Four Back Up Options for Next Arkansas Basketball Coach In Case Top 3 Fall Through

Arkansas basketball, Chris Beard, Will Wade
photo credit: Samford Athletics / McNeese Athletics / Ole Miss Athletics

It’s official – the Muss Bus is departing from Fayetteville. Speculation turned into reality on Thursday, when news broke that Eric Musselman was leaving Arkansas to take the helm at USC. He then wrote his final thank-you note to Arkansas.

Since January, rumors have been circulating that the 59-year-old was plotting an escape plan in the midst of a tough season. There was apparent mutual interest and contact with a number of schools, particularly with Louisville, but given his ties to the West Coast, the USC basketball job brought all of the speculation to a boiling point.

Musselman’s exit is an obvious blow to the program, as Arkansas loses its most successful basketball coach since the legendary Nolan Richardson. He compiled a 111-59 record during his five seasons in Fayetteville and led the Razorbacks to two Elite Eights and another Sweet 16 – their first second weekend appearances in the NCAA Tournament since 1996.

Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek and the UA Board of Trustees now have a gut-check decision to make. Here’s a look at some potential candidates to be the next head coach of Arkansas basketball. Fire up your plane trackers, and let’s get into it.

Prodigal Son with a Troubled Past

Even in the midst of the Friday reports that Ole Miss will retain him, any list of possibilities for the next Razorback head coach has to start with Chris Beard. He has ties to the Natural State, making a name for himself in the state’s capital at UALR. In his lone year in charge, he was named Sun Belt Coach of the Year after guiding the Trojans to an NCAA Tournament appearance and an upset of 5-seed Purdue.

At Texas Tech, Beard quickly turned the Red Raiders into contenders and took them on consecutive deep tournament runs, reaching an Elite Eight in 2018 and a national title game in 2019. Arkansas fans will be familiar with his success in Lubbock, as the Razorbacks and Red Raiders squared off in Round of 32 in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, a matchup where Eric Musselman got the better of him.

Beard then made a controversial in-state move from Lubbock to Austin to take the job at his alma mater of Texas. But this section of the article can’t go any further without addressing the elephant in the room – and it’s a really large elephant.

The UT grad’s tenure with the Longhorns ended abruptly just eight games into his second season, as he was fired for cause following a domestic violence charge for allegedly battering his fiancee. Arkansas basketball interested in Beard will likely point out that the charges were later dropped, but that doesn’t entirely remove the gray cloud hovering over his candidacy.

Ole Miss, a university renowned for its outstanding morals, was undeterred, and hired Beard as its next basketball coach just three months after the Texas fiasco went down. He steered the Rebels to a 20-12 record in his first season at the helm.

Another matter complicating Beard-to-Arkansas is the extension it was assumed he signed to stay in Oxford. While it’s unlikely that his buyout will be high enough to deter the UA brass from pursuing him, it certainly makes him a more expensive option. Ole Miss will not want to let go of its big-name coach, and certainly not to a conference rival. However, the exact details of his buyout are not known.

Chris Beard to Arkansas?

Arkansas’ board was highly interested in him back in 2019, but his deep tournament run at Texas Tech kept him off the table until April. Availability is the best ability, so Yurachek then turned to Musselman.

People close to Beard indicate that he fell in love with the state during his time in Little Rock. With his bridges burnt in Austin, Arkansas now stands alone as Beard’s destination job. If Yurachek doesn’t want to deal with constant speculation about his head coach’s future, as was the case with Musselman, then Beard will surely be an appealing candidate.

Legal controversy and financial concerns are the biggest likely obstacles to this hire. But there’s another one involving a rule change that has affected the effectiveness of his calling card defense, as Texas basketball fan Jonny Brashear points out.

“His defenses worked best when secondary defenders would slide under shooters & draw a metric ton of charges, and the change to the block/charge call last fall has mostly neutered that strategy,’ Brashear wrote for Best of Arkansas Sports. “In fact, per Ken Pomeroy, no coach’s ability to generate turnovers was hurt as much by this change as Chris Beard. It’s probably not a coincidence that his Ole Miss team was by far the worst defensive unit he’s had as a D-I coach.”

