Analysis: Coaching Search Bungled

FAYETTEVILLE -- Seven days now.Arkansas has been without a men's basketball coach now for seven days, much longer than any of those close to the program expected.

And all kinds of questions have arisen since Stan Heath was fired on Monday, 10 days after completing his second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and his second straight 20-win season.

In no particular order, the following queries have consumed Razorbacks fans throughout this dramatic, frustrating and, at times, mortifying week for them:

* Was it really necessary to let Heath go, coming off two straight 20-win seasons with him bringing back the best team of his tenure?

* Why is Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles is leading the search by himself?

* How did Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie get away? Wasn't that supposed to be a done deal?

* How much money can Arkansas afford to spend for a coach as salaries skyrocket around the country?

* And, last but certainly not least, who will be the next coach?

Well, to start with, the decision to fire Heath already appears suspect.

Arkansas hired Heath in 2002 to replace Nolan Richardson. Just days before, in his only season as a head coach, Heath took Kent State to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Fans and university officials knew the road to a program turnaround was a long and twisty one. Richardson even told Heath that he didn't leave him much with which to work.

Heath managed to rebuild, though. Sure, it took some time. His first three teams didn't qualify for postseason play. But his fourth and fifth teams made the NCAA Tourmament. He won 22 and 21 games in those seasons, respectively. And, in the process, he assembled a few recruiting classes ranked in the top 15 in the country.

Those are all reasons why Heath's firing sparked some outrage nationally. His mentor, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, said he felt "almost vindictive." ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said the decision proved that "Frank Broyles doesn't have any idea what he is doing."

Then again, Izzo and Bilas aren't down here. They aren't in Fayetteville, where season-ticket sales and actual attendance had dropped steadily. So Broyles, who's announced he's stepping down in December, felt like he had to make the decision, keeping in mind, of course, the apathy shown by fans and the concern exhibited by boosters.

By doing so, Broyles proved the decreasing influence of Arkansas Chancellor John White, who helped bring Heath and former women's basketball coach Susie Gardner to Arkansas. White privately gave Heath a vote of confidence, a gesture he couldn't see through.

Also, by being appointed as the lone person in charge of finding Arkansas' next coach, Broyles was given full clearance to make the hire that could shape his legacy. Interestingly, White has had no role in the basketball coach search, even though he is leading the search for Broyles' replacement.

In fact, no one seems to be assisting Broyles as he scours the coaching ranks. Simply put, this has angered and mystified many fans and boosters.

They find themselves asking: Does an 82-year-old ex-football coach have what it takes to mold the future of the Arkansas basketball program?

Broyles hasn't spoken publicly about the process.

But a close confidant of Broyles can't believe he's not consulting others, people who know more about basketball than the Arkansas AD. If Broyles can't lock down a coach that would thrill the masses, that would sell the tickets that went unsold, he will catch immense heat.

And he should.

It's a tough sell to get rid of a coach who made two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. It's a tougher sell when the person leading the search appears to have gone through Plans A, B and C, leaving him to interview candidates in Atlanta.

The only deduction Broyles' friend can form from how the situation unfolded is that Broyles expected the search to be easy and swift.

Two words may have led Broyles to think that way.

Billy Gillispie.

Over the past month, secretive talks between representatives of Gillispie and the university took place, a source close to the program said. These chats likely molded Broyles' thinking. Gillispie showed immense interest. The representatives tossed around salary figures.

Simply put, Gillispie seemed highly intrigued by a possible Arkansas opening.

But, it's evident that not enough communication was delivered between these representatives and Broyles. After Broyles fired Heath, Gillispie refused to return phone calls from Broyles. So did Texas A&M Athletic Director Bill Byrne. In the meantime, the representatives had only limited discussions.

All of a sudden, Gillsipie to Arkansas wasn't even close to the "done deal" the representatives believed it would be. And Broyles seemed puzzled, frozen even. All he could do was wait by the phone.

Byrne finally called on Thursday morning, and Broyles was unable to reach Gillispie during a two-hour window. After the two-hour period, Byrne called back again to say that Gillispie was staying in College Station.

Panic mode surely ensued. No other similar contacts had been made with coaches who might be interested. As was said throughout, it was Gillispie or bust.

Well, Arkansas busted. Broyles took off for Atlanta a day later and interviewed candidates, refusing to take calls or discuss his search methods at all.

The entirety of the week has left fans on edge.

All they can think is, "Who now?"

Those close to the program said money wasn't an option, and it still isn't. Actually, it now looks like Arkansas won't have to shell out as much money as it once thought.

Initially, with names such as Gillispie, Kansas' Bill Self and Southern California's Tim Floyd out there, the conventional thought was that Arkansas would have to pony up. Nearly $2 million per year, probably.

But now, as the candidates list has swelled (and big names dropped), Broyles could land a bargain buy.

Which now brings us to the ultimate question. Who will coach Arkansas next season?

Realism must first dictate the list. It seems as if Gillispie, Self, Floyd and UNLV's Lon Kruger are out of the picture. Those four big names likely would've satisfied Arkansas' fan base, the main criteria that people must remember right now.

Broyles didn't get rid of Heath strictly because of on-court performance, though Arkansas' maddening inconsistency did impact the decision. He made a change because of the lagging interest in the program. With 20,000-seat Bud Walton Arena and top-notch facilities, Arkansas is the type of place where a big-time coach could thrive.

Fans know that, and Broyles realizes that. More than anything, he needs to fill seats. He needs to get donations to The Razorback Foundation back up.

He needs to land a big splash, someone who will immediately inject excitement into the now-lethargic fanbase.

Unfortunately, there are precious few coaches left like that who would be willing to come to Fayetteville. Five jump out, however.

The most intriguing is Memphis coach John Calipari, Arkansas' new No. 1 target, according to several sources close to both basketball programs. The sources said Calipari was offered the job on Friday in Atlanta by Broyles.

Calipari has a 181-63 record in seven seasons at Memphis, went to the Final Four with Massachusetts and coached the New Jersey Nets for two-plus seasons.

Rick Majerus has shown interest, and he took Utah to the Final Four before joining ESPN as an analyst. Mike Montgomery helped Stanford advance to the Final Four and coached the Golden State Warriors. He is now out of coaching. Jamie Dixon keeps arising among fans. Dixon is 105-30 in four years as Pittsburgh's coach. Bruce Weber got to the national championship game with Illinois and has indicated interest.

Beyond that, Broyles would be hiring a coach relatively unknown to Arkansans. That did work with the hiring of Eddie Sutton, then at Creighton, and Richardson, then at Tulsa. And it could work again if Broyles finds a coach whose style of play would appease fans who enjoy an up-tempo pace.

There are plenty of options out there. As far as experienced coaches, Creighton's Dana Altman, Wichita State's Mark Turgeon, Oral Roberts' Scott Sutton and Winthrop's Gregg Marshall would no doubt listen. Relatively inexperienced possibilities include Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery, Virginia Commonwealth's Anthony Grant and New Mexico State's Reggie Theus.

Even Oklahoma State's Sean Sutton has had his name tossed around by several college basketball commentators.

But this time around, fans are expecting more than a mid-major find. They expect more because of the way Heath was shown the door. They expect more because of their expectations.

They expect more because they felt confident Arkansas' name and stature could draw a big-time coach to return the Hogs to big-time success.

Unfortunately, Broyles' actions -- or inaction -- might have gotten in the way.

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