The sun came up this morning, but yesterday the Arkansas Razorbacks failed to hire a basketball coach, and the Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans steamrolled the No. 12 Diamond Hogs, 17-7 in the first regularly scheduled meeting between the Razorbacks and another in-state school in almost 100 years.
It’s hard to say what hurts the Razorback faithful’s ego more, swinging and missing at least one if not two candidates to replace Mike Anderson as the Razorbacks head basketball coach or the mighty Razorback baseball program — the last bastion of Razorback pride in the major sports — not only losing a game to UALR but getting its rear end kicked by 10 runs in its home stadium.
No, April 2, 2019, will not go down as landmark day to be an Arkansas Razorback.
To a non-Hog fan, it probably seems ironically poetic that UALR pummeled the Razorbacks. Arkansas had dodged playing in-state opponents in the regular season in all sports under the tenures of athletic directors John Barnhill (1946-71), George Cole (1971-1972), Frank Broyles (1973-2007), and Jeff Long (2008-2017).
Many around the state felt the policy was backwards thinking, and antiquated. It was Social Darwinism in action.
The thought was why allow the other schools in the state to lift themselves up by the UA’s bootstraps, harming the Razorback brand. McDonald’s doesn’t help Burger King or Wendy’s sell hamburgers. Why should the Razorbacks allow the other competing collegiate athletic brands in the state traded on their better established reputation? Just because it’s done in other states, doesn’t mean it was the right thing for the Razorback brand?
The idea was not to draw a line in the sand among fanbases that we see in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and others. A Hog fan could root for the Red Wolves and the Trojans and not feel disloyal because the schools weren’t rivals. More importantly for a small, poor state like Arkansas, wealthy donors didn’t have to choose one program over the other.
Of course, the balance of wealth has shifted in the state since Barnhill and Broyles championed the policy. Prior to the 1980s, farmers in eastern and southern Arkansas drove much of the state’s economy.
The corporatization of farming consolidated the wealth among large entities rather than many families, changing the culture — some say destroying the culture — of the Arkansas Delta.
At the same time, business became the bedrock for growth in Northwest Arkansas from the 1980s on, giving the area a feeling of independence from the rest of the state not intradependence.
Some downstate feel the University of Arkansas — particularly the athletic department — acts more like the University of Northwest Arkansas instead of the state’s flagship university.
That’s not the feeling the UA needs to engender as its football program has fallen below what anyone can deem mediocre, and the basketball program still teeters on the brink of mediocrity after eight seasons of reconstruction by Anderson. Before Anderson took over, the Hogs weren’t even mediocre during the majority of Stan Heath and John Pelphrey’s combined nine seasons.
What’s truly ironic is the more Northwest Arkansas has grown on all levels, the less and less prominent the Razorback football and basketball programs have become.
Now, after the loss to UALR, Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks are on a three-game losing skid going into a pivotal road series at No. 18 Auburn, running Thursday through Saturday.
Arkansas remains a talented and promising baseball team, but what has become clear since the Texas series is that the Razorbacks’ pitching staff isn’t as sturdy as it appeared early in the season when the Razorbacks were running through non-top 25 opponents. The Hogs are 5-5 following their three-game sweep of Missouri to open the SEC season on March 17.
Other than ace Isaiah Campbell and closer Matt Cronin, every Razorback pitcher has had his struggles in recent weeks, and the run support has frankly been hit and miss.
It was mostly miss Tuesday night as the Trojans bludgeoned the Razorbacks in a contest that seemed like it would never end.
Van Horn is an excellent coach with the toughness to help his Razorbacks survive this rough patch and possibly thrive the rest of this season, but at nearly the midpoint of the season, his Hogs are scuffling at a time when they should be striding.
As for UALR coach Chris Curry and his Trojans, they should be able to live off the juice of their 17-7 victory for awhile.
Curry described it as a monumental win for his ball club. It will probably go down as one of the greatest victories in UALR history if not the greatest.
And there is the rub for Arkansas playing its in-state little brothers.
Any game against Arkansas in any of the big three sports would be monumental for UALR or Arkansas State, while for the Razorbacks it would be just another non-conference game. The emotional and actual stakes are uneven.
Does Arkansas have anything to lose in playing other in-state schools? I think that is debatable.
However, the Razorbacks have absolutely nothing to gain by playing them. Arkansas couldn’t have beaten UALR bad enough Tuesday night to garner any credit beyond beating what is considered an inferior team.
It would be the same against Arkansas State in any sport, even though it can be argued that the Red Wolves have a better football program than the Razorbacks at the moment.
As for the Razorbacks search for a new basketball coach, everyone has a rumor and a candidate. With the Razorbacks going after Houston’s Kelvin Samson and now apparently Nevada’s Eric Musselman, if there is a hoops coach named Hercules, he has to be next on the list, right?
Seriously, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if a coach were hired today or if this coach search drags into next week.
My experience in covering coach searches at Arkansas since Ken Hatfield left his “dream job” in 1990 to go to Clemson, and Broyles pulled Jack Crowe off the plane to become head coach is that they are never easy and that they take many twists and turns before they are done.
There are many good coaches whom Arkansas could hire. My hope is Hunter Yurachek can find the right fit.