So just exactly who is the Arkansas Razorback football program for?
Is it for the players and the students?
How about the coaches, staff, administration. What about the faculty?
Is it for the alumni?
Maybe, it’s for the season ticket holders.
Or is it really for the donors and boosters?
Football fans in general?
Could it be the whole state?
Or is it for anyone who identifies themselves as a Razorback?
The ideal answer, of course, is all of them. But rarely are the ideal and the real one and the same.
What happens when those various groups are tugging against each other like they seem to be now?
The one thing we’ve learned in the last two years is that there seems to be a fracture in the Razorback fanbase, no matter how you wish to define it.
There’s not a lot of people who were satisfied, and that led to the upheaval that played out in the University of Arkansas’ athletics department last fall.
The biggest issue, of course, was the struggles of the football program in Brett Bielema’s fifth season as head coach.
The Razorbacks not only weren’t winning enough, but the Hogs were also losing in demoralizing fashion.
Auburn’s 56-3 victory over the Razorbacks in 2016 is one of the worst beatings I’ve seen a Razorback team absorb in watching more than 40 years of Arkansas football. Arkansas didn’t even put up a fight.
However, the losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale and the Belk Bowl that season were worse on a certain level. The Razorbacks had double-digit leads at halftime, and yet the coaching staff wasn’t astute enough to protect the leads and go home with victories.
The stink of those two games clung to the Razorbacks like a case of Seinfeld B.O. into the 2017 season, and after the first weekend in October when South Carolina dismantled Arkansas, 48-22, it became pretty clear that there would be a change at head coach, unless there was drastic if not miraculous improvement in the team’s play.
Arkansas came back to beat Ole Miss, 38-37, and barely beat Coastal Carolina, 39-38, for the only two wins the rest of the season. There were no miracles in 2017 for the Hogs, not even a Henry Heave that saved Arkansas’ bacon against Ole Miss in 2015.
The spiral of the football program under Bielema also sucked athletics director Jeff Long under, or maybe Bielema’s struggles just created an opportunity for those upset with Long to strike.
Though reportedly well liked by the coaches, players, and staff within his administration, Long had stiff-armed so many outside “his” Razorback program in his decade as athletics director that when some of his decisions were called to the carpet by the UA Board of Trustees, he had no meaningful booster support.
Long, who had a fostered a great reputation nationally, had not tended to his home-state garden well enough.
It’s difficult to know whether the large buyout that was written into Bielema’s contract was the main issue or was it simply that the Trustees and boosters were scared to let Long make another hire after what happened with Bobby Petrino, John L. Smith, and Bielema.
Or were Long’s abrasive tactics concerning the North End Zone Project, games in Little Rock and other issues the major concern?
It was probably all of that plus another factor that made his dismissal happen. The other factor being the possibility of hiring Gus Malzahn as head coach.
When Auburn visited Arkansas in October to bludgeon the Razorbacks, 52-20, Malzahn was on shaky ground at Auburn. However, when his Tigers posted regular-season upsets of Georgia and Alabama in the intervening month, Malzahn not only gained traction but also had leverage in his contract negotiations with Auburn.
When Malzahn turned down Arkansas’ offer, it looked like Arkansas was left holding an empty bag that had a nearly $20 million price tag. That’s the amount of the buyouts Arkansas had to pay to relieve Long, Bielema, and his staff of their duties.
No big-name coach. No athletics director. A $20 million bill. And an annoyed and frustrated fan base that was questioning everything.
Convincing arguments could be made that Arkansas should not have let Long or Bielema go. Some observers feel both were knee-jerk reactions.
I can see both sides. I never liked Long. I never felt he truly respected Arkansas, its fans, and its traditions, but I can’t fuss with most of the results he had as athletics director. Could he have accomplished more? Maybe, but there is no way to know for certain. He certainly could have fostered a better relationship with fans.
As for Bielema, I liked him, and I liked his brand of football in theory. However, there was something wrong within that locker room during the back half of the 2016 season and all of 2017. It seemed the effort, toughness, drive, and desire it takes to be successful at a program like Arkansas’ wasn’t there. Arkansas has to overachieve to be successful in the SEC. Could he have turned it around at Arkansas? Maybe, but I doubt it. The bulk of the fanbase was ready for a change, and by the end, it seemed like Bielema was too.
The hiring of Hunter Yurachek and Chad Morris as athletics director and head football coach respectively soothed some of the frustration at the time, but at the edge of summer, any euphoria fans may have felt about the hires seems to have worn off.
That’s not to say Hog fans aren’t going to give Morris a chance or support the Razorbacks, but there is a wariness and an uncertainty that was not present when Petrino or Bielema took over the program.
The stadium debate still rages for some, and it unfortunately became a bit bitter last weekend when former defensive lineman Bijhon Jackson, who completed his eligibility last December, stated through social media that the players didn’t like playing in Little Rock.
Some pro-Little Rock fans came down on him pretty hard on social media. I doubt any would have been that harsh in person. You’d think Hog fans would have a bit more respect or if not that maybe affection for former players?
That’s not to say Jackson’s opinion is all that meaningful. Right or wrong, the players in all college programs are cogs in the machine for a time that are replaced by new cogs as soon as their eligibility is up. With Long and Bielema’s opinion about playing in Little Rock being negative, it’s no surprise the players didn’t like playing there, and it’s no surprise how poorly the Razorbacks have played in Little Rock since Long became athletic director.
If games are to continue to be played there, hopefully Yurachek and Morris will foster a better, more traditional attitude about playing in War Memorial Stadium. It has to be a genuine belief that playing there isn’t a hassle or the players will see through it.
Similarly, any one fan has little say in the program. If he or she doesn’t renew their season tickets there is usually someone to take their place. It seemed Long loved to remind fans of that in the correspondence concerning ticket renewals and pledges. If you don’t buy tickets, you can say what you want, but it carries even less weight.
While the Razorback Foundation generally bends over backwards to help with issues when contacted by phone or in person from my experience and from stories I’ve heard, much of the marketing to ticket holders could have been more tactful while Long was A.D. While in the strictest sense, fans are customers, prior to Long, a stronger bond was fostered among fans and the program, and it made a difference, particularly as expenses for traveling to and attending games increase. Feelings and emotions do matter, particularly in sales.
Of course, the cure for most things with college football is winning. It makes everything better. I think a lot of the stress felt among the fanbase — from those who have influence because of the size of their donation down to those who just have a passing interest in the outcome of the games — is the fear Arkansas is no longer in a position to be truly competitive.
That’s the task Yurachek and Morris face, building up the confidence in the fanbase as they attempt to heal wounds and fractures they played absolutely no role in creating. That’s a tough gig.
I like the fact that Yurachek has done a lot of listening early in his tenure. That was needed, but now, I’m far more interested in watching what he does as A.D. The decisions and moves he makes as he attempts to carry the program forward are ultimately what’s important.
I hope he learns from Long’s mistakes, but I also hope he’s not so beholden to boosters that he’s not able to make the best decisions for the program, even if if they aren’t the most popular.
As for Morris, I’m excited to see what his brand of football can do at Arkansas. I’m eager to see an aggressive defense under John Chavis, and I’m just hoping my heart and rear end can endure 4 and half hour football games on a weekly basis.