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Arkansas has a great athletic director in Jeff Long. But it isn’t a top tier job in the SEC. When I ranked the top 25 college football jobs, I had Arkansas at 9th in the SEC. Right now I’d rank the SEC jobs 1-14 thusly: Florida, Bama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M (now that it’s in the SEC), Tennessee, Auburn, South Carolina, Arkansas, Mizzou, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Vandy. Yes, yes, I know, I’ve horribly underanked your favorite team and am clearly biased against them. The more provincial your team’s fan base is, the more underrated you think your program is.
Can you quibble with one or two ranking spots, yes, but is this list pretty much as accurate as you can get if you rank the top SEC programs?
Arkansas fans, inevitably, are furious when you point out that they have the 9th best program in the SEC.
But the evidence is on my side.
Your team has been in the conference for twenty years and has yet to win an SEC title. Every other team ranked above you but South Carolina and A&M have won multiple SEC titles during that 20 year span. (Texas A&M hasn’t been in the SEC during this period so it would have been pretty hard for it to win a title. But I’m on the record as saying that the move to the SEC will work wonders for A&M football.)
That’s why Arkansas’s hire of Bobby Petrino was such a big deal for the program.
No matter who you are you have to acknowledge that Arkansas had the second best head coach in the SEC entering the 2012 season. (Lord Saban is clearly number one).
So what will Arkansas do now that it has to replace Petrino outside of an ideal hiring window?
Will it be able to get a big name coach to jump post-spring practice and take over a program just a few months before fall practice? Or will it sit with an interim for a year and wait to see what coaches are available in the offseason?
One thing you can be certain about, Arkansas will pay big money for a top coach. That’s one reason I’ve been so complimentary of Long, he understands that in today’s college era paying top coaches is the single most important expense for any athletic department. In fact, Arkansas was paying its head coaches the third highest percentage of overall revenues in the SEC last season.
Given that Petrino was making $3.6 million a year and there will be no buyout, Arkansas has the ability to pay big money to a top coach. I know Long has been noncommital on his desire to hire now, but I think it will be easier to attract a top coach now given that the Razorbacks return a top ten caliber team and there’s presently no competition for coaching hires.
Who knows what top jobs might come open in 2012?
With all that in mind here are my top ten candidates to replace Bobby Petrino.
I’ve put them in no particular order.
Louisville’s Charlie Strong
A clear winner who has demonstrated great abilities at multiple SEC schools and has now built a respectable program at Louisville, Strong has virtually no risk.
If Strong stays at Louisville for the 2012 season his success there is likely to put him at the very top of many program lists.
Including, perhaps, the University of Tennessee’s just down the road in Knoxville.
But Strong, who has been quibbling with the lack of media coverage of his football program in the state of Kentucky, might be willing to make a move to a school he knows well from his time in the SEC.
Lack of media attention for the football team will not be an issue in Arkansas.
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen
A perpetual candidate for better jobs, Mullen has won as much as you can win at Mississippi State.
But would he view Arkansas as enough of an upgrade to bail on Starkville and stay within the same SEC division?
I think that’s doubtful.
Vandy’s James Franklin
If he takes Vandy to another bowl in 2012, Franklin will be the biggest name in college coaching by December.
But is he willing to leave for less than a premier job?
I think that’s doubtful as well.
Plus, Vandy is paying Franklin big money — well in excess of $2 million a year already — and would likely match anything Arkansas offered.
Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn
It’s an easy fit and would keep the points rolling on the scoreboard.
But would Malzahn walk out on Arkansas State after three months? And would Malzahn’s run-based spread offensive attack work as well with Petrino’s vertical passing talent?
The fit might be less than perfect after all. Even for a coach who called Fayetteville home already.
Now, if Arkansas didn’t hire someone until 2012 and Malzahn won 11 games at Arkansas State this year? Go ahead and fit him for a Hog hat.
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart
Smart is the next “great” Saban disciple to hit the coaching market.
Of course previously “great” Saban disciples like Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp are both struggling to win any conference games at all in the SEC.
Plus, Smart’s bona fides come on the defensive side of the ball, and Petrino’s teams have all excelled at scoring. So does that move square well with replacing Petrino?
This seems unlikely.
Especially since word’s out that Smart is AD Dave Hart’s guy to replace Derek Dooley at Tennessee.
Would Smart rather be at Tennessee or Arkansas? Just about every coach in the SEC would pick the Vol program.
UAB coach Garrick McGee
The first person on this list who would definitely leave for the job.
There have already been reports that Long has contacted McGee, Petrino’s former offensive coordinator, about the job. Long shot down those reports with a Tweet last night stating that he hadn’t contacted anyone. So will Arkansas make the McGee hire and hope that whatever offensive coaching brilliance Petrino had moved via osmosis to McGee?
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen
If scoring points is the goal, Holgorsen is tough to top.
If West Virginia wins big in 2012 Holgorsen will be alongside Franklin as the top coaching candidates in the country. Holgorsen already put up big point totals next door in Oklahoma, would he view Arkansas as a step up over the Mountaineers?
Certainly the salary would be a major improvement.
But the Big 12 competition is much weaker.
And Holgorsen definitely has some personal demons. Can Arkansas take the risk on a guy with a less than sterling private reputation?
That seems doubtful in Petrino’s wake.
USF coach Skip Holtz
He grew up in Fayetteville while his dad was head coach, but he’s already shot down any interest in the Arkansas job.
Of course this is what every coach does whether they’re interested in the job or not.
Plus, he’s been very mediocre thus far at South Florida.
Can you go from winning one conference game in the Big East to an SEC job?
Even Mike Shula thinks that’s a stretch.
Deposed North Carolina coach Butch Davis
Yes, he has Arkansas connections and would probably take the job, but can you really hire someone whose program just exploded due to NCAA violations?
This would be a shocking hire.
Especially given Davis’s less than forthcoming relationship with his superiors at North Carolina.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
Either Bo Pelini hates Nebraska or he’s got the most overactive agent in the world, because his name gets floated for every opening.
He’s won at least nine games in four straight seasons at Nebraska.
But he has SEC bona fides.
It seems unlikely he’d leave behind a weak Big Ten for an SEC slugfest — particularly given what he’s already making at Nebraska — but there has to be some reason his name surfaces for every coaching job, right?
Predictably, Pelini has already shot down his interest in Arkansas.
We all know that means nothing.
Want a wildly outside the box idea? Would former Arkansas player and NFL head coach Jimmy Johnson come back to college for a year? Would Sean Payton?
In the meantime, let me know which coaches, if any, you think I’ve left off this list that could be in play.
And if you’re an Arkansas fan who wants some good news, Las Vegas isn’t adjusting Arkansas’s national championship odds at all despite Petrino’s firing.
The smart money doesn’t seem to think Petrino’s that smart.
We’ll see if they’re right.
OKTC’s coverage of l’affaire Petrino.