Heath Still Has Job; Names Circulating

LITTLE ROCK--This is awkward yet unavoidable, writing about coaches who might fill a job that is not vacant.

It is not news that Arkansas basketball coach Stan Heath is in big trouble.

Losses to Auburn on the road and Tennessee at home have put the Razorbacks in such a hole that winning the Southeastern Conference tournament seems to be the only way that Heath will be the Razorback coach past mid-March.

The 5-9 SEC record is bad enough, but the fact that Ole Miss and Mississippi State are tied for the Western Division lead at 7-7 only fuels the frustration.

I empathize with Heath, who is trying to prepare his team for two more regular-season games and the SEC Tournament while names of possible successors are bandied about.

But, in light of the situation, Arkansas is likely to have a list of candidates.

The names that come up most often are Bill Self at Kansas, Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M, Mike Anderson at Missouri, Doc Sadler at Nebraska, and Mark Turgeon at Wichita State.

Self has been enormously successful and Gillispie may be the most wanted coach in the country.

Anderson and Sadler have ties to Arkansas.

To me, Self and Gillispie would be the most difficult to hire.

Self, who has taken Kansas, Illinois, and Tulsa to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, signed a five-year contract with the Jayhawks late last year.

His total package is almost $1.4 million per year and it will climb to $1.6 if he stays for the duration of the contract.

Gillispie makes less than $1 million, but he will get a seven-figure bonus if he stays in College Station for six more years. (Insert Aggie joke here)

The longevity bonus diffused talk about Gillispie being in the running at Missouri and Indiana, but if he makes it known that he can be hired, there may be a bidding war.

Although Heath is making less than $1 million, Arkansas could come up with the money to hire Self by raising ticket prices. However, it seems unlikely that Arkansas would pay a new basketball coach more than a football coach about to begin his 10th year and a recent raise bumped Houston Nutt's salary to almost $1.5 million.

During Self's first three years at Kansas, the Jayhawks won a share of two Big 12 regular-season titles and the conference tournament last year.

With one week to go, Kansas and A&M are tied for first in the Big 12 and both are in The AP Top 10.

Arkansas fans think the Razorbacks have a basketball tradition, but it pales when compared with that of the Jayhawks. Nationally, Kansas is in the elite with Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, and North Carolina.

Well-versed in the Arkansas program, Self knows the names of beat writers and is enamored with Walton Arena — a point he made clear while in town for the Holiday Hoops tournament in December.

When Heath was hired, at least one or two members of the search committee wanted Self. Some people say he wanted too much money at the time; others say Arkansas felt obligated to hire an African-American on the heels of Nolan Richardson's dismissal and follow-up lawsuit.

Those who are convinced that Self would be willing to listen cite his desire to be closer to Edmond, Okla., and his reported disgust with criticism every time Kansas loses early in the NCAA Tournament.

Last year, the No. 4 Jayhawks fell to Bradley in the first round; the year before, No. 3 Kansas lost to No. 14 Bucknell.

Gillispie's success has been phenomenal, considering the lack of tradition at A&M.

The year before he arrived, the Aggies were 7-21 and winless in the Big 12. His first year, they went 21-10 and made their first postseason appearance in 10 seasons. Last year, the Aggies defeated No. 5 seed Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA.

An assistant to Self at Tulsa and Illinois, Gillispie won at UTEP before A&M. In his second year, the Miners were 24-8 — an 18-victory improvement and the best in Division I that year — and made it to the NCAA.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media's Arkansas News Bureau. e-mail: hking@arkansasnews.com.

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