Hog fans hungry to support a winner

With the Arkansas Razorbacks’ runner-up finish in the College World Series last week, the book was closed on the 2017-18 athletic year.

Obviously the CWS didn’t end the way Hog fans wanted with Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks coming so close to winning the national title but ultimately being denied by Oregon State.

There’s no use in rubbing salt in an open wound by retracing the details. If you care, you don’t have to be reminded of the circumstances.

When you push the action on the field aside, what I take out of the Razorbacks’ run in the 2018 College World Series is first how much class the Razorbacks showed in victory and defeat, and second, how supportive Hog fans were of their team.

Arkansas’ fans and their ardent and unwavering support of the Razorbacks was amazing. Yes, Omaha, Neb. was a relatively short drive for Hog fans, but Razorbackers dominated the CWS like Kentucky fans do the SEC Basketball Tournament. Fans painted the stands Razorback red for all of Arkansas’ games from the onset, but the tournament got redder and redder and redder as the series advanced.

At one point or another, each member of ESPN’s broadcast team raved about the support of Razorbacks fans who dominated T.D. Ameritrade Park Red for the better part of two weeks.

The Hog’s runner-up spot in the CWS pushed the program to tie its highest finish in the Director’s Cup at No. 16 since Learfield Sports began the end-of-the-year ranking for overall collegiate sports programs 25 years ago.

Coming out of a spring where Arkansas’ fan base seemed a bit fractured over the continued play of Razorback football games every other year at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, it was grand to see all Hog fans around the state rally to support the Diamond Hogs.

The scene at Omaha had to be an encouraging experience for new athletics director Hunter Yurachek and new head football coach Chad Morris. Each may have heard stories about how passionate Razorback fans could be during their hiring process, but neither actually experienced the full intensity of that support until they attended the opening game of the championship series together.

Razorbacks fans support their program, in general, through thick and thin, but that support truly becomes special when the Hogs provide them with something truly worthy of being excited about.

Even Hog fans who weren’t able to make their way to Omaha showed their support back home. The CWS championship series was the most-watched in nine years based on Nielsen ratings, and while there is no doubt that Oregon State and college baseball fans in general played a role in generating those numbers, Hog fans back home were glued to their TV sets until the unfortunately bitter end.

Again, that response by Hog fans had to be heartening to Yurachek, whose job as A.D. at the moment is not only to run the program but also to unite Razorback fans.

It also had to give Morris a bit more of an idea of the support his gridiron Hogs will receive this fall when they take the field at Razorback and War Memorial stadiums.

As caustic as portions of the fanbase can seem at times, particularly in the off-season, Hog fans really just want a team they can proudly support. For whatever reasons, the Razorbacks’ play on the football field the last season and a half sunk to a level that was untenable.

While Bret Bielema the man was still appreciated by most Arkansas supporters, the product on the field soured so much that it became clear something was amiss early last season.

From a fan standpoint, I, like others, hoped that Bielema and his staff could right the ship, but the 28-7 loss at TCU was bitter, and the 48-22 loss at South Carolina, which was actually uglier than the final score, sent the team and fanbase spiraling.

The Razorbacks won just two more games the rest of the year — 38-37 over Ole Miss and 39-38 over Coastal Carolina. Both were embarrassing comeback wins. The Razorbacks lost to Mississippi State, 28-21, and Missouri, 48-45, at Razorback Stadium to less than enthusiastic crowds, who knew the writing was on the wall for Bielema’s venture as coach.

It was a season where there was more drama off the field than on it the last month of the season.

Few outside the Board of Trustees know when the consideration of firing former Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long began.

When news first began to leak and be reported about his job being in jeopardy, it took many if not most by surprise.

In all likelihood the decision had been made by the Trustees to push hard for his removal by the time of a Nov. 9 Trustees meeting when UA Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz met with the board in executive session evidently discussing Long, even though Long’s dismissal didn’t come until Nov. 15.

Outside of Arkansas, Long was admired mainly for the way he handled the firing of Bobby Petrino as well as his work as chair of the College Football Playoff Committee. He became one of the few athletic directors whose name was recognizable by college football fans around the country.

However, in nearly 10 years on the job, Long had evidently ruffled more feathers than made influential friends. Whenever true deliberation began for dismissing Bielema by the powers behind the program, it was also deemed necessary for Long to go.

After Petrino, John L. Smith, and Bielema, there was evidently little confidence in him hiring the next coach. The huge $15.4 million buyout attached to Bielema’s contract was also an issue. However, it seems the way he ramrodded the approval of the renovation and expansion of the North end zone of Razorback Stadium damaged relationships, and his condescension concerning the future of Razorback football games at War Memorial Stadium to the Trustees and Gov. Asa Hutchinson could have been the last straw.

Another person with a different style might or might not have been able to survive as athletic director at Arkansas under those circumstances, but the Trustees saw it necessary to remove Long before they could remove Bielema.

One thing that’s for certain, though, is if the football team had been winning on the field, Long’s political style, friendliness factor, and management approach would not have been under such close scrutiny. And if a football coach were winning eight to 10 games a year at Arkansas, a big buyout wouldn’t have been a factor because nobody would have been looking to make a change.

Winning eight to 10 games a season in the SEC by a program like Arkansas’ has never been easy, and it’s not getting easier. Morris and Yurachek know that now, and they will know it even better in December no matter what the outcome for the forthcoming season is.

Arkansas fans aren’t the most bloodthirsty group in the SEC, not by a long shot. For the most part, they are fairly understanding. While fans are hopeful, few are expecting anything miraculous this season.

Some might even be underestimating what Morris can do with the players he inherited from the Bielema regime. I think the Razorbacks were better than the way they played the bulk of last season, but I freely admit that might be the fan in me talking.

Yurachek and Morris experienced how supportive Razorback fans can be last week at the College World Series. Now it’s up to them to build a football program that is talented enough, plays hard enough and well enough to earn the full appreciation of a very hungry Razorback fanbase.