Mike Leach's offensive approach and Texas ties could make him an ideal fit for Arkansas
The Chad Morris era at Arkansas is over after 22 games. Morris, the former head coach at SMU, who came to Fayetteville in December 2017, was fired this past Sunday following the Razorbacks' disheartening 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky at home on Saturday.
The loss dropped Arkansas to 2-8 overall and left Morris with a 4-18 record in less than two full seasons. He went 0-14 in SEC play and his .182 winning percentage is the worst of any head coach in school history (minimum five games).
Tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. will finish out the season as interim head coach, but everyone will be focused on who the school hires next. Athletic director Hunter Yurachek has plenty of work ahead of him as he looks to find the coach that can turn things around.
As a Power 5 job in the SEC, there will no doubt be plenty of interest. But there also are several factors not in Arkansas' favor, not to mention the fact that Florida State is currently searching for a new head coach and the likelihood that some other higher profile jobs will come open sooner rather than later.
So if you were Yurachek who would you want to hire? That's the question a group of Athlon editors and college football contributors was asked. As you can see from their responses, there are plenty of opinions when it comes to the current state of the Arkansas program and what the next step should be.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
When Arkansas takes the field in 2020, the program will be on its third coach in four seasons. That fact underscores why athletic director Hunter Yurachek has to get this hire right. The search has to start with a familiar name in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Does he want to come back to the Natural State? If so, that's an easy hire for the Razorbacks. However, the guess here is Arkansas goes elsewhere for its next coach. Mike Norvell should be near the top of the list in Fayetteville. However, he could also be in the mix at Florida State. Willie Fritz wouldn't be a "name hire," but would be a home run for Arkansas. With all of that in mind, I think Mike Leach makes a lot of sense as the replacement for Chad Morris. Leach has won at difficult jobs — Texas Tech and Washington State — and his high-powered passing attack would help Arkansas battle in the rugged SEC West. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt that Leach has plenty of ties to the state of Texas — a key recruiting area for the Razorbacks.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Arkansas will be searching for a head coach for the second time in three seasons. This is a good job that has plenty of positives (money, support, conference affiliation) and negatives (brutal division, lack of in-state recruits). Mike Norvell from Memphis would be a good get, but my choice would be Mike Leach. After proving he can win at remote spots in both the Big 12 (Texas Tech) and Pac-12 (Washington State), Leach, a former offensive coordinator at Kentucky, would no doubt be eager to take control of an SEC program. He's not the most conventional coach, but that might be a good thing after both Bret Bielema and Chad Morris failed to get things rolling at Arkansas. Leach has shown the ability throughout his career to win games without recruiting at an elite level — and that is something that needs to be done at Arkansas. Even when the Razorbacks do enjoy success on the recruiting trail, they rarely, if ever, are beating the teams that they have to compete within their own division. An unconventional coach with an unconventional style might be the best plan of attack at Arkansas.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Even though Arkansas can probably land an established Power 5 head coach (I would rather see what Gus Malzahn can do than say, Mike Leach), I would be looking for someone younger who can come in and build something with some staying power. For me, that coach is Appalachian State's Eli Drinkwitz. Yes, he may be a longshot because he's in his first season as a head coach, but you have to be impressed with the job he's done thus far and he has a strong resume as an assistant. What's more, he has ties to the state, graduating from Arkansas Tech then starting his coaching career at Springdale High School before spending a couple of seasons as an assistant at Arkansas State, so he would want to do everything in his power to see the Razorbacks succeed. Drinkwitz is a young (36), offensive-minded head coach and if given enough time, I think he can help Arkansas find its footing while laying a solid foundation for the future.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Arkansas only has to look a few hours east for its top option to replace Chad Morris: Memphis head coach Mike Norvell. The 38-year-old already has a connection with the Natural State from when he played for four seasons at Central Arkansas in the early 2000s and began his coaching career there as a graduate assistant in 2006.
Norvell has led Memphis to back-to-back AAC West titles and is well on his way to a third — and possibly a New Year's Six bowl berth. During his four years at the helm, Memphis' 4-5 record against ranked teams is impressive, and it's fun to imagine what else he could do offensively with more recruiting clout at a school like Arkansas.
The only question here will be whether Norvell has his sights on a bigger job. Memphis already made him the highest-paid non-Power 5 head coach, and the way he's coaching, he should be on every major school's radar. The Razorbacks can't wait on Norvell; they’ll need to strike while the iron is hot.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
The Razorbacks should try to hire the person they went after the last time the job came open: Gus Malzahn. Bringing the native son home is likely to be expensive but if there's anybody who can provide an instant dose of respectability, it's him. He knows the place well and hitting the reset button on his coaching career at this stage could be best for all involved. His buyout to leave Auburn likely could be negotiated down and would finally allow the SEC West to actually settle down a bit after the ups and downs both programs have experienced lately.
Ryan Wright (@RyanWrightRNG)
While there are a lot of "named" coaches Arkansas should consider, proven guys like Mike Norvell (Memphis), Bryan Harsin (Boise State), Matt Campbell (Iowa State), and Luke Fickell (Cincinnati), Washington State head coach Mike Leach needs to be the top target. Leach's resume is stellar having taken two down-trodden programs, Texas Tech and Washington State, building them up to winning programs.
The offensive mindset of Leach's Air Raid teams is what Arkansas was essentially seeking when hiring Chad Morris. Leach has a brand name in Texas, which will help immediately with recruiting at Arkansas. With Leach at the helm, the skill players acquired during the two-year Morris era would still be in play, lowering the time needed to rebuild the entire roster. The cautionary note with Leach, he must hire an actual defensive coordinator. Leach's offensive game plan will have the Hogs competing with any team in the nation, and immediately; the question is can his defenses stop top SEC teams enough to get over the proverbial hump that has limited him to two 11-win seasons and 10 eight- and nine-win campaigns in 18 years as a head coach?