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McCollum's Column: When coaching searches are like picking melons

Posted: December 16, 2013 - 8:40pm

Last summer, I was trying to select a good watermelon at a farmers market.

A guy in overalls, who seemed to know a good bit about watermelons, was assisting me. Then he muttered, “I can give you a whole lot of pointers of how to find a good watermelon, but to tell you the truth, you probably won’t know for sure until you cut into it.”

During the past few days, several people have asked me about the swirling coaching carousel, most notably the University of Central Arkansas, and I thought about watermelons.

Finding the right coach at the right time at any university is an inexact science and you really don’t know until a month or a year out.

There is no one-size-fits-all in college coaching. Every situation is different — from the culture and structure of the institution to the community environment.

After being involved in coaching searches for about five decades, I’ve seen this hold true dozens of times: A coach who has had great success at one place can fail at another. On the other end, a coach who has had modest success in one place becomes a successful icon in another.

And successful coordinators don’t always make the best head coaches.

Often times, the on-field coaching part is the least complicated job as a head coach. He has to be able to recruit and recruit consistently. He has to be able to keep players on track academically. There are media responsibilities, alumni responsibilities, booster responsibilities, enhanced leadership responsibilities, marketing duties and community responsibilities. He must fit well into both the academic and social culture of the institution and locale. He has to be involved in a whole lot of detail — from players to assistant coaches to college administrators, faculty and staff.

More often than not, these will take time away from the on-field duties, where most coaches are in their comfort zone.

In coaching circles, fans like to automatically throw out names they admire or have a connection to or coaches who have a great record at other places, sometime one- or two-year wonders. It’s a sport to throw any name out and see what sticks.

Athletic directors have to navigate a whole lot of minefields — often with the recruiting clock ticking.

That’s the situation with the University of Central Arkansas’ Brad Teague, who believes it is crucial to have a new coach in place by the end of the week. Next week is Christmas week (likely a lost week), it’s at least another week before things get rolling.

Teague is a professional, very experienced and savvy in coaching searches and whose foot is rarely off the accelerator when the challenge arises.

A lot of names, many knee-jerk, have been tossed about already for UCA.

A great attribute of Teague is he seems to pride himself from finding the right coach at the right time for the right situation. He goes by feel as much as resume. He’s not afraid to go outside the box but also knows when to stay in it.

Teague currently is leaning toward a coach with college Division I or junior college experience. He’s not completely writing off the current staff, but he realizes Clint Conque is likely to be taking several or many of them to Stephen F. Austin.

Some names who have been tossed out that, from my observation, might appear to be serious candidates.

So with no guarantee but for funsies and in no particular order:

Ken Collums, Abilene Christian coach and a former UCA assistant and the quarterback who led the Bears to an NAIA championship. He knows the UCA culture, cares about the univesity (his wife is a former UCA homecoming queen), has been successful as an assistant and a head coach at ACU and has connections in this area.

Steve Roberts, former Arkansas State, Northwestern State (La.) and Southern Arkansas head coach who is currently the athletic director at Cabot. He recruited many of the players who gone on to produce three highly successful years at ASU and he may want to get in coaching, He is well-respected among his peers. A question is whether he wants to return to the rigors of coaching.

Chris Hatcher, Murray State. He was highly successful at Valdosta State, not so much at Georgia Southern and Murray. He might be one of the main examples of not judging a coach by his record at another institution.

Buster Faulkner, offensive coordinator, Middle Tennessee State. The former Valdosta State star is regarded as a bright young coach who served as Conque’s assistant one year. He’s also familiar with the UCA tradition and culture and could be a good fit for the community.

Todd Cooley, Delta State. He had a highly successful run as offensive coordinator for the Bears from 2005-2008 before joining Bradley Peveto’s staff at Northwestern State. In his first year as head coach at Delta State last season, he led the Statesmen to a 7-3 mark and reportedly received a contract extension. He’s another coach extremely familiar with the UCA environment and has recruited in the university’s major footprint in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.

One media source reported that one coach that Teague interviewed Monday was Steve Campbell, head coach of Gulf Coast Community College in Mississippi (who has had national success on the junior college level). Teague knows him from his Delta State days.

A couple of the longshots:

Scott Maxfield, Henderson State. He’s been highly successful there, has a fun offense. However, I think Teague is going to look primarily at coaches with Division I experience because it is a different culture, both from the recruiting standpoint and academic standards. I think Teague wants individuals who have labored in that culture.

Tim Horton. The Auburn running back coach is another knee-jerk possibility because he is a former Conway High star, University of Arkansas player and assistant, son of Harold Horton (the second winningest coach in UCA history) and his in-laws live in Conway.

However, Horton has already reportedly received raises and bonuses for Auburn winning the Southeastern Conference championship, beating Alabama and reaching the BCS championship game. If the Tigers win the national title, there will be more enhancements. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is reportedly committed to doing everything within his powers to keeping his staff intact. And Horton could be in line for an offensive coordinator’s post if Rhett Lashlee gets a head coaching post.

Possibly more important, Horton has moved his family a lot and it would be difficult to move his family, which is comfortable at Auburn, again. His daughter will be a junior in high school next year and those who have had daughters that age know that situation.

Money issues notwithstanding, a lot of dominoes would have to fall and UCA would have to catch lightning in a bottle to get Horton.

The good news for UCA fans is Teague has a track record of hiring good people who are a good fit for UCA and he has no shortage of quality candidates  this time. Convincing a candidate that he can win and win big at UCA is not an issue.

And the UCA fan base and boosters have confidence in Teague and that he will hire a good coach.

It could be one of the names mentioned or somebody good out of left field. No one probably knows the extent and full quality of the pool for which Teague is fishing.

But I’m confident that reports than Jon Gruden was seen dining at Mike’s Place are false.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)

 

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