Who could replace Bret Bielema at Arkansas?
Bret Bielema was fired as Arkansas’ head coach following Saturday’s loss to Missouri. The loss to the Tigers capped a disappointing 4-8 season for the Razorbacks and ended Bielema’s tenure with a 29-34 mark. Arkansas went 11-29 under Bielema’s watch in SEC play and went to three consecutive bowl games from 2014-16. However, the Razorbacks never took the next step under Bielema’s watch and struggled mightily on defense over the last three years.
Who could replace Bielema in Fayetteville? Here are 10 candidates.
10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Bret Bielema at Arkansas
Neal Brown, head coach, Troy
Brown is in his third season at Troy, guiding the program to a 22-13 record since 2015. He had big shoes to fill in replacing Larry Blakeney at Troy but led the Trojans to a 10-win season in 2016 and beat LSU in Baton Rouge this year. The Kentucky native has previous experience in the SEC from a two-year run as Mark Stoops’ offensive coordinator with the Wildcats from 2013-14. Additionally, he called the plays at Texas Tech (2010-12) and Troy (2008-09). Brown is a young, up-and-coming coach who has a strong background on offense.
Dave Clawson, head coach, Wake Forest
Clawson’s a longshot, but he’s someone who deserves a look for bigger jobs this offseason. The New York native started his head coaching career at Fordham in 1999 and guided the Rams to a 29-29 record over five seasons. He took the top spot at Richmond in 2004 and went 29-20 overall and made two trips to the FCS playoffs over four years. Clawson spent 2008 as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator under Phillip Fulmer, but after the staff was dismissed, he landed at Bowling Green as the program’s head coach for the 2009 campaign. Clawson’s tenure with the Falcons resembled the ones at Fordham and Richmond. Bowling Green went 32-30 under Clawson’s direction but showed steady improvement after his first year or two on the job, which included a MAC title in 2013. Clawson was hired at Wake Forest prior to the 2014 campaign and went 6-18 in his first two years at the helm. However, after playing a lot of freshmen his first two seasons, Clawson has guided the Demon Deacons to a 14-10 record since 2016.
Mike Gundy, head coach, Oklahoma State
Needless to say, it would take a lot for Gundy to leave Stillwater. The 50-year-old coach has extensive ties to the Oklahoma State program, as he’s a former quarterback for the school and has worked as the head coach since 2005. Gundy is 112-53 since taking over as the program’s head coach and guided Oklahoma State to a No. 3 finish in the Associated Press poll in 2011. Gundy is also regarded for his work in developing quarterbacks and high-powered offenses. It’s unlikely Gundy leaves Stillwater, but Arkansas would be wise to at least inquire.
Lane Kiffin, head coach, FAU
Kiffin is a longshot to take this job, but he certainly deserves a look from Arkansas. After working as the offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2014-16, Kiffin was hired as FAU’s coach prior to the 2017 campaign. Kiffin has made an immediate impact in Boca Raton, as he guided the Owls to a Conference USA East Division title and an 8-3 record prior to the season finale. Kiffin has two previous stints as a head coach: Tennessee in 2009 and USC (2010-13). He went 7-6 with the Volunteers in his only season at the helm and 28-15 in his stint with the Trojans. Kiffin is a polarizing figure, but there’s no doubt he can develop an offense and is a better coach than his record at USC and Tennessee would suggest.
Mike Leach, head coach, Washington State
Leach doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave Washington State. However, the athletic director who hired him in Pullman – Bill Moos – left to take on that same role at Nebraska this season. Arkansas should at least inquire to see if he’s interested in the job. Leach is 38-36 since taking over at Washington State in 2012. After a 12-25 start to his tenure in Pullman, Leach has won at least eight games in each of the last three years, recording a 26-11 record in that span. Prior to Washington State, Leach went 84-43 at Texas Tech, guiding the Red Raiders to a winning record every season from 2000-09. Leach is known for his wide-open, pass-first offenses. However, defense isn't an afterthought, as the Cougars rank third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense this year.
