interim head coach at Arkansas, regardless the Razorback fan base wants answers about who their next head coach will be and they want them now.

The conversation heated up another couple of notches on Wednesday when Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long spoke to the media about the program’s coaching search after an appearance at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club.

For now Long remains committed to John L. Smith, the coaching staff, and players stating, “I want to be clear I remain steadfastly behind this group of young men and this coaching staff. Supporting this team is the best course of action for the short and long term. I will fulfill my commitment to the players and coaches for this season and I will not abandon them. I’m confident they will work hard and win games.”

The rhetoric from Long regarding Smith and the team is great but the paying public and devoted fan base want a security blanket similar to the one that was ripped off of them in April, but not fully realized until Sept. 8, placed back over them in the form of the next “great” hire and 10 win seasons.

The only problem for Arkansas and Jeff Long is the coaching waters for Long to fish from are shallow and scarce leaving the next great hire to a select few individuals which may leave Razorback Nation wanting.

Make no mistake the program and Jeff Long will want a “wow” or impact hire to announce come December or January to offset the disappointing 2012 season as it stands to date and attract non-decided top recruits before National Signing Day in February.

Assuming that Bill King just stirred his promotional pot for a ratings jump and truly knows nothing about the Razorbacks next head coach let’s breakdown the college coaching candidates for the Arkansas job.

Assuming the best coaches have the best teams, let’s start with the current AP Top 25 Poll. Of the top 10 teams Alabama, Oregon, LSU, FSU, Georgia, South Carolina, KSU, Stanford, West Virginia, and Notre Dame maybe two of the head coaches at those programs could be swayed to Arkansas; Dana Holgrosen from West Virginia and David Shaw from Stanford.

Holgrosen has only been at West Virginia for two seasons and earns a reported $2.3 million per year. The price tag is not too much for the Razorbacks and their backers but with the Mountaineers jump to the Big 12 does he need to leave West Virginia for a legitimate shot at playing for a national championship?

Holgrosen has the ideal background for Arkansas with coaching stops at Mississippi College, Texas Tech, Houston, and Oklahoma State, all important recruiting stops for the Razorbacks. With a 13-3 overall two-year record will that be the big hire for Arkansas?

Holgrosen gets a shot at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and former bitter Arkansas rival University of Texas this year. If he can navigate the tougher waters of the Big 12 as opposed to the Big East we may have found our winner.

Shaw has been everywhere during his coaching career but in the Midwest, South, and Southeastern parts of the U.S. That pretty much leaves a recruiting base of the West and East Coast with no ties to the Arkansas recruiting base.

Shaw is 14-2 overall as head coach of the Cardinal after replacing Jim Harbaugh. Shaw had the best college quarterback since Peyton Manning yet he could not win a Pac-12 championship or the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State losing 41-38.

The rest of the head coaches within the current Top 10 will not leave their coaching spots no matter how badly fans may want them. Jimbo Fisher has turned the FSU program around and has one of the top recruiting grounds in the nation in his backyard. Same goes for Will Muchamp at Florida.

Notre Dame appears to be overrated again this year, not surprising, and Brian Kelly (20-10) has not turned around the program’s traditional winning ways, up until the 1980’s, with a much lighter schedule than what he will find in the SEC in his three years under Touchdown Jesus. Pass.

Chip Kelly would be the wow hire Arkansas fans may want but why would he leave Oregon? He can coach in a watered down Pac-12 BCS conference, win 10 to 12 games every year, take the Ducks to a BCS Bowl every year, receive great Nike resources, and be considered a coaching genius without having to leave his current home for the SEC West.

The next ten schools in the AP Top 10 could offer the program raising hire Jeff Long needs. The schools include Florida, Texas, USC, Ohio State, TCU, Oklahoma, Clemson, Oregon State, Louisville, and Michigan State.

Florida, Texas, USC, OSU, and Oregon State head coaches can be taken off the board; although Manny Diaz, the defensive coordinator at Texas, could be in the mix.

The same goes for Mark Dantonio, Michigan State’s head coach. Dantonio has been as far south as Kansas which could present some problems… but Nick Saban left MSU for LSU without any ties to the south and the rest has been college football history.

This leaves TCU head coach Gary Patterson, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, and Louisville head coach Charlie Strong.

