‘Gym’Backs’ vie for a trip to NCAA Super Six

With Jeff Long gone, is it safe to call the Arkansas Razorbacks gymnastic team the Gym’Backs again?

Long, Arkansas’ former athletics director who was fired in November, made a number of changes in the early stages of his administration of the Razorbacks’ program. One of them was to combine the men’s and women’s programs under one umbrella instead of running the programs somewhat independently. He also beefed up the athletics department’s Media Relations Office — formerly the Sports Information Office. Those were good things.

Other changes, not so much. Long definitely wanted to put his brand on the program, and he did over his decade reign. He built a figurative wall between the athletic administration and anyone outside of it through a buffer of employees. Fans became customers. Donors became clients. The veneer of family was scrapped away from the Razorback program like barnacles off a ship or the plaque off your teeth in the name of professionalism.

Maybe that was good? Maybe it was necessary? Maybe it was the attitude that ultimately led to his “surprise” dismissal?

There were also rumors early on that Long wanted to do away with referring to the Razorbacks as “Hogs” and to deemphasize “Calling the Hogs” as a Razorback tradition. We know that didn’t happen. Not sure if there was any truth to those rumors, but there was a Herculean effort to clean out the stables while modernizing Arkansas’ athletics department.

With the men’s and women’s departments combined, two brands Arkansas’ Women’s Sports Information Department had worked very hard and quite successfully to establish were jettisoned in the name of branding.

Arkansas women’s teams were no longer to be call the Lady Razorbacks or the Lady’Backs and with that Arkansas’ gymnastics team would no longer marketed as the Gym’Backs.

The idea that Lady’Backs diluted the Razorbacks brand is pretty silly. Does Diet Coke dilute Coca-Cola’s brand or enhance it? It’s obviously the latter.

Now, I don’t believe calling Arkansas’ women’s teams the Lady Razorbacks or Lady’Backs was ever meant as a pejorative. I definitely do not believe the use of the name implied that Arkansas’ female athletes weren’t “good enough” to be considered Razorbacks, hence Lady Razorbacks. That thought never crossed my mind until I read an article about the trend of athletic departments dropping “Lady” when referring to the mascot of its women’s teams years ago.

While I personally believe Arkansas women’s teams lost a distinct personality that so many coaches, athletes, and public relations person worked very hard to develop and took great pride in, if using Lady’Backs was truly that offensive, it should have been pushed to the side for the sake of the offended.

However, the loss of Gym’Backs is another story. At the time, co-gymnastic coaches Mark and the former Rene Cook had made a great effort in promoting Arkansas’ gymnastics program both in the community and on the recruiting trails as the Gym’Backs. There was a true, popular, and marketable identity of the Gym’Backs that was lost with Long’s decision.

Since there is only one Arkansas gymnastics team, the name coined by the coaching staff wasn’t offensive. It was gender neutral.

Now, the loss of the Gym’Backs nickname hasn’t hurt Arkansas’ gymnastics program on a competitive level. Mark Cook and the athletes he’s recruited have seen to that.

The Razorbacks compete at noon today in the NCAA Gymnastics Championships in St. Louis. Arkansas is in the Session 1 against UCLA, Nebraska, Alabama, LSU and Georgia in the meet that will be televised by ESPN2.

It’s Arkansas’ first trip to the NCAA Championships since 2013, and the Razorbacks will be vying for its third Super Six appearance in the program’s history and it’s first since 2011.

“It’s real exciting,” Cook said in a quote released by UA Media Relations. “We haven’t been there in a couple years. There were several individuals, but it’s exciting to go with the team. The team was focused, they set goals and they stayed on task this year. Now it’s just a matter of putting it down.”

Cook said if his squad can relax and perform up to their capabilities they have a chance of advancing to the Super Six.

“All we have to do is stay relaxed, do our job and stay clean,” Cook said.” It’s all about the landings, being sharp and just being relaxed. You get too tense sometimes, and then you start changing things. In gymnastics it’s like taking a putt, you get tense and you push it. Same thing in gymnastics, we just have to keep our minds relaxed, be aggressive and stay clean.”

So, while Shakespeare was on point when he wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word, would smell as sweet,” I personally think names like Gym’Backs or Diamond Hogs in reference to Arkansas baseball squad aren’t offensive, are great supplemental brands, and are a cool way to distinguish the various Razorback sports instantly in the minds of fans.

Diamond Hogs hit the road to Starkville

Speaking of the Diamond Hogs, Dave Van Horn’s No. 4 Razorbacks baseball team faces the Mississippi State Bulldogs in a three-game series, opening tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Dudy Noble Field.

Saturday’s game is at 6 p.m. and Sunday’s is at 1 p.m.. and all three can be streamed on ESPN3.com

The Hogs (28-10, 10-5 SEC) continue to lead the SEC West, but LSU (24-14, 9-6) are nipping at the Razorbacks’ heels. The Tigers tend to get stronger as the season wears on and Ole Miss is just two games back of Arkansas at 8-7 in league play and 30-8 overall.

It’s imperative for the Razorbacks to stay on their toes against the Bulldogs this weekend if they want to ensure their continued hold on the Western Division.

Blaine Knight (6-0, 1.95 ERA) is set to pitch in the opener against Mississippi State’s Konnor Pilkington (2-5, 2.57 ERA).Kacey Murphy (5-2, 2.00 ERA) is expected to pitch for the Razorbacks on Saturday and Isaiah Campbell (3-3, 3.44 ERA) on Sunday.