Dave Van Horn’s Success Looks Like It’s in Zero Sum Game with Football, Basketball

Can Dave Van Horn save Razorback fans again?

Dave Van Horn, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Arkansas baseball sure earned this beautiful weekend series at home against Murray State, which started beautifully enough with a big win Friday.

Last week in Arlington, the team did triple-duty with an exorcism of Beaver-related demons, a walk-off suicide squeeze in a 14-inning thriller and a nail-biting bounce-back win against Michigan. 

Spearheaded by a trio of ace starters that combined to throw 17 scoreless innings with 33 strikeouts across the three games, the Diamond Hogs’ impressive pitching depth has established a clear identity for the team. In Game 1 against Murray State, Hagen Smith, Koty Frank and Gabe Gaeckle, Arkansas pitchers combined for 20 strikeouts, which before this season would have set the program record*.

Extraordinarily high attendance numbers so far have made it clear that Razorback Nation’s anticipation for baseball is through the roof.

It goes without saying that this year’s football and basketball seasons have been disappointments bordering on disaster. Sam Pittman barely survived the hot seat after a 4-8 record, and the Hoop Hogs might finish below .500 for the first time since 2009-10 – especially after yet another embarrassing home loss to Vanderbilt.

These results have left folks with a hunger for baseball that goes beyond excitement – it’s better described as a desperation. Don’t take it from me, take it from these Razorback fans on Twitter:

As usual, Arkansas fans are being completely rational and responsible with their expectations. So the question is…can coach Dave Van Horn and the Diamond Hogs save Razorback Nation’s sanity this year?

Strangely enough, there’s a notable pattern of failures on the gridiron in the fall and the hardwood in the winter being followed up by wildly successful baseball seasons through the spring and early summer. Put on your tin foil hats, and let’s get into it.

Can Dave Van Horn Come to the Rescue?

It wouldn’t be the first time. This correlation stretches back 20 years to the 2003-04 basketball season, when Stan Heath’s Hogs sputtered to a second-straight losing record in his disastrous tenure attempting to succeed the great Nolan Richardson. 

Fortunately, the Diamond Hogs treated Arkansas fans to a College World Series appearance in 2004. While the Razorbacks went 0-2 at Rosenblatt Stadium, it was a landmark first Omaha appearance for Van Horn in his second season in Fayetteville.

The Hoop Hogs’ next losing season came in 2008-09 under head coach John Pelphrey. Making matters worse, Bobby Petrino’s first year in charge of the football program saw the team struggle to a 5-7 record.

On the heels of losing football and basketball seasons, the summer of 2009 saw Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks make an impressive postseason run and return to the College World Series. Despite not earning a national seed, Arkansas ran through the Norman Regional and the Tallahassee Super Regional to advance to Omaha. 

Led by memorable performances from Razorback greats like Dallas Keuchel and Brett Eibner, the Diamond Hogs knocked off Virginia and No. 1 seed Cal State Fullerton en route to the national semifinal, where they came up short against LSU.

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This odd pattern of baseball being a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel in Fayetteville continued in 2012. That April, Bobby Petrino was fired and the ensuing media circus turned Arkansas into a laughingstock. A few months later, Van Horn guided the Razorbacks to Omaha yet again behind star players Dominic Ficociello and Ryne Stanek.

2004, 2009, and 2012. The saying goes that two is a coincidence and three is a pattern. But wait, there’s more…

Fast forward to the fall of 2017, when the wheels fell off for Razorback football in the fifth year of Bret Bielema’s tenure. The Head Hog was fired on the field after a home loss to Missouri capped off a dreadful 4-8 season.

In the subsequent baseball season, the Razorbacks steamrolled the opposition en route to a No. 5 national seed, a share of the SEC West title and an incredible 34-4 home record. Led by the Friday night excellence of ace starter Blaine Knight (14-0, 2.80 ERA) and the loud bats of Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin, the Hogs comfortably won the Fayetteville Regional and Super Regional en route to a return to Omaha.

Arkansas then knocked off Texas, Texas Tech and defending national champion Florida to earn a matchup with the Oregon State Beavers in the 2018 CWS Finals. For the sake of preserving good “juju” in the room, I’ll leave it at that. Fortunately for the Razorbacks, it appears that they may have broken that curse by defeating the Beavers in Arlington last weekend in a thrilling rematch of that championship series.

After the Bielema era figuratively crashed and burned, the allegedly innovative offensive mind of Chad Morris was brought in to jumpstart and modernize the Arkansas offense. Surely things couldn’t have gotten worse, right?

The ensuing 2-10 season was followed up by a mediocre year in Bud Walton Arena that saw the Razorbacks miss the NCAA Tournament, resulting in the firing of head coach Mike Anderson. Luckily, the Diamond Hogs’ campaign to “run it back” in 2019 resulted in another College World Series appearance behind strong performances from ace Isaiah Campbell and a number of veteran bats in the lineup.

Conspiracy or Legitimate Trend for Arkansas Baseball?

Of the seven times that Dave Van Horn has taken Arkansas baseball to the College World Series, five have come following a losing football season or a basketball team that missed the Big Dance – if not both. While success within an athletic program is not a zero sum game, it certainly seems like mediocrity in the other two major sports usually spells success for the Diamond Hogs. 

(missed NCAAT)
CWS Appearance
(missed NCAAT)
CWS Appearance
*Petrino debacle*
(missed NCAAT)
CWS Appearance
2014-157-627-9CWS Appearance
2017-184-823-12CWS Appearance
(missed NCAAT)
CWS Appearance
2021-229-428-9CWS Appearance

It’s happened many times before, and the odds of Van Horn being Razorback Nation’s patron saint once again appear to be pretty good. Arkansas is currently ranked in the top five in every major poll, and prominent analysts like D1Baseball’s Kendall Rogers have tabbed Arkansas as their predicted national champion.

If we really want to get conspiratorial, there seems to be a historical “30 year rule” of Arkansas ascending to Hog Heaven and winning a national championship. Frank Broyles won it all in 1964, and Nolan Richardson conquered the Big Dance in 1994. Will 2024 bring that same glory and finally see DVH win it all? Only time will tell.

With a talented lineup and arguably the nation’s best pitching staff at his disposal, the legendary skipper will look to lead Razorback fans on another pilgrimage to Omaha to turn TD Ameritrade Park into “Baum North” yet again. For the sake of their own sanity, the beleaguered Razorback fanbase will certainly hope that this is the case.

*As a team, Arkansas now has 133 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings — an average of 14.5 per nine innings. That is just behind Florida State’s 15.6 for the second most nationally.

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