Every football game is important. The Toledo Rockets made that abundantly clear to everyone involved with the Razorbacks program last week. However the importance of Arkansas’ 6 p.m. Saturday contest against Texas Tech to Bret Bielema’s Razorback program can’t be overstated.
Well, I guess it can be overstated. If the Hogs do lose to the Red Raiders at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, I’m not suggesting Bielema would or should be fired. That would be an overstatement and a devastating overreaction by the powers that be. Instability is the last thing Arkansas’ program needs right now.
No doubt, some would call for his head if the Hogs lose. More than a few outlandish fans mentioned it this week, mostly in jest. Mostly.
Bielema no Crowe
Fans remember the fate of Jack Crowe, the former Razorback head coach whom Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles fired in 1991 after the Hogs lost 10-3 to The Citadel in the first game of his third season as head coach. It was a rash decision by Broyles, made to correct his rash decision of hiring Crowe in the first place.
Crowe, who had done a solid job as the Razorbacks offensive coordinator with a loaded team during the Hogs’ 1989 Southwest Conference championship season, was set to go with Ken Hatfield and the rest of his Razorback staff to Clemson in late January of 1999. However Broyles called Crowe off the plane bound for South Carolina.
Broyles hired Crowe as a stopgap measure in the hopes of salvaging Arkansas’ recruiting class, which would be signing in early February. While Crowe had a solid reputation, he was not ready to head up a major college program, certainly not one that was making the move from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern.
Crowe was the most indecisive major college head coach I’ve ever covered. On occasions, he actually asked reporters their opinions on matters during his weekly news conferences. As a young reporter, it didn’t seem out of place to me at the time. However, after dealing with many more coaches both at Arkansas and at other programs over the intervening years, it was absolutely odd. In fact now, I wouldn’t believe it happened if I had not witnessed it. Successful head coaches may take the blame for a poor performance as a show of leadership, but they certainly don’t seek the media’s opinion on their decisions in an open forum.
Bielema is not like Crowe. He is decisive. Bielema has a plan for Arkansas’ program, a very distinct one, and though his results have been mixed through two games into his third season, there has been progress on and off the field. That progress, in my estimation, is strong enough to make any thought of a rash removal of Bielema from his position just plain silly.
However, Bielema’s honeymoon with Arkansas fans is likely over. Bielema and the Razorbacks’ program experienced uncommon goodwill over the summer. In general, fans and media alike were impressed by the Razorbacks’ domination of LSU, Ole Miss and Texas in three of their last four games of the 2014-15 season.
Despite that progress, it seems now that expectations were set too high for the Hogs this year. Bielema was complicit in raising those expectations by touting his team far and wide. It’s uncommon for a coach to express such confidence in his team with the media. That overconfidence seems to have turned into a trap both for his Razorbacks and their fans. As stated before, the 16-12 loss to Toledo was a shock. The Hogs didn’t consider losing to the Rockets a possibility, and their fans didn’t either.
Ironically, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit actually said Toledo could upset the Hogs during the spring, but in late July, he tweeted that he was considering making Arkansas his pick to win the SEC West. Granted, Herbstreit’s tweet came before Jonathan Williams’ injury, but it does go to show how swollen the perception of the Razorbacks became during the offseason.
Even if the Toledo loss turns out to be just a slight blip on the radar screen, it’s still not going to be forgotten. Should Bielema go on to have a very long tenure as the Head Hog, whenever his team struggles, fans and the media will remember Toledo.
Remembering Ken Hatfield
Interestingly enough, Hatfield faced a similar situation, and it’s one of the reasons he left Arkansas in the lurch to go to Clemson even after winning back-to-back SWC titles in 1988 and ’89. Hatfield had been feuding with Broyles, who was also his head coach at Arkansas, since a tumultuous 1987 season in which the Razorbacks finished 9-4, but failed to meet fan expectations. That ’87 season featured crushing defeats to Miami, 51-7, and Texas, 16-14, which still color fans’ perceptions of Hatfield today, despite the fact he left the UA with a 0.76 winning percentage, the best ever tallied by a football coach at the school.
