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Evaluating the Candidates for the Arkansas Job

The Hogs got the last hire wrong. They cannot afford to miss again.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Missouri
Memphis’ Mike Norvell is likely a leading candidate for the Arkansas job.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

This is Part 2 of our series on Arkansas football’s coaching search. Read Part 1 here.

In Part 1 we discussed some of the things that led to Chad Morris’ failure as Arkansas head coach: failure to fix the offensive line, failure to fix the defense, bad offensive assistant hires, timid coaching, and failure to find ways to get the ball to the best players.

The Hogs have to get this hire right. Bad decisions by former AD Jeff Long and the bad hire of Morris have put Arkansas in a financial bind: the Hogs literally cannot afford to fire any more coaches in the near future.

In this piece we will look at a list of candidates. There are two points I want to make about this list:

  1. It includes realistic candidates. Obviously, if Nick Saban is interested in getting out of Tuscaloosa, the Hogs should probably listen. But the only candidates listed here are coordinators or the ones at schools whose historical prestige causes them to be broadly considered worse jobs than Arkansas. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be interested: P.J. Fleck, for example, might be perfectly happy at Minnesota and have no desire to come to Arkansas, but I’m listing him anyway.
  2. It is not necessarily comprehensive. As the AD at Coastal Carolina in 2011, Hunter Yurachek hired former TD Ameritrade CEO and UFL owner/coach Joe Moglia to run the Chanticleers football program. It worked out, and it stands as an example of Yurachek’s out-of-the-box thinking. The next Arkansas coach might be someone nobody is thinking of.
  3. The grades are not inclusive of all criteria. Some of the issues that plagued Morris’ tenure, like timid coaching and inability to build relationships with holdover players, cannot be easily identified by casual fans and won’t necessarily show up in advanced stats or even win-loss record. While it’s possible that a savvy AD could foresee problems during an interview, we have to do the best we can with the information that we have.

In Part 1, we mentioned Bret Bielema tried to turn Arkansas into Wisconsin and Chad Morris tried to turn Arkansas into Clemson, but the Hogs now need a coach that will turn Arkansas into Arkansas. Part of that is having a clearly-defined plan to create an identity. Arkansas is identity-less right now, having tried to copy other successful ideas. Who can take advantage of all the things that make Arkansas unique?

The Candidates

I’ve included my grades all in one place. Obviously, predicting success is hard if not impossible, so my grades are simply judging the likelihood of success. Any of these could succeed, and any of these could fail.

  • P.J. Fleck: A+
  • Matt Campbell: A
  • Matt Rhule: B+
  • Mike Norvell: B
  • Mike Leach: B-
  • Eli Drinkwitz: B-
  • Brent Venables: B-
  • Gus Malzahn: B-
  • Lane Kiffin: C+
  • Billy Napier: C+
  • Bryan Harsin: C+
  • Todd Graham: C
  • Willie Fritz: C
  • Bill Clark: C-
  • Not graded (explanations below): Jason Garrett, Dowell Loggains, Mike Gundy, Art Briles, Bobby Petrino, Kevin Kelly

Here are the criteria we’re judging on:

  • Arkansas Ties: To the state, not necessarily the university
  • Regional Ties: The focus here is to Dallas-Fort Worth, Memphis, Tulsa, and Louisiana. You know, Arkansas’ recruiting footprint. SEC experience is also a boost here.
  • Scheme Fit: We’re focusing on schemes that utilize the talent that Arkansas can reliably recruit: speedy receivers, tight ends, defensive ends, defensive backs. We know that some form of spread-running attack is Arkansas’ best bet, although it’s worth debating if Mike Leach is an exception to this. Mark Richt is an example of poor scheme fit. A defensive-minded coach is also risky due to Arkansas’ struggles to recruit and develop great defensive players.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: How they rank in Arkansas Fight’s EV+ system. Remember: EV+ is predictive, while other variables like record in close games are not. You might be surprised at how good (or not good) some of these coaches’ teams actually are.
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: Final EV+ ranking over the coach’s entire tenure
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: The average EV+ ranking for the coach’s current school in the five years before he was hired. This tells you how the coach looks against the school’s recent history.

