FAYETTEVILLE — Jeff Long said he made a “difficult decision” in firing Bobby Petrino, who led the Razorbacks into the national conversation after going 21-5 over the past two seasons.
But it’s not the only difficult decision Arkansas’ athletic director faces now that Petrino is gone.
The Razorbacks are searching for a new coach to keep the program competing among the Southeastern Conference’s best in 2012 and beyond. Long hasn’t offered much in regard to what he is planning, but the choices are clear: promote a current assistant to interim coach or find a full-time hire this spring.
It’s something Long touched on briefly during his announcement Petrino was fired for cause on April 10.
“That’s part of my process,” Long said. “I’ll be seeing what coaches have self-identified to us as being interested in our program. ... We can command a high-level football coach. We are not going to compromise that. If we have to go through the season with an interim I’m going to consider that. But, again, I need some time to play out the search and see where it is.”
Assistant head coach Taver Johnson was placed in charge of the program through the end of spring practice, which wraps up with the Red-White Game in Razorback Stadium on Saturday. The Razorbacks will be on the practice field Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday this week in preparation for the spring-ending scrimmage.
The week since Petrino’s dismissal has generated plenty of speculation regarding the coach’s successor, but few concrete facts. Long did admit, though, the timing of the firing — less than five months until the season opener — certainly complicates the situation.
“It’s a difficult time of year to be searching for a head football coach, no question,” Long said when he announced Petrino’s firing. “But I do think that our program is one that there will be people interested in.”
If Long stays in-house for 2012, Arkansas’ most likely candidates are Johnson, defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and running backs coach/recruiting coordinator Tim Horton.
Running back Knile Davis plugged Horton, his position coach, for the position last week. Other players said they simply hope the staff remains in place for 2012.
“A lot of these coaches have been here for awhile and once you have that connection there is that sense of normalcy ad that's tremendous,” quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “Once you have those coaches you have those relationships it makes things run a lot smoother.”
None of the four has head coaching experience. Horton was key to keeping Arkansas’ recruiting class intact during the transition period between former coach Houston Nutt and Petrino in Dec. 2007. Haynes and Johnson have recent experience working as part of an interim staff, too, coaching at Ohio State last season after Jim Tressel was resigned in late May.
Assistant Luke Fiskell was promoted to interim coach for the 2011 season. Haynes and Johnson said their experiences during a tumultuous time could help Arkansas if Long keeps the current staff in place for 2012.
“I think any time you go through an experience you can add some things to it,” Haynes said after last Friday’s scrimmage. “To sit there and say, ‘Hey, this is what we need to do and this is what we don’t need to do.’ And we have talked about that as a coaching staff.”
Texas Christian’s Gary Patterson, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, South Florida’s Skip Holtz, Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn and Alabama-Birmingham’s Garrick McGee have all been asked about the Arkansas position after their names emerged in early speculation. None said they had been contacted by the Razorbacks about filling the job now.
Neither has former NFL coach Steve Mariucci, whose name emerged Sunday afternoon. The website coachingsearch.com cited sources as saying Mariucci was interested in Arkansas after being off the sidelines since 2005.
“I just had a few phone calls from my son and a few friends asking what’s going on and to be honest I hadn’t heard about it,” Mariucci told Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. “It comes as a complete surprise to me.”
Mariucci’s last coaching stint came with the Detroit Lions in 2005. He was a head coach in the NFL for nine seasons with the Lions (2003-05) and the San Francisco 49ers (1997-2002), going 72-67. Mariucci’s last experience as a college head coach was at Cal in 1996.
The 56-year-old currently works as an analyst for the NFL Network and told CBSSports.com he’d be looking for the “right situation” if he ever returns to coaching.
“I haven’t ruled (coaching again) out,” Mariucci said. “I enjoy what I do now. If something that comes up that makes sense, but I’ve had no contact with Arkansas.”
Long has reached into the NFL ranks to hire his previous two football coaches at Pittsburgh (Dave Wannstedt in 2004) and Arkansas (Petrino in 2008).
If he goes that route again, one well-known Arkansas supporter has offered his suggestion for the athletic director. PGA golfer John Daly is backing Jon Gruden.
Daly sent a message to Long via Twitter saying he was “still strong behind Gruden as I still think he would be the man to take us to that level!” Daly added later: “Been trying to help, all is in (Long’s) hands & I’ve passed all info to him – if that is the route they want to go I think that Gruden would be the perfect fit!”
Gruden won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2002 and remained with the organization until he was fired after the 2008 season. Gruden, like Mariucci, now works in television. He is part of ESPN’s Monday Night Football team and also has worked with NFL-hopeful quarterbacks in “Gruden’s QB Camp” on the network.
His name has been mentioned in numerous coaching searches at both the NFL and college levels the past few seasons, but has not taken any other position.
“If we can’t get Gruden we need a NFL coach – Petrino raised the bar in Razorback football & I’m hoping @jefflongua gets us someone strong is my point!” Daly said, referring to Long via Twitter on Sunday. “I’m here to support our Hogs & the decision that is made!”