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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Starting With McGee, Branching Out

If Jeff Long was serious about starting Arkansas’ coaching search immediately after last night’s press conference, it stands to reason that the Razorbacks are in the market for a new head coach in time for this coming season. It’s not too late in the game for this to be a possibility, even if a new arrival wouldn’t step on campus until the summer, well after the team has concluded spring drills. On one side, such a rapid learning curve — for coach and team alike — might lead candidates who would otherwise be interested in the opportunity to think twice. However, it’s only so often that a head coach can inherit a team quite as talented as these Razorbacks.

Where Long and the athletic department go in their search hinges on one important question: Did Arkansas have an issue with Bobby Petrino as a football coach? We know that the university had issues with Petrino’s off-field conduct. At the same time, he was clearly the program’s best coach in a generation.

If it’s continuity that Arkansas’ looking for, then there’s a short list of coaches who might able to step directly into Petrino’s shoes and not skip a beat. Topping that list is Garrick McGee, the former Arkansas’ offensive coordinator who replaced Neil Callaway at U.A.B. last December. McGee knows the offense and the players; he also has the player’s respect.

McGee could easily bridge the gap from one era to the next, keeping a talented Arkansas team aimed in the right direction for this coming season. If Long and the university are looking for continuity, McGee is the best option. Is the fact that McGee and Petrino have the same representation an issue for Arkansas? It might be, if that firm and the university engage in court proceedings over Petrino’s terminated contract.

McGee’s an obvious target for Arkansas to consider. So is Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn, who spent a single season as Houston Nutt’s offensive coordinator in 2006 before leaving for Tulsa, where he first burst onto the national scene. Malzahn would have to at least consider the opportunity.

But he’d also have a hard time leaving Arkansas State in a lurch. So would McGee with U.A.B., but it would be even harder for Malzahn to turn his back on the school that gave him a shot at leading his own program. Remember that Malzahn came close but failed to land the job at North Carolina or Kansas this past winter; remember that he broached the subject of becoming Arkansas State’s next head coach to the university, and not necessarily vice versa — though the school jumped for joy at the idea of landing a coach of Malzahn’s caliber.

If Arkansas is in the market for an immediate, full-time replacement, four names come to mind: McGee, Malzahn — though I don’t think he’d bite — Butch Davis and Skip Holtz. A source told Bruce Feldman of CBS that if asked, Davis “would take that Arkansas job in a heartbeat.” Would the Razorbacks be interested in the prodigal son?

Davis, last seen at North Carolina, is currently serving as a special assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While it’s important to note that Davis was not charged with any misconduct by the N.C.A.A., the stain of the rule breaking that occurred under his watch does hamper his candidacy. At this point, the negative publicity that might arise because of his hire might make Davis a non-factor in Arkansas’ coaching search.

Holtz grew up in Fayetteville while his father was Arkansas’ head coach. Speaking of Lou Holtz, don’t sleep on his ability to reach the right people within the university to further his son’s cause, if it gets to that point. The reason Holtz seems like a coach willing to make a post-spring jump is simple: he’s in the Big East. Arkansas’ in the SEC. That sort of career jump would be extremely difficult to turn down, poor timing or no.

Of course, Arkansas would greatly increase its pool of potential candidates should it wait until the end of this coming season. The New York Times’ Pete Thamel floated names like Paul Rhoads, Bo Pelini and Gary Patterson for the position, and each would be a great addition for the program — each has the sort of defensive background that would play well in the SEC.

Other names will pop up, as they always do. Kirby Smart is an option for any position in the A.C.C. or SEC. Maybe Mark Hudspeth gets a call, if Arkansas’ thinking outside the box. Here’s guessing that Tommy Tuberville would adore a return to the SEC. Mike London is on every team’s wish list.

In the meantime, the Razorbacks could hand the interim duties over to Taver Johnson, who will replace Petrino for at least the rest of spring ball. Johnson could lead the team through the spring, summer and the fall, should the university opt to wait until next winter to open its search. The largest issue with Johnson is that he’s so new, having been hired as Arkansas’ linebackers coach after the end of last season.

If this happened a year ago, perhaps the Razorbacks could have handed the show over to John L. Smith, who at least had prior head coaching experience on the F.B.S. level. But Smith took the head job at Weber State after last season, leaving the Razorbacks without an experienced hand — either as a past head coach or a longtime Arkansas assistant — to take the reins in the short term.

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  1. GTWrek says:

    McGee has his own issues which may preclude him from the search:


    I don’t see this Arky AD rolling the dice a 2nd time on the likes of a Garrick McGee or Butch Davis.

  2. No mention Louisville’s Charlie Strong? I’d expect him not to bite unless they go interim through the season’s end.

  3. Gotham Gator says:

    The best bet might be to go interim this season and see how things shake out. Changing to a new coach with a new system equals a complete write off this coming season, as the players will not have had time to learn the plays and the coaches will not have had time to know the players.
    Add to that the fact that the timing of the search is off, making it hard to attract the top candidates.

    Why write-off your most promising season in decades (assuming it can be salvaged) just to hire someone who might not be your first choice if you were to make the choice in December?

    Keep the current staff in place. One of two things will happen. One is that the team does poorly, in which case you can conduct a more deliberate search through a wider pool of candidates in November and December. In that case, the 2012 won/loss record isn’t going to be much different than it would be under a new coach hired today. The other is that the team does great, in which case not only do you have a great season to enjoy, but you also have a hot new candidate for your HC job.

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