Tier One Candidates

I would venture to guess that these three candidates have the highest likelihood of success at Arkansas. I don’t whether any of them would come, though.

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

Row the Boat, indeed. Fleck went 1-11 during his first season at Western Michigan... by his fourth season, the Broncos were 13-0 and headed to the Cotton Bowl. He was the top mid-major coach on the market when he went to Minnesota. Now in his third year, the Golden Gophers are 9-0 and legitimately in the playoff hunt. He’s a program-changing coach, and Minnesota is fighting to keep him.

  • Grade: A+
  • Arkansas Ties: None
  • Regional Ties: None
  • Scheme Fit: High. I’ll admit I hadn’t watched Minnesota until the Penn State game, but I was very impressed. They’re the 9th-most run-heavy team in the country on standard downs, and they pair their power run game with a ultra-efficient pass game (7th in passing marginal efficiency) built around RPOs designed to force the defense out of the box. Fleck’s offense is basically a modernized, improved version of what Bret Bielema was trying to run at Arkansas... and I mean that in a good way. It would work here.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 11th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 49th
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 60th. Fleck’s improvement over predecessors Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys has been modest, because Kill was already an above-average coach.
  • Upside: It’s all upside. Fleck is a proven winner who runs a sound scheme and can build a program quickly.
  • Downside: He’s spent his entire career in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. How would he adjust to the SEC?

Matt Campbell, Iowa State

Hog fans remember Campbell from 2015 when his Toledo Rockets came to Little Rock and stunned the Hogs, 16-12. Campbell’s soared to higher heights since then, immediately turning moribund Iowa State into a respectable Big 12 program. His defensive coordinator, Jim Heacock, took the college football world by storm through his pioneering “Broken Stack” defense, known for its ability to disrupt pass-heavy attacks. This year, Campbell’s offense has finally taken flight under QB Brock Purdy. Some horrible close-games luck is the only thing that’s kept Campbell from being a bigger name.

  • Grade: A
  • Arkansas Ties: None
  • Regional Ties: None
  • Scheme Fit: High. Campbell is known for using very multiple schemes on offense and defense. He adjusts to his own talent and to the opponent. His offenses are always spread. Most have been run-heavy, but during the last two seasons, the Cyclones have been pass-heavy. They feature big, physical receivers like Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler, so Campbell would love Trey Knox, Treylon Burks, and Mike Woods. Most of all, he’s found a way to produce points with less talent than most of the Big 12.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 15th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 37th
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 79th
  • Upside: Campbell quickly rebuilt Iowa State, where it’s tough to win. He takes a flexible approach to scheme and has produced very good offenses and defenses during his time in Ames.
  • Downside: Like Fleck, he’s not from this area and it’s fair to question how he would adjust to the SEC.

Matt Rhule, Baylor

A lifelong Northeasterner, Rhule has adjusted well in Waco, and his Bears are undefeated so far. He turned Temple around as well. He’s a true rebuilder: he went a combined 2-22 during his first season at those two schools, but success came quickly after that. He spent a couple years as an NFL assistant and is rumored to be interested in coaching at the next level.

  • Grade: B+
  • Arkansas Ties: None
  • Regional Ties: Medium. Baylor’s recruiting footprint has a lot of overlap with Arkansas’.
  • Scheme Fit: High. Rhule is a career offensive line guy. His offense is very similar to Fleck’s: smashmouth roots, but it’s run from shotgun and uses reads and RPOs to stretch the defense. It’s less impressive than Minnesota’s on film, but it’s exactly the kind of offense that I think would be ideal for Arkansas.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 32nd
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 80th
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 26th. Hard to hold this against him given that he followed up the disastrous end to the Art Briles era.
  • Upside: Considering what he walked into at Baylor, rebuilding Arkansas won’t scare him a bit, and his offense is a perfect fit for the Hogs.
  • Downside: EV+, which is predictive, doesn’t think that highly of Baylor during any of Rhule’s three years there. Also, if he’s successful, he could jump to the NFL.

