Potential replacements for Petrino at Arkansas

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With the ghosts of Butch Davis‘ and Jim Tressel‘s coaching careers looming off in the distance, Arkansas officially announced its stunning decision Tuesday evening: the university has fired Bobby Petrino as the Razorbacks’ head football coach less than five months before the start of a new season.

The how’s and why’s of what led the football program to this point are not pertinent to this post; Ben’s had you covered very, very well on that front for the past few days.  What is pertinent is the future, and what tack UA takes in finding a replacement — interim or permanent — for Petrino.

During the press conference making Petrino’s dismissal official, athletic director Jeff Long announced that interim head coach Taver Johnson would continue in the same role through the end of spring practice, which will conclude with the spring game April 21.  Beyond that?  Long stated that he would commence a search for a permanent replacement “at the end of the press conference”, although he acknowledged, when pressed on the question of whether a permanent successor would be in place before the start of the upcoming season, that it’s possible an interim head coach could lead the Razorbacks in 2012.

Given the timing of the dismissal, it’s highly possible or even borderline probable that Long will take the path blazed by North Carolina (dismissing Davis a handful of weeks before the start of the 2011 season) and Ohio State (dismissing Tressel a couple of months before the start of the same season) — go the interim route for the upcoming season, while simultaneously conducting a national search for a permanent replacement.  In fact, that would probably be the most prudent course of action for the university, keeping as much of Petrino’s staff in place to lend familiarity for a roster full of players that are certainly in a state of uncertainty and could use some continuity.

While that seems likely, there are some quality candidates who could/would have an interest in what is, thanks in large part to Petrino oddly enough, a high-quality SEC coaching job.

Here are thumbnail looks at but a few of the potential replacements who have already been mentioned — or should be mentioned — as potential long-term and “permanent” successors to Petrino:

Gus Malzahn, head coach, Arkansas State — The former Auburn offensive coordinator has deep ties to the state — he graduated from high school and coached at that level there, and played football at UA for a couple of years — and will be entering his first season as a head coach at the collegiate level.  It’s highly, highly likely Malzahn would have an interest in the top job at his home state’s flagship university — next year.  Malzahn had previously turned down opportunities at high-profile jobs, reportedly because he didn’t feel he was ready for such a coaching step.  Stepping into the maelstrom that currently exists in Fayetteville likely isn’t something Malzahn would consider at this point in time.  Next offseason?  He would have to be considered one of the prohibitive favorites as a permanent replacement.

Garrick McGee, head coach, UAB — Out of all the possibilities, this one might be the most intriguing for both the short- and the long-term.  Don’t believe me?  Just ask former Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett. “GM only coach Ark should look at if they wanna win now. … He can win at Arkansas,” Mallett tweeted, adding for clarity, “and not Gus M[alzahn].”  McGee will be entering his first year as a head coach, heading to UAB after spending the past four seasons at UA, the last two as offensive coordinator.  He was — and still is — beloved by his former players, and would lend some much-needed, instant credibility and stability in both the locker room and on the practice field.  Given the very recent and established relationship with the football program, a McGee hiring might be the only choice right now which would trump going the interim route.  Whether he would abandon UAB before coaching a single game remains to be seen, although those who know McGee and swear to his character would profess there’s no chance he would ditch UAB after the school took a chance on him.

Mark Hudspeth, head coach, Louisiana-Lafayette — The first-year Ragin’ Cajuns coach has no direct ties to either the state or the university, with the exception of two separate coaching stints at Central Arkansas spanning three years.  His name has, however, already been mentioned as a possibility, so we thought we’d toss it out there into the mix.  I will say this: Hudspeth is widely considered one of the rising stars in the college coaching profession, so he should not be dismissed completely simply over the lack of name recognition.

Skip Holtz, head coach, USF — The early buzz is that, if UA does indeed eschew an interim coach and instead hires a permanent replacement, the son of Lou Holtz becomes an instant front-runner.  In fact, CBSSports.com‘s Bruce Feldman tweeted Tuesday night that “Holtz may get in the mix for Arkansas with his dad pushing for it.”  Holtz graduated from an Arkansas high school, attending Fayetteville High while his pops was coaching the Razorbacks in the late 70s and early 80s.  If Longs skews away from the interim approach, he and the football program could do a helluva lot worse than Holtz, who in my opinion is one of the most underrated and undervalued head coaches in the country.

Butch Davis, unemployed — Don’t tell me this isn’t one of the first names you thought of.  Davis played for the Razorbacks in the early 70s before a knee injury ended his career, and the early word is that, obviously, Paul Hilton would jump at the opportunity if offered.  The other obvious part of the Butch equation is his messy departure from the Tar Heels.  Given Petrino’s even messier departure from the Razorbacks, it’s borderline laughable that this would even be an option for Long.  Then again, it was borderline laughable that Petrino.. and Davis… and Tressel… and Paterno would be dismissed over off-field issues, so who’s to know any more given the current state of the game of college football.

Dave Wannstedt, defensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills — There’s one reason and one reason only why the former Pittsburgh head coach has been mentioned by a national writer — a previous relationship with Long.  Beyond that convenient tie, Wannstedt makes zero sense and would instantly and literally become one of the worst hires in the history of the game.

Mike Smith, head coach, Atlanta Falcons — Hey, that’s where Long found his last head coach, right?

In the end, and unless they can pry McGee away from UAB after four months on the job, it seems highly likely that an interim head coach from the current staff will be named for the 2012 season — perhaps as early as next week — and Long will begin a methodical, diligent search to find a permanent successor.  And, based on Long’s impressive and emotional performance in the press conference, the Arkansas faithful can feel at ease knowing that the search will be in good hands.

