Back Bielema Out; Who’s Next at Arkansas?

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Bielema Out; Who’s Next at Arkansas?

By Matt Smith
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Arkansas wasted no time in firing head coach Bret Bielema, dismissing the fifth-year head coach as he was leaving the Razorback Stadium field following Friday’s last-second 48-45 defeat to Missouri.

Arkansas wasted no time in firing head coach Bret Bielema, dismissing the fifth-year head coach as he was leaving the Razorback Stadium field following Friday’s last-second 48-45 defeat to Missouri.

Bielema finished his Arkansas career with a 29-34 record, including 11-29 in SEC games, and never won more than eight games in a season. In seven seasons at Wisconsin before coming to Fayetteville, he won 10 or more games four times.

The swift action came as no surprise. The manner did, however, and the power brokers at Arkansas should be embarrassed at how the situation was handled. Bielema, while not meeting expectations on the field, cleaned up a program that had academic and discipline issues when he took it over in December 2012. He deserved time with his team first after the game as their season came to an end.

Since athletic director Jeff Long, who hired Bielema and continued to publicly support him, was fired earlier this month, the big-money faceless boosters were more or less in control of the athletic department. They orchestrated this timeline, showing far less class than the man they fired did after the game. Bielema took the high road, vowing to help and support whoever his replacement may be. It’s a shame others took an underground tunnel.

Anyhow, on to football.

Bielema’s firing means four SEC jobs are now open, joining Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee. Texas A&M will likely come open within the next 48 hours, while the movement of the carousel could lead to openings at one or both of Auburn and Mississippi State. The supply of coaches on the rise isn’t low, but the demand is extraordinarily high.

Arkansas is the least attractive of the current SEC openings (including Texas A&M). Money isn’t an issue, but division, recruiting base, booster meddling and history all play against the Razorbacks. Scott Frost and Chip Kelly aren’t coming. So who might be coming?

The chatter that Gus Malzahn could be ready to move on from Auburn is interesting, but I can’t see Malzahn leaving a program that is capable of winning a national title to go to one that isn’t. Not knowing who his boss is going to be, as Long’s replacement hasn’t been named yet, is a turn-off, even with Auburn in a similar situation with Jay Jacobs resigning effective at the end of the school year.

Two AAC coaches are, like Malzahn, Arkansas natives – USF’s Charlie Strong and Memphis’ Mike Norvell. The Bulls capped a 9-2 season on Friday with a heartbreaking loss to undefeated UCF, while Memphis will try to finish 10-1 on Saturday before playing in next week’s conference championship game. Strong has Power Five experience from his time at Louisville and Texas, but if he couldn’t produce a winning season with all the advantages at Texas, how will he at Arkansas?

Norvell inherited a great situation at Memphis, taking over a 10-win team from Justin Fuente. He’s elevated the program even further, but Arkansas requires a complete reboot, and Norvell hasn’t yet built a program from the ground up.

There is risk with both of the ACC candidates but both would almost certainly accept because of their ties to the area.

What about some less obvious candidates? Iowa State’s Matt Campbell has a huge buyout, but again, money is aplenty in the foothills of the Ozarks. Campbell proved he wasn’t afraid of a challenge by taking the Iowa State job. If he can beat Oklahoma with the Cyclones, why couldn’t he come to Arkansas and challenge the SEC West heavyweights? He’s a young guy (37) and a strong recruiter, and the Razorbacks’ path back to relevance is to upgrade their defensive talent.

When Kevin Sumlin is formally let go, does Arkansas call him? After all, he has won all six meetings at Texas A&M against Arkansas. Sumlin may have other options and want to get out of the SEC, but there should be no shame in going after a coach who a rival fired. Sumlin never lost more than five games in season with the Aggies, and Arkansas hasn’t lost fewer than five games since 2011.

The SEC isn’t the dominant force it was five years ago, but it’s still considered the pinnacle for college coaches. Like they did when they hired Bielema, the Arkansas brass needs to look for a coach who may not be happy in his current situation and is willing to make a seemingly lateral move. If it’s Malzahn, that’s a home run hire for Arkansas. If it’s West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, that’s a risk worth taking.

Arkansas will be fishing in a somewhat smaller pond than many of its SEC cohorts. It’s at best the tenth best job in the SEC, but it’s still an SEC job. The program has a ceiling, but Bielema didn’t even come close to reaching it.

Who knows? Maybe Arkansas can hire Malzahn as he’s walking off the field following Saturday’s Iron Bowl.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.