Tier Two Candidates

These are more realistic candidates. They all have obvious upsides, but there’s risk here as well.

Mike Norvell, Memphis

Building on the foundation set by Justin Fuente, Norvell has Memphis in position to win an AAC title. His coaching pedigree is similar to Morris’. He started under Gus Malzahn at Tulsa and stayed with head coach Todd Graham as he went to Pitt and Arizona State. He was the OC during the infamous 62-41 beatdown of USC that got Lane Kiffin fired on the airport tarmac. His Memphis teams have overwhelming speed. This year’s team is Norvell’s first to boast a competent defense.

  • Grade: B
  • Arkansas Ties: Medium. Norvell played for UCA in Conway and has family from Arkansas.
  • Regional Ties: High. In addition to his Arkansas ties, he’s coached at Tulsa and Memphis.
  • Scheme Fit: Medium. Norvell’s offense has a lot of similarities to Morris’, but Norvell has a longer track record of making it work. The main downside I see is that the Memphis offense is very dependent on big plays generated by athletes superior to the rest of the AAC. Norvell will have to work harder to get those kinds of advantages in Fayetteville.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 14th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 22nd
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 45th
  • Upside: His scheme has enough similarity to Morris’ that he would likely have a shorter rebuild than some of these other coaches. His strong regional ties would help with recruiting and understanding what it takes to win at Arkansas.
  • Downside: He inherited a strong program, while other top candidates built theirs. There’s also rumors of skeletons in his closet... but for now, those are just rumors.

Mike Leach, Washington State

A mainstay of coaching searches for years, Leach has won at hard-to-win places. One of the original Air Raid coaches that started under Hal Mumme at Kentucky in 1997, Leach has been by far the most successful. If being unique is a necessary part of Arkansas’ identity, then Leach certainly fits the bill.

  • Grade: B-
  • Arkansas Ties: None
  • Regional Ties: Very Low. Leach last coached in the SEC in 1998 and his Texas experience is way out in Lubbock.
  • Scheme Fit: Low. An Air Raid does not seem natural for Arkansas, which has historically relied on a strong run game, and I’d be firmly against a coach running it if we were talking about anyone other than Leach.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 45th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 59th
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 103rd
  • Upside: Washington State is one of the hardest Power 5 schools to win at, and he’s built a winner in Pullman. He did the same thing to Texas Tech, another hard-to-win place.
  • Downside: He’s 58. He’s only had one top-30 finish in eight years. Does he have a ceiling? And if so, what is it?

Eli Drinkwitz, Appalachian State

The Mountaineers are the top team in the Sun Belt and have wins over North Carolina and South Carolina (that’s two more Power 5 wins than Chad Morris has in his entire career). One of only a few candidates with direct Arkansas ties, Drinkwitz is an Arkansas Tech alum and worked as an assistant coach at Springdale and Alma high schools. He has a strong coaching pedigree, having served under Malzahn at Auburn (2010-2011) and Arkansas State (2012), and then under Bryan Harsin at Arkansas State (2013) and Boise State (2014-2015). A successful run as OC at NC State got him the App State job, where he’s in his first year, replacing the very successful Scott Satterfield.

  • Grade: B-
  • Arkansas Ties: High. Drinkwitz was coaching high school football in Springdale as recently as 2009 and was an assistant at Arkansas State in 2012 and 2013.
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He has no regional experience outside of his direct Arkansas ties, although he was briefly on an SEC staff (as an analyst, but still).
  • Scheme Fit: Medium. As expected for a coach schooled in the Malzahn and Boise State systems, Drinkwitz’s offense is a run-first spread built around motion and misdirection. They get big plays and don’t give them up: the Mountaineers are the best team in the nation in rushing marginal explosiveness and in pass defense marginal explosiveness.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 22nd
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 22nd
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 33rd
  • Upside: He has Arkansas ties, a strong coaching pedigree, and instant success at App State.
  • Downside: He’s only been at App State for one year, making him an ultra-risky hire, especially right after Chad Morris.

