Lunney Jr. seeks winning moment for Hogs before new coach is hired

Barry Lunney Jr. / Photo:

Barry Lunney Jr. is asking for a united moment from the Arkansas Razorbacks (2-9, 0-7 SEC) and their fanbase at 1:30 p.m. Friday at War Memorial Stadium where the Hogs will host the Missouri Tigers (5-6, 2-5 SEC) for the final game of both programs’ season.

Lunney is, of course, Arkansas’ interim head football coach, but there is nothing interim about his membership in the Razorback Nation. He was born into it.

His grandfather John lettered for the Razorbacks for four years in the 1940s, and played in the dedication game for War Memorial Stadium on Sept. 19, 1948, and Lunney started the better part of four seasons for the Razorbacks 1992-95. His final season, the Hogs won their first SEC West Division title and made Arkansas’ first of three appearances in the SEC Championship Game.

Lunney, who also played baseball for Norm Debriyn’s Hogs, served as a graduate assistant to Houston Nutt in his first two seasons as Arkansas’ head football coach in 1998 and ‘99. Lunney joined Bret Bielema’s first staff in 2013 and remained on staff when Chad Morris took the reins in 2018 as tight ends coach, recruiting coordinator for Arkansas prospects, and became kicking-game coordinator this season.

Lunney is a Razorback through and through, and his undying love and passion for the Razorbacks has been on display since he assumed the near-thankless task of holding a Razorback team and program together while athletic director Hunter Yurachek seeks the program’s next head coach.

Earlier this week, Lunney pleaded for Arkansas’ uninterested fanbase to unite with Arkansas’ apathetic players for what can only be described as one shinning moment to close out one of the worst seasons in Razorback history.

Lunney’s asking for the best from the Razorbacks and their fans to create a memory worthy of both to hold on to in closing out a season we would all rather forget. Again, Lunney’s passion and love for the Razorbacks has been heartening to me personally and to a ton of other Hog fans. Lunney exudes the fighting Arkansas spirit former coach Ken Hatfield always spoke about that seemed to exit the program too long ago.

Whether the Razorbacks manage to defeat Missouri for the first time in the Battle Line Rivalry or not, Yurachek made the right move in making Lunney the interim coach if only for reminding fans of better times.

For too long, the Arkansas program hasn’t felt right. Even when Bobby Petrino was winning at a high level, there seemed to be a chasm between the fans and the program.

Former athletic director Jeff Long’s administration treated fans like customers rather than folks who had a vested interest in the program because of their loyalty and support for years.

Lunney has done a nice job of connecting with fans who aren’t demanding national or even SEC titles, but who desperately desire for their Razorbacks to be competitive once again.

Of course, it will be up to the next coach to build the program back to prominence, whomever that might be.

In my Razorback heart of hearts, I’d love to see Lunney, who back when he was a player said being the Razorbacks’ head coach was one of his goals, promoted to permanent head coach, but at the moment that doesn’t feel like a possibility. He doesn’t have the head coaching experience that Yurachek is looking for and there are too many other options to explore before going down that road.

A score or more of names have been mentioned as candidates for the job, and there may be names in play that few have mentioned. Only Yurachek and executive staff member John Fagg, who is assisting Yurachek with the search, know who truly is being considered and who is not.

Like everyone else, I have my favorites, and a few I don’t particularly care for. That’s not really important because no one is consulting me.

The way these searches usually go, the first couple of targets and possibly more usually pass on the job before a program zeroes in on the coach who eventually gets the job. With three weeks to gauge interest in the job, Yurachek might be able to avoid all of that playing out in public view.

There are reasons why this might be a difficult hire. The challenge of rebuilding in the SEC West might be daunting to a coach with a successful program elsewhere. Arkansas cycling through four head coaches, two interim head coaches, and three athletic directors since 2007 speaks to the instability fans have seen on the field. Stopping payment on Bielema’s buyout short of fulfillment, for whatever reason valid or not, might concern a potential candidate.

Certainly, Yurachek has already developed counters to such objections like all good salesmen would, but just having to get answers for such questions make make some coaches wary.

With the end of the regular season at hand Saturday, some dominoes could begin to fall as early as next week. Coaches will be fired, and some could be hired. Right now Florida State is deemed the best job open, but then again, it is all about the right fit.

If fit were Yurachek’s first priority, Lunney would be a great prospect. LSU has done fairly well looking within the program when their pie-in-the-sky options turned the job down.

That would seemingly make the outcome of the Missouri game extremely important to Lunney’s future, which is uncertain just like every other Razorback assistant football coach and many football staff and support members.

However, Lunney said Friday is all about the players and them having a moment or an experience to cherish in the midst of the futility that has been the last three seasons of Razorback football.

Here’s hoping the Razorbacks and their fans will have that moment on Friday, and then on to the hiring of the next football coach.