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The Razorbacks are on the rise

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Improbably, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, Arkansas athletics stands out now for all the right reasons. For as challenging as the human experience may have been from March 2020 forward, that same period has been uniquely great for Hog fans.

Coaching chicanery dominated the “twenty-teen” years, and it’s not without irony that as I write this, a cover piece I wrote in 2012 for the Arkansas Times sits nearby in one of my countless stacks of household debris. That year was noteworthy for arguably being the most tumultuous year in a Razorback football program/soap opera that’s historically replete with oddities and frustrations. Bobby Petrino began that season as the toast of the state, a Cotton Bowl-winning offensive guru that seemed to be, at long last, “the guy.”

By year’s end, UA Athletic Director Jeff Long had summoned Bret Bielema from Wisconsin to excise the taste of a John L. Smith interim year. Petrino’s disgrace and exile was old, upsetting news by the time December hit, and Smith’s 4-8 debacle was lowlighted by a loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock that will, sadly, forever be the first Hog game my oldest son attended. This publication chose Long, somewhat controversially, as the “Arkansan of the Year” for 2012 after he spent most of it in the limelight, for better or worse.

Long’s tenure bottomed out badly five years later and Bielema’s paralleled it as he never gained traction or sustained the momentum he briefly had. An unqualified stand-in for Long then made an even worse hire, and oh, by the way, the baseball team gave away its best shot at a national championship in the summer of 2018. Mike Anderson followed one of his only good basketball teams with a pedestrian 18-16 bunch that fall, and then Chad Morris followed his clunker of a debut football season with an even worse second one, and…

Ugh. My apologies for the hard digression there. But it’s an inescapable fact that empty seats in a beautifully renovated stadium or a proclaimed basketball “palace” were already a thing before COVID-19 vacated them out of public caution. By the time I turned off Morris’ last loss, a pitiful drubbing by Western Effing Kentucky, I wondered in November 2019 if I’d ever really be much of a Hog fan again.

And I’m not joking. My passion for Arkansas athletics is a reckless one most of the time, but my interest, my investments of time and money, and my attention were simply better directed elsewhere.

But, alas, an athletic director with purpose and vision changed the dynamic ever so slowly right before lockdowns and shut-ins became sobering reality. Hunter Yurachek arrived from the University of Houston in 2017, and his imprint on the programs across the board started taking shape soon after. I simply wasn’t patient enough.

Arkansas Athletics
BACK IN THE BALL GAME: Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek (top with Jerry Jones) has the Razorbacks pointed in the right direction.

Anderson, imminently likable but underperforming (he never advanced the Hogs past the first weekend of the NCAA tourney in eight seasons), took a severance in March 2019, and Eric Musselman came in with a different brand of bravado. Yurachek terminated the Morris experiment mercifully and properly less than eight months later, and after the usual flurry of rumors subsided, he handed the reins to Sam Pittman, a genial, dogged career assistant but an undisputedly unproven head honcho.

Musselman was giving us all a positive early indicator of things to come in early 2020. With Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe in charge, the transition team from the Anderson era ended up being spunky and tough, if totally limited. The Hogs went to Nashville for the SEC tourney and whipped Vanderbilt to notch their 20th win of an overachieving season on March 12, 2020.

It was the last college basketball game of the season. For a while, we wondered when the next one really would be, as the novel coronavirus shuttered every public event for weeks, and this country and state tried to reckon on the fly with a new way of life.

As COVID summer wore on, Yurachek and his suddenly exceptional stable of coaches clearly stayed at work, adapting to the new realities of pandemic-era recruitment and retention, transfer portals and NILs, and succeeding in ways that, frankly, defy common logic. To wit:

Arkansas Athletics
SAM PITTMAN

*After Morris tanked the football team to the tune of four total non-Power Five victories, zero of the SEC variety, in two miserable years, Pittman became the greatest rescuer of the program, full stop. The oddball, conference-only schedule in 2020, in largely empty stadiums, netted three big victories (a fourth was denied by the damnable SEC officials at Auburn). Then the Hogs’ rise turned meteoric in 2021 as they surged to a 9-4 season, an Outback Bowl thumping of Penn State, and a Top 25 ranking at season’s end for the first time since that accursed final poll from the first week of 2012.

*Musselman’s teaser first season paved the way for back-to-back Elite Eight trips; the spirited, social media-adept coach has won six NCAA tourney games in two seasons, and as a result he has enlisted a consensus top three recruiting class with newly anointed national No. 1 Nick Smith Jr. leading a bevy of top-shelf teenage talent. His predecessors, Stan Heath, John Pelphrey and Anderson, combined to win only three NCAA Tournament games over 17 rather agonizing years in the post-Nolan Richardson era.

