While The Athletic’s David Ubben grew up in Fayetteville, he has spent most of his journalism career working in the surrounding states as a college football reporter.
Whether working in the Big 12, or now with the Tennessee Volunteers, the Arkansas football program has never been his focus.
So, naturally, he felt it was high time he make it his focus for a recent piece in The Athletic to lay out reasons why Razorback fans should want to leave the SEC — and why the Big 12 is the much better fit for Arkansas football (and by extension the other sports, too).
He says that the upcoming Arkansas vs Texas game in September is a perfect reminder of what Arkansas used to have in the now-defunct Southwest Conference, but that the Razorbacks can get some of that magic back by joining the Big 12, which is home to four former SWC members in Texas, Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor.
“The reality of Arkansas’ SEC membership is it has been a raw deal for fans from the start,” he writes.
“Arkansas’ move to the SEC cost its rivalries and made life worse for fans. It cost the program a little bit of its soul.”
Ubben does make a couple good points, but he also overlooks some important counterpoints.
Here’s a breakdown of both:
Arkansas Football Ain’t Winning Much in the SEC
In the 37 years before Arkansas left the SWC in 1991, the Razorbacks won nearly 8 games a season, won a share of 11 conference titles and and one national title.
But in 29 seasons in the SEC, the Arkansas football program has “has averaged 6.1 wins per year with just three 10-win seasons, zero conference titles and one major bowl berth,” Ubben wrote.
“The Hogs reached the SEC title game three times in that span, losing all three by double digits. Arkansas has suffered through 13 losing seasons in the SEC, including each of the past four seasons.”
As Ubben sees it, fans should prefer the chance to consistently beat the Kansases, Iowa States, West Virginias and Kansas States of the world over having to serve as a piñata for the Auburns, Alabamas and Texas A&Ms in the SEC West.
This is the same point brought up by Kevin Borba, a Texas writer, when explaining why the Big 12 is a good fit for Arkansas.
“The way the Razorbacks played last season, it is evident they are trending upward and would likely be already better than the bottom five teams in the Big 12,” Borba writes.
“While many may question why the Big 12 would want a SEC bottom feeder, it just goes to show how tough the SEC is.”
Ubben knows that along with that competitiveness comes financial security.
“The prestige of playing in the SEC is nice,” he adds. “But it doesn’t benefit fans.”
There’s no denying that Arkansas football has hit a rough patch, but that’s more due to bad hires than anything else.
But put John L. Smith, or late-Arkansas era Bret Bielema, or Chad Morris in the Big 12 with the Razorbacks and they are still losing a ton.
There’s a lot of good that comes with SEC membership that counters the losing in football. For instance, the SEC membership has been a huge plus when it comes to recruiting in almost all sports.
The SEC is now a basketball league on par with the Big 12 and I expect it will surpass the Big 12 in overall depth and quality as Arkansas keeps rising under Musselman, Alabama keeps trending up under Nate Oats and once Kentucky gets its groove back.
In baseball, the SEC is by far the nation’s best conference, and it’s one of the best in other sports like softball and gymnastics too.
The good that Arkansas gets through SEC membership in these other sports is something fans enjoy a lot. Perhaps even enough to counteract the football losing.
Proximity to other teams and a true rivalry
As Ubben sees it, the fact that Arkansas football fans have to drive a few extra hours to games in Mississippi and Alabama — compared to games in Oklahoma and Kansas — is a big deal.
“Fans are three hours from Oklahoma State and under four from Oklahoma, one of the premier venues in the sport. The Hogs’ storied basketball program could play an annual game inside another hallowed hall: Allen Fieldhouse, a four-hour drive from Bud Walton Arena.”
“Kansas State is only an additional hour away, too.”
Yes, Hog fans could save some mileage. But a few extra hours of driving doesn’t matter too much.
Ubben also writes that it’s a big deal “Arkansas would reunite with the only program that still makes fans’ blood boil year-round: Texas.”
It is true that Texas is the most historic rivalry that Arkansas football has.
But it also means a lot more to older fans than younger fans who have only ever known Arkansas as part of the SEC. In football, no single team matches Texas in terms of hatred, but that doesn’t mean fans don’t hate LSU and Auburn (which stole a win from the Hogs last year) with a passion too.
Plus, Ubben is overlooking the other sports.
In baseball, Arkansas has a molten new rivalry with Tennessee, now under Tony Vitello, while in basketball the Arkansas-Kentucky rivalry once was on par with Arkansas-Texas in terms of pure white-hot enmity between fan bases.
It could get back there soon with Eric Musselman and John Calipari leading the way and both programs poised to battle for SEC supremacy in the coming years.
Losing these baseball and basketball rivalries is nothing to sneeze at.
Finally, Texas calls a lot of the shots in the Big 12, just as it did in the SWC.
While Arkansas doesn’t exactly call the shots in the SEC either, it doesn’t have to mess with its long-time rival trying to push its weight around.
In the end, money speaks.
The SEC has deeper pockets than the Big 12 and that has always mattered.
Barry Switzer, a former Arkansas football assistant, said former Hogs AD Frank Broyles explained to him why Arkansas joined the SEC:
“He said, ‘Hell, as soon as I signed the contract, I got a $6 million raise for our program.'”
Ubben knows this. “A move to the Big 12 would introduce risk and probably cost the university a few million dollars per year,” he writes.
“Last year, the SEC distributed $45.5 million to member schools. The Big 12 handed out $37.7 million.”
Ubben believes that his reasons involving winning more in football, proximity and getting a “true” rivalry back are enough to overcome the dip in revenue leaving the SEC would entail.
For more, check out the below podcast in which Ubben debates the Arkansas to Big 12 move with Andy Staples.
Staples lays out a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea: