LITTLE ROCK — Disappointing at the time, the adios to Arkansas State University from Hugh Freeze one year and Gus Malzahn the next turns out to be a positive for ASU.
Keenly aware of the career path of Freeze and Malzahn, offensive coordinators from a couple of the best programs in the Big 12 were interested in the ASU job. So was the offensive coordinator from Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State, at least one prominent defensive coordinator, and others.
Former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino removed himself from consideration, probably because Jonesboro is too close to Fayetteville for his wife.
As a result of the inquiries, the school was hiring from a position of strength and selected Bryan Harsin, the guy responsible for calling the plays at Texas. Even non-ASU fans in Arkansas must take note when the Red Wolves acquire a coach from the Longhorns.
Note the fast track of his predecessors:
—Promoted from ASU offensive coordinator to head coach on Dec. 2, 2010, Freeze won a Sun Belt Conference title, and was hired as the Ole Miss coach barely one year later.
—Malzahn left as Auburn’s offensive coordinator on Dec. 13, 2011 to become head coach at ASU, won a Sun Belt championship, and left Jonesboro last week to return to Auburn as head coach.
Their departures did not deter ASU from going down the same path again because there is a valid argument that a perfect storm caused both men to leave. Freeze had coached at Ole Miss and Oxford was his dream job; Malzahn was the coordinator when Auburn won the national championship and was a popular choice with the fans. He even called it a “homecoming.”
ASU fans worried that Harsin will be a one-and-done can take solace in the fact that no jobs are likely to be open next year in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Once Petrino was out of the picture, hiring a coordinator was the way to go. Noted during Jeff Long’s search for Arkansas’ new coach, virtually every successful coach in the country was a coordinator before taking over a program and ASU choosing a play-caller was preferable to picking a defensive guy.
A successful defensive coordinator from one of the so-called big time schools would have been in for a rude awakening at ASU, which is not apt to have the same sort of defensive personnel as a school from the SEC or the Big 12 or the like. That being the case, the wide-open, spread-option attack espoused by Freeze and Malzahn gives the Red Wolves the best chance to compete.
Only 35, Harsin was offensive coordinator for five years at Boise before joining Mack Brown at Texas two seasons ago. Known for being versatile and innovative, Boise was 61-5 with Harsin as OC, but some wondered if he was Chris Peterson’s pawn — the same label often applied to Kirby Smart, Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama.
It is difficult to tell if Harsin had a free hand at Texas or whether Brown was involved to a great degree. Supposedly, Harsin favored quarterback David Ash and Brown was on the side of Case McCoy.
At ASU, Harsin will start over at quarterback and craft his offense to fit the strengths of the guy who replaces Ryan Aplin. At Arkansas, Bret Bielema put it this way: “The offense that we end up running here, it’s always going to be a transition. How much it relates to last year’s offense vs. next year’s offense is to be determined.”
Some people wonder why Harsin is leaving Austin. One theory is that, like Malzahn, he wanted to disassociate himself from a head coach who might be in trouble. Or, maybe it’s as simple as a bright, aspiring young coach pursuing a proven career path.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.