Guilt sure can manifest in strange ways.
We see yet another example of this in a story involving a booster who helped bring Gus Malzahn aboard the Arkansas football program in December 2005. There was a lot of skepticism around how Malzahn, a coaching savant at the high school level who’s now head man at UCF, would do as the Hogs’ offensive coordinator under Houston Nutt.
That duo paid off on the field, resulting in a 10-4 record and SEC title game appearance with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones leading the way, but Nutt and Mazalhn didn’t exactly see eye to eye on a few key things. Namely, as Bryan Curtis puts it, “Malzahn was an offensive innovator who believed in no-huddle football. Nutt was a parishioner at the Church of Frank Broyles — which is to say, he liked to pound the ball.”
Early in the 2006 season, Nutt curbed much of Malzhan’s play-calling in the passing game. The rift eventually led to Malzahn leaving after a season.
One of the boosters who originally helped bring Malzahn to the UA, though, feels remorse for how it ended, according to Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin. ‘This booster felt guilty for not going over there and putting his foot down and saying, ‘Look, we had an agreement and now you’ve demoted this guy. I’m not going to allow it. I’ll pull all my money,’” Irwin said on Monday’s “Ask Mike.”
“He feels guilty that he didn’t stand up for Gus the first time. So now he’s trying to help him this time.”
Arkansas Football Boosters Getting Their Meddle On
With Sam Pittman on the hot seat after Arkansas’ burning Hindenburg of an effort in a 38-point loss against Auburn on Saturday, it appears Irwin’s source is one of a few boosters who soon after the loss were trying to figure out a way to get the funds together to pay off Pittman’s $16.1 million buyout and bring Malzahn back to Fayetteville with even more mountains of cash.
This, to a degree, is old hat since the same thing was tried after Bret Bielema was fired in 2017. Back then, Malzahn decided to stay with his former employer, Auburn. It helped that he got a 7-year, $49 million extension.
But there are a few key differences this time around.
First of all, Arkansas’ promising defensive coordinator Travis Williams worked for Gus Malzahn prior to coming to Arkansas. The idea of bringing in Malzahn to keep Williams around, as well as the players who were playing so hard for him prior to the Auburn loss, does make sense.
Secondly, Arkansas now has an actual full-time athletic director in Hunter Yurachek. In late 2017, a yawning chasm in leadership of the athletic department had opened after Jeff Long was fired and Julia Cromer Peoples was tabbed as the interim AD.
That means the boosters who might have been able to call more of the shots on that 2017 coaching search no longer have as much sway.
While one would presume boosters working to raise millions of dollars to change the face of the Arkansas football program would be talking to Yurachek, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
Irwin asked one of his two Razorback booster sources, “What does Hunter Yurachek think about the plan to buy out Pittman for Malzahn. “And one guy said, ‘Well, I don’t know if he knows,’ and I’m going, ‘Well, then he needs to know. You’re kind of wasting your time.’”
If this all sounds a bit preposterous, buckle up. This ride isn’t near finished yet.
Strings Attached with Gus Malzahn Deal
The boosters in question, apparently, also had strings attached to the millions of dollars they were raising to buy out Pittman and bring in Gus Malzahn. “The other impression I got, because I asked, was this buyout would only be for Malzahn. They weren’t just automatically offering to pay the buyout no matter who they hire.”
Well, it doesn’t take a genius to see the problem with this. No quality athletic director is going to be strong-armed like that. Deep-pocketed boosters will always have opinions that the AD needs to hear but trying to use the prospect of millions of dollars to dictate who exactly must be hired is a bridge too far. A booster would have more luck putting money down on the New York Giants to win this year’s Super Bowl on the best NFL betting sites than he would trying to strong-arm Hunter Yurachek.
Finally, Gus and his wife, Kristi, would need to actually want to return to northwest Arkansas in order for such a plan to get more traction, even if Yurachek and other UA brass signed off on it.
The fact that they haven’t returned after two attempts says the third time likely wouldn’t be a charm but, just to make sure, Irwin did some more calling around. He spoke with someone who had recently talked to Kristi Malzahn in Stillwater, Okla., where UCF annihilated Oklahoma State 45-3 over the weekend, as well as a close friend of Kristi’s in Springdale.
Both confirmed what 97% of Arkansas football fans with functional brains already knew: it’s not gonna happen. “They’ve got a lot of family here in Arkansas,” Irwin said. “If they came back here with him as the coach, they’re gonna be subjected to all the stuff that went on the first time with him as an assistant coach – only it will be worse.”
No kidding. This time around you have all the stuff that happened back in 2006 along with the hard feelings left in the wake of Malzahn turning down Arkansas for a fatter paycheck at Auburn six years ago. The Malzahns may want to return to the state in retirement, but all signs point to such a homecoming waiting until then.
While the idea of Malzahn as a Hogs head coach has long been a great “what if” question in the annals of Razorback history, this latest ludicrousness goes to show it will always remain just that.