The loss to Miami that season was shocking to Hogs fans, not so much that the Razorbacks lost — both teams were ranked in the top 10 —but in the way Miami dominated the Hogs in every phase of the game. Arkansas fans were riding too high on the Hogs. The media had overestimated the value of pork that season, and it added fuel to the fire when college football pundit Beano Cook picked Arkansas to win the national championship.
Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson, a Razorback teammate of Hatfield’s under Broyles, had a collection of talent the Razorbacks and no one else in college football were ready for that season. Johnson also had a point to prove to his old coach and by extension his old teammate.
When Hatfield was hired to replace Lou Holtz after the 1983 season, Broyles not only passed over Johnson for the Arkansas job, but he also embarrassed him, as unintentional as it might have been. Johnson learned that his interview with Broyles had actually occurred after his old coach had already hired Hatfield yet before Broyles had publicly announced the decision. Shortly, thereafter, Miami hired Johnson to replace Howard Schnellenberger.
Miami beat the Razorbacks so bad in that contest there was no room for “ifs” and “buts.” It was the first clear sign that Miami would go undefeated and win the national title.
As embarrassing as that Miami game was, the loss that ultimately sealed Hatfield’s reputation with Hog fans was the last-second loss to Texas. Arkansas was the more talented team that season, but the Longhorns, author of so many Razorback woes over the years, engineered an 11-play, 56-yard drive that culminated with a how-did-he-catch-it touchdown pass from Bret Stafford to tiny Tony Jones as the clock expired. The 5-foot-6 Jones cradled the 18-yard, game-winning catch while being struck by three Razorback defenders.
Unless you were a Hog fan at the time, I’m not sure there is any way to relate how demoralizing that loss was. Arkansas’ fan base was gashed by the Miami beatdown three weeks earlier in War Memorial Stadium, and then an inferior Texas team waltzed into the same stadium and ripped the scab right off that wound in tragically dramatic fashion. There were few times in the history of Arkansas’ rivalry with the Longhorns when Arkansas could legitimately claim to have the better team. To have Texas find a way to win was too much for many Hogs fans to handle.
Many Razorbacks fans were disturbed that the Hogs did not pass a single time in the second half. What they did not know is that wishbone quarterback Greg Thomas sprained his shoulder on his 7-yard touchdown run that gave the Razorbacks a 14-7 lead with 6:48 left in the second quarter. It appeared the Razorbacks would roll from there, but Arkansas backup quarterbacks Quinn Grovey and John Bland were unable to play from previous injuries, and Thomas did the best he could to avoid turnovers in the second half.
While fans were more concerned with the appearance of stubbornness on the part of Hatfield for not passing, insiders say Broyles was angered by a late-game timeout called by Arkansas defensive coordinator Fred Goldsmith. Broyles saw it as a critical, tactical mistake that was inexcusable. After the season, Broyles “suggested” Hatfield make changes to his defensive staff. Hatfield would not, and their relationship soured from there.
Some feel Broyles would have fired Hatfield in 1988 if the Razorbacks had not won the SWC title, and while the Hogs also won the 1989 title, others say Hatfield accepted the Clemson job because Broyles signed a new contract in January of 1990.
Regardless of how true those rumors may or may not be, fans of a certain age still joke about Hatfield’s reluctance to pass, and those two 1987 losses remain indelibly stamped their memory.
If anything fans are more unforgiving today. The Toledo loss won’t be forgotten. It will always be ammunition for Bielema detractors. However, it doesn’t have to be a defining moment in his tenure at Arkansas. It can just be a blip, but for that to be the case, the first step is finding a way to defeat Texas Tech.
As much as the Toledo game told us about the Razorbacks last week, Saturday’s contest might tell us even more. Do the Hogs have the wherewithal to put their season back on track, or will they take another step backwards before SEC play even begins?
Considering I picked the Razorbacks to go 9-3 this season, it’s obvious your guess is as good as mine.