Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer
Former Arkansas chancellor John White didn’t coin the term “golden handcuffs,” but when he used it to describe the exit strategy he devised for Houston Nutt at the end of the 2007 football season, he indelibly inscribed the term in the minds of Razorbacks fans.
In that situation, Arkansas and Nutt mutually opted to not exercise aspects of their contract so Nutt could take the head coaching job at Ole Miss and Arkansas could be rid of the mess he and others created within the football program.
Arkansas fans might want to keep that in mind as this season progresses.
While there is too much football to be played for a definitive decision to be made by Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long, chancellor Joseph Steinmetz, and the Board of Trustees about Bret Bielema’s tenure as head coach, they have to be concerned with the state of the program at this moment, and they have to be considering their options.
While Bielema has to be focused on the task at hand — attempting to win games — his agent Neil Conrich wouldn’t be earning his money if he weren’t also considering exit plans for his client.
Bielema’s contract stipulates a $15.4 million buyout for Arkansas or for him if he were to leave or be fired from the Razorbacks’ job through Dec. 31.
It drops to a still enormous $11.7 on Jan. 1, 2018 and then to $7.9 million on Jan. 1, 2019, and then $4 million on Jan. 1, 2020.
However, as with what happened with Nutt, Bielema and Arkansas could agree to suspend that clause in the contract if Bielema wanted to take another job and Arkansas was OK with him leaving.
Once again, the golden handcuffs would be released by both parties.
Now, $15 million or even $11 million would be a huge amount of money for anyone to leave on the table, even if he were moving to another handsomely paying job.
However, in the long run, such a decision might be the best move for Bielema’s coaching career. He is a relatively young man with an absolutely young family.
Some might ask if Bielema is damaged goods, considering what’s happened the last five years at Arkansas? Could he find another job worth forgoing his buyout?
His agent would of course answer it by pointing out the difficulty of the Arkansas job, and anyone who is being honest knows there is truth to that.
It’s not impossible to win at Arkansas, but the program requires more than just a solid coach for it to be a winner. It needs a coach who can elevate the situation not just maintain it. However, coaches of that caliber are few and far between, and generally they gravitate to jobs that have better natural recruiting grounds than Arkansas enjoys.
And that’s one reason Long, Steinmetz, and the Board of Trustees have to be very wise with their decisions over the next few months.
The best thing for all involved would be for Bielema, his staff, and players to pull this season out of the ditch, and for the program to move forward. However, it seems that would require four to five victories in the final seven games. At this moment, it’s hard to imagine that happening.
The fact that the well-respected Bielema has struggled as Arkansas’ coach does reflect on him, but it would be naive to believe that it doesn’t also reflect on the Razorbacks program and how difficult it is to be a winner at Arkansas.
Arkansas has the money to pay a coach well, but TV contracts have made it where most Power 5 conference schools have the money to pay their coaches $3 to $5 million a year. It’s the going rate.
Furthermore, if Arkansas were to hire a “name coach,” it would have to pay him more than Bielema is being paid, and the contract would also have to contain another steep buyout clause. That’s just the way it is.
Even with that, the job would not be easy to fill with a coach who would immediately make fans excited. College coaching jobs are always more difficult to fill than fans expect them to be.
The situation at LSU where the Tigers were gunning for the likes of Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman, but had to settle for Ed Ogeron is the perfect case in point.
Oregon might get it done at LSU, but then again that looks like 40/60 proposition at best at this time.
Yes, Long, Steinmetz, and the UA Board of Trustees have to tread carefully with their decisions about the football program during the next few months. Whatever they choose to do won’t be easy, and the outcome won’t be certain.