Western Division Loaded With Coaches

LITTLE ROCK — Weeding out the rumors from the right-on is the thrill of the hunt in a coaching search, and this was the first Sunday of December 1976.

The day before that, Arkansas had lost to Texas in Austin, and the day before that, Orville Henry had broken the story that Frank Broyles was retiring after 19 years as Razorback football coach. Jimmy Johnson wanted the job, but he was not yet a head coach and Broyles had zeroed in on Lou Holtz, who had won at North Carolina State with dynamic offense. Holtz was still coach of the New York Jets at the time and a cohort was gracious enough to share a home phone number. When Holtz answered, I identified myself. "Where did you get this phone number?" he asked. "From a friend of yours in Memphis." "If he gave you my phone number, he's no friend of mine," Holtz said. From there, he was evasive about Arkansas, but very clear about the difficult world of coaching men who were getting paid more for doing a task than the taskmaster. Less than a week later, with a game to go in the NFL, Holtz was introduced at a news conference in the chancellor's office at Fayetteville. Holtz's take on the NFL came to mind when Nick Saban made it official that he preferred college football at Alabama over the pro version in Miami. Whether it is the lifestyle of Tuscaloosa vs. south Florida, or Saban's ability to recruit vs. hiring help, or something else will be debated. In Miami, he had money and control and an owner willing to accommodate his every whim so the $40 million or so from Alabama doesn't add up to No. 1. On SI.com, Don Banks had this quote from an NFL insider who knows Saban: "College coaches have a hard time getting used to the salary cap in the NFL, because in college you could have the No. 1 running back in the country and still go recruit the No. 2 and No. 3 guys. You just stack up good players and then you have all the leverage with them. ‘Oh, you don't want to do it my way? Well, I'll just play the next guy.'" Not exactly what Holtz said, but along the same lines. Whatever the reason, Saban is back in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference and that is what should matter most to Arkansas fans. The man can coach college football and the Razorbacks open SEC play in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 15. During his five years at LSU, the Tigers were 48-16, including a national championship in 2003. Considering the fact that LSU has continued to win under Les Miles, it is easy to forget that the Tigers had seven losing seasons during the 1990s — the pre-Saban dark ages. People who pay attention say Saban's practices at Baton Rouge were so precise and so technique-oriented that they looked like something from 30 years earlier. Paid to watch LSU 34, Georgia 13 in the SEC championship game in 2003, I wrote about the Tigers' athletes and their picture-perfect tackling. That would have been the Tigers' third straight trip to Atlanta if not for the Matt   Jones miracle in Little Rock the previous year. Once almighty with the pick of the crop, Alabama has 13 commitments for 2007 and Scout.com does not consider the group a Top 25 class. Saban will have to compete with Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and others, but he can sell. Already a deserter in Baton Rouge, Saban now qualifies as a traitor, too, signing on with the hated Crimson Tide. No telling what names he will earn if he mines the fertile fields of Louisiana. Off-the-field, Saban will also have a major impact. Throughout college football, his contract will be the benchmark, and there will be a trickle down for all in the game. More than 40 college football coaches, including Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, make $1 million or more, but Charlie Weis at Notre Dame and Bob Stoops at Oklahoma are the only ones above $3 million. In the SEC, Tuberville, Philip Fulmer at Tennessee, and Urban Meyer at Florida make $2 million or more. West Virginia's Rich Rodriquez is one of those who said no to Alabama. He's supposedly making $1.75 million at Morgantown. What do you suppose he will ask for the next time a school comes courting? And, what about Chris Peterson, the Boise State coach who is the new whiz kid with a playbook that has people talking from coast to coast? ---- Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media's Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.

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