Jim Harris: Been There, Done That with Hogs’ Moral Victories


DALLAS – Having followed Arkansas Razorback football closely for a half-century now, it seems like we’re walking into the same scene several times over now. Hogs’ fans and some of the media are again feeling the moral victories for Razorback football program after last Saturday’s 34-3 loss at Auburn. Of course, no coach, and certainly Chad Morris, will accept a moral victory.

It immediately reminded me of the 1991 season, when Frank Broyles, then fully immersed as a hands-on athletic director and worrying about the future of the program he’d built as coach for 19 years, confided in someone close to him that he hated seeing Hog fans feeling so upbeat and talking “moral victory” following a 31-3 loss in Little Rock against the Miami Hurricanes, who were nearly a decade into a dominating run of college football. Those fans were just glad it wasn’t a repeat of the 51-7 thumping Miami had put on a highly regarded Ken Hatfield squad in 1987 on the same field. In one season under Crowe, Arkansas had suddenly fallen from the top of the Southwest Conference under Hatfield to a step ahead of bottom-feeder SMU, rebounding from the NCAA’s “death penalty.”

Miami had put a 49-3 embarrassment on Texas in the previous Cotton Bowl. Crowe’s first season with the Hogs had looked a lot like Chad Morris’ first three weeks, come to think of it.

But Crowe had hired a wily Joe Kines in the off-season to run the defense, and despite surrendering an early 99-yard touchdown pass, the Hogs competed hard for 60 minutes. They could do little offensively but looked fundamentally sounder defensively and, most importantly, didn’t get totally blown out.

Hearing of Broyles’ reaction at the time, though, immediately left me thinking that Frank himself must have forgotten his own coaching brush with a fan base celebrating a better-than-expected result. Arkansas opened the 1973 season on defending champion Southern Cal’s home turf and were completely in rebuilding mode. The Hogs ran the simplest of an offensive scheme Broyles deemed the “hambone,” a wishbone-styled formation with a sophomore quarter, Mike Kirkland, whose only experience to that point had been handling the placekicking in a disappointing 1972 season.

Arkansas only lost 17-0, and not 70-17 or something more like Hog fans were expecting. A couple of Lynn Swann punt returns for apparent touchdowns were called back, and Arkansas left L.A. a respectable loser. But just a year later, Arkansas used a little more versatile wishbone and Jimmy Johnson’s fast defense, and upset eventual national champ Southern Cal 22-7 in the Rock. And, though 1974 was up and down again, the rebuild was complete with Broyles’ last SWC title in 1975, and it set the table for all that success Lou Holtz enjoyed as Hog head coach in 1977-79.

Nothing’s guaranteed that Chad Morris will experience a turnaround like those previous low-water marks, and it can only begin to turn around with great recruiting, which was going on during the troubles of 1973, thanks to then-defensive coordinator Johnson and the UA’s recruiting coordinator at the time, Leroy Montgomery. Broyles had summoned Johnson back to his alma mater from Oklahoma to recruit Texas hard, and that he did.

Crowe worked hard on the recruiting trail, too, and wasn’t bad there, but he didn’t have the name or record to wow enough recruits, or the fan base, and Broyles wasn’t giving him much of a leash, firing him one game into the 1992 season after a 10-3 loss to The Citadel. He talked Danny Ford, three years removed from being fired at Clemson where he had won a national title in 1981, into trying to reverse the Hog fortunes in their new, dog-eat-dog league, the SEC. Ford won a division title in 1995, with a lot of help from Crowe’s recruiting finds, but didn’t get a chance to see what his own great recruiting in 1995-96 would produce when Broyles canned him after back to back 4-7 seasons. Instead, Houston Nutt got to reap the benefits of Ford’s hard work with the turnaround season of 1998.

Bobby Petrino, dismissed by many Razorback followers as weak on the recruiting end, still had two tremendous classes by Arkansas standards when he first arrived, the first bolstered by the best group of receivers this state has ever produced in one year (Jarius Wright, Greg Childs, Chris Gragg, Joe Adams) and the transfer from Michigan of Arkansas native quarterback Ryan Mallett. Petrino’s 41-9 record at Louisville and his penchant for wide-open offense no doubt helped him secure an outstanding second recruiting class. All that helped pave the way to a 21-5 two-year mark in 2010-11, but Petrino’s off-field shenanigans ruined any chance to see what he could do with a fifth straight season in the same locale.

Louisville, it turns out, is seeing that this year in Petrino’s second go-round there, and it’s not pretty. Already, media there are looking at the crazy buyout numbers Petrino’s former AD, Tom Jurich, managed to secure for his buddy back when all looked good – Louisville would owe Petrino $12+ million (or 3 years’ salary) to part ways with him now.

Morris, meanwhile, has gone from a week 3 home loss to North Texas by 27 points, which some fans were comparing to Crowe’s Citadel disaster, to a “morale victory” he wasn’t accepting but which encouraged fans and media. The lesson of the past, though, is that there will be ups and downs following said moments, even as the better players are recruited to Fayetteville. Just when you think Arkansas has improved defensively, there’s a Texas A&M with new coach Jimbo Fisher to pop up and exploit the weaknesses on the back line the way Auburn couldn’t or wouldn’t do last week. A&M will be able to run the football, will present a difficult quarterback to tackle in Kellon Mond, and will be able to throw the ball all over the field and show off its edge in overall team speed. Arkansas can’t match A&M offensively, even though it appears the Hogs now have some stability in the offensive line and a “gamer” at quarterback in Ty Storey. The junior took an almost unfair pounding for the duration at Auburn, and he’s not going to suddenly find Ryan Mallett-like passing accuracy. This feels more like a 49-14 A&M win, even if the Hogs’ special teams don’t implode like they did last week at Auburn.

Morris has apparently learned the hard way that his special teams will need several more front-line guys in key spots. This, too, is not unusual from those aforementioned past years where the Arkansas football program came away with “moral victories” as it struggled to regain its footing.

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