Arkansas is one of the best in the world in collegiate track and field. Baseball, too. Decades of established excellence have borne fruit.
Football and basketball, however, are the university’s money makers. It’s a safe bet that more people watch Arkansas football and basketball in one season than watch the other sports combined over the course of five seasons.
No matter how great the track-and-field team is or how deep the Diamond Hogs make it into the NCAA Tournament, eyeballs and dollars will be aimed toward the two major sports. This phenomenon isn’t unique to Arkansas.
Because it’s also an issue for the same SEC programs already ahead of Arkansas, expecting those two sports to consistently compete at the level of track-and-field and baseball is folly. Arkansas is just like other schools in that it spends beaucoups on football and basketball – and in the case of football, often less. What other schools aren’t doing is investing the same amount as Arkansas on track and field and baseball.
Look around the country and find more than 10 schools that have nicer track-and-field and baseball facilities than Arkansas. It can’t be done. You can, however, find plenty of comparable football and basketball facilities just about everywhere you look at the power-conference level. Success tends to beget success.
The 2023 Arkansas football season was bad by any measure. Had it been the third straight year, or even the second, of sub-par play and results, the fans who were clamoring for Sam Pittman’s job would have been justified. Consider, though, that not only were the two previous years – especially the 2021 season – good, the 4-8 season of this past fall was actually par for the course when it comes to Bad Arkansas Football these days. The program just isn’t very good. Actually, scratch that. Arkansas football is the worst program in the SEC except for Vanderbilt over the course of the last 10 years.
How Often in College Football Playoff?
And so, when it was announced on Thursday that Hunter Yurachek was appointed to the 13-person College Football Playoff (CFP) Selection Committee, you could almost see the jokes coming from a mile away.
“Good idea to get an impartial AD on there who will never have to vote for his team,” LeroyJenkins420 wrote on Hogville.net. Member Liljo chimed in: “You don’t reckon getting our AD on that committee is the closest the Razorbacks will get to making the playoffs for a long time, do you?”
This does raise the question: what is a reasonable timeline to see the Hogs make the newly expanded 12-team College Football Playoffs? Let’s first preface that with some background: expecting the football team to win eight games every year is no longer realistic, as it was in the SWC days or even through much of the Houston Nutt years.
Given the last decade, Arkansas should expect bowl qualification every other year or so, on average. With some luck, a finish flirting with making the new College Football Playoff once or twice in a decade.
Arkansas basketball doesn’t suffer nearly as badly. In the 22 seasons since Nolan Richardson was head coach, Arkansas has made nine NCAA Tournaments. That’s more than South Carolina (2), Georgia and Ole Miss (3), Auburn (5), Mississippi State (7) and LSU and Vanderbilt (8). The nine are tied with Missouri, Alabama and Texas A&M. Arkansas basketball, as a program, is good. It may even be qualified as “very good.” It is not, however, great, though it could more easily get there than its big-money counterpart sport.
While a Sweet 16 run can’t be expected every year, NCAA Tournament appearances in hoops about 60% of the time with a majority of those appearances resulting in wins is something reasonable after living through a Musselman season that is bringing back memories of the John Pelphrey era. Maybe an occasional run into the Sweet 16 or deeper on top of that. The only programs that can beat this are basically the bluebloods.
Notice what those standards require. They don’t jump to conclusions after one season. The only time in Arkansas history that’s ever been worth doing is with Chad Morris, who was a disaster from the moment of his team-introductory press conference:
Those aforementioned results are satisfactory for most programs at Arkansas’ level in football and basketball. They’re arbitrary, granted, but so would be any prescribed expectation made by anyone else. At least these are within the realm of acceptance given money and history.
Instead, too much of the fan base expects outright excellence. They’re like the parents who get angry when their child majors in Literature or English even though they know the kid stinks at math. It’s like, have you been paying attention or is this about your own ego?
No, what’s happening with the Arkansas basketball team right now is not acceptable. Coach Eric Musselman knows that. But as he is wont to say, he can’t live-and-die with each and every game. Those feelings are reserved for fans, which is short for “fanaticals.” These are not people who fully embrace reason and pragmatism.
Mistakes were made in recruiting. Internal chemistry is so lacking that even Joe Blow from Mountain Home can spot it. Desire does not appear individually strong. Musselman is doing his level best to fix things, but he’s just a coach. He’s a basketball coach, a high-level one. One would be hard-pressed to put anyone in his position this year and get things fixed.
Chicken Littles and Arkansas Basketball
And because we live in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society – in all aspects – Musselman’s name has been bandied about in the same way Pittman’s was in the fall. Mostly by the same foolish Chicken Littles who fail, out of ignorance or willful disregard, to consider the past or environmental factors. The state of college basketball, the state of college sports, is changing. No one has the answer and it will be a few more years before schools and coaches come to terms with the new reality of the NIL and the transfer portal. Arkansas basketball is disappointing, but deserves an even bigger pass than football did.
Expectations in football were justifiably high because of the return of KJ Jefferson, thought to be one of the two best quarterbacks in the SEC, and Rocket Sanders, who was considered the same among the league’s running backs. Throw in an offensive line with two All-SEC players and a defense that improved by leaps and bounds, what happened with the Hogs on the field deserved, and deserves, scrutiny. It’s like that same child who may not be the best-behaved, but rarely gets called into the principal’s office. I’ve got my eye on you now, son.
Basketball should not be cast with the same doubt. Arkansas’ preseason ranking was too high, anyway. Imagine any other team having lost four players to the NBA, three via draft pick, bouncing back the next season and playing at a similar level as the year before.
The transfer players Musselman recruited were good at their previous school, but outside Tramon Mark, the only other future NBA player is probably still Trevon Brazile. The talk of his first-round potential, however, was based on those first nine games in an Arkansas uniform last season. The cart was put well in front of the horse, even if Arkansas should never have been as bad as it is so far this year.
Different from Arkansas Football
Baseball, track-and-field, even volleyball and softball – two of the other most productive and successful programs on-campus right now – don’t have to deal with such issues. That’s partly because they lack the same level of attention.
Players leave Arkansas via the transfer portal in those sports, as well, but they’re rarely the type of players who would significantly alter their team’s success (it does bear watching how much the volleyball team drops, if at all, after the transfer of Taylor Head to Florida State for her final season).
When it happens in football or basketball, though, fans often rationalize it by saying the player quit on the team or that s/he wasn’t good enough to play, anyway, and his replacement will outpace him or her. But on no planet is the loss of linebackers Chris Paul Jr., Jaheim Thomas and Jordan Crook a good thing for Arkansas going into the spring.
Another 4-8 season of Arkansas football will result in serious concern for Pittman’s job, as well it should. But if the Razorbacks make it back to a bowl in 10 and a half months, such talk is nonsensical. Much as it is now for anyone suggesting, seriously or otherwise, that Musselman is the cause of Arkansas’ difficulties. How quickly the myopic forget where the Hogs have been lately.
A good chunk of all the angst comes from it being a long time since Arkansas has seen both football and basketball fall on their faces at the same time. When John Pelphrey was struggling, Bobby Petrino had Arkansas rolling. When John L. Smith and Bret Bielema faltered, Mike Anderson had Arkansas basketball at a good standard. Houston Nutt had Arkansas in bowl games during the end of Nolan Richardson’s tenure as it carried into Stan Heath’s.
These emotions Arkansas fans are feeling are new. With a changing world – social media, NIL, portal, every other thing – it must be hard to stay sane and see things the way they really are.
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