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Which Coaching Candidates Fit the Arkansas Job?

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Taking a look at who fits, who has ties, and who could be the next coach.

Memphis v Tulane Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Yesterday we took a look at what went wrong for Bielema. We also laid out what would be a good fit for a head football coach at Arkansas. With that in mind from that piece (which you can check out here), here are some names that could be the next coach.

The first calls

The people who call the shots have some favorites. Like it or not, these two will get the first call.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Could it be the coming-home story of the year? The Arkansas native, one-time student, and one-time coach is said to still be fond of the Natural State, and not quite as fond of the incredible pressure to topple Saban’s empire he now experiences on the Plains. Could it all be a play by his agent, Jimmy Sexton, to secure more money? Of course it could be. Still, he’s 45-20 at Auburn. He’s won two SEC titles, one as coordinator (2010) and one as head coach (2013). He won the national title with Cam Newton and got back to the title game with a converted defensive back playing QB.

  • Scheme Fit: High. Want a system that works with the talent in Arkansas high schools? How about the system that was practically invented in the ranks of Arkansas high schools! The Gus offense is a run-heavy hurry-up, no-huddle with lots of misdirection and play-action. It fits Arkansas’ penchant for good running backs and fast receivers.
  • Arkansas Connections: High. No one on this list has more Arkansas ties than Malzahn, obviously.
  • Regional Ties: High. In addition to his Arkansas experience, Malzahn has coached at Tulsa and in the deep South.
  • Pros: He’s a successful, pioneering coach that is said to consider Arkansas his dream job. What’s not to love?
  • Cons: He’s gone 6-6 once and 8-4 twice in five seasons at a school with more resources than Arkansas. He obviously has a high ceiling, but what does his median season look like?

Mike Norvell, Memphis

Do you like Gus Malzahn’s offense, but not Gus himself? I have the guy for you! Norvell’s offense is philosophically similar – Gus gave Norvell his coaching start at Tulsa in 2007 – and like Gus, Norvell is an Arkansas native. After a successful stint as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator from 2013 to 2015, he’s got a dominant offensive team in his second season at Memphis.

  • Scheme Fit: High. Norvell’s scheme is slightly more pass-heavy than Gus’. It looks a little more like Clemson’s, which also comes from the same philosophy tree (via Chad Morris, who installed it). Same general idea, though: fast-paced, misdirection run game, lots of deep passes.
  • Arkansas Connections: Medium. Norvell played at UCA and served as a GA for the Bears in 2006, but hasn’t lived in Arkansas otherwise and has no known ties to the university. His wife is from Fort Smith.
  • Regional Ties: High. In addition to his time at UCA, Norvell has been an assistant coach at Tulsa (2007-2011) and head coach at Memphis (2016-Present), giving him connections to two of Arkansas’ three biggest out-of-state recruiting metros.
  • Pros: He’s a highly-respected up-and-comer with a solid offensive philosophy and good regional ties for recruiting.
  • Cons: He has just two years of head coaching experience, and as good as he’s been, he inherited a pretty loaded team from Justin Fuente.

The established names

Note: The rest of this list is not in order of who will be considered. It’s totally random, and it’s all just guesses at this point.

If Malzahn and Norvell say no, or a background check reveals unsavory details that cause them to be passed over, there are plenty of other candidates. Since Arkansas’ last two coaches came from the Atlanta Falcons and Wisconsin, it’s not unreasonable to think Arkansas could poach an established Power 5 coach.

Mike Leach, Washington State

A perennial overachiever, Leach has turned two downtrodden programs into winners. Winning in hard-to-win places with recruiting challenges seemingly makes him a good fit for Arkansas. Leach is the most successful of the original Air Raid coaches, a staff assembled by coach Hal Mumme at Kentucky in the late 1990s. Remember Tim Couch going 47 of 67 for 499 yards against Arkansas in 1998? Leach was the offensive coordinator on that team. He later installed the Air Raid for newly-hired Bob Stoops at Oklahoma – the Sooners still run a version of it – before his successful runs at Texas Tech and Washington State.

