What the Hell Happened to Bud Walton Arena – and What Can We Do to Fix It?

Visit Matt's Author Page
“It used to be one of the loudest places in the country.”

So said ESPN play-by-play man Dave O’Brien midway through the second half of the Razorback basketball game against Syracuse on Friday night as he described how quiet the crowd was yet again at Bud Walton Arena.

That comment stung – much more than the 91-82 loss to the No. 6 team in the nation.

As the clock hit 43 seconds left with Arkansas down by only seven points to one of the best teams in the country, rather than the announced crowd of 19,259 being so loud that the Jim Robken noise meter would stick at the top, many fans had already exited and the arena was silent other than the squeaks of Nikes across the court and the thud of the ball hitting the rim.

Earlier in the game when Mike Anderson’s Hogs cut the Syracuse lead to five, rather than the crowd working itself into a frenzy, it sounded more like the Orange were up by 20. With no fan intimidation, Syracuse’s response was to come down and calmly hit two three-pointers to take back control of the game.

This is no kind of home-court advantage for the relaunch of Hawgball.

The UA athletic department coerced the fans into a whiteout gimmick for this game by providing white T-shirts to the first 10,000 in attendance, and all it really did was accentuate how the red seats were emptying out in the final 5 minutes of the game.

Razorback basketball doesn’t need whiteout gimmicks. It needs the kind of redout that gives the opposing players and coaches a headache when they walk in the building – the kind that once prompted Texas coach Abe Lemons to describe playing in Barnhill Arena as being like “parachuting into hell.”

O’Brien’s comment especially hit home because Razorback basketball games used to have one of the best atmospheres in the country, and we were once again reminded in this nationally televised early season matchup how far it has fallen.

A decade removed from the misguided firing of Nolan Richardson, Razorback basketball has yet to recapture the passionate spell it once held on people across the state.

The chance to go to Razorback basketball games for four years was the primary reason I picked the University of Arkansas over my second choice of TCU when I was choosing where to go to college, but I hardly doubt it plays any role in a high-school student’s decision these days.

I was fortunate enough to have a third-row seat in the student section (hey, I got in line early but not as early as some other basketball-obsessed students) for the start of the Nolan era from 1987 to 1991, which included the great teams led by Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller.

The student section back in those days, as it was in the Sutton years prior and another decade after, was a rowdy place. For many of the big games, the student section was at capacity by 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. weekday game and would heckle the opposing team when they came in for their shoot-around at 4 p.m.

Imagine this setting: Missouri, Texas, or name your opponent used to come into Barnhill Arena expecting the typical quiet environment for an afternoon shoot-around only to find a jam-packed and vocal student section in an otherwise empty arena. That is how you create a home-court advantage.

These days, Bud Walton Arena is frequently lucky to have that much noise (and sometimes that many fans in the seats) in total. The preseason Red-White game a month ago, for example, had fewer people in the stands than many practices I attended during Nolan’s early years.

And in the cases when there are actually people in the stands, like Friday’s game against Syracuse, it has turned into a pretty conservative crowd with maybe one too many Bentonville princesses and Bella Vista retirees occupying the good seats.

The traditionally great enthusiasm from the student section is still there, but it has been relegated to only a small army in the Trough.

I feel sorry for the students at basketball games these days because some of them were not even born when Scotty Thurman hit the shot to win the national championship, and they have no concept of what the passion of Razorback basketball used to be like.

But if we are to return the spirit of Barnhill to Bud Walton, as cavernous as it may be compared to the Cameron Indoor setting we used to have, it must start with the students.

Have you seen a game at Duke lately? Those students don’t just show up to the games, they get wild, they wear costumes, and they are organized. At the Duke game televised on Wednesday, there was one student dressed like the guy in the yellow suit from the “Gangnam Style” video, and that is just the kind of enthusiasm and craziness that Bud Walton Arena needs.

The students must lead. It should be their house.

But they need the encouragement and support from the UA administration to be as crazy as they want to be. If they want to camp out a week in advance of a big game, let them. If they want to get their seat five hours before game time, let them. If they want to bring bags of confetti into the arena and unload after every basket, let them.

If they want to chant, “WE’RE GONNA BEAT THE HELL OUT OF YOU,” let them! If they want to start an official student council to help organize student-section chants and cheers, let them. It wouldn’t hurt to give them better seats, too.

If the students set the tone, the rest will eventually follow their lead.

It also wouldn’t hurt to return the slobbering Hog to its rightful place at half-court instead of the uptight and cleaned up Razorback that replaced it and somewhat serves as a symbolic representation of the change in the atmosphere.

Do we want to get Hawgball restarted or not? Mike Anderson does.

Now it’s up to the fans to take the next step.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Tyrell

    You hit the nail on the head, BUT it’s hard to blame the young people who grew up watching the awful, AWFUL … coaches and teams that followed Rollin’ with Nolan. Thank you very much Mr. Broyles. You single handedly shot Hawg Ball in the head and it’s been in a coma for years. Finally got an excellent doctor in Mike Anderson and we are starting to show signs of life. When we finally get out of bed, the new generation will get to experience what I did when I was in college and they will react accordingly. This new regime will have to earn that back even though it’s not of their making. Too bad we didn’t hire Mike as soon as Nolan left. These last years would not have happened and we would still be an elite team. Go Hogs!!

  • Bridgett

    Yes Frank did kill Hawg Ball (and Jeff is about to kill football!!) but hopefully MA can bring back the magic and it won’t be too late. I couldn’t believe how lame the crowd was last night – pathetic. I remember last year at the Michigan game the crowd was awesome and we pulled off a great win! MAKES A DIFFERENCE PEOPLE!

  • WizardofhOgZ

    If Lemons made that comment, then he was plagiarizing . . . from another Texas coach. Back in the 1960’s, Darrell Royal defensive assistant Mike Campbell said that playing in Fayetteville was “like parachuting into Russia” in an era when that was as hostile a location as Hell to an American.


  • tommy

    They way to get the atmosphere back is to win. Win some big games and we will cheer! A few years back when our team had a hot start bud Walton was rocking! But no half court offense and a team with ZERO shooters does not ignite fan passion. I think we will see a return but it will be ignited by the coach and the team not the students.

  • Do you think this may be emblematic of a wider change in the culture of fandom? My brother and I attended a Hall High – White Station bball game tonite at LR Hall. Hall was only trailing by five point with about a minute left, and yet legions of people started heading for the exits, apparently ready to just call it a day rather than cheer their Warriors to a comeback.

    Now Hall is in prep Arkansas basketball circles equivalent to Duke and Kentucky combined, and yet this was happening.
    Maybe it’s that people don’t get as “hype” for games these days because their attention is more fragmented that even 15 years ago. Think of how many people you see fiddling on their phones during the course of a game.

    It’s difficult to simply turn the spigot of irrational fandom on and off. That stuff needs time and attention to build.

    There are still exceptions. You mentioned Duke in college basketball, and you could certainly throw in OKC in pro basketball and LSU in college football.

    But it will take some heavy lifting on the part of the Hogs to turn Bud Walton into one of those exceptions.

    Maybe a “throwback” game at a much smaller arena like Barnhill, Barton Coliseum or the Pine Bluff Convention Center would jumpstart the process by exposing younger generations of fans and players to what a frenzied sweatbox actually feels like.