Brent Venables, Clemson DC

There aren’t a lot of defensive-minded head coaching candidates out. If Arkansas wants to re-commit to defense, Venables is probably the best option. He’s been a successful DC for a long time at both Oklahoma and Clemson.

  • Grade: B-
  • Arkansas Ties: None, though he was rumored to be a candidate for the job in 2008.
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He’s a Kansas State alum and coached at Oklahoma.
  • Scheme Fit: Unknown. With the way Arkansas’ defense has looked for years, this is a really risky hire. Can Venables win by prioritizing defense? He’ll probably hire an innovative offensive coordinator, but you can’t really hire him based on who he’ll hire.
  • Upside: As far as defensive-minded coaches go, he’s probably the best option.
  • Downside: He’s never been a head coach, and trying to focus on defense is a risky proposition at Arkansas right now. Also, hiring him reeks of the “trying to copy another successful program” approach that got the Hogs into this mess in the first place.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Arkansas reportedly went all-in to hire him in 2017, and he spurned his homestate program. But Auburn is just plain crazy, and he could be in legitimate trouble with another Iron Bowl loss. He was considered a brilliant mind and innovator years ago, but defenses are catching up and the rest of the country has borrowed his creations. Is he still a cutting-edge hire in 2019?

  • Grade: B-
  • Arkansas Ties: High. He’s the most Arkansas-connected coach on this list, and the only one with direct ties to the university.
  • Regional Ties: High. Obviously, he has extensive experience in Arkansas and in the SEC.
  • Scheme Fit: High. He invented his offense in Arkansas, so it would definitely the fit the talent. Can he keep innovating since he’s stagnated at Auburn?
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 13th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 20th
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 52nd
  • Upside: Extensive SEC experience, direct ties to Arkansas, and a track record of success are hard things to argue against.
  • Downside: He’d need a chip on his shoulder to be successful. Like Chad Morris, it’s looking like the best time to hire him was back in 2010 or so. Have defenses caught up to him, or does he have one last round of innovation in him?

Tier Three Candidates

These candidates all have obvious flaws or are simply unknown. That doesn’t make them bad hires, but all of them give a reason for pause.

Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic

Why is Kiffin on this list? Because Arkansas’ program has fallen to the point where the risk of Kiffin might be worth it. He’s been fired as the coach of Raiders and USC, and left Tennessee and Alabama under interesting circumstances. In Boca Raton, he’s provided stability, going 23-13 and pushing the Owls to the top of the Conference USA. He’s an innovative offensive mind who would keep the Hogs on the cutting edge of offense. He’s also a risk to blow up spectacularly.

  • Grade: C+
  • Arkansas Ties: Very Low. His father Monte was Arkansas’ defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz while Lane was between the ages of 2 and 5.
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He’s coached in the SEC, which is more than most other coaches on this list can say.
  • Scheme Fit: High. Kiffin’s version of the spread offense is forward-thinking, pro-style, and constantly innovating. No one’s ever disputed his offensive genius.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 27th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 30th
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 109th
  • Upside: It’s really hard to understate how quickly he made FAU competitive. Maybe he’s finally maturing into the coach he always had the potential to be.
  • Downside: He has never left a job on good terms. Can Arkansas afford to have a hire blow up in their face? (The answer is no.)

Billy Napier, Louisiana

Do the Hogs want to test the quality of the Nick Saban Coaching Rehabilitation Program? Napier was fired as Clemson OC to make way for Chad Morris in 2009. After a stint as an “analyst” at Alabama, he pulled off successful tenures as Alabama receivers coach and Arizona State OC under Todd Graham. After Graham was fired, the Ragin’ Cajuns hired him and are happy they did: he’s 7-2 and has them in the Sun Belt title hunt.

