When I came to Northwest Arkansas to jumpstart my journalism career in 1998, there was one thing I was more excited about covering than anything – University of Arkansas basketball. Heck, one of the main things that drew me to the job was knowing I’d cover every home game and have a chance to write player features.
Growing up in Iowa, I really had no idea of the legend of Frank Boyles, Kenny Hatfield and the 1969 Shootout, while I knew Steve Atwater as the hard-hitting safety from the Denver Broncos (who nearly decapitated my favorite Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye on Monday Night Football) not a Hogs star.
However, I did know Nolan Richardson, Lee Mayberry, Todd Day, Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman.
Just seven years before, I had made sure my parents got us home in a timely manner after church so I could see No. 1 UNLV play that infamous 1991 game at Barnhill Arena against No. 2 Arkansas. As a college freshman, I won our NCAA Tournament bracket pool picking the Razorbacks to beat Duke.
So, I came to Fayetteville expecting everyone to be Hawg Wild over the basketball team. Instead, a young football coach named Houston Nutt led an improbable run and had Arkansas in the National Championship conversation late into the 1998 season. It was then I realized that the fan base might have traded that 1994 National Basketball Championship for a football one.
Football is king in the South. Period. It didn’t take me long to figure that out.
But since Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992, it’s never been consistently recognized as a top-flight football school. Certainly not like the Arkansas basketball was recognized in those first few years, and is now on the brink again. More than two decades after I arrived in the state, and 19 years removed from the messy firing of Richardson, the program with the most momentum is basketball.
That was officially acknowledged this week when Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek extended Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman’s contract for five years totaling $20 million plus incentives.
Musselman’s base salary is now 33% higher than UA football coach Sam Pittman, who will enter his second season this fall. Arkansas joins a small list of programs that pay their basketball coach more than the football coach including Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland and Tennessee.
With the exception of Maryland and Tennessee, all of these schools are more known for basketball. And it’s not even really close, especially at Duke, Kansas and Kentucky. Louisville’s football program has made strides in the past decade, but the Bluegrass State is always going to lean toward basketball.
In Tennessee, Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes have breathed life into the basketball program by making it a real contender. Meanwhile, Volunteers football, once a power, has floundered most the past two decades after
The coaching carousel in Tennessee’s football office has resulted in a lower pay grade while officials there have felt compelled to reward the basketball coaches for deep tournament runs. (Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes makes $1 million a year more than new UT football coach Josh Heupel.)
And that’s precisely the situation Yurachek found himself in.
After the Arkansas basketball program found itself stuck in neutral with a 169-102 record in eight seasons under former Richardson assistant Mike Anderson, Musselman revved the engine quickly, landing a talented crop of in-state freshmen with some transfers and engineering an Elite Eight run in just his second year:
Even in a pandemic, the meteoric rise drew an intense buzz.
Fans flocked to Indianapolis trying to secure a coveted ticket to the Sweet 16 game against Oral Roberts. In two seasons, Musselman had recaptured the mania that was so pervasive in the early-mid ’90s under Richardson. Yurachek recognized this immediately.
As prominent jobs opened nationwide, Hogs fans got nervous. I doubt Musselman considered any of those jobs, a real test would be if a West Coast NBA team comes calling with a GM/Coach position.
Yurachek, seeing how the program is already on the brink of a Final Four appearance, knew he needed to lock Musselman up. And he did.
He also wasn’t afraid to pay his basketball coach a million dollars per year more than his football coach, which is not the norm for the football-crazy SEC.
It’s nothing against Sam Pittman.
The two programs are just at opposite ends of the spectrum currently.
After Yurachek fired Chad Morris, he was extremely shrewd in finding a good fit for a bargain basement price. I expect that investment to pay big dividends in two or three years as Pittman has so far shown real progress on The Hill. Let’s not forget that he inherited the biggest mess in Hogs football history. T
The state of the Arkansas football program was way worse than the one Musselman inherited and tweaked with what appeared to be minor adjustments and savvy. Pittman will most likely see his payday as he rebuilds Arkansas back into a middle-tier SEC competitor. The program is in good hands and Yurachek doesn’t have to pay huge money after two miserable contracts for which he wasn’t responsible.
During the time Pittman orchestrates this construction project, Musselman may be leading the basketball team to Final Fours, and Bud Walton Arena will almost assuredly be sold out and rocking again.
Just like in the 1990s, basketball will again be at the forefront, leading national pundits to undoubtedly recognize Arkansas as a basketball school.