This Pac-12 Casualty Should Be a Warning Shot to Arkansas Razorbacks Brass

Hunter Yurachek, Arkansas football, conference realignment, Arkansas Razorbacks
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

With the conference realignment moves that have happened over the last three years, college sports have never been in a more frenzied state. 

We see that today as Oklahoma and Texas finally officially join the SEC after three years of build up. In a month, USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington will join the Big Ten.

As the SEC and Big Ten get their Jabba the Hutt on, gobbling up so many prime programs, it’s fair to wonder if those two conferences will eventually merge so that college football becomes one super-conference.

The future has never felt more uncertain, but regardless of how things pan out, many Arkansas football fans take solace in the fact that they’re in the SEC, feeling confident their place in major college sports will remain secure. But is this solace misinformed?

Although I was born and raised in Fayetteville — and still love the Hogs — I’ve spent the past three years covering a different program on the West Coast: Stanford. What has happened to the Cardinal in the dissolution of the Pac-12 should serve as a warning to UA athletics director Hunter Yurachek and the rest of the Arkansas Razorbacks brass on just how quickly you can get kicked out of the cool kids club. 

What Happened to Stanford and the Pac-12

Memories of Stanford football success are not as hazy as is the case with Arkansas. Stanford put out a strong 2010s where they won three Rose Bowls with stars like Andrew Luck and Christian McCaffrey. But the Cardinal have faltered in the 2020s, with three straight 3-9 seasons. You’d better believe these days the odds of Mississippi State for making the College Football Playoffs are better than those of the Cardinal, according to Rebet App.

As new institutions like NIL collectives became major stakeholders in college athletics, Stanford decided to lay low, refusing to engage in the pay-for-play waters. The administration hoped that the allure of a Stanford degree would keep talented players in Palo Alto, Calif. Even as Stanford’s own NIL collective, Lifetime Cardinal, formed last year, the athletic department refused to work with or endorse the organization until this past April. 

Just as appears to be the case with the Razorbacks, the Cardinal’s late start in fully embracing the more openly capitalistic aspects of NIL certainly had an impact on the success of their athletics department. 

Meanwhile the men’s basketball program hasn’t made the Big Dance in over a decade. After eight years without a tournament appearance, head coach Jerod Haase was fired. 

As Stanford’s revenue sports programs torpedoed, the implosion of the Pac-12 was already on its way. After its exclusive streaming deal with Apple fell through, which offered each school a $25 million dollar annual payout, the Pac-12 was as good as dead. USC and UCLA promptly left the conference for the Big Ten. But Stanford still didn’t try to make any moves. There appeared to be no proactive effort to try to enter the Big Ten or another power conference. 

The next summer, seven other schools made a dash to the Big Ten and Big 12.

In August of 2023, Stanford was just one of four schools remaining in the Pac-12. With the backing of prominent figures like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Cardinal narrowly secured a spot in the ACC but will only get a 30% share of the conference’s media payout to each school. Now, Stanford will have only $8-10 million in conference revenue to help fund 36 sports.

If Stanford was less reluctant to embrace NIL, more aggressive in pursuing new conference options and quickly moved off of underperforming coaches like Haase, it could have found itself in the Big Ten rather than barely holding on to its power conference status. 

There’s now also the burning question whether Stanford will opt-in to the House settlement’s revenue sharing model, which will allow schools to pay up to an estimated $20 million to athletes, given the money it has lost due to conference realignment. Stanford is certainly a wealthy school, with its endowment ranked third nationally behind Harvard and Yale, but bankrolling the salaries of athletes may be a bit too far. The university has always stressed treating student-athletes similar to regular students, and sports have never been a huge marketing tool to increase enrollment for the school. 

Why it Matters for Arkansas

But you’re probably wondering, what does Stanford’s reluctance to embrace the evolving college sports landscape has to do with Arkansas?

College sports is now a Machiavellian industry, where anything less than full commitment means you’re relegated to the margins. Those who take big swings and try to push their programs to new heights will be rewarded, while those content with mediocrity will perish. 

Former Hog football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles indeed took that swing nearly 35 years ago, when he decided to leave the Southwest Conference (SWC) for the SEC. 

Arkansas must do all it can to ensure that the SEC wants to keep them, as the high media payout will give the Hogs the best chance to compete at a high level nationally. But if the Hogs  keep up their subpar performance in key sports, those counting on Alabama and LSU to continue to subsidize Arkansas’ athletic programs through equal conference payouts may be in for a shock. Developments in college sports happen when least expected, and the Hogs need to position themselves perfectly when realignment surfaces again. 

Everyone within Arkansas’ administration, from the Chancellor to the athletic director must be on board with doing whatever it takes – within the NCAA’s rules – to be competitive on the field. They’ve already taken a risk this past offseason by re-hiring Bobby Petrino. This means opting into any revenue-sharing arrangement to the maximum, gathering and allocating more NIL resources to the right areas and firing lame-duck coaches quickly. 

Looming Decisions for Hunter Yurachek

With men’s basketball riding high after the hiring of John Calipari, Hunter Yurachek has two key decisions to make this upcoming season. 

If Sam Pittman doesn’t help the Razorbacks miraculously win 9 or 10 games this year, Yurachek must move off him fast, although any bowl game will likely mean Pittman will keep his job. But merely making an uneventful and forgettable bowl game shouldn’t be enough. While the Razorbacks have had a lot of coaching turnover in the past 15 years, the ‘stability’ excuse cannot be used for underperformance. 

Similarly, if women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors doesn’t make the tournament this year, a change in leadership will be necessary. Neighbors has made only two measly tournament appearances — and not won a single game in them — during his seven seasons in Fayetteville. Arkansas has to find a way to capitalize on one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. 

With key contributors like Taliah Scott, Samara Spencer, Saylor Poffenbarger and Maryam Dauda transferring out, it’s clear that the team’s NIL funding is woefully behind its competitors. To really create momentum, the Hogs must find a way to fill the NIL coffers of the team, as the best women’s players nationally are now commanding more than $750k per year.

Arkansas has the resources needed to be a consistent top-25 program in all the major sports, including football and women’s basketball. But to fully realize their potential, the Hogs are going to need to execute in every key area needed for success in college athletics nowadays. That includes making swift decisions and bolstering its financial support for key programs like football and basketball. 

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What Happened to Pac-12 Members?

Stanford > ACC

California > ACC

Arizona > Big 12

Arizona State > Big 12

Utah > Big 12

Colorado > Big 12

UCLA > Big Ten

USC > Big Ten

Washington > Big Ten

Oregon > Big Ten

Washington State > Left Holding the Bag

Oregon State > Also Holding the Bag

Stanford to Arkansas Football Connection

As much as Arkansas may want to claim it is “Tight End U,” that title probably belongs to Stanford. The position has had a large role in the Cardinal’s offense with many going on to the next level and Morgan Turner, the former Stanford assistant who has coached at Arkansas since early last year, is a big reason why.

“Turner has worked closely with the program’s West Coast offense and helped define a physical style of play that has separated Stanford from other programs,” Turner’s bio on Stanford’s website reads. “Stanford has become especially well-known for its recent production of NFL tight ends.”

While he was an offensive assistant, Turner worked with Zach Ertz, who earned unanimous All-America honors in 2012 before becoming a second-round pick and three-time Pro Bowler with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Read the rest here:

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