Arkansas fired Bobby Petrino Tuesday after the fallout from his mistress-on-a-motorbike mess grew into a $20,000 “gift” from Petrino to a former Razorback volleyball player and nepotism charges because he hired her to work in his football office.
Athletic director Jeff Long – who fired Petrino after a weekend to deliberate over it – appointed assistant Taver Johnson to run the team through spring camp. After that, he plans a full search.
The Arkansas job – at least in the next year – is a great one. The Razorbacks project as a top ten team and national title contender – I’d still rank them behind Alabama and LSU in the SEC West – and Petrino had cobbled together decent recruiting classes, too. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender and a potential first-round NFL Draft candidate in 2013. So far into the offseason, an interim might be smart — it worked out for Ohio State, which traded a bad season to lure Urban Meyer and still kept interim HC Luke Fickell as the defensive coordinator — but Arkansas is potentially so good, Long may not want to roll the dice on a historic season with an interim head coach.
Unless Long hires from within – or a coach currently out of the business – it’ll be a guy who’s leaving his own team after spring camp. Not just anyone would do that.
But…Nebraska’s Bo Pelini is already among New York Times college football reporter Pete Thamel’s candidates for the job. Baylor’s Art Briles, TCU’s Gary Patterson, Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn and Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads were other names mentioned in the story. On Twitter, Thamel said these names were off the top of his head.
Why would Pelini’s name appear in the New York Times, besides the nature of speculation? Several possibilities:
1. A number of out-of-work big name coaches took jobs last year. Urban Meyer. Rich Rodriguez. Mike Leach. Similarly, younger coaches at non-BCS programs made the jump last year, notably Houston’s Kevin Sumlin (to Texas A&M) and Southern Mississippi’s Larry Fedora (to North Carolina). Last year was a bonanza. How many jobs were open in the Pac-12? 72? (OK, just four. But Oregon’s Chip Kelly almost left, didn’t he?).
2. One obvious candidate for the job, former Hogs OC Gus Malzahn, just took the head coaching job at Arkansas State. Weird timing. He’s clearly a candidate now.
3. Pelini’s attachment to the Miami (Fla.) search in late 2010.
4. Pelini’s small buyout of $250,000 is not a financial deterrent to schools looking to hire. It is $100,000 less than Nebraska paid to buy out basketball coach Tim Miles’ contract at Colorado State.
5. Whether you’re his most ardent fan or fiercest detractor – Pelini is regarded as an expert on defense. There aren’t many of them in college football. And if you can’t play defense in the SEC, you won’t win it. (Which, interestingly enough, is why Arkansas hasn’t won a league title since it joined the conference in 1992, giving up 30, 34 and 38 points in its three SEC title game appearances.)
What’s all that add up to? Not much at all. What I know this spring about Pelini is: He likes the experienced makeup of this particular Husker squad. He likes his young staff. He likes coaching this team in the spring. And, in a conversation this winter with columnist Tom Shatel, Pelini revealed a stronger motivation to put Nebraska over the top, because he hasn’t won a conference title despite two great cracks at it, including having the Big 12′s best overall team in 2010.
Back to Arkansas: Its window is smaller than it appears. If there is a year for the Razorbacks, this is it. Alabama and LSU visit Fayetteville. All of the non-conference games are at home. Long – and whoever he hires – have a title-built and title-or-bust team.
While any coach is game for winning right away, it takes a certain kind of coach to change little-to-nothing about a team’s offense or defense — to leave it just how Petrino set it up — for a whole year and try to win a league crown in America’s toughest division with players you don’t know and a fan base long past thirsty for real success. It’s a great job — but it’s the frying pan already in the fire. And no history of championships in the SEC.