Two of the vacant head coaching positions in the Southeastern Conference were filled Tuesday when Arkansas hired Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema and Auburn hired Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn, a former Auburn assistant.
The hirings came just a few days after Kentucky hired former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to be its head coach and left Tennessee as the only program in the conference still looking to fill a vacancy.
Both Arkansas and Auburn made changes after dramatic drop-offs in short periods of time.
The Razorbacks, who plummeted from national prominence a year ago to a 4-8 finish in the wake of Bobby Petrino’s sudden dismissal last offseason, announced Bielema’s hiring in a statement Tuesday. He replaces John L. Smith, who was not retained after serving on an interim basis after Petrino’s firing a amid a sex scandal.
The Tigers brought back Malzahn after going 0-8 in the SEC just two years after winning the BCS Championship with a 14-0 record. Auburn’s collapse under Gene Chizik was most evident in the drop-off by the offense that Malzahn coordinated before leaving for the Red Wolves a year ago.
The Associated Press, quoting a person familiar with the situation Arkansas, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information hasn’t been released publicly, said Bielema’s deal is for six years and $3.2 million annually.
The Razorbacks had briefly courted LSU coach Les Miles with a reported five-year, $27.5 million offer last week before Miles agreed to a new seven-year contract and raise with the Tigers.
Bielema, Barry Alvarez’s hand-picked successor at Wisconsin, was 68-24 in seven seasons with the Badgers, with four double-digit win seasons. He coached Wisconsin to three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances, securing the last with a resounding 70-31 victory against Nebraska in the Big 10 Championship game on Saturday.
“His tough, aggressive style of play has been successful and will be appealing to student-athletes and Razorback fans,” Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long said in a statement. “He not only shares the vision and values for the future of Arkansas football, he embraces them.”
Bielema’s success with the Badgers was built around powerful offensive lines and talented running backs, which is much different than the pass-oriented scheme Petrino used to resurrect the Arkansas program.
“During my conversation with Jeff (Long), he described the characteristics for the perfect fit to lead this program,” Bielema said in a statement. “It was evident we share the same mission, principles and goals.”
Bielema, 42, was the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin for two years before being promoted to head coach in 2006. He played for Iowa and started his coaching career there as an assistant under Hayden Fry and later Kirk Ferentz.
He arrives at a pivotal time for the Razorbacks program. Long said during the season that the new coach would be expected to build on the recent success at the school, which is looking into expanding 72,000-seat Razorback Stadium and is currently building an 80,000-square-foot football operations center.
“The infrastructure in place at Arkansas shows the commitment from the administration to accomplish our goals together, and I am excited to begin to lead this group of student-athletes,” Bielema said. “This program will represent the state of Arkansas in a way Razorback fans everywhere will be proud of.”
Auburn is hoping Malzahn, 47, can recapture as head coach the kind of success he had as offensive coordinator when Cam Newton was running his offense on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy two years ago.
Things began to fall apart when Newton moved on to the NFL as the No. 1 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers. A year later, Malzahn left for Arkansas State to become a head coach for the first time.
He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record, a Sun Belt Conference title and a berth in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
“It’s an outstanding institution with a storied football program that I had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand for three years,” Malzahn said in a statement. He thanked school representatives for their confidence “in my ability to turn this program around and to bring Auburn back to national prominence. This is a homecoming for me, and I look forward to being reunited with the Auburn family.”
Malzahn returns with his fast-paced, no-huddle offensive style. He replaces Chizik, a defensive coach, who was fired one day after a 49-0 loss to No. 2 Alabama to complete a 3-9 season.
Before his arrival at Auburn in 2009, Malzahn had spent two seasons as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator. He was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas for one year after a successful run in the Arkansas high school ranks.
Auburn had the nation’s 115th-ranked offense last season, averaging 305 yards a game. The Red Wolves were ranked 19th in total yards under Malzahn.
“We are tremendously excited that Gus Malzahn will be our next head football coach,” Athletic Director Jay Jacobs said. “Coach Malzahn was the clear unanimous choice of our search committee. … This is a great day for Auburn football and Auburn University.”
Auburn owes more than $11 million in buyouts to Chizik and his coaching staff. Malzahn’s contract and salary information were not immediately available.
The NCAA has been investigating the recruitment of signee Jovon Robinson, who was ruled ineligible after a guidance counselor admitted to creating a fake transcript.
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