There’s no doubt the quick-action hiring of Chad Morris by the University of Arkansas after Gus Malzahn spurned Razorback overtures to remain at Auburn was a colossal mistake.
We saw that played out for two dreadful football seasons in 2018 and 2019 when the Razorbacks went a combined 4-20.
As bad as Arkansas whiffed on that coach search, it seems the UA solidly connected in hiring Hunter Yurachek as the school’s director of athletics. The more we see of Yurachek, the more there is to like.
Now, it is very early in his tenure as A.D., so, of course, the jury is still out. However, Yurachek’s hire of Eric Musselman looks like a slam-dunk success just over a year after making the move.
Though new head football coach Sam Pittman still has a ton to prove as a first-time head coach, it seems he’s already brought a steady hand to the helm of the program that Morris all but left dry-docked after two years on the job.
Make no mistake, how Musselman and Pittman do in their respective jobs will write the key points in Yurachek’s early legacy at Arkansas, but the way Yurachek handles the public relations aspect of his job is also going to carry him in good stead.
At some point, Yurachek and the UA may part ways, but I can almost guarantee he’s not going to be run off the Hill on a rail like his predecessor Jeff Long figuratively was. Yurachek’s people skills won’t let that happen.
Yurachek has a likability factor that’s hard to deny, and the degree of transparency he allows and the genuineness he shows in answering questions during what is without a doubt one of the most stressful and challenging periods any Arkansas athletics director has gone through is truly admirable.
There’s no handbook for running a major athletics program during a global pandemic, but Yurachek could certainly give pointers to more than a few political figures about how to run an effective and informative news conference.
Yurachek on Thursday participated in a 40-minute Zoom interview with reporters that was cordial, honest, and telling because of the way he approached the opportunity to speak to Razorback fans through the media.
He wasn’t combative, defensive, or passive aggressive. Yurachek actually seemed eager to address every question no matter how soft or hard, and some of the questions were hard, or at least they could have been had Yurachek wanted to make them that way.
He could have gotten defensive when asked about the assertion in Bret Bielema made in his law suit over his buy-out that Yurachek was the instigating force in stopping the Razorback Foundation from making payments once the UA determined Bielema was not fulfilling the stipulations of his buyout by seeking comparable compensation for his coaching services.
To answer the question, Yurachek just pointed out that the ins and outs of Bielema’s contract and dismissal all occurred prior to him being hired as athletic director.
When asked about Texas A&M’s desire to move this season’s Razorback game from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas to Kyle Field at College Station, Texas, so that the Aggies can host a fourth home game, Yurachek didn’t dodge the question. He just made the point he wouldn’t be opposed to that if next season’s game could be played at Razorback Stadium, and then the series move back to Arlington for the next two seasons, according to the contract.
Yurachek didn’t want the Aggies to get the benefit of a home game without the Razorbacks getting the same in return. He did mention that UA alumnus Jerry Jones, owner of AT&T Stadium, might have different feelings on the subject.
While maybe not the toughest of questions, the ones concerning the coronavirus and the upcoming season certainly were the most pertinent at this juncture.
Again, he could have deflected or dodged a question about how many Razorback athletes and staffers had tested positive for the virus, but he he said fewer than 10 players and just two staffers have been infected. All but one are out of quarantine at this time, and added that through contact tracing, it was discovered each one contracted the virus while visiting outside the Northwest Arkansas area rather than picking it up around town.
Maybe the most telling answer he gave on the situation all of college football is facing at the moment is his opinion whether college football would be able to be played this fall.
Yurachek said the chances were “mediocre” and later defined that as a 50/50 chance of playing this fall, admitting he was not as optimistic as he was in early May when he felt there was a 70/30 chance of playing.
Yurachek reiterated what SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said earlier this week that the infection and hospitalization rates would have to decrease across the SEC footprint for football to be played this fall. He also said he supported Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s mandate for masks to be worn inside businesses and public areas, as well as outside when social distancing cannot be observed.
Yurachek even offered that if football can’t be played this year that salary cuts for athletic personnel — which so far have been avoided – would be on the table. He said the athletic department’s salary expense is a $41 million chunk of the program’s operating budget.
No doubt mentioning that bit of information was uncomfortable because he knows how diligently his staffers work.
Right now, there aren’t any comfortable answers to the questions that threaten the Razorbacks’ football season.
Difficult decisions may have to be made, but everything Yurachek has said and done in his two years as A.D. speaks to his ability to make strong and solid choices for the program.
Knowing that won’t make the fall any easier if we don’t have college football, but I personally feel better about the leadership of the Razorback program than I have at any point since Frank Broyles stepped aside as A.D. in 2007. That feeling has everything to do with the way Yurachek handles his business as A.D.