It seems like only yesterday the Arkansas Razorbacks were searching for a new head football coach after Bret Bielema was immediately fired concluding a season-ending loss that resulted in a 4-8 season. It seems that way because, well frankly, it is not common to have coaching changes this quickly. The Chad Morris era failed miserably and lasted only 22 games. Many questioned the hiring from the beginning. And rightfully so, with his record as a head coach at SMU being a well below average 14-22.
For all of the struggles Morris endured on the field, he made up for them on the recruiting trail. That had fans excited for what was to come. Ultimately, it was a failed experiment. You could make the argument that it was the worst hire in SEC history. Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek was fresh into his new role when Morris was given the offer. So even though he may have had a little to do with it, he can not be fully credited with the hire. With that being said, this time around it is all on him. His final decision will make or break his career in Fayetteville. Here are my five candidates, in order, of who he should pursue.
1) Matt Rhule – Baylor
First and foremost, I think Yurachek has no choice but to hire a current head coach who has proven they can build a program from the ground up. There is a guy across the college football ranks right now who fits this mold more than Rhule. In his stops at Temple and Baylor, he inherited decimated programs and turned them into winners. It is hard enough to win at Temple. However, consider the fact he took over at Baylor after one of the biggest scandals in college football history. Three years later, he currently boasts a 9-0 record.
Another impressive stat: he had just one win during his first season at Temple. Yet, in his final two years, he finished with 10 wins back to back. On paper this looks like a long shot hire. But as HawgSports’ Trey Biddy said, “If he had the cajones to take the job at Baylor considering the circumstances, who says he won’t accept the challenge at Arkansas?” If Yurachek were to pull this off, this would be a good old fashioned “Grand Slam Hire.”
2) Matt Campbell – Iowa State
Most Arkansas fans were first introduced to Campbell in September of 2015 when he brought his Toledo squad to War Memorial Stadium and walked out with a 16-12 victory. Like Rhule, he has won consistently at places where that is not easy. He finished with back to back 9-win seasons at Toledo before accepting the job at Iowa State. In his first year, he suffered his only losing season as a head coach, going 3-9. Just as there are always rumors in coaching searches, there have been plenty of rumblings that he is waiting on a big time job before he decides to leave Ames. Regardless, Campbell is without question one that Yurachek should keep on his radar.
3) Mike Norvell – Memphis
Norvell is a name that was strongly talked about during the coaching search in 2017. Since that time, he has continued his success at Memphis. He is at the top of many boards to be the next Head Hog. In many ways it makes sense. He is a phenomenal offensive mind, and has won at least 8 games in his four seasons as a head coach. Also, he has many Arkansas ties. He was a record-setting Wide Receiver for the Central Arkansas Bears in the mid-2000s. Not to mention the fact that his wife is also from the Natural State.
Norvell has a very reasonable buyout ($500,000). He would be welcomed with open arms if he indeed is the next one up. Some have said there are instances from his past that could end up hindering him from getting a bigger job. Whether that is true or not, if the Razorbacks don’t bring him on board that someone else will snatch him up much sooner than later.
4) Willie Fritz – Tulane
When you talk about coaches who have a reputation of turning a program around, Willie Fritz is a name that is about as under the radar as they come. Fritz has been around for a long time. His first head coaching job was in the JUCO ranks at Blinn College in Texas. Before he got there, Blinn had gone 5-24-1 in its previous 3 seasons. He was there for four years and won two national titles. He has also had successful stops at Central Missouri, Sam Houston State, and Georgia Southern. In his current tenure at Tulane, his teams struggled the first two seasons. However, they won a bowl last year and are working towards bowl contention again this season. It’s uncertain how high of a priority Fritz is to Yurachek. But if it comes down to it, this is a hire I would be completely fine with.
5) Barry Lunney Jr. – Arkansas (Interim)
Let me just start by saying, I realize that I’m contradicting myself by putting Barry Lunney Jr. on this list. While I do feel Yurachek should go with a proven head coach (and I fully believe he will), it would be a travesty to not put Lunney into consideration. Lunney has been on staff since 2013. He was originally hired by Bret Bielema and was retained when Morris got hired. He has been the Tight Ends coach since coming on board, and his group has been more successful than any other on the team. This season he was also named the Special Teams Coordinator. After being a constant national embarrassment last year, they have been solid overall (minus the fake punt).
If you have not listened to his opening press conference as head coach, I would highly recommend doing so. He described his time as a Razorback and how during his freshman year he and his teammates endured a similar situation that the program is going through now. This is a guy who is not only passionate about the Razorbacks, but the state of Arkansas, which fans have expressed they want the next coach to have that kind of energy. I can not say enough that I do feel this program needs a proven head coach. However, if things do not turn out as planned, it wouldn’t be too crazy to give Lunney a look. Especially, if he lights a fire under this team in the final weeks. While I’m not envious of Hunter Yurachek and the decision ahead, I do trust he will make the right move.