On paper, Chad Morris checked all the boxes you’d want in an Arkansas head coach. He (a long with Brent Venables) helped turn Clemson from a good, solid program that was clearly No. 2 in the ACC into a monster, a transformation that largely hinged on his ability to identify and recruit a transcendent player in Deshaun Watson. On top of that, Morris had instant credibility in the all-important Texas recruiting trail as a former high school coach in the state, and he was fresh off turning around SMU — truly, one of the worst programs in FBS at the time — into a solid program.
As we know, football programs are not built on paper.
Morris is out now after a 4-18 mark in not quite two full seasons, and now the focus turns to who will replace him.
To make an obvious statement, every head coaching hire is important. You’ll never hear a university president tell the public at a coach’s introductory press conference, “It really doesn’t make a difference to us if this guy succeeds or not.” All caveats aside, it’s difficult to fathom a more critical hire than the one Arkansas is about to make.
The next head coach will be the Razorbacks’ third in the next four years. He’ll likely inherit a 19-game SEC losing streak, which would be the longest conference losing skid by an SEC team other than Vanderbilt since 1970. Arkansas also dropped 17 straight SEC games from 2012-14; in fact, since Bobby Petrino fell off his motorcycle in the spring of 2012, Arkansas is 13-49 in SEC play, with No. 2 LSU and Missouri still on the schedule this season. The Hogs’ recruiting class is currently rated 13th in the SEC according to 247Sports, and the 2018 class — the group that should be juniors on the 2020 team — ranked 14th in the league as the program transitioned from Bret Bielema to Morris
Understandably, morale around the program appears to be at an all-time low.
Given all that, the names surfacing around the impending Arkansas search all fit the same profile that Morris just did: young, hungry, offensive-minded head coaches. Names like Memphis’ Mike Norvell and Appalachian State’s Eli Drinkwitz. While those men are different than Morris, the shadow they cast is largely the same, the major difference being both have significant experience in the state of Arkansas. (Norvell played at Central Arkansas; Drinkwitz played at Arkansas Tech and coached under Gus Malzahn at Springdale High School and Arkansas State.)
The general rule of all coaching searches, not just in college football, is that teams hire the opposite of what they just fired. If a general manager or an athletics director is going to miss, they’re not going to miss in the same way twice. For that reason, it feels unlikely Arkansas would fire a head coach with just three years of head coaching experience, then turn around and hire a 38-year-old with four years’ experience (Norvell) or a 36-year-old with one year experience (Drinkwitz).
The flip side of this coin: If you’re Mike Norvell and Eli Drinkwitz, are you sure you want to cast what is quite possibly your one-and-only shot at being an SEC head coach on this Arkansas program?
The other name floating around the search is Gus Malzahn. Gus is a dream candidate for Arkansas for a multitude of reasons, but the Hogs can look to LSU’s pursuit of Jimbo Fisher to see what typically happens when a school makes a second run at a supposed dream candidate.
However, word in the profession is the coach that checks all the boxes for Arkansas isn’t a name that’s floated around the public conversation in the first 24 hours since Morris’ firing. In fact, his name doesn’t even appear on the betting odds.
Mike Norvell 2/1
Eliah Drinkwitz 3/1
Lane Kiffin 4/1
Bill Clark 5/1
Sonny Dykes 6/1
Mike Leach 6/1
Hugh Freeze 8/1
Gus Malzahn 12/1
Bobby Petrino 18/1
Houston Nutt 25/1
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) November 11, 2019
That name is Willie Fritz.
Before we get to what Fritz is, let’s first acknowledge what he’s not. The 59-year-old Tulane head coach isn’t going to wow anybody. He may not win the press conference like a Lane Kiffin would, he wouldn’t impress Twitter like a Mike Leach or a Hugh Freeze would, and he might not beat Nick Saban or Ed Orgeron for many recruits on Day 1. (But then again, who does?)
But what he is is a ball coach. He’s a ball coach’s ball coach. And more than that, he’s a winner. He’s done it at literally every level of college football, except the Power 5.
Fritz went 39-5-1 with two national championships at Blinn Junior College, he went 97-47 at Division II Central Missouri, he went 40-15 with two FCS national championship appearances at Sam Houston State, he went 17-7 with a Sun Belt title at Georgia Southern, and right now he’s in the midst of a major turnaround at Tulane. Upon inheriting a Green Wave program that won either two or three games four times from 2011-15, Fritz went 4-8 in 2016, then 5-7 in 2017 (the Green Wave missed a bowl by one yard on the final play of the season), then 7-6 in 2018, and now he’s 6-3 and in the title hunt in the ultra-competitive West Division of the American, where three of Tulane’s five competitors are ranked in the CFP Top 25.
Fritz has spent now 27 consecutive seasons as a head coach at five different colleges with five different cultures, five different challenges from a resources and support perspective, five different recruiting profiles, and he’s won at all of them. You simply don’t win 68.6 percent of your games across 27 seasons at five different schools without knowing how to build a winning football program. That success does not happen by accident.
And Fritz’s profile — a 59-year-old with no Power 5 experience — explains why he’s a good fit for this Arkansas job at this time. He’s spent 37 seasons building recruiting ties across the southern midwest portion of the country, in Missouri, in Texas, in Louisiana, in Georgia. He’s also gone into areas where he had no prior ties and built them anyway, because that’s what successful head coaches do. And at 59 years old, Fritz is both experienced and hungry. He’s not in his 30s with the next two decades of his career to think about. He’s eager to prove himself at the highest level of college football, and he’s eager to do it right now.
If Fritz is too far a bridge for the Hogs to cross, another name that we hear drifting in the wind is Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz. The 55-year-old son of former Arkansas head coach Lou Holtz took Connecticut to the FCS quarterfinals, took East Carolina to two Conference USA titles and four straight bowl games and, now, after an unsuccessful 3-year run at South Florida, he’s on the verge of his sixth straight bowl trip, his third division title and perhaps a Conference USA crown with his 8-1 Bulldogs team.
To rebuild its program, Arkansas needs program builders, coaches who have done it before. There are two of them right down the road.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest.