On Wednesday morning, as the smoke was still clearing from Arkansas Razorbacks athletic director Jeff Long's goodbye Bobby Petrino news conference, I chatted with several college administrators, athletic and general. Everyone, no matter their job or background, shared two common opinions.
"My first reaction was that I was totally blown away by the class with which [Long] handled that situation and especially that moment in front of the media," one AD said, echoing the comments of his colleagues. "My second reaction was, man, this is the worst timing ever to try and go get a new football coach."
That same day, my new colleague Travis Haney put together his list of potential Petrino replacements. As Haney noted, this might be a plum job, but it's a tricky spot. Because of that, the biggest factor when it comes to exactly who is hired will likely be when he is hired.
Like a Petrino offense, there are multiple options and routes that could be played. Let's take a look at what Long and his staff see as they look across the line of scrimmage. And we'll let the college administrators chime in, though none wanted their name attached to comments.
Option 1: Poach a big head coach
Candidates who fit the bill: Skip Holtz, Gus Malzahn, Garrick McGee, Gary Patterson, Paul Rhoads
In a perfect world -- a world where the calendar reads December, not April -- this is the path Arkansas would take. They certainly have the clout to pull it off, even at this time of year, with a likely top-10 BCS team, the draw of coaching in the SEC and deep booster pockets to match any current employer's counter-offer. Petrino was the ninth-highest-paid college football coach, pulling down $3.56 million annually. That Petrino won't contest his firing means there won't be any issue with paying the next guy either.
"Can they do it? Sure," says one AD, "but the political nightmare it would surely create might not be worth it. [Long] is a guy who has always tried to do things the right way. He's extremely well respected in our business. To pull away a head coach from another school at this stage in the game wouldn't go over well."
It would be a particularly prickly move if it involved the two names mentioned most often over the past week -- Malzahn and former Arkansas offensive assistant McGee. Both just took new jobs -- Malzahn at Arkansas State and McGee at UAB -- in December. Both just signed their first recruiting classes and are wrapping up their first spring practices. To pull up roots before they've even grown them would be viewed with the same kind of criticism Petrino was buried under when he bolted the Atlanta Falcons locker room for Arkansas, even if the Razorbacks job would be a clear step up in competition.
"There are plenty of people in this business who don't care what people think of them," the AD continues, "but this list of guys, from Long to Malzahn to McGee, I'm pretty sure they do."
The exception might be a coach in a situation such as Patterson's, as his TCU program has trudged through the spring under the cloud of a drug scandal that doesn't feel as if it's going away anytime soon. Then again, Patterson's name has come up for any number of job openings in the past few years, and he's still in Fort Worth.
Option 2: Poach a small head coach
Candidates who fit the bill: Willie Taggart, Sonny Dykes, Dave Doeren, Mark Hudspeth, Mario Cristobal
Perhaps hiring away a head coach in April or May would be dissected with less venom if that hiring were seen as an undeniable promotion. Leaving nearly any school for an SEC team that just finished in the top five would feel like a step up, but it would no doubt be a vertical climb from places such as Western Kentucky (Taggert), Louisiana Tech (Dykes), Northern Illinois (Doeren), Louisiana-Lafayette (Hudspeth) or FIU (Cristobal).
The administrators I chatted with agreed that this is a much easier road image-wise, but they cited a fear of lack of big-time head-coaching experience. Being head coach at a place such as Arkansas is as much a CEO job as a coaching job. Each of the coaches listed above are longtime assistants but, with the exception of Cristobal, are in their third year or earlier as a head coach.
"There has to be ramp-up time," says an AD. "That's what January, spring practice and summer are for. These guys will have already missed that."
Wouldn't Malzahn leaving Arkansas State fit into this category instead of our first?
"At first blush, yes," says a university president. "But the in-state political firestorm that would be created by taking a coach from a sister school would make it feel more like stealing a job. In an instant, you'd have state legislators issuing opinions and statements, and it would just be a PR nightmare."
Option 3: Poach an assistant coach
Candidates who fit the bill: Kirby Smart, Manny Diaz, Chad Morris
The good news? Political resistance here would be nearly zero. Sure, there would be some angry head coach somewhere, but that's about it.
The bad news? These guys have even less head coaching experience than the ones we just went over -- as in zero.
"This is a December hire," says an AD, "not an April hire. And sure as hell not a May hire."
The other concern is losing a tidal wave of transfers. Players don't know assistants. They know head coaches. The locker room mentality would be, If they were going to hire an assistant, why not hire one of the guys we already have?
Option 4: Grabbing a free agent
Candidates who fit the bill: Butch Davis, Dan Hawkins, Phillip Fulmer
One word: baggage.
Fair or unfair, the perception is that the best of the experienced, field-proven free-agent coaches on the board have already been hired. The ones remaining all come with asterisk, whether it's Davis and the mess left behind in Chapel Hill, Hawkins and his unhappy departure from Colorado or the fact that Fulmer has never been a serious candidate for a head coaching job since being ousted at Tennessee in 2008. (Note I did say "fair or unfair." I would hire Hawkins.)
"This has to be as smooth as possible," says the university president. "A well-known, established coach coming on board would stabilize things. But only if they came in clean. They can't walk into a volatile situation with any potential outside issues."
They would also have to swallow their pride and hold off on any sweeping cultural or philosophical changes in the program, at least in the short term. The team isn't broken. The coach was. Guys who are used to steering their ships the way they like it are going to have a hard time dealing with that.
Option 5: Promoting from within
Candidates: Taver Johnson, Paul Haynes
As stated earlier, whatever transition takes place, it has to be as smooth as possible. On paper at least, nothing would be smoother than a promotion from within the current staff. It would keep the momentum going from 2011 and most likely keep the current and incoming players happy. The current Razorbacks have already told the administration as much.
Had McGee not left in December, this conversation would be over. He would be the head coach and that would be that. But his absence created a bit of a void when it comes to head coach-ready members of the current Arkansas staff.
It certainly isn't going to be Paul Petrino. And guys such as Steve Caldwell, Bobby Allen and Tim Horton are great assistants and lifetime football men, but none have ever quite fit the bill as head-coaching material.
That leaves Johnson, the assistant head coach and just-named interim head coach, and Haynes, the defensive coordinator. Both joined the staff during the winter, after coincidentally leaving Ohio State as part of the Tattoogate coaching changes.
"Because they are both so new, you have to ask a very big question. Would you have looked at them in any hiring situation, not just in this situation?" says an AD. "If so, then you can really think about making the hire permanent. But you run a risk because, like the other gentlemen we were talking about, there's no head-coaching experience to fall back on."
Option 6: Ride it out with an interim until the winter
Speaking of Ohio State, the way the Buckeyes handled their post-Jim Tressel situation one year ago may serve as the perfect road map for Arkansas. Promote from within to maintain continuity, but only on an interim basis. If your interim coach proves himself through the 2012 season, make his position permanent. If not, you have given yourself time to run a genuine head-coaching search. And perhaps you can hire one of the people from our first two lists guilt-free.
"It was not ideal," outgoing UNC athletic director Dick Baddour recently admitted, referring to the decision to fire Davis, promote Everett Withers as an interim head coach and then hire "perfect fit" Larry Fedora at season's end. "But we did what was best for us at the time. Everyone involved handled it with class. And I think the end result is something everyone can be proud of."
The folks in Fayetteville hope to be able to copy and paste that quote into one of their own stories a year from now.