While there is no disguising the poor quality of Arkansas’ performance against South Carolina this past weekend, Razorback fans don’t need to be jumping off ledges, belittling the current players or demanding that everyone from Jeff Long to the stadium ushers be replaced. The program has been in this position before and recovered. The Razorbacks will recover again. We just don’t know how long it will take.
Criticism is understandable. Tickets are reasonably priced compared to other schools or professional sports but they aren’t cheap. The contribution required for decent seats has gone up and the cost of a weekend in Fayetteville can be a stretch for many Arkansans. Razorback fans are like those at every SEC school. They expect to show up at the stadium every weekend with a chance to win.
Most thought Arkansas’ chances against South Carolina were good. The Razorbacks had shown progress and at least competed against difficult opponents, and the Gamecocks had not been overly impressive despite their 4-1 record. When the Hogs drove for a touchdown on their opening drive, then forced South Carolina to kick a field goal after marching to the UA 10, things were looking pretty good.
But, for the third consecutive week an interception burst Arkansas’ bubble. South Carolina used the pass theft to take a lead it would never relinquish. The Hogs went forever without a first down and by the end of the third quarter many Razorback fans decided they no longer could stand the misery and they left.
In his first year as Razorback coach and enduring a season unlike he’s ever experienced, Brett Bielema apologized to the fans. It was a nice gesture and he is an extremely likeable man, but things may not get much better before the 2013 season concludes. Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina have exposed Arkansas’ lack of speed in the secondary and at the wide receiver spots and speed can’t be coached. And as much as you hope he has been unaffected by the interceptions, Brandon Allen’s confidence has to have slipped at least a notch. Eventually it can be restored. It could happen with some success before the year is over or it may happen in the spring.
Even Steve Spurrier admitted feeling a little sorry for the Razorbacks but it didn’t keep him from calling pass plays deep into the fourth quarter. The SEC is an unforgiving league. Few coaches call off the dogs. Ironically, Nick Saban is one who does. Whether Arkansas plays better at Alabama than it did against South Carolina or not, the margin may not be as bad. Traditionally Saban builds a good lead, then keeps it between the tackles to prevent embarrassing anyone.
So, why feel optimistic about the future, especially if the Hogs have little or no success before the current season concludes? There are several reasons. First and foremost, Bielema has the best track record of any head football coach ever hired at Arkansas with the possible exception of Danny Ford, who had coached Clemson to a national championship before coming to Fayetteville. However, Ford had been out of coaching for two seasons before joining the Razorbacks whereas Bielema led his last three Wisconsin teams to spots in the Rose Bowl.
It’s not just about Bielema, though. He has assembled an excellent staff of recruiters. Arkansas has highest priority but Florida, Texas and other areas where speed is available are also being mined by Bielema and his assistants. Yes, linemen on both sides of the ball are always high priority, but the Hogs must get faster at the skill positions. Speed and size with speed are what separate the SEC from every other league. Without speed at the skill positions, it is impossible to compete in the SEC.
Facilities are in place to enhance recruiting, and Bielema has reestablished a family atmosphere that is attractive to athletes. Northwest Arkansas is still thriving economically, so prospective student-athletes know there are job opportunities available after graduation. And, Arkansas is not distanced from winning. The Razorbacks won 10 games and played in the Sugar Bowl in 2010, then won 11 including the Cotton Bowl in 2011. Current recruits still remember those years.
Things were much more dismal in the early 1990s. Frank Broyles, Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield spoiled Razorback fans with sustained success during the three decades between 1960 and 1989. Jack Crowe had the misfortune to become head coach in 1990 when Arkansas announced it was joining the SEC but would still play in the Southwest Conference for two years. The Texas schools hated the Hogs for the move (even though Texas and Texas A&M were invited to the SEC at the same time) and inflicted terrible punishment during the 1990 season in which Arkansas finished 3-8. The Razorbacks had won SWC titles in 1988 and 1989 but suffered back-to-back losses to Texas and Houston by 32 and 34 points, respectively.
Crowe didn’t last past the first game of the 1992 season, Arkansas’ initial SEC campaign. Joe Kines served the rest of the season as interim coach. The Hogs won three games. Danny Ford built a solid foundation but had only one team in five years with a winning SEC record (discounting the 1993 season when Alabama had to forfeit its win over the Razorbacks).
To Ford’s credit, he left the program in much better shape and Houston Nutt reaped the rewards, leading the Hogs to 17 wins in his first two years. Nutt had many more ups than downs and guided the Razorbacks past No. 1-ranked LSU in his last game as head coach. But, by the time Bobby Petrino was hired as his replacement, Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis were ready for the NFL.
So, Arkansas found itself in a position that wasn’t as bleak as the early 1990s but not as promising as when Nutt was hired. Petrino’s first team barely beat Western Illinois and Louisiana Monroe and was destroyed by Alabama (31-point loss), Texas (42-point setback) and Florida (31-point defeat) on consecutive weeks. With the exception of the Florida game, in which Arkansas was competitive for three quarters, the Hogs weren’t much better during that stretch than they were against South Carolina this past weekend.
Still, no one was calling for Petrino’s head. The following season the Hogs were in the Liberty Bowl and the great seasons of 2010 and 2011 left Razorback fans thinking their team had rejoined the national elite.
Some of Petrino’s success, however, was fool’s gold. The Razorbacks were never among the SEC’s best on defense during that time but were blessed with great quarterbacks in Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson and terrific speed at the receiver positions. When the last of the blazers, Cobi Hamilton, finished his career in 2012, it left the Hogs without game-breaking speed at the position. Would Petrino have had better receivers on campus by now? We will never know.
So, Beliema and his staff have been left to pick up the pieces and move forward. The strength of the team is still the defensive line and there is enough talent on the offensive line to feel OK about that group. Plus, there are several outstanding linemen committed and being recruited. For Arkansas to make an immediate jump in 2014, though, the Hogs must hope the group of defensive backs who are committed have better speed than those on campus. Also, Arkansas desperately needs a big time receiver or two.
Until the South Carolina game, the Hogs had done many things well, even in the defeats. A loss like the one suffered Saturday at Fayetteville, though, can send fans’ spirits plummeting and wondering if there is any hope.
Yes, there is hope but good times might not come quickly. Bielema and his assistants are smart coaches. They will adjust to the SEC and recruit to their deficiencies. When success comes it will be that much sweeter after distasteful losses like the one to the Gamecocks. No need to jump off a ledge, though. The program will bounce back. It has done so before.
Rick Schaeffer, Randy Rainwater’s co-host on Drive Time Sports, is also director of communications for the Springdale School District. He has been a member of the Drive Time Sports team since April, 2002.
Former Sports Information Director at the University of Arkansas, Schaeffer is in his 28th season as color analyst on Razorback basketball broadcasts. He also is in his ninth year of working with Chuck Barrett on Razorback baseball radio broadcasts. He does statistics and pre-game, halftime and post-game comments on Razorback football broadcasts and writes a column for the Arkansas Razorback Sports Network website.
In the spring of 2003 he and his wife, Adelaide, founded Champions For Kids, a support and training organization that works with youth oriented non-profits. Adelaide is executive director for Champions For Kids and Rick does part time work for the organization.
Author of “The Game of My Life” that was published in 2005, Schaeffer has a second book, “Inside The Razorback Vault” a history of University of Arkansas football that is filled with photos, some rare, and memorabilia.
He and his wife have been married for more than 25 years. They have nine dogs, Chelsea, Shiloh, Jasmine, Happy, Allie, Buddy, Bitty, Molly and Ripken.