State of the Hogs: Division shakeup opens the door

By: Clay Henry
Published: Monday, November 27, 2017
Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen, left, and Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema confer prior to their teams meeting in an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen, left, and Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema confer prior to their teams meeting in an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

— There is good news for the next Arkansas football coach: Things are a little cloudy in the SEC West and the next cycle of coaches might be easier than the last.

Chaos can be a good thing.

Actually, no one knows that for sure. The next batch of SEC West coaches could be better. That's what makes your nerves tingle in this time of uncertainty. There is hope of great victories, even with the despair of the recent horrific losses.

But I see one good thing already for the teams in the West: Dan Mullen is gone from Mississippi State. There may be a 90 percent chance that the next coach in Starkville is not as good as Mullen. How could he be?

I still think Ed Orgeron could screw things up at LSU. He's capable.

Texas A&M is the best at stepping into a steaming pile of something. Kevin Sumlin is proof of that. He had some of the nation's best high school quarterback prospects, but it fell apart. Good recruiting must be followed by good coaching, too. He's gone, but another Sumlin may be on the way. The Aggies can do that.

Things are terrible at Ole Miss. The NCAA is going to hammer the Land Sharks.

Alabama and Auburn look like the grim reaper of all of the SEC, not just the SEC West. Auburn appears on the way up. Things may get dicey at Alabama. Nick Saban may suddenly become really old. Losing will do that to you. It may take only one, especially if it's Auburn.

Things are going great at Auburn right now. After turmoil in Gus Malzahn's coaching staff, he may have it right for the present time. But what happens if some of those coaches get head jobs? His staff may get turned upside down. How will he fit things together again?

I'd point out that some are probably ready. Several, such as Broyles Award finalist Kevin Steele, may be targeted soon. Some look like the right fit.

I'll also add that Bret Bielema was the right fit for Arkansas in some ways, but more on that later. I'm at least pleased to know that Bielema wants to coach again. He should be in coaching because of the right way he does things. He just needs to win more.

There are others out there like him in the world of college football, men who coach the right way. One of them is an Arkansas alum, Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton. He does it the right way.

Horton may be Auburn's best recruiter. He played for Ken Hatfield, coached for Fisher DeBerry, Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino and Malzahn. He's a terrific running backs coach. He's the right fit in all areas, in my view.

Someone needs to give Horton a chance to become head coach. Horton hasn't ever called plays or defensive signals, but I bet he'd flourish as a head coach. His organizational skills and ability to network are amazing.

This is another commentary, but why wouldn't Horton be a good athletics director? For sure, he needs to be at Arkansas somewhere, possibly on the next football staff. I'll get back to you on that later.

I guess you are thinking what about Malzahn? I can give you reasons why he might come home to Arkansas and really stir up this SEC West cycle.

I can also give you a lot more reasons why he's not budging. I don't doubt that there are some on the UA Board of Trustees who thought they could get Malzahn. That was one month ago. Not now.

Oh, it could still happen. Georgia could whip Auburn on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn's running backs are injured. Those at Auburn who are so happy with Gus might not be so happy in another six days.

I'd pick Auburn, though. I also would pick Auburn in its next round of games, in the College Football Playoffs. Those running backs will be healthier. I don't figure Clemson wants another crack at Auburn.

Do the Razorbacks wait another six weeks to hire a football coach? That's dicey. That's what it might take to find out if Malzahn's love-hate relationship on the Plains points to or away from the Ozarks.

I'd be stunned it it didn't play out quicker than that. I am guessing that the next coach is involved in a conference championship somewhere and that would put around a dozen good candidates in play. That includes assistant coaches like Horton. How about Brent Venables, the Clemson defensive coordinator?

It also would include head coaches like Mike Norvell, Lane Kiffin and Scott Frost. Yes, you could put Malzahn on that list, but only if Georgia wins Saturday.

It's going to make for another interesting Saturday of football watching. Start with the American Conference title game if you want a glimpse of Norvell and Frost. That starts at 11 a.m. Both are dynamic, charismatic and you might think you are watching Gus call plays.

Stay tuned all the way through the ACC title game, set for 7 p.m. That's Clemson vs. Miami. You'll love watching Venables coaching a defense with the nation's best four linemen.

Do you want a head coach with offensive expertise? Or do you think defense is what Arkansas needs most?

I've heard both sides to that question present compelling information. Really, the right answer is if you have the right man, it could be from either side. The right man is the one who can hire dynamic recruiters with innovative ideas to motivate players. There needs to be a couple of dynamic coaching minds, too.

I don't think hiring someone with a defensive background is wrong, although Bielema fits that description and definitely did not work out.

Why? I think it's as simple as not fitting together a perfect staff. It's the critical aspect of the job of head coach. Things have to fit. They have to fit in Arkansas and in the South.

It's always what made watching Frank Broyles so interesting. He hired coaches and pushed them out to hire different coaches. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but he had enough security to survive when it didn't work.

Bielema didn't have enough victories to survive when some of his hires didn't work out.

Let's hope the next coach is as good a person as Bielema. He did so many things right.

One of the things that I admired is the way he quietly promoted his faith within the team. I saw Athletes in Action ministers around his team.

Bielema made it clear that summer trips to AIA's leadership oriented Ultimate Training Camp were available. Bielema supported anyone on his team who was interested, starting quarterbacks and practice team walk-ons. He made it happen with his own funds. It reminded me of some of the things Broyles did with other Christian organizations.

It's interesting that Tyler McMahan, AIA leader on campus, thought it important to include his thoughts on Bielema's firing in his monthly news letter. There was sadness and excitement in McMahan's writing.

“A person of peace is someone we ministers look for when we try to take new ground for the Gospel,” McMahan wrote. “Those assistants who have worked with Bielema will scatter to many different schools. They have seen what a person of peace looks like even if they don’t know the terminology. The current graduate assistant coaches 10 years or 20 years from now may be head coaches. They have been taught by a person of peace.

“Coach B will coach again, and my prayer is he will be drawn to a place that needs the Gospel...When he gets to his new location, a person of peace will have arrived."

Yes, it is a nervous time for Arkansas fans waiting for news on the next coach. I'm hopeful that all things will fit together, both on and off the field for great victories.


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