Lunney the right man to coach during a difficult period for Hogs

Barry Lunney Jr. /

The first time Barry Lunney Jr. stepped on a University of Arkansas practice field, he was media savvy.

Nothing has changed in 27 years. He innately understood how to communicate with the media even before he attended his first UA class, and based on Monday’s press conference, he’s still got that knack.

One of the first questions he took as a player was how to pronounce his last name. Was it pronounced Looney or Lunney?

He quickly quipped, “It’s Lunney as in bunny or funny or money.”

Time and time again, Lunney delivered smart, cogent, articulate and often witty answers to questions throughout his career as the Razorbacks’ predominant starter from 1992-95, and with the spotlight on him once again, he delivered Monday just like he did when he quarterbacked the Hogs to Arkansas’ first SEC Western Division title in 1995.

While the idea of “winning the press conference” isn’t nearly as important as so many think, Lunney certainly accomplished that task Monday when Arkansas athletics directer Hunter Yurachek sat next to him in a press conference announcing the Fort Smith native as the Razorbacks’ interim head football coach until the position is filled, hopefully in the next four to six weeks.

If you’ve not watched his introductory press conference, it also featured Yurachek candidly yet professionally explaining the need to fire Chad Morris as the Razorbacks’ head coach with two games left in the season. The decision basically came down to a lack of functional leadership on Morris’ part which allowed a team to regress as it moved through the season for the second year in a row.

Yurachek pinpointed the second half of the Razorbacks’ loss 24-20 loss to Kentucky as a pivotal point where he saw the Hogs begin to backtrack as a team. The blowout losses to Auburn and Alabama didn’t help, but the Razorbacks’ increasingly poor performances against mediocre teams like Mississippi State and Western Kentucky sealed Morris’ fate.

Yurachek, who had been meeting weekly with Morris on Sundays, said that Morris knew prior to the Western Kentucky game that its outcome was critical to his job security.

Likely based on the criticism the UA received when it fired Bret Bielema almost instantly following his final game against Missouri in 2017, the announcement of Morris’ dismissal did not come until Sunday. However, Morris probably knew his time as Arkansas’ coach was very short when he answered a series of difficult questions Saturday after the 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky.

Morris’ 4-18 overall record at Arkansas that included losses to non-Power Five programs Colorado State, North Texas, San Joses State, and Western Kentucky, as well as an 0-14 mark in the SEC, should add up to just cause for termination in anyone’s book.

When I say nothing has changed with Lunney in 27 years, that’s just concerning his way with words. Obviously he has matured, but he still exudes the confidence and charisma he had back in his playing days along with an appropriate level of humility that made him the best choice for the role he is undertaking for his alma mater and beloved Razorback football program.

Lunney’s being asked to provide leadership for the 120 young men, the coaching staff, and the rest of the network of individuals that make Razorback football go on a daily basis as well as recruit for the program without a permanent head coach.

In many ways, it’s a thankless task, but Lunney understands the duty better than most because legendary athletic director Frank Broyles fired Jack Crowe, the head coach that recruited Lunney to the UA, after a loss to the The Citadel, one game into the 1992 season.

Lunney understands almost exactly what the players are going through, but more importantly, he has found a way to lead them.

Lunney said the final three weeks of the season would be about the players. In all honestly, Morris and his staff were coaching to save their jobs all season, but Lunney said the staff’s efforts would be directed toward giving the players two opportunities to play their best games of the season — whatever that may look like.

That message was for the players and the staff, but as a Hog fan, it sounded great to me.

Like any Hog fan, I want the Razorbacks to win every time I call the Hogs, but realistically I can appreciate and enjoy football when the Razorbacks fight with all-out effort and determination regardless of the game’s outcome.

For whatever reasons, we didn’t see much of that during Morris’ tenure as coach. Maybe we will see it happen in these final two games?

Lunney said way back during his Razorback playing days that one of his goals was to be the head coach of the Razorbacks. Certainly, this isn’t the conditions under which he was aspiring to gain the position, but I like that he is trying to make the most of it for the Razorback players.

Lunney said he would like to be a candidate for the job full time, but he knows that probably isn’t in the cards. Yurachek dodged the question as to whether Lunney was given any sort of assurance of employment with the Razorback football program following the hiring of the new coach.

With Lunney leading, I’m interested and even excited to see how the Hogs’ play in their final two games at No. 1 LSU on Nov. 23 and against Missouri at War Memorial Stadium on Nov. 29.

In similar situations, I’ve seen Razorback squads dissolve into a shell of themselves like the Hogs did in the 2008 Cotton Bowl with Reggie Herring taking over the team for Houston Nutt, but I also saw the Hogs rise up to upset No. 4 Tennessee at Knoxville in Lunney’s first start as quarterback in 1992.

I’m not expecting any miracles, but it sure would be nice to see the current Razorbacks to close out this season with some pride, not for Lunney or the fans, but for their fellow teammates.