Top 10 Arkansas Head Coaching Candidates
10. Mark Hudspeth (Louisiana-Lafayette HC)
In 2011, it had been 35 years since the Ragin’ Cajuns won nine games. Not only did Hudspeth deliver that in his first season at ULL, he also guided the team to a last-second, 32–30 win over San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl — the program’s first bowl win ever.
He’s also an offensive-minded guy. At Lafayette, he’s helped Blaine Gautier develop from a part-time wildcat QB into an efficient passer who threw for 20 TDs against just five INTs in 2011.
Hudspeth is also a lifelong Southerner. He grew up in Mississippi and played at Delta State. With the exception of a 2001 stint as Navy’s offensive coordinator, he’s spent every season of his 20-year coaching career in the Southeast. He would know where to find talent in the region and be familiar with the rabid passion of the SEC’s fan bases. Going from the Sun Belt to the SEC is a huge jump, but Hudspeth appears like he could pull it off.
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9. Todd Monken (Oklahoma State OC)
When Dana Holgorsen left Stillwater to take the head coaching job at West Virginia before the 2011 season, Pokes coach Mike Gundy tabbed Monken to be his replacement. Gundy might have to do the same with Monken real soon.
Monken’s Brandon Weeden-led, Justin Blackmon-powered offense last year finished second in the FBS in points/game (48.7) and third in yards (545.8). The Cowboys exceeded 50 points six times, including three games in which they broke the 60-point barrier.
What Arkansas would especially like about him is his SEC pedigree. Monken spent four seasons (2005–2008) as LSU’s wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, overseeing the development of standouts such as Dwayne Bowe, Early Doucet, Skyler Green and Buster Davis.
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8. Gus Malzahn (Arkansas State HC)
Malzahn has only spent four seasons total as a coach in the SEC, but that’s been nlong enough for him to be a folk hero at two programs in the conference.
In his one season as Arkansas’ OC, he kicked off the “Wildcat” craze with star running back Darren McFadden and turned him and Felix Jones into one of the best backfields in SEC history. At Auburn, his attack transformed Cam Newton into the Heisman Trophy winner and the Tigers into BCS champions.
What’s more, Malzahn is an Arkansas native who sent a bevy of recruits to the Hogs while he was still the coach at nearby Springdale High. Alas, he wasn’t interested in replacing Bobby Petrino in April, and he still may not be. And Malzahn probably wants to taste a semblance of success at Arkansas State before eying bigger jobs that come with more responsibility - and pressure.
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7. Chad Morris (Clemson OC)
Morris is currently the highest-paid assistant coach in college football. And there’s good reason Clemson tried to lock him up last December with a six-year contract worth $1.3 million annually.
A Tigers team that seemingly always squandered talented offensive players absolutely exploded in 2011. QB Tajh Boyd finished the year with 38 total TDs (33 passing, five rushing). Freshman Sammy Watkins (1,219 receiving yards and 12 TDs) became just the third freshman to earn first-team All-America honors.
If you’re more of a rushing offense guy, Morris has you covered there too, as evidenced by Andre Ellington’s 228-yard outburst in the season opener against an SEC opponent, Auburn. A move to Arkansas would also bring Morris closer to home as he grew up in northeast Texas - six-year contract be damned.
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6. Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech HC)
Like Morris at Clemson, Dykes was “locked up” with a contract extension toward the end of 2011, paying him a $750,000 base salary through the 2017 season. But if given the chance to jump across Louisiana’s northern border and take his “Air Raid” offense to Fayetteville, he would be foolish not to consider it.
In his second season in Ruston, Dykes led the Bulldogs to the 2011 WAC title, after which they put a scare into then No. 15 TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. Tech is even more explosive this season, having averaged 54.7 points in three games (the most recent of which was a 52-24 shellacking at Illinois).