Even with all these caveats, however, many Razorback fans wanted Beard the most before it reports came out on Friday that he would stay at Ole Miss.

(READ NEXT: A Warning to Those Still Championing Chris Beard as Next Arkansas Basketball Coach)

With Beard seemingly out of the running, let’s look at the top two remaining candidates:

FBI’s Most Wanted to the SEC?

A divisive option that Arkansas could turn to is McNeese State head coach Will Wade, a name Hog fans will recognize from his time at LSU.

During his five years in Baton Rouge, the Nashville native compiled a 105-51 record – including an SEC regular-season title and a Sweet 16 appearance. Under his tutelage, the Tigers had multiple offenses that ranked top five in KenPom.

Then came the fallout. Wade was caught on an FBI wiretap making a “strong-ass offer” to a recruit, and the subsequent investigation uncovered a number of recruiting violations that eventually led to his firing.

After a one-year sabbatical, Wade resurfaced in Lake Charles, La., as the unlikely leader of the McNeese State Cowboys. He had his team firing on all cylinders, as the “Bayou Bandits” ran up a 30-3 record, winning the Southland Conference regular-season and tournament title to earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance, where they were a 12-seed and lost to Gonzaga in the first round.

The Cowboys run a high-octane offense with an intense pressing defense, ranking top 10 in the country in both three-point percentage and forced turnovers. Setting aside Wade’s legal history and distasteful personality – which Razorback fans have witnessed firsthand with his sideline behavior – there’s no doubt that the 41-year-old knows how to coach ball.

In the NIL era of college sports, Wade is now free to make all of the “strong-ass offers” that he wants to, without repercussions. While many folks in Fayetteville will turn up their nose at the thought of Wade wearing Razorback red, his legal troubles are certainly not as low on the moral totem pole as Beard’s recent past.

Jerome Tang & Wu-Tang Hogs

When it comes to clean options, a name that is sure to be on Hunter Yurachek’s list is Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang, who checks a lot of boxes. Indeed, on Friday afternoon, Jon Rothstein reported that Tang was expected to rise to the top of said list.

After spending nearly two decades as an assistant at Baylor under Scott Drew, Tang earned his first head coaching gig with K-State. His inaugural season in charge was a flying success, as the Wildcats went 26-10, finished third in the Big 12, and made a run to the Elite Eight with help of former Razorback Desi Sills.

For his efforts, Tang was named the Naismith Coach of the Year. Not a bad first impression.

This year was a disappointing campaign for the Wildcats, though, as they went 8-10 in conference play and missed the NCAA Tournament. While that may steer Hog fans away from his candidacy, it’s worth putting those results in context. 

Tang had to deal with an injury crisis in his backcourt, as well as the controversial dismissal of star big man Nae’Qwan Tomlin following his arrest for disorderly conduct back in October. After being placed on indefinite suspension for two months, Tang and athletic director Gene Taylor were ready to welcome Tomlin back into the fold.

However, university president Richard Linton overruled their input, and ordered Tomlin to be dismissed from the team. This decision irked Tang, and obviously had a negative impact on the Wildcats’ on-court results this season.

It’s clear that there is a rift between the head coach and the university brass – and public opinion seems to be that Tang will listen if another option comes up. Arkansas is an obvious step up from Kansas State, and could offer a substantial pay raise to Tang, who currently has an annual salary of $3 million.

The native of Trinidad and Tobago is a little on the older side at 57 years old, but that likely won’t be a deal-breaker. The biggest question mark is Tang’s lack of head coaching experience around the impressive 2022-23 season. When it comes to non-controversial options, Tang’s great reputation as a player’s coach and his ability to work the portal make him an appealing candidate for the Arkansas job.

He’s not going to come in with any kind of baggage, that’s for sure.

Hail Mary in Iowa

A name that would be a slam dunk hire for Arkansas is Iowa State’s TJ Otzelberger, but he’s likely a long shot, which pushed his name further down the list. The Cyclones went 28-7 this year, finishing second in the Big 12 and winning the conference tournament in dominant fashion over Houston. They earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and made it to the Sweet 16.

