FAYETTEVILLE – Razorback fans have a lot to be thankful for this week. Many, if not most, are thankful that Friday’s 1:30 p.m. home game against Missouri will likely be the last one coached by current head Hog Bret Bielema.
Bielema enters the contest with a record of 29-33 overall and 11-28 in SEC during his five years in Fayetteville, including a mark of 4-7 (1-6) for the current season.
He’s 1-9 in his last ten meetings against Power-5 programs, and, in case you’ve forgotten, several of the losses came in gut-wrenching fashion.
Fans, boosters, and Board of Trustee members have run out of patience, and with Bielema’s biggest supporter –former Director of Athletics Jeff Long – being dismissed last week, it’d be very surprising to see the head coach welcomed back in 2018.
That means the Board of Trustees, with or without a sitting Athletic Director, will likely begin its coaching search very soon, and Arkansas fans are excited about the names of potential replacements floating around on the Internet as of late.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s current head coach, is the name creating the most buzz over the last couple of weeks. Malzahn, an Arkansas native, has extensive ties to the program having played for the Razorbacks in the mid-1980s and serving as offensive coordinator under Houston Nutt in 2006.
The 52-year-old has been to two national championship games with Auburn, once as a coordinator and once as a head coach.
While some are still bitter at Malzahn for the way things went down during and following the 2006 season, there are many, including several influential donors and decision makers, who are making a strong push to see him return to Fayetteville.
Malzahn’s Tigers are 9-2 (6-1) and ranked No. 6 in the nation heading into their home game against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.
Would he leave Auburn, which is widely considered the better gig, to return home to Arkansas?
Some who are close to Malzahn have indicated that he’s grown tired of the unrealistic expectations at Auburn, and that the pressure of competing against instate rival Alabama has taken its toll in his five years there.
If Malzahn isn’t the guy, look for the Razorbacks to make a run at current Memphis head coach Mike Norvell. Norvell, 36, is in his second season as the Tigers’ head coach and is No. 16 in the land with a record of 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the American Athletic Conference. He played wide receiver at UCA and is married to a Fort Smith native.
It has been rumored that Norvell would pounce on the opportunity to coach in Fayetteville despite being a candidate for other SEC openings.
Other names that are at least being mentioned as legitimate candidates are Mike Leach at Washington State, Scott Frost at Central Florida, and Chad Morris at SMU.
Switching gears to the hardwood, fans can be thankful that Mike Anderson’s club looked very impressive in its first three wins over Samford, Bucknell and Fresno State.
The Razorbacks (3-0) will have a chance to make national noise at the PK80 Tournament in Portland (Ore.) later this week.
The Hogs play Oklahoma (2-0) on Thursday at 4 p.m., and the winner will face the winner of Portland and No. 9 North Carolina on Friday.
Last year, North Carolina bounced Arkansas from the NCAA Tournament with a come-from-behind victory before going on to win the national championship.
Should Arkansas get past the Sooners and the Tar Heels (Portland beating UNC is highly unlikely), its third game would be against Michigan State, UConn, Oregon or DePaul.
Are the Hogs’ first three victories a fluke, or is this year’s team a true contender in what looks like a fairly wide-open SEC race?
That question will be much easier to answer after this week’s games, but the fact that Arkansas’ basketball program is creating a buzz again is something to be thankful for.