Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
SEC coaching carousel already spinning
After seven months, Jeff Long's coaching search will soon come to an end.
FAYETTEVILLE With Georgia wrapping up the Southeastern Conference's eastern division over the weekend, and a winless in conference Auburn team standing between Alabama and Atlanta, the most intriguing race left this season in the SEC is for coaches.
Midway through November, two schools - Arkansas and Kentucky - are already in the process of looking for new coaches, while it appears Auburn and Tennessee aren't far from officially throwing their hats in the ring. Reports from 247.com affiliates at Auburn and Tennessee in the last week state coaching changes are imminent at both schools.
The Razorbacks have been riding lead pony on the impending coaching carousel since April, when UA athletics director Jeff Long fired Bobby Petrino. Long has said little about the coaching search since placing a 10-month coaching tag on John L. Smith, but he has indicated he hopes to have a long-term solution in place quickly following the season.
While Arkansas hasn't impacted the results at the other schools aside from its head-to-head wins, it could be playing an impact on the timing of potential changes elsewhere. Head coaching jobs in the SEC are coveted and wish lists often overlap. Pulling the trigger on a coach prior to the season's conclusion not only temporarily satisfies a restless fan base, but also allows administrators and agents to begin shopping freely.
So does it help that Arkansas has been first in line for so long? On its end, the answer appears to be is yes.
"You've got to make sure in the end you feel great about your guy and you know everything you're getting with that coach," said Pete Roussel, the founder of CoachingSearch.com and an adviser for coaches. "Jeff Long has had all the time in the world to research anybody he wants to."
Long said in September having so much time was "a blessing and a curse" because of the ups-and-downs in a season, and how those affect hire-ability. But he also said "there were things back in April" when asked if any current head coaches had inquired about the job.
The timing of the Petrino firing wasn't ideal for sitting head coaches to uproot and take over a personnel grouping of which they had no control. What it likely did do was to plant interest during a slower time than that nose-to-the-grindstone mentality that takes over in August.
Coaches know Arkansas, like the others in the SEC that will potentially come open, is a good job with plenty of resources. The school was paying Petrino more than $3.5 million per year with a $2 million-plus salary pool for assistant coaches.
Couple the financial incentives with recent on-field success and ongoing building for the program - such as the estimated $44.98 million spent on construction and renovations in the last year - and interest will be high.
"I think we’ve raised our national reputation over the last five years," Long said in September. "I think we’ve shown that you can do it at Arkansas – you can win, you can make the BCS, you can be in contention to win a national championship.
"It’s a factor of being in the toughest division in the toughest conference. It’s about being a competitor. If you want to compete, this is the place to come compete, no question."
There's no question the competition might carry over off the field, too. With two weeks left in the regular season, more than a quarter of the league appears to be destined for change and the coming off-season is shaping up to be another newsworthy one in a league already full of intrigue.
With the race to the top of the standings nearly complete, the race for head coaches is the most intriguing one around.