  • Grade: C+
  • Arkansas Ties: None
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He’s spent time at Alabama and in Lafayette, Louisiana.
  • Scheme Fit: Medium. He spent time under Lane Kiffin and now runs a version of the spread that similar to Kiffin/Alabama. It’s not clear how innovative he is on his own. His Louisiana offense is 3rd in the nation in marginal efficiency.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 16th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 48th
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 94th
  • Upside: He’s a gifted offensive mind who has already had a breakthrough at Louisiana. He’s also coached under both Saban and Dabo and is well-thought-of in the coaching profession.
  • Downside: He’s only been a head coach for two years, and he’s been fired before, though there would be a weird cosmic justice if he replaces Morris, given what happened at Clemson.

Bryan Harsin, Boise State

The one-time coach of Arkansas State is 60-16 in Boise. Just like Chris Petersen was the big name a few years ago, now Harsin is a common name on many coach search radars.

  • Grade: C+
  • Arkansas Ties: Low. He spent the 2013 season coaching Arkansas State.
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He also spent two seasons as Texas’ offensive coordinator, late in the Mack Brown era.
  • Scheme Fit: Medium. The Boise State offense is flexible and will likely work at a variety of schools, including Arkansas. His Boise teams are strong on both offense and defense.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 31st
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 23rd
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 14th
  • Upside: He’s been extremely successful and runs a solid offense.
  • Downside: He hasn’t been as good as his predecessor, Chris Petersen. He’s also spent almost all of his career in the Northwest.

Todd Graham

It was a meteoric rise and sudden fall for Graham, who has coached Rice, Tulsa, Pitt, and Arizona State. He’s a former defensive coordinator known for hiring innovative offensive coordinators: Malzahn, Norvell, Morris, and Napier are just a few of the many offensive coordinators he’s helped break into the big time. In the end, this eye for talent undid him: his offensive coordinators kept leaving him for successful careers on their own, and the turnover hurt his ability to maintain consistency.

  • Grade: C
  • Arkansas Ties: None
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He’s from Texas and has coached in Houston and Tulsa.
  • Scheme Fit: Medium. He can spot talented play callers, but he rises and falls with the person running his offense, which is a dangerous way to live.
  • Upside: He’s won everywhere he’s been and is an excellent evaluator of coaching talent.
  • Downside: He didn’t quite win enough at Arizona State and got fired. Selling this hire to the fanbase would be difficult, to say the least. Not to mention the inherent risk of being dependent on the head coach’s ability to keep good coordinators.

Willie Fritz, Tulane

The former coach of Central Missouri and Georgia Southern has been a stunning success at Tulane, which is not an easy place to win, especially since the move to the AAC.

  • Grade: C
  • Arkansas Ties: None
  • Regional Ties: Medium. He’s got plenty of experience in Missouri and Louisiana, two states that border Arkansas.
  • Scheme Fit: Medium/Unknown. Fritz’s spread option eschews big plays in favor of an ultra-efficient spread run game. If you’re the the type that thinks the Hogs should go flexbone in order to be unique, consider Fritz instead. This offense gives defenses fits, but I’m not sure how it would play in the SEC.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 30th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 72nd
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 106th
  • Upside: He brings a unique identity and has made it work at multiple schools in the South.
  • Downside: He’s 59. There are plenty of reasons to question whether his spread option attack would work against SEC defenses.

Bill Clark, UAB

Born and raised in Alabama, Clark has never left the state. He started in high school football and worked his way up to head coach at UAB. He overcome the program being shut down in 2015 and 2016 and led the resurgent Blazers to a Conference USA title in 2018. I hadn’t really thought of him as a candidate, but CBS Sports mentioned him on their list, so here he is.

