Arkansas Razorbacks athletics has me feeling 30 years younger.
Well, that’s not exactly the truth. I’m afraid there is no escaping the wages of middle age for me, but there is a distinct feel of the early 1990s surrounding Razorback athletics at the moment.
November has yet to arrive, but the football season seems like all but a lost cause for the Hogs. Basketball season is on the doorstep and fans are almost bursting with excitement like an eager trick-or-treater putting their costume together for the big night.
The opening of hoops season dangles tantalizingly close over our awaiting snouts with the possible promise of SEC titles and a deep dance in the NCAA Tournament awaiting. Maybe even a Final Four appearance for the first time since 1995? The anticipation is enough to curl your tail.
Hog football on edge
This football season has seemed like a flashback to the 1990s when coach Danny Ford plowed up and down the sidelines for half a decade. The defense is tough, but the Hogs’ offense has no stinger.
I truly hope for a turnaround in the final four games, starting against Florida at Gainesville on Nov. 4, but my hopes aren’t exactly high.
Longtime Hog fans have seen head coaches fired within the season before. Jack Crowe got the ax after a single game in 1992 with defensive coordinator Joe Kines stepping up as interim head coach. Arkansas finished 3-7-1 that season. Ford, whom Kines hired as a kicking game coordinator after having three punts blocked in a loss at Memphis, was elevated to head coach over Kines by legendary athletics director Frank Broyles.
More recently, Chad Morris got the heave ho after a 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky,10 games into the 2019 season. The Razorbacks played harder for interim head coach Barry Lunney Jr., but losses to LSU and Missouri left the door open for Sam Pittman to take the head coaching job after several others looked to other jobs.
Of course, Bobby Petrino was let go in the spring before the 2012 season after lying about his fateful “motorcycle ride” with a young, female UA staffer. John L. Smith, whom Petrino had fired from his staff, was re-hired as interim head coach by Jeff Long. The season was a debacle. The Hogs opened the year ranked in the Top-10, but finished a miserable 4-8.
Now, there is a distinct difference in firing an offensive coordinator like Pittman did Sunday by letting Dan Enos go and a head coach being fired in the midst of the season.
The latter is a message to the fans from the athletics director that definite change is underway immediately. The former is a message from the head coach to the athletic director and fans that he understands improvement must begin now.
How much improvement can be expected from the Hogs this season? I’ve got no clue?
Arkansas’ offensive performance against Mississippi State was one of the worst I’ve witnessed since I began attending Razorback games as a child in 1974. Even in the loss to The Citadel which cost Crowe his job in 1992, the Hogs moved the ball between the 20s. They just couldn’t score.
Last Saturday’s game was a total bust. Arkansas moved the ball better against stronger teams like LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama, and even Texas A&M earlier in the season. The team was getting worse as the season wore on.
To me that more than justifies Pittman’s actions, and it was all the ammunition he needed to make the move that he had evidently been considering for a while.
The Razorbacks aren’t a good offensive team, but they shouldn’t have been stonewalled like they were by a mediocre Mississippi State team in their home stadium.
What difference can interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton make?
He can call plays to quarterback K.J. Jefferson’s and his offensive line’s strengths, cut down on the amount of pre- and post-snap decisions Jefferson has to make, and use a tempo that was effective in Arkansas’ comeback attempt at Alabama.
Maybe he and the other offensive assistants can infuse some energy into what had become a very lethargic unit last week against the Bulldogs.
How much difference will that and other adaptations make? We’ll have to see.
I don’t know if there is a magic number of games Pittman needs to win to keep his job, but anything less than four victories and it might be hard to justify retaining Pittman. A key will be which boosters are in his corner and which have bailed.
Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. Remember what happened the last time boosters fired and hired a coach? The two-year Chad Morris Death March.
Even if the Razorbacks win two or three of their last four games, Pittman better have a great plan on paper of how he plans to move the program forward for his post-season meeting with athletics director Hunter Yurachek.
When former head basketball coach Mike Anderson’s job was on the line 2019, just keep on keeping on was not a good enough answer for Anderson to retain the job. It might not be for Pittman either.
There is a difference, though. Pittman is Yurachek’s hire, and Anderson wasn’t. That might give Pittman more latitude.
I like Pittman, and I hope he has a great plan for righting the Razorback ship.
Nobody wants a coach search for Christmas.
Hog basketball ascending
Speaking of basketball, just like in the 1990s, things are much more pleasant on the Razorback basketball front.
The Razorbacks are ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press Preseason Poll despite the fact the Hogs have a retooled lineup once again. Expectations are through the roof for this team that has decent size and reportedly much more accurate shooting than the Hogs’ last two squads.
Of course, defense will always be the No. 1 demand by head coach Eric Musselman just liked it was for previous great Razorback coaches Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson.
Musselman has treated each of his seasons with the Hogs like he is a contestant on “Iron Chef” or one of the other competitive cooking shows. He has a new set of ingredients each season with a challenge to make it work at the highest level. So far, his finished product has tasted great by the time March Madness rolls around.
Musselman’s ingredients this year include scholarship returners Davonte “Devo” Davis, Makhi Mitchell, Jalen Graham, Joseph Pinion, and Trevon Brazile from last year’s Sweet 16 squad along with two freshmen in Baye Fall and Layden Blocker, and five graduate transfers in El Ellis, Jeremiah Davenport, Khalif Battle, Denijay Harris, and Chandler Lawson; junior transfer Tramon Mark, and walk-ons Cade Arbogast and Lawson Blake.
To extend the cooking metaphor even further, this might be the most seasoned team of Hogs Musselman has worked with. All that seasoning hasn’t been in his program, but from his NBA, CBA and G-League experience, it seems Musselman enjoys adding new players and personalities each season.
And from his results with those players it’s hard to argue. Currently six Razorbacks coached by Musselman are in the NBA — Anthony Black, Isaiah Joe, Moses Moody, Nick Smith Jr., Stanley Umude, and Jaylin Williams. Just as many are playing professionally elsewhere.
Players around the nation know they can get a leg up when they transfer to Arkansas because Musselman’s coaching style and demands are rooted in his professional basketball experience. A player that comes to Arkansas and buys in, leaves as an improved product.
And unlike some NBA coaches who have tried to adjust to the college game, Musselman has been highly successful first at Nevada and now at Arkansas.
What I personally enjoy about Musselman and his process is that he values challenges. He wasn’t afraid to take a freshman-dominated team to Texas last year to face a veteran Longhorn squad in an exhibition game, and this year he is challenging his players with facing preseason No. 3 Purdue in the Razorbacks’ final exhibition game this season at 3 p.m. Saturday in Walton Arena. The contest can be streamed on ESPN+/SEC +.
The Boilermakers were stung by an unexpected first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament last March, and no doubt the veteran club, featuring player of the year candidate in 7-4 center Zach Edey, will be ready to make a statement against the Hogs in this high-profile exhibition matchup.
Win or lose, this game is going to be invaluable for the Razorbacks to learn exactly where they stand as a team with the clock ticking toward the Nov. 6 opener with Alcorn State.
By Saturday evening, Musselman will be well on his way to charting a recipe for the Razorbacks improvement.