Seth Littrell, head coach, North Texas
Littrell is one of college football’s top coaches on the rise for 2017. The Oklahoma native worked as an offensive assistant at Texas Tech, Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina before taking over as North Texas’ head coach prior to the 2016 season. Littrell is known for his roots in the Air Raid offense and has worked under Larry Fedora and Mike Leach. The Mean Green won just one game in the year prior to Littrell’s arrival but improved to 5-8 last fall. And in 2017, North Texas is 8-3 through 11 regular season contests and claimed Conference USA’s West Division crown.
Gus Malzahn, head coach, Auburn
Malzahn seems to be the top target for Arkansas’ search, and there are plenty of reasons for that interest level from the school’s board of trustees and top boosters. Malzahn has extensive ties to the state of Arkansas and is a proven winner in the SEC. The Texas native coached in the Arkansas high school ranks at Hughes (1991-95), Shiloh Christian (1996-00) and Springdale (2001-05) before calling the plays for the Razorbacks in 2006. Malzahn left after one season working under Houston Nutt and joined Todd Graham’s staff at Tulsa. Under Malzahn’s direction from 2007-08, the Golden Hurricane produced some of the nation’s top offenses. He was hired as Gene Chizik’s play-caller at Auburn in 2009 and was instrumental in leading the team to a national title in 2010. Malzahn spent one year as Arkansas State’s head coach (2012) and went 9-3 overall. He was hired at Auburn prior to the 2013 campaign and led the Tigers to an appearance in the national championship that season, followed by a combined 23-16 record over the next three years. Malzahn is 9-2 through 11 games this season and has Auburn squarely in the mix for a CFB Playoff spot. Why would Malzahn leave Auburn for Arkansas? Auburn will have a new athletic director next season, and the opportunity to work at a job with slightly lower expectations in essentially your home state has to be enticing.
Chad Morris, head coach, SMU
Morris is a coach with extensive ties to the state of Texas, so he could be a prime candidate for any openings (Texas A&M?) in the Lone Star State this offseason. After spending from 1994-09 in the high school ranks, he was hired to call the plays at Tulsa in 2010. Under Morris’ watch, the Golden Hurricane averaged 41.4 points a game that season. Morris became Clemson’s play-caller in 2011 and remained in Death Valley through 2014. His hire and development of the offense was a big reason why the Tigers won 42 games from 2011-14. Morris inherited a struggling SMU program in 2015 but has brought steady improvement to Dallas. The Mustangs are 13-22 over the last three years but finished 5-7 last season and are 6-5 through 11 games in 2017. With his ability to recruit the state of Texas, along with a strong background on offense, Morris would be an interesting fit at Arkansas.
Mike Norvell, head coach, Memphis
Norvell doesn’t have SEC experience, but he has ties to the state of Arkansas. The Texas native played his collegiate ball at Central Arkansas and spent time there as a graduate assistant. The second-year head coach picked up where Justin Fuente left off and has Memphis poised to finish in the top 25 this season. The Tigers went 8-5 in Norvell’s debut and are off to a 9-1 start in 2017. Overall, Memphis is 17-6 under Norvell and claimed the AAC’s West Division this season. Prior to taking over as the head coach at Memphis, Norvell worked under Todd Graham at Arizona State as the offensive coordinator from 2012-15 and also at Pitt (2011) and Tulsa (2007-10). Norvell is one of college football’s youngest coaches at age 36. And he’s also one of the nation’s top minds on offense.
Charlie Strong, head coach, USF
Strong is no stranger to life in the SEC. He had stints as an assistant at Florida (1988-89, 1991-94 and 2003-09), along with stops at Ole Miss (1990) and South Carolina (1999-02). Additionally, he’s an Arkansas native and played his college ball at Central Arkansas in the 1980s. After working as an assistant for over 20 years, Strong finally landed a head coaching gig in 2010. However, he inherited a Louisville program in need of repair but guided the Cardinals to a 37-15 record from 2010-13. During that span, the Cardinals went to four bowl games and won 23 contests over the final two seasons. Strong was hired at Texas in 2014 and went 16-21 over three years. While Strong was a bad fit in Austin, he’s a proven head coach at Louisville and is 9-1 through 10 games at USF. Strong is regarded as a good recruiter – especially in the state of Florida – and is one of the top defensive minds in college football.