State of the Hogs: Timing is Everything

Time and space. It's a concept I learned years ago when an expert on the game of soccer tried to explain the the world's most popular game. We won't go into that, but I will say that there is a time and a space for everything. It's a concept that applies to what happened this past month with the Arkansas football program.

I don't think the time or the space was right for hiring Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator after the 2005 season. It was the wrong move at the wrong time.

Frank Broyles should have known better. He should have learned better after the 1996 season when he asked (or forced) Danny Ford to take Kay Stephenson (or any other pro passing expert) as his offensive coordinator.

Ultimately, that move got Ford fired. Some might argue that Ford was doomed either way because of so little experience both at quarterback and the offensive line and that any offense would have floundered in 1997.

I like Malzahn. I have read his book on his offensive philosophy and think it has plenty of merit. But, I don't think it's a scheme that can be taught in quick fashion. It takes time.

I wrote as much after the Southern California game. Unfortunately, this was a situation where there neither was the time nor the space for that. Why? Houston Nutt and his staff were fighting for their careers this past season. They needed at least eight victories to survive. They couldn't wait for a scheme to develop, especially with a freshman quarterback at the trigger for the better part of the season.

So, there just wasn't the space for two offensive philosophies this past fall. The head coach had to do what he thought was best to save his job. Ultimately, he did that.

Unfortunately, that meant there was no longer space around the Broyles Center for Malzahn. He decided to take his system to a more receptive climate at Tulsa.

It was the right move for all involved. Malzahn needs his own space to follow his dream, the fast-paced spread offense with no huddles. He needs a long-term commitment in which he does not endanger the rest of the coaching staff. Coming in with new coach Todd Graham at Tulsa, someone with the same vision and philosophy gives him the right space and plenty of time.



Was Gus Forced Out?

Do I believe Malzahn was forced to leave? Not in an exact way. It was more a case that the head coach made sure that he was in control of all phases of his team. And, with David Lee coming aboard to coach the quarterbacks, it was obvious to Malzahn that it would be more of the same as far as the 2006 offense as long as Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were on board.

I do think Malzahn planned to stay here, but I couldn't help but remember an interview I did with him after one of the bowl practices in Fayetteville, perhaps a day or two removed from the Damian Williams departure. Here is the guts of that interview, including my questions:

Were you handcuffed this year in your first year as offensive coordinator?

"We did this year what gave us our best chance to move the football," Malzahn said. "We wanted to be balanced and we are going to continue to work towards that. But we did what I thought gave us our best chance to win. We had great backs and a great offensive line. That's why we went that direction."

Did you call the plays this season? Did you have control of the offense?

"Yes, I did," he said. "I'd like to think that I had a hand in helping us do some things to improve the offense. Now, I did get help. But I hope people could see that I did (call plays). But I would also say that it was a collective effort. I thought you could tell that I brought in some things and the guys bought into it. I think we all got more comfortable as the year progressed. Anytime you are working with new people, you get more comfortable the longer you do it. This staff got better the longer we worked together.

"I will also say that I expected that it would be a collective effort and that I would get help. That's the way it was."

Asked about Nutt's role, Malzahn said, "First, Houston is my friend. We worked together well." He said he knew coming in that Nutt would hold "veto power" over all situations just as he did when he was the head coach at Springdale.

"I vetoed things when I was a head coach, you bet I did," Malzahn said. "I expected that he would, too. But we worked and got along well."

What are your plans for next season?

"First, you have to understand that I've coached in this state for 15 seasons and this has always been a dream job of mine, to have influence at this school and help to win games," Malzahn said. "This is what I wanted to do and I like doing it here.

"I came here because Houston asked me to come. I wanted to come here and I want to do more things here. I have a two-year contract and I plan to be here."

So you plan to be here long-term?

"Yes, I signed that contract," he said. "I signed a two-year contract and that's my plan to be here."



The Control Issue

The collective effort part is what I don't think Gus liked. Did he understand it, yes. But he ached for complete control, the kind of complete control he's been promised at Tulsa.

It's a sad chapter in the life of the Arkansas program. I wish it hadn't happened. I wish things would roll forward with Malzahn as the offensive coordinator and Mitch Mustain as the potential quarterback.

It's been a public relations nightmare. It couldn't be any worse than if someone owned a restaurant and they put a billboard above it that said the cooks enjoy flipping boogers at each other as they prepare the food. It just is a nightmare for fans.

I ache for the time we had the night of the football victory over Tennessee when everything seemed right with the world. Whether it was watching the novelty of the Wildcat Package or having ESPN's College GameDay on campus, things seemed perfect. Looking back, it's hard to believe there were any problems because things wouldn't click that well if there were problems.

But, it's never as good as it seems, nor as bad. It makes it hard to enjoy being a fan.

How much of the pain of Malzahn's departure heals in time is hard to tell. I can tell you that there is pressure on David Lee, his replacement, and on Nutt. It's pressure that shouldn't be there after a 10-4 season, but it's real and obvious.

The David Lee hire as offensive coordinator seems like a solid idea. He's spent the last four years working with Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys and has definite ideas on how to help the passing game, including key elements of the blocking protections.

Some fans will see it as an old idea being tried a third time. Others will embrace it as what it is, something that will work as far as chemistry on the coaching staff. It's a critical element that was apparently missing this past 12 months, if you believe some of the rumors.

As I said, time and space are critical. Whether or not it will work, we'll have to wait to see. But I think the time and space issues are at least doable.



Working Chemistry

Lee works well with Nutt. Broyles embraces Lee, too. And, what Lee says about the passing game and what needs to happen make sense. It's clear that he's on board with the chain of command, too.

"I am taking the job as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach," Lee said. "I'm calling all the plays and that was clearly spelled out to me.

"I do, however, want Houston Nutt in all of my offensive meetings because, after all, he is the head coach and he's in charge. If he says we need to run it on third and two , then we will come up with a running play. In Dallas, we called plays, but if (former Cowboys coach) Bill Parcells told us to run the ball, that's what we did."

He said he will work hard on fundamentals with his quarterbacks, but he said the key to the play of his offenses at Arkansas will be pass protection.

"We had 18 pass protection (schemes) with the Cowboys," Lee said. "It's like I saw a few weeks ago when Nick Saban came in here (with the Miami Dolphins). People are smart and they find ways to attack you. They figure you out so you better be able to protect. You can't have one or two pass protections.

"You have to take time working on (all of the pass protections) every day. That's what I learned."

Lee said it would be hard to pin down what he plans to do as an offensive scheme into one word. Multiple is what he seemed to be saying in his description.

"You look at the Cowboys or anyone else in the NFL and you will see two backs with a tailback and a fullback, one-back sets, H-back sets and no backs," he said. "You have to be multiple so people can't figure you out. You better keep changing and you better not settle into one thing.

"What I can tell you is that I've seen those backs at Arkansas. The beauty of the last four years is that I've learned a lot and you better be doing different things.

"I'm not stupid, though. I see that Arkansas has the best running back in America and they may have the second best.

"We are going to feed those two studs."



CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. THIS COLUMN APPEARED IN THE FEB. 1 ISSUE OF HI. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET

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