Arkansas will soon have a new head football coach. A great deal of us have begged for such changes, and now it is finally here: a vacancy to be filled.
It ain’t a surprise. And it certainly is not unwelcome news. The program needed a reboot, and quickly. There is a lot of stuff that needs a-fixin’.
I could delve into the many reasons Chad Morris and his supporting staff lost their jobs. The reality is that the compelling reasons to retain the ex-SMU coach simply weren’t there. He didn’t win. Players didn’t improve. The team regressed as these two mirthless seasons wore on, and the discipline issues, defections and disenchantment never ceased. Maybe this jaded perspective will soften over time, but it is very challenging right now to envision that coming to pass.
We all watched it. At least until we got bored with it. No single coaching hire in Razorback history has been more inherently damaging than this one was, and the evidence is extensive on that point. John L. Smith, you say? Clearly nothing more than a stopgap hire made to get Arkansas through a single season intact. He faltered badly but cost comparatively little, and was a couple of plays away from having a bowl-bound team with three or four SEC wins, at least. Morris flubbed every single one of his bids for a conference victory, 14 times in succession, and a lot of those were lopsided affairs.
And he didn’t win much outside of SEC play, either, and truthfully that’s where the serious damage was done. Losing games to the likes of Colorado State, North Texas, San Jose State and Western Kentucky cost the University of Arkansas exponentially increasing sums at a time when debt service commands priority. The last of those losses came at the hands of Hilltoppers’ comeback kid Ty Storey, who was gutsy despite being overmatched when he started nine games as the Hog quarterback in 2018. He knew what he was up against when he went into Razorback Stadium this time around, as he confidently slung accurate passes on the move and from the pocket, and danced his way into positive ground gains and slipped away from a clearly uninspired Razorback defense for rushing TDs. It was evident that the firing of Chad Morris was in the offing. There could have been no sensible solution other than cutting ties now, enabling a successor to stimulate recruiting a bit and get a staff assembled well in time for a productive round of spring football.
This column will delve more into the succession plan later, but as of this entry, it appears the Hogs will be fortunate to have a successor hired by the time Thanksgiving rolls through. That’s a little discouraging, but it speaks to how thorough the athletic director and related officials have to be with this decision. The necessary precursor to opening the position for applicants was done in a totally fair and judicious manner with the news of Morris’ dismissal released a full day after his final ugly loss. Already, there’s a positive here: Hunter Yurachek made the decision or at least was authorized to speak publicly on it, and this was handled with a deftness and tactfulness that was missing just two years ago when Bret Bielema’s discharge papers appeared to have been personally delivered and then publicly disseminated in a very cheap, unfair fashion. Yurachek wasn’t onboard at such occasion, so he’s getting a well-earned first at-bat in the game.
Fans have long carried this sort of analogy to extremes, what with the whole concept of “home run hires.” Look, in this hyper-critical climate, any decision made by Yurachek or any third parties otherwise entrusted with this charge is going to be scrutinized, celebrated, denigrated and respected in a paradoxically maddening way. One fan who might love the Mike Norvell idea is going to dangle that pipe dream out there, only to be blasted by some malcontent who still defiantly thinks that dusting off one or more of our former head coaches for another tour of duty is a viable solution to an intractable problem.
Certainly there are going to be genuinely practical and responsible choices intermingled in the process, and we are at an early enough stage in this molting that there’s going to be a forthcoming window in which the Arkansas football program has to locate and schmooze a few interested persons. The sales pitch is tougher this time: Bizarrely, the last time Arkansas beat an SEC team from outside the state of Mississippi was a win over Florida in October 2016, the only time in a quarter-century-plus of conference membership that the Hogs have bested the Gators. The head coaches that day were Bielema and Jim McElwain, two guys who were brought into underperforming programs and expected to do significant overhauls. Three years later, Bielema is toiling as an assistant and McElwain is leading the mid-major Central Michigan Chippewas, both comfortably entrenched in the game but no longer all that publicly visible.
In fact, how’s this for a disturbing trend: Despite hiring four men in their 40s as permanent Razorback coaches over the past two-plus decades, none of those guys remain employed as even collegiate assistants anymore. It’s a little jarring to recall this, but Danny Ford was just shy of 45 when he was hired by Frank Broyles to take over a fledgling SEC program, and Nutt had barely turned 40 when asked to succeed Ford. The two permanent hires pursued by Jeff Long, Petrino and Bielema, were 46 and 42, respectively, at the times of their retention.
Nutt has settled into a career as an analyst, and Bielema’s working for one of the premier organizations in professional sports. Petrino’s fishing for another bite; Ford is 71 and has long since retired. I’m 42, have lots of unfounded opinions, and wouldn’t cost all that much. Just sayin’.
Seriously, this pattern tells me the idea of maybe trying to persuade an older but still recognizable and respectable contender is prudent. Or maybe Arkansas tries its hand at the next Lincoln Riley sort, a savvy and cocky coordinator who isn’t afraid to be in a newer, hotter spotlight.
Please stay tuned to this search and replace method. It should be fascinating, if nothing else, to finally get a feel for what kind of appeal the job still has after so many systemic hiccups.