  • Scheme Fit: Low. The Air Raid offers some red flags: primarily, it doesn’t feature the running back, a position woven into the DNA of Arkansas football. I talked above about how Bielema’s scheme ‘played to the weakness’ of Arkansas’ talent base; well, Leach’s risks ‘not playing to the strength’ of it, which could really waste potential. The Air Raid also rarely uses an H-back, another position Arkansas produces a lot of (both Peyton Hillis and D.J. Williams could play spread offense H-back).
  • Arkansas Connections: None. Leach has no known ties to Arkansas, although I’m guessing he does have a stance on the Great Stadium Debate.
  • Regional Ties: Low. Years of coaching in Texas are a plus, but Texas is a big state, and Leach was on the other side of it.
  • Pros: Leach is a fierce competitor and proven winner, if nothing else.
  • Cons: He’s 56. How old is too old to start over again? I have questions about how well a pure Air Raid would work at Arkansas. He’s never been known as a great recruiter, and that’s compounded by the fact that his state and regional ties are limited.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Perhaps the most impressive part of Gundy’s 112-53 record in Stillwater is the fact that he has Oklahoma State riding high in a period where archrival Oklahoma is also riding high. If he bolts – for Arkansas or anyone else – it will be for the same reason Malzahn is considering it: it’s hard being in the shadow of Big Brother while Big Brother is good, and Arkansas offers no must-beat rivals.

  • Scheme Fit: Medium. Gundy has meshed an Air Raid-inspired high-flying passing game with the old OSU coach (and Little Rock native) Pat Jones philosophy of balance between run and pass. The Cowboys like to run it up the middle (they boast the Big XII’s leading rusher) and throw deep. That fits what Arkansas does pretty well, although I only gave Gundy a “medium” because they go four-wide more often than I think Arkansas would be comfortable with.
  • Arkansas Connections: Medium. Gundy almost came to Fayetteville as Houston Nutt’s offensive coordinator in 2001. His mullet is nicknamed the “Arkansas Waterfall”. His son attends the U of A. He enjoys frog-gigging. Forget the pig farmer stuff, this, folks, is a cultural fit.
  • Regional Ties: High. With OU largely controlling the Oklahoma City metro, Gundy recruits Tulsa pretty heavily, and also raids north Texas and Kansas City for talent. He’s familiar with Arkansas’ recruiting footprint.
  • Pros: He’s kept Oklahoma State competitive against some long odds.
  • Cons: I do have some minor questions about how his offensive scheme will translate to Arkansas’ talent, both now and after a few recruiting cycles.

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia

I hadn’t considered Holgo until USA Today’s Dan Wolken mentioned him as a dark horse candidate for the job. He’s 51-33 with the Mountaineers, guiding them through a difficult transition into a conference they don’t really fit in. He’s coached under both Leach and Gundy.

  • Scheme Fit: Medium. Holgo’s Air Raid is more balanced than Leach’s, so it concerns me much less.
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He has fairly extensive Texas experience, but eight years of it (2000-2007) was at Texas Tech, which is way out in Lubbock. He spent two seasons at Houston and one at Oklahoma State.
  • Pros: He’s a fun coach with a big personality. He has experience running a program facing geographic challenges.
  • Cons: Until last year’s 10-3 breakout, his best team won just 8 games. Considering the SEC West, is the ceiling in Fayetteville much higher than the ceiling in Morgantown?

Matt Campbell, Iowa State

The feel-good story of 2017 is the sudden rise of the Cyclones, who are 7-4 and stayed in the Big XII title hunt well into November. Arkansas fans are familiar with Campbell, who led Toledo to a 16-12 win over the Hogs in Little Rock in 2015.

  • Scheme Fit: Medium. There are some red flags here. I’m always weary of offensive coaches whose offenses aren’t actually very good. At both Toledo and Iowa State, Campbell has featured pedestrian offenses and scrappy defenses. He’s had mediocre quarterback play at every stop. The main argument for his scheme is that his offenses have produced some great running backs (Kareem Hunt at Toledo, David Montgomery this year).
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: None. This should be a red flag. He’s spent his entire career in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest, areas where Arkansas doesn’t do much recruiting.
  • Pros: He’s clearly found a winning formula of plodding, run-heavy offenses and scrappy, solid defenses.
  • Cons: Would his style of offense work against SEC defenses? And would he be able to build a competitive defense in Fayetteville? I have questions about both. Also, his total lack of ties to Arkansas’ traditional recruiting grounds is concerning.

Jeff Brohm, Purdue

A hot start to his head coaching career has many wondering if he’s Bobby Petrino without the baggage. He runs the Power Spread offense that worked well in Fayetteville before. He did well at Western Kentucky and made Purdue immediately competitive. The only reason his name is being thrown around is because he’s a former Petrino assistant.

  • Scheme Fit: High. How can you not love the offense that mixes a pro-style running game, lots of crossing routes, and the occasional wide-open wheel route to the running back?
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: None. As with Matt Campbell, this is a red flag. At least Petrino had SEC experience via his time at Auburn.
  • Pros: He runs a fun offense and has generated positive results at both WKU and Purdue.
  • Cons: He has no ties to Arkansas or this part of the country. He’s in his first year at Purdue. And his good WKU teams were built on talent inherited from previous coaches Willy Taggart and Petrino.

