Who should Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long decide is the best match as head coach for downcast but still fiercely loyal Arkansas fans, for the world-class facilities they have funded and the enduring expectations of a greatness that keeps slipping away?
Arkansas hasn’t won a national title since 1964, and the previous head coach put a mistress before the goal of leading the program to another. There are plenty candidates, some of whom could find potential openings at Tennessee and Auburn more attractive. Let’s get this out of the way: the next coach shouldn’t be Bobby Petrino again. And it certainly shouldn’t be someone whose demeanor inspires way more comparisons to Red Skelton* than Red Auerbach.
It should be someone who brings these attributes to the table:
1) Genuinely inspires players – Before the Alabama game, I asked Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton if they planned to step up in Wilson’ absence. Both said they would – “I have to will this team to victory,” Davis said. “Of course,” Hamilton said. Not just with “playmaking ability but also just being a leader, vocally. Because Tyler was really the guy as far as vocally rallying the troops together and taking charge in the huddle.”
Wilson, of course, called his teammates out after the Alabama game for not playing as hard in the second half. But it’s not the job of Arkansas’ best players to also be its best leaders. The next coach should realize this, and embrace it. Naturally, someone who really cares about his players will also most inspire them. As much as some people are clamoring for a hire of West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, his reputation for drunken cavorting should remove him from Long’s final list. Former UNC coach Butch Davis has plenty Arkansas connections attractive to boosters, but I believe his legal entanglement in the wake of a recruiting scandal should – and will – prevent him from landing the job.
2) Has developed an extensive recruiting network in the South, especially Texas – The north and east parts of Texas have long been a source of future Hogs. This extremely talent-rich area becomes even more critical because, quite frankly, most all the best young players in other close recruiting hotspots – Louisiana, southern Mississippi and Alabama – grow up as LSU, Alabama or Auburn fans.
To many north Texans, Arkansas is attractive because it’s a closer SEC school. Granted, Texas A&M is now in the mix, but with the right hire Arkansas should still have a better program than the Aggies in the short term. A five-star Texan is much more likely to eschew a good Texas A&M team and join Arkansas than a five-star player from the Deep South would snub an elite Alabama or LSU program.
3) Has substantial experience as a head coach in a major conference – Some Hog fans are enticed by the head coaching potential of Alabama’s defensive coordinator Kirby Smart or Garrick McGee, Arkansas’ former offensive coordinator, now head coach at UAB, Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn. But the Razorbacks can’t afford to roll the dice on such unproven candidates, especially someone like Malzahn who – for all his ties to the state – is already one of its most polarizing sports figures.
The following are my top two choices for the Hogs’ next head coach. I’m assuming big names such as Jon Gruden, Pete Carroll and Gary Patterson won’t seriously consider any offers:
1) Art Briles
Amazingly, he’s spent his entire 33-year coaching career in Texas, working from the high school ranks up. Arkansas has never had a head coach with anything near this level of Texas recruiting connections. His Baylor program has shown steady improvement the last four years, notching a 6-3 Big 12 record last season under Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Griffin’s star continues to rise at the NFL, which will help Briles lock up future elite recruits from around the nation.
2) Charlie Strong
At this point, Strong looks to be the most likely and logical candidate. A Batesville native and UCA alumnus, he knows Arkansas. He’s not as plugged into Texas circles, but his impressive bona fides as a defensive line coach at Notre Dame and defensive coordinator for two Florida national championship teams will impress the elite defensive recruits Arkansas has sorely lacked. Strong also appears to have Louisville, at 3-0, improving at a rapid pace.
Some wonder whether his race (African-American) will be a problem as he would be the first black head football coach in Razorback history. It’s possible that this matters tosome boosters, but consider Fayetteville, Ark. has one of the lowest populations of African-Americans among all SEC school towns, which matters to some young African-American recruits considering different colleges. If their potential head coach firsthand understands the challenges of a young black male in a majority white culture, that matters.
* The following comes from a commentor on an Arkansas Sports 360 article: “The comments by JLS during interview at end of half were absolutely embarrassing. He said something to the effect of “Let’s get going baby!” as he gestured with his hands as if patting someone on the butt. He reminds me of the drunk Red Skelton used to portray in some of his skits. He actually appears to be loaded……or retarded, hard to tell sometimes. How can the UofA allow him to represent the university, the football team, the fans, the state of Arkansas, etc.? Just humiliating!!!!!!!!!!! Please find a way to keep him off camera and his mouth shut to the media!!!!”