Barry Lunney Jr. / Courtesy, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Interim is a title that no one really wants, but it’s one hard to turn down when offered. The reasoning is if someone new is to be the decision-maker, it might as well be you.
The interim title hasn’t been kind to those who’ve worn it at Arkansas, though a couple did admirable jobs under the circumstances while others did horribly.
I’d place Joe Kines, who was interim head football coach for all but the first game of the 1992 season when Jack Crowe was fired, and Mike Anderson, who took over for one game and the SEC Tournament when Nolan Richardson was fired in 2002, in the admirable category.
Reggie Herring in 2007 and John L. Smith in 2012 did so poorly as interim head football coach that I don’t even know if there is a category for them.
No interim football or basketball coach at the University of Arkansas has moved directly into the head coaches seat, although Anderson did become the Hogs’ head basketball coach in 2011 after proving himself in head coaching stops at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri.
So it’s the longest of long shots for Arkansas’ current interim head coach Barry Lunney Jr. to be elevated to that role full time. He’d have to guide the Razorbacks to some sort of miracle, like beating No. 1 LSU on a Saturday night in Death Valley.
Lunney and the Hogs have that opportunity at 6 p.m. Saturday in an ESPN-televised game. As much as I would dearly love to see that, the Razorbacks have proven ill-equipped for that sort of task, even if they do manage to play their best game of the season against Ed Ogeron’s Tigers, who are 40-plus point favorites going into the game.
Playing the best game of the season — whatever that may look like — is what Lunney has been championing ever since he took over as interim coach on Nov. 10 when Chad Morris was fired after going 4-22 through all but the final two games of two seasons as the Razorbacks’ coach.
Lunney said that he charged the Razorback assistants to make these final two games all about the players. He asked the staff members who all face uncertain futures to help guide, motivate, and coach the players to give them their best opportunity to play their best football in these games.
While that may seem obvious, I and other Razorback fans have seen coaching staffs shut down at Arkansas under similar circumstances, and conversely we’ve seem them rise to the occasion, too.
In fact, Houston Nutt and the bulk of his staff were on the way out in 2007 when a talented but under-achieving Razorback squad upended No. 1 and eventual national champion LSU at Baton Rouge, 50-48, in two overtimes in the final regular-season game.
Arkansas earned a Cotton Bowl bid with that victory, but Nutt and Arkansas parted ways the following Monday with Arkansas chancellor John White loosening “the golden handcuffs” of Nutt’s contract so that he could take the head coaching job at Ole Miss without penalty and keep the annuity funds that had been set aside for him when he renegotiated his contract after the 1998 and 2003 seasons.
Herring, the Hogs’ defensive coordinator, was named interim coach after Nutt’s departure, but he did little to hold the Razorbacks together going into that Cotton Bowl appearance, and a Missouri squad, that Arkansas should have beaten, trounced the Razorbacks, 38-7.
Unlike Herring, there is no doubt in my mind that Lunney, the former Hog quarterback who helped the Razorbacks to their first SEC West title as a senior, is putting his heart and soul into his work despite the interim nature of his position. However, based on LSU’s excellence this year and the Razorbacks’ struggles, LSU might beat the Razorbacks as bad or worse than Missouri did in that Cotton Bowl. LSU is that good, and Arkansas has been that bad.
Now, I don’t believe the Razorbacks are as bad as they have played this season. That’s why the dismissal of Morris was warranted, and why I have some hope the Razorbacks will play respectably Saturday night unlike they have in their previous four games in which we all suffered through blowout losses.
As Lunney passionately said Monday, the Razorbacks have a lot to gain in their game this week at LSU. By playing their best game of the season against the Tigers, the Hogs can regain their self-respect, pride, and the admiration of their fans, all of which seemed all but lost along the way this season.
If the Hogs’ accomplish that this week against LSU, it is progress for a program that has seen very little of that on the field dating back to before Morris was hired in December of 2017.
That might not make Lunney a top candidate for the Arkansas job this time around, but it could put him in a position for a head coaching job somewhere else if that’s his desire. That would be be a positive outcome for taking on the burden and responsibility of filling the gap between Arkansas head coaches.