Jim Harris: Arkansas’ Bielema Knocking Razorback Staff Hires Out of the Park

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Before we get into the gist of this column, which is that new Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema is going all Mark McGwire on his coordinator hires this week, we’re becoming concerned that baseball metaphors have been flying around like a meteorite shower the past two weeks as Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long went looking for and then found a new coach.

Fans, message board regulars, sportswriters and broadcasters wondered if Long could “hit a home run.” Would he “knock it out of the park” or would it all fall apart as he managed only a “bunt single” or, worse, “struck out”?

Would Razorback fans ultimately greet the new hire as a “grand slam”?

So, it struck us: why all this baseball terminology for a football hire?

If Long ever has to find a replacement for Hog baseball coach Dave Van Horn well down the road, will he be hoping to “score a touchdown,” or “hit a 3-pointer”? Why don’t football and basketball terms work their way into hiring conversations?

Of course, “slam dunk” gets tossed around by folks in many a profession besides basketball. Occasionally, “layup” gets a nod.

Would it throw everyone for a complete loop in these non-hockey-loving parts if Jeff Long had said last week, “I see this hire as a hat trick”? Hat tricks are good, you know? They’re like a three-homer game in baseball.

If we’re stuck using baseball terminology to descriptively categorize a person’s success (or failure) then, let’s say that Bielema is on his way to hitting for the cycle. Oh, wait. On second thought, that won’t work. While the rare “cycle” would sound great, it also might connote that while a triple (pretty good) and a homer (terrific) were involved, it would also mean he had a double and single. We don’t want any “single” hires, right?

(And, I don’t understand that. I like singles. I thought it was a pretty good accomplishment in baseball if I ever had one. Hit a double and it was a red-letter day with ice cream after the game.)

But everybody wants a home run when it comes to hiring coaches.

So, better put, Bielema has just launched homer after homer after homer in his first three hires for position coaches with lots of innings still to play. He’s looking like Babe Ruth (though not literally, Mrs. Bielema).

His hires for offensive and defensive coordinator have completely cleared the fence.

Bielema landed Tennessee’s most recent offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, on Wednesday and then today it was revealed he’d complement the coup by bringing aboard Vols line coach Sam Pittman. Both were out of work after Tennessee’s coaching change, of course, but they wouldn’t have had any problem landing a job anywhere else this week. How better to coexist with the offensive game-planner than to also add his line coach?

Defensively, Bielema enticed Chris Ash to follow him from Wisconsin. Don’t ignore the complementary factor here either: Bielema is the chief defensive mind on this staff, and his right hand at Wisconsin, which had one of the least-scored upon defenses in 2012, are together again.

Skipping the baseball metaphors for a moment, the coaching foundation at Arkansas is taking shape nicely.

Now, no promises of jobs were made to the previous Hog coaching staff other than some might meet with the coordinators and see what transpired.

The most recent UA defensive coordinator, Paul Haynes, who is a candidate for the head coaching job at his alma mater, Kent State, could still be retained on this staff. We’d love to see a spot for Taver Johnson as well; no area needed more help and was coached any better through all the injuries than the linebacker position. Both were at Ohio State before last season; Bielema and Ash should be quite familiar with them.

On the offensive side, Bielema and Chaney will be reaching out to various candidates for the receivers coach, and while it’s believed Chaney would work directly with quarterbacks, the running back spot will also need to be filled.

The question begs, what will happen with Tim Horton, the native Arkansan who coached running backs the past six seasons in Fayetteville as well as coordinated recruiting, holding the 2008 signing class together between the Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino regimes?

Message board speculation out of Alabama Thursday had Horton being pursued by new Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. Losing Horton to an SEC program, especially Auburn’s, might initially hurt Bielema and his plans to “build a fence” around Arkansas and its in-state recruits.

Veteran Hog assistant Bobby Allen, who has coached every position on defense under two head coaches and two interims at Fayetteville, and who will have two sons competing for quarterback time for the Hogs next fall, figures to stay around the staff in some capacity. If Allen was nothing else, he was an able recruiter throughout the past decade-plus.

The hiring of Chaney, and what he could mean for quarterbacks Brandon Allen and Austin Allen, or UA commit Tyler Cogswell, as well as returning senior Brandon Mitchell, intrigues.

Tennessee may have had problems galore this season, but few seemed to be on the offensive side. The Volunteers put up 39 points a game and rang up 450-plus yards per game.

Chaney, who coached Drew Brees at Purdue and has vast knowledge of the spread offense, also coached with the St. Louis Rams in the NFL for three seasons, and his pro-style attack at Tennessee should have both fans and UA prospects relieved that Arkansas isn’t destined for a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach.

Bielema said in a UA press release that Chaney’s style “will blend well with my ideas as we work to put together a plan for the team we have and over time develop our specific philosophy.”

No, Chaney won’t inherit a quarterback like what he had in Knoxville at the outset with this Arkansas football team and he may be hard-pressed to dig up a Justin Hunter at receiver for the Hogs. Replacing Tyler Wilson and Cobi Hamilton won’t happen in one off-season.
But there’s enough about Chaney and Pittman to know that Arkansas won’t be down for long.

Coaches from coast to coast visit Chaney for offensive ideas. Pittman may be the best line coach in the country, some say.

Tennessee passed the football as successfully as anybody in the SEC and still led the league in fewest sacks allowed.

Both men are regarded as outstanding recruiters. Bielema described Pittman as “relentless” on the recruiting trail.

Ash, another skilled recruiter, said earlier this week one of his stronger areas has been Florida.

For some reason, that Florida connection now worries some Arkansas fans. They saw Danny Ford’s staff ignore Florida in the 1990s, while Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino made some inroads but managed only to pull a handful of contributors out of the Sunshine State in a 15-year period.

Arkansas’ efforts in Florida under the past two coaching staffs have focused on the panhandle and the northeastern part of the state; Bielema said his first day on the job that for a school like Wisconsin (or Arkansas) to recruit Florida effectively efforts must be directed “south of Orlando.” With the NCAA problems centered around the University of Miami these days, there’s no better time than now to follow that strategy — and no doubt many others will also.

Yes, Arkansas eventually will have coaches who will hit those fertile grounds of Texas — Chaney has been there before with success wherever he’s been (nine of those years were at Purdue). Bielema has four more spots for coaches/recruiters who can handle the recruiting regions closer to home as well as locking down the home state.

And about that fence around the state. Some years in Arkansas are better than others. At the top this season, Arkansas has three big-time talents in Hunter Henry, Altee Tenpenny and Drew Morgan. Two are committed to Arkansas and all three have expressed pleasure at the new hires. The non-committed one, Tenpenny, had Nick Saban’s full attention on Monday both at school and at home. That alone should tell you how good Tenpenny is and how much Alabama, which already appears stockpiled at running back for the next few years, wants to keep him committed now that Arkansas has a home run head coaching hire and a grand-slam pair of coordinators in place.

UPDATED 12-15-2012 at 5:35

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