In a recent column, I wrote that it’s critical for the Arkansas Razorbacks to make a bowl in Chad Morris’ second year as head football coach.
When I wrote it, I didn’t think much about it. I considered the statement to be self-evident, but since writing it, I had an acquaintance ask exactly why it is so critical for the Hogs to make a bowl this year.
So here are my thoughts.
First, my questioner was right that in a grand sense that nothing would really change if the Hogs finish the regular season 5-7 instead of 6-6. I mean, the moon won’t fall out of the sky nor will mountains crumble into the sea based on the outcome of the Razorbacks’ season.
If the Hogs go 5-7 this year, Morris’ job won’t be jeopardized either. Two years isn’t enough time to rebuild a program, and apparently Arkansas’ program was inside-out by the time the school relieved former head coach Bret Bielema of his duties.
However, the minimum standard of success for a season of football is earning a bowl trip. Now, hopefully in a few years, making a “good bowl” will become Arkansas’ minimum standard of success, but the Razorbacks aren’t even close to living in that neighborhood at the moment.
So just making a bowl, any bowl, would be a success for the Razorbacks this year as we go into the season.
Rebuilding a program from the ground up in the SEC can be likened to rebuilding a house in the midst of a tornado.
There is nothing easy about fixing a house once it’s fallen into disrepair, particularly when there is 180 degree change in offensive philosophy and the dearth of overall team speed that existed when Morris took over.
The latter is probably the most difficult challenge. Coaches can teach a different philosophy and players can learn it, but coaches can’t teach and players can’t learn speed. Speed has to be recruited year after year and stacked on top of itself before it can be truly effective in a conference as talented and deep a the SEC.
The best thing Morris and his staff have done since arriving at Arkansas is recruit. Last year’s class was a fantastic start. According to recruiting experts, the Razorbacks are a bit ahead of their pace last year. If you remember, it wasn’t until Arkansas held its “Big Barbecue” event last summer that the commitments began to roll in.
We could see that happen again, and as a fan I hope we do; however, Arkansas could find it more difficult to close prospects this year after last season’s 2-10 record. That can’t be pinned on Bielema. That record is on Morris and his staff, and winning is the only antidote.
If I were a recruit with Power 5 options, I might be a little leery of jumping both feet into that Razorback boat until I see how the Hogs sail this season. It’s the only wise decision unless the athlete has become a dyed-in-the-wool Razorback.
The way for the Razorbacks to build confidence among its recruits is to win. Don’t go 0-8 in the SEC. Get a bowl bid, any bowl bid. Then Morris and his staff can legitimately sell the Razorback program as being one on the rise. Making a jump from two wins to six would be a major triumph, and give him something more tangible to stand on when selling his program.
Making a bowl game this season would bolster recruiting and give the program momentum as Morris’ program moves into its third season. It would be a booster shot of confidence in the fan base.
Fans need to feel good about their program. They need to feel that momentum enough to cough up that money to buy season tickets in the winter and spring without hesitation.
Whether it’s true or not, there is a perception among fans that the Razorbacks are having a difficult time selling tickets for this season. Part of that has to do with the hard marketing push boosters, donors, and previous ticket-buyers have been receiving through e-mail. All the reminders that your payments or donations are due sends a message, and it’s not necessarily a good one.
The fact that three-game, ticket packages were offered in June, and that single-game ticket sales are about to open has some wondering about the health of the program.
The Razorbacks have always been a business, but to folks 40 and older, who remember the Broyles years well, newer, in-your-face marketing tactics can come off as desperate.
A friend of mine from Memphis was joking, but he asked me when would the Razorback robocalls start.
Now fans are fans, and we all like to talk and joke, but at the root of those jokes and talk is a concern for Arkansas’ program that can only be eased by actual success on the football field.
Now, intellectually we know there are teams with losing records that are more talented than those with a 6-6 or even 7-5 marks, but earning that bowl bid is something fans can lock onto.
While the difference between a 5-7 and a 6-6 season can come down to just a matter of inches, the difference in the pride and confidence fans have in their program and its coaching staff is tremendous. It begins to create the kind of confidence that prompts boosters to get those donations in early and fence-sitters to go ahead and buy those season tickets instead of playing the waiting game.
So making a bowl game this year would not only strengthen recruiting efforts, but it would also create momentum and confidence among fans. It would also keep the wolves at bay, at least to a degree.
Short of another 2-10 disaster, Morris has job security going into his third year, but the more the Razorbacks struggle this season, the more resentment will build among the fan base. Fans and boosters might not ask for the head of the coach if the Hogs go 4-8 or 5-7 this season, but that doesn’t mean coordinators and assistants are off the hook.
Whether it’s fair or not, fan bases like scapegoats, and they like the hope that a new name can bring with it. Worse is when administrators see that need to force changes among a coach’s staff.
Former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles and head coach Ken Hatfield got crosswise over Hatfield’s staff in the late 1980s. That rift eventually resulted in Hatfield bolting to Clemson late in the 1990 recruiting season. More than a few believe the Razorback football program has never truly recovered from the blow of Hatfield’s departure and Broyles’ quick hire of Jack Crowe as head coach.
I don’t entirely agree with the argument. Arkansas had too many good years under Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino for me to totally buy it. However, the Razorbacks would have been much better off competitively when it moved to the SEC if Hatfield had been the head coach rather than Crowe.
The point is it rarely works out well when an athletics director feels he has to force a head coach to make changes to his staff. It does buy time for a coach who is struggling, but it’s better when the coach initiates such moves himself.
Bringing in new assistants sends a message to boosters and fans that the coach recognizes a problem and that he is trying to rectify it. It’s part of the politics of big-time college athletics.
That said Morris seems to have a tight-knit staff that he trusts, and they are a very hard working and an uncommonly strong recruiting unit. It would be unfortunate for that group to be broken up without having enough time to show what they can do under better circumstances.
If the Razorbacks fail to make a bowl this season or even if they do, changes in the coaching staff may or may not happen, but it certainly will be discussed among fans.
Some have already wondered if Morris’ offensive staff is too inexperienced to be competitive in the SEC. Others have pondered if his defensive staff may be too long in the tooth.
Most of the talk is just talk, but it’s the type of talk that eats away at a program’s momentum and confidence. With fans already mentioning that type of stuff — accurate or not — another losing season will only make it worse.
Finally, if the Hogs make a bowl game, Morris and Hog fans can take pride in the progress made and legitimately point to a brighter future for the Razorbacks. However if the Hogs have another losing season, that hope becomes more and more hollow, and for better or worse, Morris’ seat become warmer and warmer.
When coaches are asked about pressure from fans, the standard coach-speak response is something to the effect “that no one puts more pressure on me to win than I do.”
In one sense, that may be true. We all need a certain amount of pressure to operate at a high level. However, we all know that college coaches are not immune to outside pressure, the criticism, and just the sheer enormity of leading a college football program.
We see it affect coaches every year.
Nick Saban is arguably the most successful college football coach ever, but during the season, he flips his lid during a press conference every three or four weeks. It’s not as routine or reliable like Old Faithful, but you can count on Ol’ Nick blowing his stack at several points in the season. His teams have only lost six games in the last five seasons. If that’s how the pressure gets to him, think how it works on less successful coaches and their families.
In the SEC, the heat on even the most successful coaches is at least at a simmer, but Morris can keep that pressure turned down by guiding the Hogs to a bowl game.
For the momentum of his Razorback program, and the pride, confidence and hope of Hog fans, Arkansas desperately needs to make a bowl game this season. If not Morris’ job will only get tougher moving into his third season.