*Mike Neighbors, an engaging Greenwood native, came back home to lead the women’s basketball program, which had labored near the bottom of the league for an extended period and similarly suffered from fan disinterest. The program got back to the postseason with an encouraging WNIT trip in 2018-19, then projected as a four or five seed in 2019-20 when the pandemic truncated the season. The Razorbacks made back-to-back NCAA tourneys and recruiting rankings have trended strongly upward.

Arkansas Athletics
RED HOT: Arkansas’s softball team.

*Courtney Deifel’s complete makeover of the softball program is at its apex. The sixth-year coach took the team to a share of its first-ever SEC championship in 2021 with a program-record 43-win campaign, and as an encore she’s got this year’s squad situated in the Top 5 nationally with another league crown. Years of futility have been erased in record time by Deifel, who has taken the Hogs to their first two Super Regionals and two other NCAA tourney berths (the 2020 team was likely headed for one as well).

Arkansas Athletics
DVH: Hogs legendary baseball coach.

*Dave Van Horn, once a stray beacon of coaching acumen among the athletic department, just keeps plugging away with a baseball program that has, thankfully, provided us with a lot of great springs the past two decades even as other sports experienced fits and starts. Arkansas notched 50 wins for the first time in the coach’s exceptional tenure in 2021, and Kevin Kopps shined on an individual level in a way few Hog athletes have, which took some of the sting out of a Super Regional upset at the hands of NC State. The Hogs fought but fell short of the SEC West title, having been in the Top 10 all year, and were hoping to again host big-time postseason baseball at simply the best venue in the sport.

*Never to be outdone, Arkansas track and field thrives. It now seems comical that I have recollections of my old message board-prowling days where posters openly doubted whether Chris Bucknam had the chops to succeed the iconic John McDonnell. Bucknam has only won the national coach of the year honor bearing McDonnell’s name three times over the last nine years, including in 2021, and the retiring Lance Harter guided the women’s indoor team to a national title last year. McDonnell died last June and Harter announced his retirement after an incredible 33-year run, but the overall condition of track and field and cross country is top-shelf, and again backed by unmatched facilities and fan support.

*Arkansas’s tennis, golf, volleyball and soccer programs have all experienced upward, obvious team and individual successes. The gymnastics team returned to the Sweet Sixteen in April, and swimming and diving coach Neil Harper has kept that program steady and accomplished. I’m not slighting these important sports with less verbiage here, I promise. The beauty of our new streaming culture is being able to view such events now, and it’s obviously only enhanced the university’s profile that the facilities and athletes are being seen.

Brian Chilson

*Arkansas’s student-athletes just keep making good headlines. And don’t mistake this for some diatribe on culture, but as other prominent universities deal with all manner of scandal or disharmony in their athletic departments, Arkansas is universally regarded as stable in generally every respect. Academically, the litany of All-Americans or All-SEC performers is lengthy, and Yurachek regularly, justifiably touts the classroom achievements in a big way, too.

I ordinarily resist the bullet-point approach above, but it’s simply the cleanest way to demonstrate how good life has been for Hog fans the past two years. If Long merited cover attention a decade ago for simply being a lightning rod of sorts, today Yurachek commands the honor for different reasons.

There’s no controversy brewing of late, right? This settled slate of coaches is completely atypical for Arkansas Razorback athletics, and let’s not delude ourselves into thinking otherwise. Even as Houston Nutt shined in his first couple of years, for instance, Richardson’s star fell and there were ripples of in-house tension as Frank Broyles’ tenure wound down. Or if Bielema was making progress, Anderson’s bunch was flailing about. Inane melodrama ensnared one program or another. Eddie Sutton and Lou Holtz clashed with Broyles publicly in the mid-1980s, and that dirty laundry made its way to the public at a time when it was theoretically much easier to keep such beefs private.

A predictable blowback to this take goes something like this: “Well, Arkansas still only went 4-4 in SEC play and ’Bama and Georgia are just bullies that we can’t beat.” “Musselman’s teams take time to gel and he hasn’t won a title.” “Van Horn can’t seem to get the big one and had his best shot last summer.” That’s all possibly accurate, but it simply isn’t fair: Competition is hard, and being the absolute best in any discipline is accordingly not going to come easily. The baseball Hogs spent virtually the entire last season at the top of the polls and won every SEC series but found out in a hard way that a bad weekend can spoil best-laid plans.

I’ll urge you to take a different tack. When NC State vanquished the Hogs’ baseball team, it was absolutely an “upset.” And I submit that being in that position alone, after so much heartache due to simply being bad in one or more sports, is pretty special.

Arkansas athletics occupies a curious space in many of our hearts and psyches. In a poor Southern state without a professional team to support, these men and women in cardinal and white represent the rest of us whether you characterize yourself as a fan or not. And in the past two strange, tragic and unsettling years, they’ve done an incredible damn job of that.

The excitement of being a Hog is back, and I’m ever grateful to be able to write those words today. And I’m prouder than ever to finish out a piece with these words: Woo Pig Sooie.  

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