The first name that has to jump out off that short list is Bob Stoops. Stoops has a 141-35 record at OU after being a defensive coordinator at Florida under Steve Spurrier. Stoops is one of the top paid college football coaches in the nation ($4.3 million per year) and is beloved in Soonerville, at least he was.

Stoops has a 7-6 bowl record with seven Big 12 South Division Titles but only one Big 12 Conference Title (2003). His conference title in 2003 also happens to be when he won the BCS National Championship. Fans tend to get restless and given all the hype the Sooners get year after year Stoops has not really delivered up to their billing.

Could his time as OU’s head coach be coming to an end? The Oklahoma program has under performed by and large despite winning 12 games in 2010 and 11 in 2011 respectively, both seasons ended on a bowl losing note. Maybe a change of scenery would spark a competitive flame for Stoops?

Bob Stoops would be a wow hire for Arkansas and his arrival would bring an immediate upgrade in recruiting talent but the overall likelihood of this happening very slim but there has been some smoke around this campfire.

Dabo Swinney knows the SEC, college football, and Arkansas’ biggest on field nemesis, Alabama, well. Swinney played wide receiver at Alabama from 1990-1992 then was a coach in one position or another from 1993-2001 for the Crimson Tide; all attractive points for Jeff Long.

Going into his fifth year at Clemson Swinney has an overall record of 32-19 with one 10 win season under his belt. He is peaking with the program at the time when all new hires should, by the fourth season at the latest.

The bigger question with Swinney is his coordinators, defensive coordinator Brent Vernables and offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Vernables is one of the “up and coming” coordinators from the Oklahoma coaching tree while Morris is only three years removed from being a high school coach that was mentored by Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn, another possible candidate for the Arkansas job.

Most head coaches are only as good as their assistants and this could be the case for Swinney. If Arkansas wants the high scoring offense of Swinney’s that Morris brings then they should just hire Gus Malzahn instead.

Clearing the air on Malzahn; Malzahn was a highly regarded high school coach while coaching in Springdale, Ark. Malzahn was offered the offensive coordinator position at Arkansas in 2006 by former head coach Houston Nutt as what appeared to be a package deal for part of the “Springdale Five” recruiting class. Nutt got the top high school quarterback in the nation in Mitch Mustain and one of the nation’s premiere wide receivers in Damian Williams but ended up losing out on everything in the long run. Nutt mistreated Malzahn, abused his true freshman quarterback, and was eventually run out of town as he was accepting the Ole Miss head coaching position.

Malzahn had early support from in-state Razorback fans until he started directly competing against Arkansas when he took the Auburn offensive coordinator position. From his time at Tulsa and Auburn as OC his offenses only beat Arkansas once but he took top in-state talent away in running back Michael Dyer and quarterback Kiehl Frazier and that has not sat well with Razorback fans.

Should the tumbling dice fall all the way down to Malzahn the fan base could be instantly divided after being as one in the need for a new head coach.

The last two head coaches in this group really make the most sense as the next new hire, regardless of any previously mentioned head coach, in TCU’s Gary Patterson or Louisville’s Charlie Strong.

Patterson played his college ball at Kansas State and truly worked his way up the coaching ladder before landing the TCU job. Since 2000 Patterson has a 112-30 record with eight seasons of 10 wins or more including an undefeated 2010 season when the Horned Frogs went 13-0. Perhaps even more of a selling point for Patterson is he only has had one losing season in 11 full seasons as head coach, in 2004 his team finished 5-6.

Dennis Franchione really deserves the credit for turning TCU’s football program around but Patterson has done everything to make TCU a perennial Top 25 team and one could argue he is the sole reason the Horned Frogs are no longer in the Mountain West Conference but are now in the Big 12 Conference.

Patterson is currently tied with Dutch Meyer as the school’s all-time winningest head coach with 109 wins. Now that TCU is in the Big 12 with the ability to get better recruits, will Patterson continue to tough it out outside of Dallas or take the next step by bumping up to the SEC if offered by Arkansas?

The downside to Patterson is he has never coached through one BCS conference schedule until this year. All eyes will be on him and possible passes will be given if TCU stumbles and finishes 7-6 or 8-4. Come October football fans will see just how good of a coach Patterson really is when he enters the heart of the team’s Big 12 schedule.