Dino Babers, Syracuse

The former Art Briles assistant put together two good seasons at Bowling Green and then knocked off Clemson at his new program in Syracuse. But his star has faded a bit: after going 4-8 in year one, he’s 4-7 in year two, that big win over Clemson failing to translate into forward momentum.

  • Scheme Fit: Unknown. No one has actually tried to run the Briles offense in the SEC. I think Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss was the closest anyone has gotten. Given how Sumlin’s pure Air Raid looked, I have some concerns about it. If it doesn’t work, Babers’ teams don’t play much defense, so they can’t fall back on that.
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: High. He was Art Briles’ recruiting coordinator at Baylor and is known as an ace recruiter in east Texas.
  • Pros: He’s an ace recruiter with strong ties to Texas recruiting.
  • Cons: He hasn’t made much headway at Syracuse, and it’s fair to question whether his offense would sufficiently torch SEC defenses.

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

This one keeps getting mentioned, so apparently we have to talk about it. Sumlin is 50-16 when his quarterback is Case Keenum or Johnny Manziel, and 36-26 when it’s not. Several philosophical changes on both sides of the ball were unable to save Sumlin from getting run out of College Station. He’s probably a decent coach, but he may need to rehab his star at a smaller school.

  • Scheme Fit: Medium/Unknown. Claims that Sumlin’s pure Air Raid wouldn’t work in the SEC proved true, but only after Manziel left. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left after one season, and new OC Jake Spavital never got it working. Sumlin eventually ran Spavital out, junked much of his offense, and turned things over to Oneback/Spread coach Noel Mazzone in 2016. That hasn’t worked either, and even John Chavis’ upgrade of the Aggies’ pitiful defense wasn’t enough to salvage his tenure. If hired at Arkansas, I honestly don’t know exactly what kind of scheme Sumlin would run.
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: High. He’s known as a great recruiter and obviously has extensive ties to Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. If you’re hiring the next Hog coach based solely on Texas ties, Sumlin’s probably your guy.
  • Pros: He’s a great recruiter with Texas ties and SEC experience.
  • Cons: He never got things figured out at Texas A&M. What makes anyone think he’ll get it rolling at Arkansas?

The up-and-comers

Has the failure of Bielema made you feel that Arkansas should go in the opposite direction? You may not be alone. Plenty of young coaches have smaller programs on the up-and-up.

Blake Anderson, Arkansas State

Arkansas wouldn’t seriously hire the head coach over in Jonesboro, right? Especially after he made that joke at the Little Rock Touchdown Club? Actually, he might be worth a look. Anderson has done everything that could be asked of him in his first head coaching stop: he’s an astounding 25-5 in conference play and is line to win or share his third straight Sun Belt title. His teams are solid all-around.

  • Scheme Fit: Medium. He came to ASU from North Carolina, where he was Larry Fedora’s offensive coordinator. Fedora was Mike Gundy’s first OC at Oklahoma State, so there are schematic similarities there. As with Gundy’s offense, the scheme favors a spread passing game that somewhat underutilizes tight ends and fullbacks.
  • Arkansas Connections: High. In addition to coaching four year at Arkansas State, Anderson was also born in Jonesboro (but raised in Texas).
  • Regional Ties: High. Anderson has an impressive list of regional jobs: Texas’ Trinity Valley CC, UL-Lafayette, Middle Tennessee, and Southern Miss, in addition to his current position.
  • Pros: He’s an energetic, well-liked coach that has built some all-around solid teams.
  • Cons: It’s a big jump from Arkansas State to Arkansas, and outside of two years at North Carolina, he has no Power 5 coaching experience, even as an assistant.

Chad Morris, SMU

If the Powers That Be like Malzahn’s offense but can’t pry Gus himself from Auburn and then lose Norvell to Tennessee or UCLA, here’s the next option. Morris was a Texas high school coach when he befriended Malzahn and largely copied his system. He later parlayed that into a successful run as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator (2010-2011) before struggling Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hired him to salvage his career. Morris became the architect of Clemson’s current offense, laying the foundations for Deshaun Watson and the 2016 national championship team. He left before the dream was realized, and is slowly rebuilding SMU, getting them back to bowl eligibility this season.

  • Scheme Fit: High. Everything said about Malzahn and Norvell applies here.
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: High. Dallas metro? Check. Tulsa metro? Check. Legendary Texas high school coach? Check. Sounds good to me!
  • Pros: His work at Clemson was magical, and his recruiting ties in Oklahoma and Texas are very, very impressive.
  • Cons: The program was in pretty bad shape when he found it, but his rebuild of SMU is going very slowly. He’s 13-22, barely in a bowl this year (his first), and still struggling with even the bad teams in the American Conference.