Of course, Dykes could be more inclined to jump at another potential coaching opening, at Texas Tech. Dykes was a baseball player for the Red Raiders (1989–1993), served on former TTU coach Mike Leach’s staff for seven seasons (2000–2006) and is the son of Red Raider coaching legend Spike Dykes.
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5. Jon Gruden (ESPN NFL Analyst)
Before Arkansas fans get too excited about Chucky coming to Fayetteville, remember that Gruden signed a five-year extension with ESPN last October and has toyed with head coaching jobs in the past like Miami (FL) only to stay in the broadcast booth.
But Gruden would certainly be the closest thing to the next Bobby Petrino: An insanely passionate former NFL head coach with a great offensive mind. Gruden was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in the 1980s, would certainly be able to land top-notch recruits with his Super Bowl ring and is a brand name that could immediately put Arkansas back in the thick of the SEC West race.
4. Kirby Smart (Alabama DC)
What, you thought we’d only be eyeing offensive coaches for this list? We’d be fools to not consider the hottest assistant coach in the nation as a candidate.
Under the uber-intense Smart, defensive meltdowns like the three-TD lead the Razorbacks coughed up in their loss to Louisiana-Monroe would become a thing of the past. And having been an SEC assistant for seven of the past eight years (he spent 2006 with Nick Saban’s Dolphins), he knows the landscape and is considered one of the best recruiters anywhere.
Another thing working for Smart? His age. At 36, Arkansas could be landing a head coach that could stay in Fayetteville for a generation if he’s successful and doesn’t eventually return to his alma mater of Georgia.
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3. Butch Davis (Ex-UNC and Miami [FL] HC)
Davis is already a popular choice among several prominent Arkansas boosters. He is also the only coach on this list of candidates to graduate from Arkansas (he played one year for the Razorbacks at defensive end before injuries forced him to become a student assistant).
It’s not just for sentimental reasons that some are pushing for Davis. It was Davis who put together the dominant 2001 Miami Hurricanes team (never mind that he didn’t actually coach that team). He also reeled in several high-profile recruits in four seasons with the Tar Heels and guided UNC to three straight eight-win seasons.
But the scandalous cloud under which Davis left North Carolina — and which still partially hovers over him — is an unwelcome distraction. And coming on the heels of the scandal that surrounded Nutt and Petrino, hiring Davis would be a major gamble.
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2. Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia HC)
Along with Oregon’s Chip Kelly, Holgorsen might be the hottest offensive mind in college football.
All the Mike Leach protégé did during his first season with the Mountaineers was lead the team to a 10-win campaign and a record-breaking, 70–33 beatdown of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. They haven’t slowed down in 2012, either.
Holgorsen inked a six-year contract in August that will pay him $2.3 to $2.9 million annually. That’s nice, but Petrino was making around $3.5 million per year. And Holgorsen’s not-so-kind words for West Virginia fans last October gave off the appearance that West Virginia isn’t his dream job.
He could also be persuaded to return to a warmer climate. Starting with a gig at Valdosta (GA) State in 1993, Holgorsen spent 18 straight seasons as an assistant coach in either the South or Southwest.
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1. Charlie Strong (Louisville HC)
If the Cardinals make due on some of the prognostications and go undefeated, Strong will be on the minds of every FBS athletic director with a coaching vacancy.
What makes him Arkansas’ best choice? For one he’s an Arkansas native, having grown up in Batesville and lettered at Central Arkansas. He’s also an excellent recruiter in SEC country — a reputation he fostered as the defensive coordinator at South Carolina (1999–2001) and Florida (2002–2009), with the lattermost stop having one of the top classes in the country on an annual basis during his tenure.
He’s also extremely charismatic — and not in the bizarre way that John L. Smith is charismatic. He would be the epitome of a breath of fresh air. With Strong at the helm, Razorbacks fans for once wouldn’t have to worry whether the man leading their team had a screw loose and could go back to caring about the most important thing: Winning football games.
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