Keith Jackson, then an amazing three-sport athlete at Little Rock Parkview who, while starting tight end, may have been the most effective punt returner in the state too, seemed to be headed anywhere but Arkansas. In the fall, before Holtz psychologically imploded as his worst season as Hog head coach wound down, Jackson was leaning toward Texas and Coach Fred Akers. By the time Hatfield figured it all out, Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer was riding up in a limo to seal the deal with Jackson to become a Sooner. (Of course, Jackson has been welcomed back to his hometown as the creator of P.A.R.K., the great after-school facility that has changed so many young Little Rock lives, and these days is alongside Chuck Barrett calling Razorback football games. Hog fans just bite their tongues and try not to remember a kick-in-the-gut recruiting diss from the in-state star 29 years ago.)
The problems Arkansas had signing its in-state stars had started well before the winter of ‘83-‘84 and the transition from Holtz to Hatfield. Holtz’s arrogance had alienated most of the influential high school head coaches, and a couple of seasons back he had allowed Little Rock Hall’s Leslie O’Neal, a future NFL All-Pro defensive lineman, to leave for Oklahoma State without much fight with then-OSU assistant and recruiter Butch Davis. Holtz also told Pine Bluff’s speedy playmaker Danny Bradley he wasn’t his type of quarterback but that he’d make a fine D-back.
Bradley ended up at OU, made All-Big 8 at quarterback as a senior, and his signing with the Sooners eventually led to future All-Big 8 defensive tackle Curtice Williams following in the Jackson class. Zebra quarterback Eric Mitchel would tag right behind a year later, but his career in Norman was mostly wasted as a running back behind a stable full of talented backs.
Hatfield briefly had Fort Smith Northside offensive tackle Mark Hutson committed before one of those late OU specials — a mystery switcheroo that was never much explained. Hutson, who would eventually return to Arkansas as an assistant coach years later, made All-American at Oklahoma, as did Jackson.
Hatfield was able to stem the tide of talent headed out of state the next year, securing the likes of Parade All-Americans James Rouse, a running back from Parkview, and Freddie Childress, a monstrous athletic lineman from Helena. And, eventually, Hatfield assembled solid classes from 1985-87 that resulted in back-to-back Southwest Conference titles and Cotton Bowl berths before he left for Clemson after the ’89 season.
Nearly three decades later, a new Razorback coaching staff finds itself in much the same place as Hatfield and crew were.
Bret Bielema has had too little time to make up for the damage done by the previous UA staff in recruiting Altee Tenpenny. However, it does appear — just as Hatfield managed to do in meeting with Keith Jackson 29 years ago — that Bielema and his staff have given Tenpenny plenty to think about in their on-campus and in-home visits last week. Alabama, too, isn’t conceding that Tenpenny is a lock anymore; Crimson Tide coaches returned for more face-time with the Charging Wildcat today (Jan. 30).
Six months ago, nothing could have swayed Tenpenny’s thoughts from Alabama.
It’s safe to say that were Bobby Petrino still the head coach at Arkansas, Pulaski Academy tight end Hunter Henry might be joining Tenpenny at Alabama or headed elsewhere such as to Vanderbilt.
The comparisons in recruiting and the way they dealt with people, particularly Arkansas’ high school coaches, are eerily similar in examining Holtz’s and Petrino’s short stays at Arkansas. In terms of national ranking, both also were the biggest winners on the field that Arkansas has had as head coaches since Frank Broyles’ retirement as coach in 1976.
Hatfield is the biggest winner in terms of percentage and outright conference titles since Broyles.
While Bielema will only have had two months personally and really just one month with a complete staff to recruit the 2013 before next Wednesday’s national signing day, he’s put Arkansas in the minds of many of the best players still available from Hawaii to New Jersey. Four-star running back Alex Collins out of Plantation, Fla., will decide between staying home and attending Miami or venturing to far-off Arkansas (ironic since Arkansas also hopes Tenpenny will basically stay home).
Offensive and defensive line prospects and defensive back talents have gotten the hard rush as Bielema has tried to make up near impossible ground. O-linemen Reeve Koehler and Dan Skipper are major commitments. A couple other star linemen are at least giving the Hogs serious consideration in the run-up to signing day.
Arkansas’ previous staff didn’t have a chance with any of these players.
However, the previous staff and interim head coach did saddle the new coach with eight out-of-state players who, upon further review, weren’t considered SEC material by the rest of the league. Bielema cut them loose. They’ll now play for South Alabama of the Sun Belt Conference, or Houston, or Cincinnati, or lesser programs.
That’s a situation not unlike what Hugh Freeze faced last winter in taking over the wrecked Ole Miss program. He managed what he could in a short time, cut loose the academically deficient and less-talented commitments, and looked ahead to his next class, which may be the best in Oxford since Archie Manning played for the Rebels.
What should be encouraging to Arkansas fans is the number of 2014 prospects the Razorback coaches are seeing and offering already, not to mention the several who have already committed, including El Dorado’s mammoth defensive lineman Bhijon Jackson.
When Nick Saban told the ESPN “Game Day” crew after the Crimson Tide’s 42-14 romp over Notre Dame for the national title that he was “behind in recruiting,” he wasn’t talking about this class as much as the one for 2014. And 2015.
2014-15 prospects are getting the Bielema recruiting rush too.
The new trend among the SEC big boys, in case you haven’t noticed, is the practice of enrolling high school seniors in college for the spring semester, to get a head start on the upcoming fall. Top high school sophomores in Georgia and states around Arkansas are being encouraged to get their credits early and, rather than waste a high school spring with senioritis and prom, head to their selected college team. LSU and Georgia both enrolled double-digit prepsters this spring.
Arkansas enrolled five junior college transfers for the spring — not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Hogs need immediate help and may have found it through these players. Bielema may yet have to cover some of the recruiting misses of the previous staff by hitting the jucos for some difference makers in future classes.
But as Bielema and his staff get the lay of the land and expand their expertise around Arkansas, and move somewhat out of Florida to other southern states and Texas, we’re certain Arkansas fans will see the recruiting for the football program rise to its best level since the Broyles era.
Just bear with Bielema’s first class, which will be an average SEC class at best. Arkansas had more than enough problems to overcome.