Petrino Out At Arkansas; Who’s Next?

Word spread Tuesday evening that Bobby Petrino was fired as the University of Arkansas football coach.  A press conference later that night confirmed it.  

ESPN’s Joe Schad was the one breaking most of the scoop on this (for once), and some of the things he tweeted Tuesday made it clear why Arkansas simply HAD to fire Petrino…even if they badly wanted to keep him.  


Arkansas despearately wants to be among the SEC’s elite programs.  And they were willing to dance with the devil in order to reach that status.   It worked.  Petrino had the Hogs in the Sugar Bowl in 2010 and just one game away from a possible BCS championship game appearance in 2011.  Petrino accomplished this without great recruiting.  Either Petrino’s offensive system really is genius or he is very, very good at evaluating and developing talent.  I believe it was a combination of all three things that led to his success.  

But Petrino was a known scumbag.  And as it turns out, it was just a matter of time before the scum rose to the surface and Petrino embarrassed the university.   

I’m not so sure that it wasn’t worth it for Arkansas.  If nothing else, Petrino showed everyone that you can win at a high level in the SEC at Arkansas.  That should help them attract a high quality coach, even though they’ll be doing the hiring at an inopportune time (i.e. right now).   So who might get the job?   Here are some early names being mentioned:

Butch Davis – Davis is from Arkansas and played at Arkansas, so he has obvious ties.  And in a situation like this, it’s natural to lean on “one of your own” to help you through.  However, Davis is coming from an ugly situation at North Carolina where they are dealing with some pretty serious NCAA issues.   Had Petrino retired or left for another job, Davis might be a better option.  But considering the mess they’re in, hiring someone who just came from a troubled situation probably doesn’t suit them.  

Garrick McGee – McGee took the head coaching job at UAB after serving as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator for the past two seasons.  Prior to that, he was the Hogs’ quarterbacks coach in 2008 and 2009.  He was at Arkansas for the entire Bobby Petrino era, and the offense flourished with him leading it.  McGee is an interesting option because he’ll almost certainly have the support of the current players, and he presents the best option for keeping the Hogs’ very successful offensive system in place.  If you want to take a shot at everything in 2012, I’d venture to say that McGee might be the best choice.  But is he the best choice long term?  Nobody knows.  He has never been a head coach before.   Since he was a part of Petrino’s staff, does that exclude him?  I don’t think it does.  I think McGee is a very real candidate.  McGee has only been at UAB for a few months, so it may be awkward for him to leave before ever coaching a game. 

Skip Holtz – Holtz did a great job at East Carolina before taking over at South Florida in 2010.  Oddly enough, he took over at USF in a similar situation where a successful head coach was forced out due to his behavior.  Holtz is considered a very strong coach who will eventually get his shot at a bigger football school.  Is this his shot?  Remember that Holtz’s father coached at Arkansas, so there are some ties to the program.  Listening to Lou Holtz pick Arkansas every single week on E eth PN would be maddening.  

Gus Malzahn – Malzahn is the obvious choice.  A high school coaching legend in the state, Houston Nutt hired him to be offensive coordinator in 2006.  After one tumultous season, he left to coordinate the offense at Tulsa which became one of the best in the nation.  He then went to Auburn to direct their offense on the way to a national championship and finally took his first head coaching job at Arkansas State.  Like McGee, Malzahn assumed head coaching duties just a few months ago so it could be difficult for him to leave.  Malzahn prefers a true spread offense with a mobile quarterback and Arkansas is currently built for a more pro style attack with Tyler Wilson at quarterback, so that could be a factor.  Regardless, he has to be considered one of the favorites.  

Art Briles – After making Baylor competitive and coaching the Heisman Trophy winner, Briles’ stock will never be higher.  With RG3 off to the NFL, it wouldn’t be a bad time to parlay that success into a better job, would it?   Arkansas presents a pretty good opportunity for Briles who could still capitalize on his Texas contacts for recruiting purposes.  

Kirby Smart – The Alabama defensive coordinator seems to be biding his time until the right head coaching opportunity comes along.  Is this it?  I doubt it, but don’t be surprised if his name gets mentioned.  

Charlie Strong – There are no ties between Strong and the Arkansas program, but he has coached in the SEC and is one of the best up and coming head coaches in college football.  Strong is ready for bigger and better things should a big-time school come calling to pull him away from Louisville.  

Mark Hudspeth – After going 9-4 in his first season as ULL’s head coach, Hudspeth is a hot name in coaching circles.  Is he ready to make the jump to the SEC West?  

This coaching search will be interesting, and I suspect that it probably started before tonight’s press conference.  If Arkansas wants someone like McGee, then it could be a very quick search.  If they’re after a bigger name such as Briles, Smart, or Strong then it could take a couple of weeks.