FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas fired football coach Bret Bielema on Friday, minutes after his fifth season with the Razorbacks was completed.
The Hogs are expected to begin searching immediately for his replacement. Below are 10 top candidates to potentially replace Bielema, listed by the SEC Country staff in order from most to least likely.
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1. Mike Norvell, Memphis
Mike Norvell is 17-6 over two seasons at Memphis. His current team is 9-1 overall and 6-1 in American Athletic Conference play.
He also had successful stints as an offensive assistant at Arizona State, Pitt and Tulsa prior to being hired by the Tigers in December 2016. While coaching quarterbacks and serving as offensive coordinator at Arizona State, Norvell produced a top-40 overall offense in each of his four seasons.
Norvell, 36, was a four-year starter for Central Arkansas at wide receiver (2001-04). He finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in receptions (213) and ranked third in receiving yards (2,611). His wife, Maria, is a Fort Smith native.
His buyout for leaving Memphis is $500,000, and he currently makes $1.86 million. Neither of those figures will scare anyone away from making this hire.
Mike Norvell’s career record as a head coach:
2. Chad Morris, SMU
Arkansas needs to re-establish a strong recruiting presence in Texas. That makes Chad Morris an ideal option.
Morris, 48, was a head coach at the high school level throughout Texas for 16 years (1994-2009). His first two signing classes at SMU (2015, 2016) were entirely made up of Texas players.
During his time with the Mustangs, Morris is 13-22. But he inherited a 1-11 team that was among the worst in college football. Since he’s arrived, SMU has increased its win total each season and was bowl eligible by late October this season.
Chad Morris’ career record as a head coach:
3. Mike Leach, Washington State
Mike Leach is a popular choice among Arkansas fans. An online petition to bring him to Fayetteville was started earlier this season and has more than 1,000 signatures.
It’s understandable why fans want him. He is the winningest coach in Texas Tech history, and he’s done an outstanding job turning around the program at Washington State. Those are two of the most difficult jobs in the Power 5 conferences. If he can win there, he can almost certainly win in Fayetteville.
The issue with Leach, 56, is he comes with baggage. He was fired from Texas Tech amid alleged mistreatment of a player. He’s also demanding $2.4 million from Tech in unpaid wages.
Mike Leach’s career record as a head coach:
4. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Gus Malzahn, 52, graduated from Union Christian Academy in Fort Smith and spent 15 seasons (1991-2005) coaching high school football in the Natural State.
His one-year stint as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator (2006) under coach Houston Nutt was a disaster, mostly because of disagreement in philosophies. He is 53-23 in his six years as a coach at Arkansas State (2012) and Auburn (2013-present).
Arkansas stands to be an ideal landing spot if Auburn doesn’t want him back or he opts to leave after this season. But the Tigers are 1 win from playing in the SEC Championship Game, so a victory over Alabama on Saturday almost certainly takes Malzahn off this list.
Even with a loss in the Iron Bowl, it seems reasonable Malzahn may simply entertain the idea of coming to Arkansas, just to get more time and money at Auburn. Maybe his agent is already doing that for him through the rumor mill.
Gus Malzahn’s career record as a head coach:
THE DARK HORSES
5. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
Skip Holtz, 53, is a Fayetteville High School graduate who still has many friends in Northwest Arkansas. He spent six years (1977-82) in Fayetteville while his father, Lou, was coaching the Razorbacks to some of the best seasons in program history.
At Louisiana Tech, Holtz has won nine games the last three seasons before experiencing a setback (currently 5-6) in 2017. His team nearly upset Arkansas without its starting quarterback last year in Fayetteville, a 21-20 Razorbacks victory in the season opener.
Holtz could also likely be hired at a discount because he’s making just more than $700,000 this season and isn’t a likely candidate to be thrown into a bidding war.
Skip Holtz’s career record as a head coach:
6. Matt Campbell, Iowa State
Matt Campbell has been among the hottest names in college football since the Cyclones upset two top-5 teams (Oklahoma and TCU) in October.
At 7-4 this season, Iowa State is 1 victory from its ninth 8-win season in 126 years of football at the school. That speaks to how difficult of a job Iowa State is and how well Campbell has done there. Though Arkansas is a better job, it’s similar in that the Hogs also need a coach who can win without top-tier talent compared with the rest of the conference.
Here is the holdup with Campbell: He’s going to be very expensive. The 37-year-old has a buyout of $9.4 million should he leave Iowa State after this season.
Matt Campbell’s career record as a head coach:
7. Neal Brown, Troy
Last season, Neal Brown led Troy to its first 10-win season since joining the FBS (2001). The Trojans are 8-2 this season.
Brown, 37, is another young offensive-minded coach very likely to be on the Hogs’ radar. He’s also 1-0 as a coach against Arkansas rival LSU, upsetting the Tigers earlier this season in Baton Rouge.
But he, too, has a buyout that could make schools think twice about pursuing him. If he accepts another job after this season, his future employer would be in line to pay Troy nearly $3 million.
Neal Brown’s career record as a head coach:
THE LONG SHOTS
8. Les Miles, former LSU coach
Former LSU coach Les Miles ruffled the feathers of many Arkansans during his 12 years with the Tigers. Still, he was reportedly offered the Arkansas job before the Razorbacks hired Bielema in 2012.
Miles is 64 and working as a television analyst this season. But he’s been outspoken about his desire to get back into coaching. He’s reportedly shown interest in Oregon State’s coaching vacancy. If he’s interested in that job, he surely would be interested in Arkansas.
Razorbacks fans might be able to look past this former rivalry if it means getting a coach with a national title on his résumé — especially one who can poach recruits from Louisiana.
Les Miles’ career record as a head coach:
9. Scott Frost, Central Florida
Scott Frost took over a winless program at UCF and immediately turned things around. The Knights finished 6-7 in 2016, his first season. The Knights are 11-0 this season and No. 15 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
The former Nebraska quarterback is known for producing high-scoring offenses. In four seasons as wide receivers coach at Oregon (2009-12), the Ducks reached four consecutive BCS bowls. He was promoted to offensive coordinator at Oregon in 2013 and was a finalist for the Broyles Award in 2014.
However, Frost seems far more likely to end up at his alma mater or Florida.
Scott Frost’s career record as a head coach:
10. Charlie Strong, South Florida
Charlie Strong is having success in his first season at South Florida after an underwhelming three-year stint at Texas. The Bulls are 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the AAC this season. He is 62-39 in his career as a coach, including 37-15 in four years at Louisville (2010-13).
The Batesville, Ark., native lettered four years as a defensive back at Central Arkansas (1979-81). He’s a defensive-minded coach who had successful stints as a defensive coordinator at Florida (2003-09), where he won two national championships under Urban Meyer, and South Carolina (1999-2002).
Strong is local, but his background as a defensive coach isn’t likely to be what Arkansas is looking for this time. It’s also unlikely the Razorbacks would pursue a coach fired by the hated Longhorns less than a year ago.
Charlie Strong’s career record as a head coach:
* Interim coach for bowl game in 2004