Another red flag for Jeff Long is the player drug scandal that rocked TCU last year when 23 total players were suspended.

Charlie Strong might be the wild card and best fit for Arkansas in the whole coaching equation. Strong’s current resume represents hope and a promising future for the Louisville program and as a program builder for Arkansas or any other top BCS program out there.

After Bobby Petrino left Louisville in 2006 the program crumbled going from 12-1 to 6-6, followed by 5-7, then 4-8 seasons. Strong came in as head coach for the Cardinals in 2010 and brought back to back winning seasons with identical 7-6 records. Now Strong has Louisville at 4-0 and they are expected to compete with Rutgers and Cincinnati for top honors in the Big East.

Strong has several advantages should Long look to hire him, 1) Strong is an Arkansas product. Born and raised in Arkansas he played college ball at Central Arkansas before working his way up the coaching ladder. He knows the state and the state will embrace one of their own quickly.

2) Since 1983 Strong has held seven different positions with SEC schools, Florida four times as a Graduate Assistant, linebackers coach, assistant head coach, and defensive coordinator, South Carolina as defensive coordinator, and also broke early ground as a GA at new SEC West member school Texas A&M.

3) Strong should be able to recruit throughout Arkansas’ key states with little problems. He has two BCS National Championship rings he can flaunt from his days as DC with the Gators, 2006 and 2008, and he could possibly open up the state of Florida to the Razorbacks which have had very little success pulling top talent from The Sunshine State.

The ugly truth that no one will admit is Strong’s person life could be a problem blocking him from becoming Arkansas’ first black head football coach. Mind you there are no whispers about infidelity surrounding Strong as previously heard with former Arkansas coaches Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino. Strong, an African-American, is married to a Caucasian. Even in this day and age Strong’s mixed relationship could serve as a deterrence for some fan bases and some athletic directors including Arkansas. The reason why… well there are no good reasons why.

The last five schools in the Top 25 include Michigan State, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Rutgers, Boise State, and Baylor.

Mark Dantonio has been covered. Kyle Flood is a first year head coach at Rutgers with one impressive win over… Arkansas but that is not enough to pull him out of New Jersey.

Bo Pelini would make a stir after five years at Nebraska with college coaching stops at Oklahoma and LSU as defensive coordinator. He has a NFL background that recruits flock to and he has shown he can win at a BCS school without a large in-state recruiting base to pull from (42-17).

Pelini would have the defense ready for games against Alabama and LSU which would excite the fan base. Pelini’s interest in Arkansas is another consideration that cannot be answered at this time. His base salary is $2.775 million; Arkansas could cover that without any problems.

On the surface if Pelini’s name is mentioned in the papers look for Nebraska to give him a bump in salary and that will be as close as he gets to the state of Arkansas any time soon.

Petersen is seemingly mentioned for every other head coaching job in the nation since 2007 but has not publicly taken the bait on any. Why would he suddenly leave Boise State for Arkansas?

All the reasons like facilities, more money, bigger recruiting base, and an opportunity to prove himself week in and week out in the SEC would seem like enough to an outsider but maybe Petersen likes being the perpetual underdog that can out coach every other coach in the WAC and now in the Mountain West.

In 2013 Boise will make the jump to the Big East, the alignment of the Broncos in the Big East is laughable but will that be enough to keep Petersen in the state of Idaho for a few more years?

If Arkansas, or any promising BCS program for that matter, was offered a head coach with a 28-25 career record would they jump on the opportunity? Baylor jumped on that guy and they got a Heisman Trophy for their mantle because of Art Briles multiple spread offense.

Briles had two decent seasons at Houston going 10-4 and 8-4 in 2006 and 2007 before having three lousy seasons at Baylor (4-8 in 2008, 4-8 in 2009, and 7-6 in 2010). Last year put Briles on the college football map but can he stay there without the talents of RG3 under center?

Baylor’s lone big win last season came against Oklahoma. Gary Patterson fans will say Briles beat TCU (50-48), but how does that look for Patterson or Briles? Baylor was the BCS program that should have won and barely did so at home. The Briles experiment is still incubating, let sleeping experiments ferment.