Then again, Long is the one who hired Petrino away from the Falcons in the midst of an NFL season

Ex-UCLA OC helped convince Wilton Speight to transfer to Westwood

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When Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight announced he was going to graduate and transfer to UCLA, many were caught by surprise given that the 6-foot-6 pro-style passer is not your typical fit for Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense. While the new Bruins’ head coach brought up how Sam Bradford and Nick Foles ran his system to convince the quarterback to pick the school for the 2018 season, it was a former assistant at the program who appears to have been just as convincing in bringing the big QB to Westwood.

That would be Jedd Fisch, who was Speight’s coach in Ann Arbor for two years before he left to take the offensive coordinator job with the Bruins when Jim Mora was still in charge last season. The veteran coach returned to the NFL as an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams shortly after Kelly was hired but he reconnected with his old pupil to give him an honest assessment of how he’d fit in with a school sporting a different shade of blue.

“As a coach, you can kind of sniff out the B.S.,” Speight told the LA Times, “and he was able to do that and say, ‘Look, you’re getting what you see at UCLA and I think it’s the right fit,’ and I couldn’t have agreed more.”

Speight will join a very competitive race to be the starter for the opener against Cincinnati when fall camp rolls around. Devon Modster is the incumbent having gotten experience last year when Josh Rosen was held out of several games while incoming freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson is considered the future at the position and figures to see early playing time.

It remains to be seen just how good UCLA will be in their first season with Kelly in charge but the head coach will certainly have a variety of options to choose from at the most important position on the field this year.

Proposed California amendment would cap coaches salaries at $200,000

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Some states do everything they can to help out athletics programs in their borders, that is something that California has never really been accused of doing. A state-wide travel ban has already caused some ripples with regards to scheduling for some teams and it seems lawmakers in Sacramento are back with a new constitutional amendment that could hamper schools ability to pay their coaches.

UCLA student paper The Daily Bruin passes along news that a new constitutional amendment was announced last week “that aims to restrict the University of California’s autonomy by reducing staff salaries, the length of regents’ terms and the authority of the UC president.” That first item is the biggest to take note of, which would institute a cap on non-faculty salaries to $200,000 per year — something that would affect everybody from coaches to the athletic director and everybody in between.

The University of California (UC) system most notably includes Pac-12 schools like UCLA and Cal, which means coaches like Chip Kelly and Justin Wilcox could be affected. To take Kelly as an example, he signed a five-year contract worth a total of $23.3 million when he was hired by the Bruins this offseason.

Head football coaches salaries are not typically paid completely by a school directly however, so there is some wiggle room should this amendment wind up passing. Often a separate athletics organization will foot most of the bill using funds raised from donors while other outside companies sometimes also get involved. Things might be a little more interesting when it comes to assistant’s salaries or non-football/men’s basketball head coaches and support staffers however, who could fall under the purview of the cap.

In other words, some creative accounting practices might have to be implemented by schools like UCLA or Cal or else they’ll be at a significant disadvantage compared to their private school peers like USC or Stanford as well as conference rivals like Arizona or Oregon.

It’s far from certain the amendment will pass given that it requires a two-thirds vote in the state legislature as well as passing muster on a state-wide ballot measure during a general election. We don’t typically see college coaches wade too far into political waters but, in this case, they might be forced to because its one that directly affects their wallets.

Arkansas moving back to natural grass field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2019

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It’s a new era at Arkansas with Chad Morris and a new athletic director in charge and not even the turf will be spared from seeing changes.

Per the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the school will be moving to a natural grass field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium instead of replacing their current artificial turf again as it nears the end of its lifespan.

“Let me say my preference is I love natural grass,” Morris told the paper a few months ago. “That’s just me. Maybe that’s just the high school coach in me.

“Worrying about what the next surface out here looks like is irrelevant to me. I just want to get through a practice and get better today. But I prefer, I’m a natural grass type of guy. I love being on a grass field. There’s nothing better than that in college football, or football period.”

Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek confirmed this weekend that the change was being made in Fayetteville after the 2018 season concludes. The current turf was put in back in the Bobby Petrino era in 2009 and will need to be replaced after a decade or so of heavy use.

This will not be the end of Razorbacks playing on turf however, as they will not only see the stuff for games at neutral sites and at other SEC opponents but also when they make their annual trek to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock — which had turf installed a dozen years ago.

West Virginia President on old Big 12 expansion craze: ‘Little bit messy’

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E. Gordon Gee is one of college athletics’ most recognizable figures, which isn’t exactly what you typically say about school leaders like him. The West Virginia President known for his trademark bow tie (and who has never shied away from an interview or a quip he didn’t like) is on the cusp of his first set of spring meetings in the conference as the new chairman of the Big 12 board of directors.

Speaking to the Dallas Morning News about a range of issues around the league prior to meeting in Dallas, Gee seems to have come around on conference expansion from a few years ago and thinks it not only could have been handled better, but it probably shouldn’t be done in the first place because being the smallest Power Five league has its advantages too.

“I’m not certain it was the best way to do it,” Gee told the paper. “It was a little bit messy — and I was part of the mess.

“Intimacy gives us an opportunity to do something that a lot of other places can’t do… We’ll play to our strengths. We’re small, but we can be very aggressive in positioning ourselves uniquely.”

I’m sure the folks at places like Houston and BYU would agree the entire process was messy but will certainly disagree with Gee about the Big 12 sticking with just 10 members. It certainly sounds as though the issue has been put to bed for the foreseeable future but if the merry-go-round gets going once again, at least we know that the process everybody goes through will be a lot different.