Scott Frost, UCF

The leader of the best team in the Group of Five, Frost engineered a sudden and magnificent turnaround of the Knights. He’s 17-7 in two seasons after inheriting an 0-12 team. He runs a version of the Chip Kelly “blur” offense that allows his club to completely out-athlete opponents.

  • Scheme Fit: Medium/Unknown. I’d be interested to see how an Oregon-style offense works in the SEC. In 2010, Auburn shut it down in the National Championship game, but if Florida hires Chip Kelly, we might get a chance to see how it works week-to-week. How well the offense would work if it lacks superior athleticism is probably the biggest question.
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: Low. Recruiting Florida would be nice, and Frost has also worked in Kansas. He’s from Nebraska.
  • Pros: He’s riding the wave of a huge season at UCF and seems to know how to build a juggernaut.
  • Cons: Local ties are limited. As impressive as his offense has looked at UCF, I wonder if it would work in the SEC when he doesn’t have superior athleticism.

Charlie Strong, USF

The Batesville native has had a long career as a defensive assistant, and a mixed tenure as a head coach. After his innovative 3-3-5 defense helped Lou Holtz rebuild South Carolina, he coordinated Urban Meyer’s best defenses at Florida, parlaying that work into the head coaching job at Louisville. He recruited big, drawing Teddy Bridgewater, and eventually earned the Texas head job. Then things went south. He struggled to develop a quarterback with the Longhorns and after going 6-7 in year one, he failed to make a bowl in years two and three and was fired. He took over a loaded USF team and has gone 9-2 this season, which is actually a slight disappointment, given how good they were supposed to be.

  • Scheme Fit: Low/Unknown. Strong still runs the Briles offense he ran during his final season at Texas, and it seems to work with superior athletes, but that’s not what he’ll have at Arkansas. I’m not sure how well his scheme would translate.
  • Arkansas Connections: Low. He might want to return home, but he hasn’t lived in Arkansas in years.
  • Regional Ties: Medium. His best recruiting ties are in south Florida. He can obviously recruit Texas, but remember he was only there for three years.
  • Pros: He’s a good defensive coach and a good recruiter.
  • Cons: He flopped badly at Texas and hasn’t had enough time to redeem himself, so this hire would be very risky.

Neal Brown, Troy

Once known for his ultra-fast-paced offense, Brown has built a good running game and defense at Troy. The Trojans are 9-2 with a win over LSU this season, a year after winning 10 games and pushing national champion Clemson. He’s done very well there, but his only SEC stint (Kentucky OC 2013 and 2014) didn’t go as well.

  • Scheme Fit: Medium. Brown likes to go fast, run the ball, and throw deep. It’s not that different from Malzahn’s offense.
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: Low. He has lots of Alabama connections, but outside of two years of Texas Tech, most of his other experience is way up in the northeast.
  • Pros: He’s a well-respected coach that’s already claimed big wins and, like Blake Anderson, has done all that can be asked of him at Troy.
  • Cons: His brief time in the SEC was brief and unimpressive. Dare the Hogs give him a bigger chance?

Frank Wilson, UTSA

A bigger name after his Roadrunners knocked off Baylor 17-10, Wilson’s team has since fallen to 6-4, and he’s unlikely to be considered for a bigger job just yet. Still, one of the best recruiters in Louisiana deserves some mention. Wilson was Les Miles’ recruiting coordinator at LSU for several years.

  • Scheme Fit: Medium. Wilson runs a one-back, pro-style offense at UTSA. He’s never been a coordinator, so what kind of scheme he runs will likely depend on who he hires.
  • Arkansas Connections: None.
  • Regional Ties: High. He’s a big name for Louisiana prospects and has now added to his Texas recruiting profile. If recruiting is top concern for you, he’s on your list.
  • Pros: He’s a big recruiter and could land prospects in Louisiana and Texas.
  • Cons: He’s never been even a coordinator, and his limited head coaching experience has produced mediocre results so far.

Brent Venables, Clemson DC

Once considered a candidate for the job in 2008, Venables has produced elite defenses at Oklahoma and Clemson. He’s never been a head coach. He’s an alum of Kansas State and played for Bill Snyder.

  • Scheme Fit: High. The coaches he’s worked with suggest he’ll use the “Stoops strategy” and hire an innovative offensive coordinator, then try to pair it with a feisty defense. That worked well at Oklahoma, and it would probably work well at Arkansas.
  • Arkansas Connections: Low. Again, he was thought of as a candidate for this job in 2008.
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He has some prior experience in Oklahoma and Kansas, meaning that he has recruited Texas.
  • Pros: Among guys that have never coached, he’s as hot a candidate as they come.
  • Cons: He hasn’t actually been a head coach. Is that a red flag?

Do you have a candidate in mind that’s not on this list? Drop a comment!The people who call the shots have some favorites. Like it or not, these two will get the first call.