To regrettably borrow from Bon Jovi (and Lord knows I'm not going to cite him much here), Arkansas is halfway there in filling two major athletic department vacancies, and at least as of the time of this writing, livin' on a prayer to plug the remaining void.
Jeff Long's successor as athletic director was announced Monday, and it's Hunter Yurachek, a name that wasn't necessarily on anyone's radar. Granted, the rumor mill about the head athletic administrator job churns at a snail's pace, and at a lower profile, than the football coaching position. But Yurachek's short (just shy of three years) tenure in the same capacity at the University of Houston, plus a four-year run in the AD chair at Coastal Carolina prior thereto, didn't exactly signal him as a favorite.
Whatever swayed those in charge about Yurachek, it's evident that he's of the go-getter mold. At 49, he enters the job just a tick older than Long was when he took the reins of the department in 2007, but with undeniably impressive credentials. He also, to be clear, is every bit as foreign as Long was to the rigors of big-dollar, bigger-expectation performance that the Southeastern Conference demands. Yurachek is, ironically, cut from a very similar cloth to the one from which Long came: He's a Virginian, whereas Long was reared in Ohio, and his professional ledger has found him climbing the ladder all over the map, but only sporadically in the Southern states.
And he's walking into a minefield, fiscally and otherwise. With a bloated expansion to Reynolds Razorback Stadium ongoing, and growing discontent over the state of the football program that occupies it, Yurachek faces a challenge even more daunting than the one Long endured when he was tabbed to supplant Frank Broyles a decade ago. Long's tenure ended in mid-November largely because the cash cow he had nurtured was not performing, due to a flyer he took on a coaching hire that may have been made as much on sentiment as it was on performance. Bret Bielema wasn't a bad hire despite all the revisionist history outpouring now: His 68-24 record in seven years at Wisconsin made him, by far, the most accomplished major college coach that the University of Arkansas has ever poached for the job.
Yurachek may be having some input on who's replacing Bielema, but to be honest, he may be better off being able to skirt accountability for whatever decision is soon to be made. After all, Long's three hires for the position — Bobby Petrino, John L. Smith and Bielema — were all disasters for varying reasons. There is so much scuttlebutt now about Chad Morris and Brent Venables and Mike Norvell, what with the absurd Gus Malzahn power-play episode in the rearview, that it does make some sense if Yurachek is influencing this, as he knows about Morris and Norvell from being a Group of Five AD, and he can see the virtue of bringing in a talented coordinator like Venables because Tom Herman put in two great years as the Cougars' football coach after being Ohio State's offensive coordinator. (Note: Yurachek did not hire Herman, as he was brought on to replace Mack Rhoades in the spring of 2015.)
As for this football coaching vacancy, it remains to be seen if Arkansas is going to take a stab at a defensive whiz like Venables, or an up-tempo offensive mind like Norvell or Morris. There's a bit of a belief, I guess, that Arkansas's only way to genuinely compete in this hellish league is to try to outscore opponents. That was the reason Petrino was plucked away from the NFL, because his brand of football was exciting and completely counterculture in this smashmouth state. Norvell and Morris both, being coordinators of substantial acumen at big schools before getting their head coaching shots at Memphis and SMU, respectively, would bring that same brand, with less abrasiveness and perhaps a more approachable recruiting philosophy.
But let this be Pearls' desperate advocacy for a guy like Venables, too, who is an unquestioned titan as a longtime defensive coordinator at two major programs, first Oklahoma and then Clemson. He lost a little luster while in Norman because the Sooners' wide-open offense led them into a lot of shootouts, but he's a two-time Broyles Award finalist (and winner in 2016) for the work he's done in Death Valley the past few seasons. And here is the real quandary: It seems like finding a gifted offensive playcaller these days is pretty easy, but finding a bright defensive guy is a rare thing. Venables, for what it's worth, would probably serve in a dual capacity as head coach and defensive coordinator, or at least would deflect the latter duty to someone he's long trusted or admired, whereas it's a complete, scary-as-hell unknown whether Norvell or Morris could or would place value on a high-end DC.
This isn't to suggest that any of these three known candidates, or any other outliers, would falter in staff selection. But they all need to heed the lesson Bielema learned the hardest possible way: Finding and keeping valued assistants is the linchpin of your legacy in Fayetteville. Broyles knew it so well that an award was named after him. Houston Nutt buddied up to a bunch of hangers-on, and Petrino let a mediocre, ill-fitting defensive coordinator Willy Robinson flounder for four years, sabotaging his own success. Bielema came here and expressed a willingness to compensate and retain great staffers, but by the time he walked off the field Nov. 24, he had been through three defensive coordinators in five years, and position coaches were revolving constantly. Certainly, it is unlikely that any head coach will keep the same staff year in, year out, but whomever Yurachek and Co. appoint to the top Hog spot is going to have to do a bang-up job filling out the other offices in the athletic complex.