Saturday’s game against Ole Miss down in Oxford may be bigger than just one game or one season.
There is a case to be made that it’s a turning point for Arkansas’ entire football program, which has been steadily trending downward since 2011.
That was the last year the Razorbacks finished the season in the Top 5.
Just a couple of months later, athletics director Jeff Long placed himself in charge of the football program, whether he wants to admit it or not.
Interestingly enough, that’s when the trek towards mediocrity began in earnest. By 2015 it was so in place people were actually buying into a 7-5 regular season being a measure of success.
Few realized that, well, apparently that was the new standard for the program. There didn’t appear to be any urgency about getting better.
That was not what Frank Broyles envisioned when he brought Arkansas to the SEC back in 1992.
“There was only one thing Frank Broyles and I agreed on,” former coach Jack Crowe said this week from Birmingham where he spends his days hanging out with Alabama-Birmingham coach Bill Clark as they rebuild that program.
Crowe was there when the Razorbacks made the switch from the Southwest Conference to the SEC, a league where they would, as Joe Kines said at the time, “slit your throat and drink the blood.”
“What Frank and I agreed on was we couldn’t let going to the SEC change the expectations,” Crowe said.
In those days, winning seven games in a season meant you didn’t have the greatest job security in the world with Razorback fans.
Now, with an athletic director who only “wants” to win (but not at all costs, as he said in Little Rock in September), seven wins appears to be the Holy Grail of a season for Razorback football that is careening wildly toward one of those drop-offs in the Boston Mountains.
While mathematically still possible, you can’t find three people in the whole state who actually believe that’s a possibility. That includes the players and coaches on the current team, by the way, if they’d tell you the truth.
At Arkansas, winning doesn’t appear to be that big of a deal to the powers that be in Fayetteville.
“The SEC is quite different now than when Arkansas joined because of the economic model,” Crowe said. “It’s more like the NFL where the brand is what matters.
“It breeds mediocrity.”
It has at Arkansas, where it appears the only people that matter are the ones who purchase luxury boxes and ESPN. The average fan and the average media are just things that have to be tolerated.
After a week where the Hogs looked like a junior varsity team against Auburn, they played how they looked — bad. Whoever signed off on letting an Arkansas team play a football game where you couldn’t see the Hog on the helmet made a breathtakingly stupid decision.
In the SEC, where the league office does it’s best to control every minute detail, only one school really just kind of nods … then goes out and does what is best for them.
That’s Alabama, the school closest to the league office, who pretty much is focused on winning football games. When it comes to the SEC, they go along with the recommendations they agree with and quietly do things their way with the rest.
“These schools take the control away from the head coach,” Crowe said.
How? Follow the money. Schools make the coaches rich so they can control him. At Alabama, Nick Saban is so rich because he wins and the school uses the football team’s success as the primary marketing tool for the entire university.
Robert Witt, who was Alabama’s president at the time of Saban’s hiring and is now the chancellor, told The New York Times a couple of years ago hiring Saban was the university’s wisest investment.
After he was hired, the campus surpassed a $50 million capital improvement campaign by $52 million, and he has been a key to reaching a $500 million campaign for the university at large. That had nothing to do with sports improvements.
They use the football team to recruit for the entire school. All Arkansas does is give Texas high school students a break on tuition to get them to come to Fayetteville in ever-increasing numbers.
It hasn’t been the same influx in football players, which is a huge difference from Crowe’s time in Fayetteville.
“It was a great move for Arkansas to go to the SEC, but when it was announced I had a problem,” he said. “I had to fight to keep them together because over half the team was from Texas.”
Which brings us back around to why this week’s game with Ole Miss could be a huge turning point for the program.
A loss drops the Hogs to 2-6 on the season. That means the improbable best they could do mathematically is 6-6. I think that’s pretty close to the definition of mediocrity.
A loss will likely mean, at best, a 4-8 team.
That could spell, at the very least, a coaching change. Long, who doesn’t like to take ownership of anything, will likely put that off on the Board of Trustees like he does everything else he doesn’t want the blame for. Whether it puts Long on the hot seat or not depends on who you talk to.
Replacing the coach will not be easy because, despite what many fans believe, it doesn’t always come down to money.
Barry Switzer had chances to come back to Arkansas on at least a couple of occasions when he was at Oklahoma.
“Tyson doesn’t have enough chickens in the state to put up with what you have to put up with in that state,” he told some people.
That’s a problem for next month, though.
Right now, it appears that there may be more than the football coach needing a win over Ole Miss.
Of course, that’s just to stay in the mediocrity conversation.