Who’s next? Coaching search underway at Arkansas

Looking at who could be next for Hog football

By Bart Pohlman

With Arkansas’ head football coaching position now officially open, it’s time to look at some potential candidates for the job.

But what makes a good candidate?

In a press conference Friday following the dismissal of Bret Bielema, interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples laid out the criteria she has in mind for Arkansas’ next coach.

“I think in order to be successful here, you have to have a relentless work ethic,” Cromer Peoples said. “I think you have to be an outstanding recruiter. I think you have to be able to put together a staff that can match wits with the other staffs in the SEC. I think it’s important to have a high degree of accountability. I think coaches should be demanding but still be relatable to student-athletes of this generation.

“And I think it’s important, particularly here, that whoever becomes our next head coach understands and relates to our culture, both here as a university and also as a state and throughout the region.”

Cromer Peoples added that she is looking for someone who will be successful in the SEC, but also won’t rule out any candidates based on where they’ve coached.

“I wouldn’t necessarily limit us to looking only at people who have SEC ties at this point,” she said. “We’re just getting started, so I’d like to keep the pool broad until we find our best candidates.”

With that in mind, here are 10 coaches I see as potential candidates for Arkansas.

Top Targets

Kevin Sumlin, former Texas A&M head coach

If Sumlin isn’t near the top of Arkansas’ list, the list might need to be rewritten. Though fired by Texas A&M over the weekend, Sumlin had the most successful run of any Aggie coach since R.C. Slocum. He also beat Arkansas in six straight seasons.

Sumlin went 51-26 in six seasons at A&M, including 25-23 in SEC play. His Aggie teams recorded six wins over top-15 teams, but also struggled toward the end of seasons—he went 13-11 in the month of November at A&M. Quarterbacks transferring out of the program at a rapid pace proved to eventually play a role in his downfall, but it’s hard to see something like that happening again.

Sumlin’s had seasons of 11 or more wins at two different schools, and learned from Joe Tiller, Slocum and Bob Stoops, so you can make the argument that a fresh start is all he really needs. He’d also bring solid Texas recruiting, something Arkansas has been lacking.

Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach

Norvell has emerged as one of the hottest young coaching prospects in the country. The second-year coach at Memphis has the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference championship game, with a New Years’ Six Bowl berth on the line. Memphis has 10 wins for only the second time in the post-World War II era, and has the second-highest scoring offense in the country, averaging 47.0 points per game.

Prior to his time at Memphis, Norvell spent nine years on the staff of former Arizona State head coach Todd Graham—four at Tulsa, one at Pitt and four with the Sun Devils. He was the offensive coordinator for Graham in all four of his seasons at Arizona State.

While he has no prior SEC experience, Norvell did play collegiately at Central Arkansas, and began his coaching career there as a graduate assistant in 2006.

Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic head coach

What Kiffin has done at Florida Atlantic this season is nothing short of remarkable, guiding the Owls to nine wins for only the second time in school history as an FBS program and securing a place in the Conference USA championship game.

He’s not for everyone—he’s a personality, likes to have fun on Twitter and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself or others. But he can coach, and it seems like he’s learned a lot over the course of his career.

While at Alabama as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator, Kiffin was part of a Tide team that went 40-3 over the better part of three seasons. That record includes a 25-game winning streak to end his tenure on the staff.

It’s only a matter of time before Kiffin finds himself at a bigger job once again.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach

Arkansas’ chances at luring Malzahn back to the Natural State took a hit Saturday, when his Tigers took down No. 1 Alabama to win the SEC West and clinch a spot in the SEC Championship Game. But would a loss to Georgia in the title game make Malzahn available? It’s unlikely Auburn would fire him after beating Alabama and winning the division, but there are those who believe he could simply walk away from the Tigers and head to Fayetteville.

You know the story with Malzahn: offensive innovator, two SEC West titles, coached at Arkansas State, was an offensive coordinator at Arkansas for one season under Houston Nutt, left when the relationship deteriorated, spent 14 seasons as an Arkansas high school head coach.

Malzahn would have a chance to do well at Arkansas. Whether or not he’ll be available is the big question.

Outside-the-box Candidates

Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator

There are some coordinators who you don’t understand why they haven’t gotten a shot to be a head coach yet. Venables is one of those guys. He’s been a defensive coordinator in major college football since 1999, and has been a part of two national championship teams (Oklahoma in 2000 and Clemson last year). He won the 2016 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, and he played for Bill Snyder at Kansas State. He doesn’t have any SEC experience or ties to Arkansas, but the years of coaching at Oklahoma means he’s familiar with the recruiting base.

Chad Morris, SMU head coach

Morris just finished his third season at SMU, and has guided the Mustangs from a 2-10 record in his first year to seven wins in 2017. He was a Texas high school coach from 1994-2009 before joining Todd Graham’s staff at Tulsa as the offensive coordinator. After one year there, he took over as the OC at Clemson from 2011-2014. His ties to Texas are strong, which would likely help in recruiting. One interesting note: Morris is one of four FBS head coaches who did not play college football.

Neal Brown, Troy head coach

Brown burst onto the coaching scene when he led Troy to an upset win over LSU in Baton Rouge earlier this season, and has a chance to guide the Trojans to back-to-back 10-win seasons with a win over Arkansas State this weekend. Brown previously served as the offensive coordinator at Kentucky for two seasons under Mark Stoops, and for three seasons at Texas Tech under Tommy Tuberville.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State head coach

He’s a man, and he’s 50. Might it finally be time for Gundy to leave Oklahoma State, his alma mater? He’s done things in Stillwater that no one could have dreamed of, going 113-53 in 13 seasons. After a slow first three seasons, Gundy has won nine or more games in eight of 10 seasons since. In the last 10 seasons, Gundy has compiled a 19-22 record against top-25 teams. The SEC is a different animal than the Big 12, but Gundy would bring some flair (and that hair) to Fayetteville.

Mike Leach, Washington State head coach

One of the more interesting names being thrown around when it comes to Arkansas’ coaching search is Leach, who’s 122-80 in 16 seasons as a coach at Texas Tech and Washington State. He’s won at least eight games in 11 of those 16 seasons, but also has only won more than nine games once, going 11-2 in 2008 at Texas Tech. He’s shown the ability to win at places where it’s always been difficult, but could the same be done in the SEC? Leach’s only SEC experience came in 1997 and 1998 as the offensive coordinator for Hal Mumme at Kentucky.

Chip Long, Notre Dame offensive coordinator

If Arkansas really wanted to take a flyer on a young coach, Long might be a name worth considering. He just completed his first season as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, and before that, was Norvell’s OC for a year at Memphis. He previously coached with Norvell and Graham at Arizona State. Interestingly, he was an offensive graduate assistant at Arkansas from 2008-09 under Bobby Petrino, and worked with Paul Petrino for two more seasons at Illinois.