If you noticed Dan Mullen was skipped in the pecking order, kudos. Mullen would be an intriguing hire for Arkansas and would assumingly upset Mississippi State fans something awful.

The Bulldogs have been that team on the verge of taking the next step in the SEC West over the last two years but have been pushed back down by Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas.

Mullen has shown he can win at MSU, sporting a 25-17 record playing out of the SEC West in three full seasons; Petrino was 35-17 in four. The problem for Mullen has been winning the recruiting battles in Mississippi. Houston Nutt out recruited him and so did Hugh Freeze last year.

Mullen can win with lesser talent, a trait found in Petrino but maybe Arkansas should hold out for a great X’s and O’s guy as well as a guy that can win his own state in recruiting?

Other names that have been bantered about but do not fall into the “wow” factor for Arkansas’ next new coach include:

Willie Taggart – Western Kentucky

Sonny Dykes – Louisiana Tech

Mark Hudspeth – Louisiana Lafayette

Al Golden – Miami

There are a couple of coordinators that keep being mentioned for each and every new opening, Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator at Texas, and Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator at Alabama.

Kirby Smart may be the real deal but his success is overshadowed by Nick Saban. Everyone knows Saban is the best coach out there and one of the best if not the best recruiters in college football. How would Smart do on his own two feet? That seems like a bet Long is not willing to take considering how poorly the John L. Smith experiment has gone.

As for Diaz, he might be an up and coming coach in the college ranks but his Mississippi State and Texas defenses have not slowed anyone significant down to date. In fact Texas allowed 55 points to Oklahoma, 38 to OSU, and 48 to Baylor last year, each resulted in a loss. In 2010 Arkansas hung 38 on Diaz’s Mississippi State defense in a win for the Razorbacks.

On the Outside Looking in

Tommy Tuberville

An Arkansas native with coaching ties to three SEC schools; A&M, Ole Miss, and Auburn. After going 5-7 last year at Texas Tech the Riverboat Gambler may want out of Lubbock but will the trusts at Arkansas want him in Fayetteville; very doubtful.

Butch Jones

The Cincinnati head coach is a proven winner from Central Michigan to his current gig. He has replaced Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly at two schools, if he waits another couple of years chances are he can replace him in South Bend too.

Great X and O’s coach but much like Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio he has no ties to the area or the school. This would make for an awkward adjustment for everyone involved and Razorback Nation does not want a three or four year turn-around time frame on their hands with results on the field.

Paul Rhoads

Rhoads may want the Arkansas job badly for a couple of reasons, 1) an opportunity to get out of Ames and 2) the opportunity to beat Gene Chizik on a regular basis. Unless Kirk Ferentz is somehow run out of Iowa City, another long shot, Rhoads may always be second banana in The Hawkeye State.

Rhoads is an Iowa boy that has returned to a downtrodden program in Iowa State after not being retained by Chizik as defensive coordinator at Auburn only to find moderate and surprising success as head coach at ISU. True Rhoads career record is barely above break even (21-20) with one winning season under his belt (7-6 in 2009) but he has the Cyclones playing tough and has transformed Iowa State into a surefire win for the opposition into a trap game or worse over the last two seasons.

Last year ISU did the impossible by beating then No. 2 Oklahoma State 37-31 in double overtime as an unranked team; sounds frighteningly familiar for Arkansas fans (ULM). Rhoads also notched a win over Tuberville’s then No. 22 ranked Texas Tech team in Lubbock.

With no ties to The Natural State and with little national fan fare or recognition from the Razorback fan base Rhoads is a reach at this time.

The unfortunate thing for Jeff Long and Razorback Nation is there are no clear cut big hires waiting on the sidelines. The only name coach with a proven track record not coaching right now is Bobby Petrino and Long will not go back down that path, unless forced by the big donors.

The above list is made without mention of current NFL coaches or coordinators. Reaching into the professional ranks may sound attractive but there are other considerations to contend with when courting pro coaches, namely recruiting and pension plans.

One would think that bypassing a pension plan for millions per year would be a no-brainer but why would a NFL coach want to worry about grades, recruiting, and appeasing a fan base week after week when said coach can work with the best of the best without all the other hassles?

Who do you think should be the next Arkansas Razorback head coach?

One person Razorback Nation can count on not being on the sidelines next year is John L. Smith.