  • Grade: C-
  • Arkansas Ties: None
  • Regional Ties: Low. He’s got plenty of experience in Alabama.
  • Scheme Fit: Low. Clark comes from a defensive background and while fundamentals are solid, there’s little innovation.
  • EV+ Rank This Year: 95th
  • Average EV+ Ranking Over Tenure: 66th
  • 5-Year Average EV+ Ranking Before Him: 102nd
  • Upside: He’s one of the best coaches at winning with less.
  • Downside: He’s spent his entire career in Alabama. Also, the EV+ system doesn’t think much of his teams. EV+ is predictive, and there’s good reason it thinks this way: Clark is winless against Power 5 teams and has been blown out every time.

Unlisted Candidates

I’ve seen some other names that I decided to leave off this list. Some of them could legitimately be considered. Let’s quickly review why I didn’t evaluate them.

  • Jason Garrett. The name of the long-time Cowboys coach started as a joke, but after Dallas’ loss to Minnesota to fall to 5-4, I’m seeing this name more and more. Garrett is in a contract year and has underachieved in Dallas. I actually think he would be a fantastic hire, but there’s not much to evaluate here, as he cannot be easily compared to college coaches and his hiring would have to be entirely orchestrated by Jerry Jones.
  • Dowell Loggains. The Jets OC and former Hog quarterback would be a fantastic offensive coordinator hire for several of the head coaching candidates discussed here. But he has zero college coaching experience and zero head coaching experience. I have no way to evaluate him, and I don’t think he’d be a good option for head coach.
  • Mike Gundy. He’s done well at Oklahoma State, but he’s flirted with other jobs several times and always finds a way to get an extension in Stillwater. If he’s interested, his agent can reach out. I’ve soured on him since the last search, as it seems obvious that he’s stalling out.
  • Hugh Freeze. After you take out all the wins Ole Miss had to vacate, he went 12-25 at Ole Miss. Leave ‘em in, he’s still under .500 in SEC play. His two best teams lost to Bret Bielema’s two best teams and cheated just to get that far. And that’s ignoring the personal issues. Hugh Freeze somehow keeps getting mentioned (mostly by national writers, not actual fans)... do you actually want a good coach, or do you just want to give a middle finger to decent society?
  • Art Briles. As opposed to Freeze, Briles at least makes sense as a “I don’t care about morality, I just want a good coach” stance. But what Briles did at Baylor was despicable and there’s no reason to give him time of day. I’m also not sure about how his offense will work in the SEC, and he’s damaged goods anyway: no good assistant coach will come work for him at this point.
  • Bobby Petrino. Even if you ignore the fact that he’s the architect of Arkansas’ collapse, last year’s Louisville team finished 128th out of 130 in EV+ rankings. He absolutely gutted that program. Like Briles, he’s worn out his welcome with the coaching community and found himself unable to hire quality assistants.
  • Kevin Kelly. The Pulaski Academy coach gets mentioned as an innovator in major publications all the time. I do appreciate his go-for-broke approach to football. But seriously? An Arkansas radio host is floating his name. If he wants to coach college football, he should consider applying to be an offensive coordinator at a small school.


Who should be the next Arkansas football coach?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    P.J. Fleck
    (318 votes)
  • 12%
    Matt Campbell
    (206 votes)
  • 4%
    Matt Rhule
    (82 votes)
  • 21%
    Mike Norvell
    (368 votes)
  • 6%
    Eli Drinkwitz
    (117 votes)
  • 2%
    Brent Venables
    (40 votes)
  • 8%
    Gus Malzahn
    (140 votes)
  • 8%
    Lane Kiffin
    (150 votes)
  • 0%
    Billy Napier
    (14 votes)
  • 1%
    Bryan Harsin
    (18 votes)
  • 0%
    Todd Graham
    (11 votes)
  • 0%
    Bill Clark
    (16 votes)
  • 13%
    Someone else
    (222 votes)
1702 votes total Vote Now