Hogs suffered through dreadful year in 2 of 3 major sports

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman walks on the sidelines in the final minutes against Mississippi State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

The 2023-24 Arkansas Razorbacks athletic year won’t be one fondly remembered by Hog fans who concentrate mainly on the big three men’s sports of football, basketball, and baseball.

The Razorback football and men’s basketball squad vastly underperformed based on preseason expectations. Their seasons were disasters.

A 4-8 season has Razorback football coach Sam Pittman on the hot seat going into this season. Pittman’s hire of former Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino (2008-2011) as offensive coordinator has Hog fans optimistic for a winning record, although national pundits are dubious. Expect Arkansas to be picked ahead of only Vanderbilt in the SEC when perusing preseason forecasts.

With SEC divisions dissolved, the Razorbacks’ schedule remains brutal. Fair or not, the Hogs’ trip to Stillwater, Okla., to play what will likely be a ranked Cowboys squad will be an early litmus test for Pittman’s future to some fans.

That said, the Razorbacks looked very sharp and organized in their spring game, but it’s always hard to discern just what you are actually seeing in an intrasquad game.

Eric Musselman, basically, burned his program down last year with a miserable year. His Hogs were predicted to be a top-10 team in the preseason, but finished 16-17, Arkansas’ first losing season since the John Pelprhey era in back to back seasons of 2008-9 and 2009-10. Arkansas lost two-thirds of its conference games, going 6-12 in the SEC.

The SEC is a talented league and getting tougher with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas, but Arkansas should NEVER have a losing basketball season.

Musselman got out of town — taking the Southern Cal job — before the posse caught up with him, basically leaving the program in shambles.

Thankfully John Tyson and Warren Stephens rode in like the Lone Ranger and Tonto to save the Hogs’ bacon. They and other boosters gave Hunter Yurachek, UA athletics director, the means to make the blockbuster hire of John Calipari away from Kentucky a reality.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2024 football schedule

Countdown to Kickoff: 75 Days

Aug. 29 – Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Little Rock
Sept. 7 – at Oklahoma State
Sept. 14 – Alabama-Birmingham
Sept. 21 – at Auburn
Sept. 28 – Texas A&M at Arlington
Oct. 5 – Tennessee
Oct. 12 – Open Date
Oct. 19 – LSU
Oct. 26 – at Mississippi State
Nov. 2 – Ole Miss
Nov. 9 – Open Date
Nov. 16 – Texas
Nov. 23 – Louisiana Tech
Nov. 30 – at Missouri

After 15 seasons and some recent struggles — compared to expectations — Wildcats fans and administrators were ready to see Coach Cal go, but Kentucky fans didn’t want to see him make the jump to Arkansas.

Fueled by his new challenge, Cal reeled in a fantastic recruiting class of transfers and freshmen that instantly put the Razorbacks back in the national conversation. His coaching staff is loaded for bear, too, making Arkansas a legitimate threat in the SEC and nationally not only for this season but also beyond.

While the football and basketball seasons were dreadful, that was not the case with baseball.

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman is seen on the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The Razorbacks — in no uncertain terms — had a very good baseball season, winning the final SEC West baseball title and finishing third overall behind Tennessee and Kentucky from the East. Both begin play in the College World Series this week along with Texas A&M and Florida. Arkansas finished the season an outstanding 44-16.

However, the pervasive success that Dave Van Horn’s Razorback program has achieved made this season disappointing when the Hogs were upset in their own Regional by Southeast Missouri State and Kansas State.

Van Horn has had so much success with his Diamond Hogs that any year Arkansas doesn’t make the College World Series feels like a disappointment to Razorback fans.

It’s much like the self-created pressure Nolan Richardson felt as the Razorbacks’ head basketball coach after winning the 1994 national title. He called it “feeding the monster.”

Overall, though, Arkansas still ranked 19th in the latest Learfield Directors Cup standings, which ranks the university’s overall athletic success. That’s solid for a program that doesn’t field as many sports as many others.

With that said, it’s time to hand out some honors for the athletic year that was 2023-24

Coach of the year

Even though it was just his first year as Arkansas’ women’s track, field and cross country coach, Chris Johnson and his outstanding teams made him the only choice by winning two national titles in indoor and outdoor track and field. Simply incredible for any coach, much more for one in their first year.

Athletes of the year

Female: Multi All-American track athlete Nickisha Pryce for winning the 400-meter run and running the third leg of the title-winning 4×400-meter relay squad at the recent NCAA Outdoor Championship among other accomplishments.

Male: Pitcher Hagen Smith, a junior left-hander, is a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, the Dick Howser Trophy, and National Pitcher of the Year. The All-American, who was named “Perfect Game’s” Pitcher of the Year on Wednesday, had a 9-3 record with a 2.04 ERA. He struck out 161 batters in 16 starts.

Teams of the year

Female: Women’s Track and Field for winning national titles in the NCAA Outdoor and Indoor Championships.

Men: The Hogs’ baseball team won the SEC West division and were ranked No. 5 in the nation and earned the fifth seed in the NCAA Baseball Tournament at the end of the regular season.

Hire of the year

Female: Chris Johnson stepped in to take over the women’s track program from the legendary Lance Harter, and instantly began writing his own legend by guiding his Razorbacks to national titles in indoor and outdoor track.

Male: Arkansas’ hire of John Calipari as its basketball coach is simply the biggest hire in the program’s history. Most great Razorback coaches made their reputations at Arkansas — Frank Broyles, Nolan Richardson, and John McDonnell for example. As big as the hires of Lou Holtz, Danny Ford, and Bobby Petrino may seem in hindsight, each had issues directly before coming to Arkansas. Holtz and Petrino were coming off NFL failures, and Ford had been out of football for two season after being fired at Clemson. The hire of Calipari’s is far bigger. It’s literally among the biggest stories of the year in all of college sports.

Victories of the year

Female: Arkansas’ 4×400 relay victory last Saturday in the NCAA Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship allowed the Razorbacks to top Florida, 63-59.

Male: The Razorbacks’ 80-75 basketball victory over No. 7 Duke on Nov. 29 in Bud Walton Arena felt like a portent of great things to come for Eric Musselman’s Hogs, but in reality it was a last hurrah for a team that would woefully underachieve and see its coach exit at the end of the season.

Dismissal of the year

What seemed like a decent hire by Pittman to replace departing offensive coordinator Kendal Briles morphed into a miserable mistake that had to be remedied with more than a month left in the season. Pittman fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos of his duties following a 7-3 homecoming loss to a mediocre Mississippi State team.

Worst game of the year

That 7-3 loss to Mississippi State seemingly broke the defense’s back. The Hogs had been respectable on defense up to that point in the season, but when that unit saw that Arkansas’ offense was too anemic to take advantage of turnovers the defense earned for them, it unraveled, giving up 39, 48, 44, and 48 points and going 2-2 in the Hogs final four games.