What Sam Pittman Must Do
Going forward, there needs to be a fresh start and revamped attitude, whether that be with some other new head coach or with Sam Pittman staying on board for a do-or-die 2024 season.
Whether it’s a new staff or mostly the same staff, the head coach and the players must get more in sync and not allow efforts like the Auburn and Mississippi State losses happen again. SEC football is an unforgiving gauntlet and teams which get to the point of letting go of the rope effort-wise now and then have no hope.
To be fair to the players, however, the offensive line play was so bad over the course of so many games, that it would be hard to stay juiced when you see your star quarterback get dropped and hurried over and over and over again. It’s only human to let up eventually.
So, Pittman or the new head coach must address offensive line play as the top priority. How do you rework an offensive line this bad in the course of a single offseason?
The boosters trying to bring back Gus Malzahn think they have a million-dollar answer, but this is the million-dollar question that matters most.
Even more than who will be Arkansas’ head coach when the calendar flips.
Mike Irwin on the Future of Sam Pittman
After the initial rumor storm on Sunday and through the early part of Monday, things appeared to calm down by mid-week. At this point, it looks like Pittman will at least coach through the end of the season barring, of course, a shocking loss to FIU which would likely force Yurachek’s hand.
In a separate interview on Monday’s Hit That Line, Irwin explained that another one of the offseason priorities should be the development of leadership from the Arkansas football players themselves. That’s something you would have thought the team would have had in spades this year with a two-time captain in KJ Jefferson but, as stated above, keeping your chin up while the walls cave in around you game after game is nearly impossible to do.
“Leadership” can only do so much when the biggest issue appears to be that some of the offensive tackles were not ready for big-time SEC football and couldn’t get up to speed as the season went on. That created a domino effect that it appears the Arkansas is still in scramble mode to recover from.
Assuming Pittman stays, Irwin also indicates that the next full-time offensive coordinator may have head coaching experience. “I’m sort of hearing that Yurachek believes if you hire the right offensive coordinator and maybe you need another head coach… But if you hire another head coach so that Sam’s got somebody in there just like he had with [Barry] Odom and you make a few other changes, then you’ve got to do something.”
Of course, Dan Enos had head coaching experience with central Michigan and look where that got Arkansas. Kendal Briles hasn’t yet been a head coach but still plenty well in Fayetteville. Bobby Petrino would certainly qualify since he has had much more sustained head coaching experience than most any OC on the market, but he didn’t exactly produce a masterpiece in his one season at Texas A&M under Fisher before his boss got the hook.
Plus, in case anybody forgot, in 2012 the University of Arkansas’ former athletic director fired Petrino for six separate reasons. They included hooking Jessica Dorrell up with an $55,375 annual salary through the athletic department and failing to disclose a $20,000 gift he gave her, both violations of the university’s policies on conflict of interest.
It’s possible these violations would render any potential rehiring of Petrino by the UA a legal no-go.
For more on potential Arkansas OC candidates, go here:
Sam Pittman on How Struggles Affect Recruiting Pitch
For those who are worried that Arkansas’ record will cost it a recruiting class that was flirting with Top 20 status, Pittman explained how his staff navigates its pitches in the midst of a losing season: “You can handle it several different ways. You can handle it as, ‘Hey we need you to help us win the close games,’ or ‘We’re losing guys at your position.,'” he said Wednesday in a press conference.
“But,I don’t think there’s a lot of difference from what we’ve done in the past as far as recruiting. We’ve got I think it’s 18 guys committed to us and I think the most we’ll do after that is coming from the JC’s (JUCO) or the portal, depending on how many scholarships we have available. Some of those guys we probably haven’t even talked to yet, to be perfectly honest with you.”
“The junior college guys, they probably want an opportunity to play right away, you know. So, they have to come to me. They have to come to the game. I can’t tell them if they can play right away or not. They can come to a game, watch us on TV. They can figure out if they think they’re better than somebody that we have on the field now and if they do, obviously you have a much better chance of getting them.”
Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thing. Bruce James, the former Razorback All-American from the 1960s, for one.
On the Buzz 103.7 FM earlier this week, James said it was time to find a new head football coach to replace Pittman to jump start the multi-year process of getting that coach’s recruits onto campus and then develop them into contributors.
“I’d hate to be him coming back next year trying to recruit because every team that we’re going to play, everybody in the SEC is gonna say he’s a dead man walking,” James said on 103.7 “The Buzz” Tuesday morning, according to All Hogs.
Yes, the transfer portal theoretically should shorten the timeline on getting a program back on its feet, but that the increasing importance of the portal hasn’t prevented a steady downward trend from that 9-win season in 2021.
Plus, things are only getting tougher starting next season.
“Looking at the future with Texas and Oklahoma coming in, it’s getting tougher every week,” James added. “But I’m for replacing [Pittman].”
Hear more from Irwin on boosters and Gus Malzahn starting at 4:40 below:
In the below clip with ESPN’s Ryan McGee, Pittman is lauded as someone who’s a great guy and serves up good zingers for the media. Arkansas football fans now want more more than that, though.
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