Otzelberger is an excellent defensive coach, emphasizing relentless pressure and hounding opponents. Iowa State was KenPom’s No. 1 team in defensive efficiency this season. His intensity is something that Razorback fans would love given the past success of fiery coaches like Eric Musselman and Nolan Richardson.

The question here is not whether Otzelberger is a qualified candidate – he’s an excellent one. The issue is whether or not he would see Arkansas as a significant step up from his current situation. 

After all, he already has Iowa State competing at the national level and is adored in Ames. Through his tenure as a head coach and his multiple stints as an assistant, Otzelberger has spent over a decade with the Cyclones. Would it be worth sacrificing that to come to Fayetteville? His recent comments certainly don’t sound like a coach willing to leave anytime soon.

Arkansas has deeper pockets than Iowa State, and could offer him a significant raise over his current salary – which is slated to be $3 million next season. There’s also the difference in prestige. The Razorbacks are a historic power that have won a national championship and gone on deep tournament runs in recent years, while Iowa State hasn’t reached a Final Four since World War II.

But again, Otzelberger already has the Cyclones in the top 10, so it’s up to him whether or not it’s worth making the move. Regardless, he should at least be a “make him say no” option on Yurachek’s magic list.

Backup Plans for Arkansas Basketball

If these top candidates don’t end up working out, Hunter Yurachek could pivot to poaching another successful high-major coach. One name that’s been mentioned is Illinois’ Brad Underwood. Underwood has won at least 20 games in each of the last five seasons, including a share of the Big Ten title in 2022, as well as multiple second-place finishes.

After receiving some criticism for his poor track record in March, Underwood put those concerns to bed this year with an impressive run to the Elite Eight that included a win over Otzelberger’s Cyclones. The three things holding him back are his age (60), his large buyout and the fact that Arkansas would need to offer a raise to his current salary of $4.2 million per year, which means he would cost a pretty penny.

An intriguing option from the mid-major ranks is Samford’s Bucky McMillan, who led the Bulldogs to the Big Dance with a 29-6 record and conference title. His patented style of “Bucky Ball” – which features intense pressing, frequent substitutions and lots of 3-pointers – would be appealing to fans. It would certainly be a big step up for him, but the 40-year-old proved his coaching chops by almost beating Kansas in a game marred by a blown call in the closing seconds that robbed Samford of the upset.

If the Razorbacks are looking for continuity, then Yurachek could look to a former Arkansas assistant as a wildcard. After serving as an assistant under Eric Musselman at both Nevada and Arkansas, Gus Argenal is now making noise as the head coach at Division II Cal State-San Bernardino.

His first season has been a resounding success, as the Yotes finished with a 27-8 record and won their conference title. They earned a No. 2 seed in the DII NCAA Tournament, and won the West Region and advanced to the Final Four. While Argenal is far from the most experienced option on this list, and Arkansas would be a massive step up, he clearly has a capable basketball mind and already knows the lay of the land well.

Part of the reason for Arkansas’ struggles this season can be seen in the departure of Argenal, as Musselman lost a key recruiter and game-planner when his right-hand man left the staff. If the Razorbacks want to keep a good thing going and give Argenal a chance to shine on a big stage, then Yurachek could make the decision to swap the driver steering the program’s bus from Muss to Gus.

But simply put, it is very unlikely that Arkansas will have to get this far down the list to find its man.

Crossroads for Yurachek

Regardless of who the nominee ends up being, Hunter Yurachek and the university brass will likely move quickly with their decision. The jury was out for a while on Eric Musselman’s intentions, so the higher-ups at Arkansas have had plenty of time to prepare a contingency plan. It’s likely that Yurachek already has his top names in mind, and is talking to them as we speak.

There will be big shoes to fill after a thrilling five years under Musselman, and nailing this head coaching hire will be vital to keeping the program at an elite level. With the football program flailing, Yurachek needs to ensure success inside Bud Walton Arena to keep his own seat from heating up.


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