This will be Bret Bielema’s fourth season as the Arkansas Razorbacks’ head football coach, and the consensus among the media is that his Hogs will finish in the middle of the pack in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.
Looking back, fourth seasons have been somewhat of a mixed bag for Arkansas football coaches. If history can be used as a predictor, then the summer projections of the media might not be that far off base.
Francis Schmidt, who coached the Hogs from 1922-29, followed up a solid 7-2-1 third season with a disappointing fourth. The Razorbacks went 4-4-1 in 1925, which was the only non-winning season of Schmidt’s seven-year term as Arkansas’s head football coach.
In contrast, Bobby Petrino, who guided the program from 2008-2011, posted his best record with the Razorbacks in his fourth season. The Hogs went 11-2 in 2011 and finished fifth in the nation. It was the first time Arkansas had won 11 games since Lou Holtz led Arkansas to an 11-1 mark and No. 3 finish in the polls in 1977. That season was the first time Arkansas had finished in the Top 10 since Holtz’ 1982 squad came in ninth. Of course, that next spring is when Petrino literally drove his Arkansas career and the Razorback program into a ditch.
Speaking of Holtz, who was at the Razorback helm from 1977-83, his fourth season in 1980 was one of his worst. A year after sharing a Southwest Conference Championship with Houston, the Hogs opened the season rated No. 6 in the nation, but a loss to Texas on Labor Day at Austin led to a disappointing 6-5 regular-season finish. Injuries kept the Hogs from posting a better record. A healthy squad blew Tulane out of the water, 34-15, in the Hall of Fame Bowl to give Arkansas a 7-5 mark. It was the first year for that bowl, and it marked the beginning of the bowl glut that made it common for mediocre teams to still get bowl bids. Holtz will be inducted into the Razorback Hall of Honor in a ceremony on Sept. 2, the evening before Arkansas’ season opener against Louisiana Tech.
Fred Thomsen coached the Razorbacks longer than anyone other than Frank Broyles. Thomsen spent the Great Depression years, 1929-41, as Arkansas’ head coach. His worst record came in his fourth season. The Razorbacks defeated only Baylor in 1932 and finished 1-6-2.
John Barnhill, who was the athletics director that hired Frank Broyles, and the first coach to take Arkansas to the Cotton Bowl, mentored the Hogs from 1946-49. Arkansas went 5-5 in his fourth and final season before he decided to concentrate on being athletics director. The first three coaches Barnhill hired to guide the Razorbacks were all notable names in the annals of college football — Otis Douglas (1950-52), Bowden Wyatt (1953-54), and Jack Mitchell (1955-57) — but all three left for other jobs before making it to four seasons.
The coach whom Barnhill hired that stayed was Frank Broyles, who coached Arkansas from 1958-76 and worked as athletics director from 1973 through the 2007 season. Broyles’ 1964 team won the Razorbacks’ lone national title, but Broyles squads got very close two other times. The 22-game winning streak that spanned the final game of the 1963 season through the final game of the 1965 season is not only the Hogs’ longest winning streak, but it is also the longest winning streak of any team in the 1960s. Broyles’ fourth squad in 1961 was co-SWC champions but lost 10-3 to one of Bear Bryant’s best Alabama squads in the Sugar Bowl. Arkansas finished the season with an 8-3 mark and ranked eighth in the nation.
Bryant coached Danny Ford in the late 1960s at Alabama before Ford began his storied coaching career which reached its apex at Clemson at Clemson in 1981 with a national title. Ford, who coached the Hogs from 1993-97, had a rough fourth year in 1996. His fourth squad went 4-7. When his fifth team posted the same mark, Broyles let him go. Ford’s 1995 squad did win Arkansas’ first SEC Western Division title as the highlight of his stay in Fayetteville.
After three seasons, it seemed like Ken Hatfield, who coached the Hogs from 1984-90, had Arkansas on a roll. His first three teams overachieved to 7-4-1, 10-2, and 9-3, but in 1987 many thought Arkansas was ready to take a step forward. The Razorbacks were tabbed as the SWC favorites. College football media personality Beano Cook even picked the Hogs to win the national title that year, but the Razorbacks were a year away from being the best they would be under Hatfield.
The Hogs finished 9-4 in 1987.
Not a bad mark, but difficult losses to Miami, 51-7, and Texas, 16-14, in Little Rock soured fans to Hatfield’s conservative play calling. His relationship with Broyles suffered when Hatfield would not make suggested changes to his coaching staff. While Hatfield coached the Razorbacks to back-to-back SWC titles the next two seasons, his relationship with Broyles grew so icy that he bolted for Clemson, ironically enough to replace Ford, days before national signing day in 1990. While Broyles owns the most wins of any Razorback coach, Hatfield has the best winning percentage at .760.
Houston Nutt had the third-longest tenure of any Razorback head coach with 10 seasons from 1998-2007 on the hill, but his fourth season in 2001 was inauspicious other than the emergence of Matt Jones as quarterback and that wild seven-overtime, 58-56 victory over Ole Miss. The Razorbacks did go to the Cotton Bowl that season — many thought in favor of a more-deserving Georgia squad — but the Hogs finished 7-5 after Oklahoma beat them 10-3 in Dallas.
Hugo Bezdek coached Arkansas for five seasons from 1908-12. He was the first Arkansas coach to guide a team to an undefeated season in 1909, and he was the man that bestowed the program with its mascot, the Razorbacks. After a rousing 16-0 rout of LSU in Memphis in 1909, he told the students that his squad played like a wild band of razorback hogs. In 2010, Arkansas formally switched its mascot from the Cardinals to the Razorbacks. Bezdek’s fourth squad in 1911 went 6-2-1. Those Hogs whipped Missouri State, 100-0, but lost 15-0 to Texas, tied Southwestern Texas, 0-0, and lost 3-0 to Kansas State. Bezdek stayed at Arkansas for one more season before moving on to Penn State.
What will Bielema’s fourth season bring? It’s too early to say definitiely, but we should begin to learn more when practices get underway Aug. 4.