What Could Have Been with Barry Lunney Jr., Arkansas’ Not-So-Prodigal Son

Could Barry Lunney's success with UTSA lead him back to Fayetteville?

Barry Lunney Jr

Three game conference losing streaks are nothing new for the recent Arkansas football program. The SEC is very, very unforgiving especially in the West where there is no patsy waiting to be pummeled by league brethren.

Arkansas was that “mark it down as a sure win” matchup in the final year of Bret Bielema’s tenure and the subsequent pitiful days of Chad Morris. You probably don’t need the reminder but the Hogs went a paltry 1-23  in the SEC over three embarrassing seasons where the program sunk to new lows.

This current three-game losing streak in the SEC doesn’t feel the same. The coaches are competent. The talent level is ever increasing. The fan base is rallying behind the program and most of all, the product on the field is competitive. 

Don’t bring up the Georgia game as non-competitive…those dudes Athens are legit. Losing to Ole Miss by 1 in Oxford…no shame there. The Auburn performance at home was disappointing and the players and coaches admittedly felt the same. There are some wins left on the schedule if the Hogs can get healthy, make adjustments and play well. 

If they don’t, those remaining SEC games can also become losses real quick. And what started as a promising season will fade out with a whimper.

Speaking of competent coaches, how about the job former Razorback assistants Jeff Traylor and Barry Lunney Jr. are doing with the Roadrunners of the University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA)? For the first time in school history, the Roadrunners are ranked in the top 25 of both the Associated Press (24th) and the AFCA Coaches Poll (25th). UTSA of Conference USA is sitting at 7-0 which includes a recent 45-0 pasting of those same Rice Owls Arkansas played in week one. 

Traylor was hired as the head coach at UTSA in December of 2019 after serving two years as running backs coach for Chad Morris’s failed regime. He was one of the few highly respected members of Morris’s staff and seemed to do a fine job coaching and recruiting ball carriers including Rakeem Boyd and Trelon Smith. 

Traylor has deep roots in Texas football circles after a twenty-five year stint as a high school coach, then on the staffs at Texas and SMU prior to Arkansas. Traylor’s Roadrunners were 7-5 in 2020 and played in the First Responder Bowl which he missed due to a positive Covid test. 

Lunney is a much more familiar name by virtue of being not only a native Arkansan but also a former Razorback quarterback. He serves as Traylor’s associate head coach/offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. 

You will recall Lunney had the unenviable experience of taking over a bad and disjointed football team after Morris was fired. He lost to eventual national champion LSU 56-20, then to Missouri in Little Rock 24-14. Lunney Jr. was deservedly interviewed for the Arkansas head coaching position. At one point, USA Today even reported him as a frontrunner.

But University of Arkansas leaders like athletic director Hunter Yurachek went another direction with Sam Pittman. 

As of today, one has to believe both Pittman and Lunney landed in the right spots. Lunney had spent six seasons on the Razorback coaching staff between Bret Bielema and Morris focusing on tight ends and special teams. 

Lunney’s position group excelled as he coached Hunter Henry, AJ Derby and Jeremy Sprinkle who all played or are playing in the NFL as well as Cheyenne “CJ” O’Grady who was destined for the NFL until he continually found himself in the Morris dog house and ended up quitting/being dismissed from the team in 2019. He was briefly on the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals roster but was cut this past August without playing a regular season snap. 

It also seems special teams were in pretty good shape under Lunney Jr’s leadership. As much as I would like to say that about the last season and a half under Scott Fountain, I’m not sure I can. But that’s a story for another day. 

Despite all that success as an assistant, the timing was not right for Lunney Jr. to lead the Razorback program on a lot of levels. Namely, he was involved in the last two coaching regimes at Fayetteville that didn’t go so hot. 

There is no question a fresh perspective was needed and Pittman checked that box. Yes, Pittman had been an assistant at Arkansas under Bielema but that was during the uptick in Bielema’s tenure. Things went downhill fast once Pittman and a couple of other key assistants moved on to other jobs. 

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Sam Pittman vs Barry Lunney Jr.

Lunney’s assistant coaching career consists of stops at Tulsa, San Jose State, Arkansas and now USTA. Pittman had been on staff at Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia. All those teams may not have been powerhouses but they played in big time football leagues. The depth of experience coaching at all those schools, plus his connections with Kansas junior colleges where he was head coach at Hutchinson, count for a lot. Thirty seven years of college coaching experience including a lot of schools not mentioned above compared to 15 for Lunney Jr.

Neither had ever been a coordinator at the time of Morris’s firing but throw that out of the window. Despite this SEC losing streak the Hogs are on, Pittman has proven coordinator experience is not required. Plenty, and I mean a sack full, of coordinators have been colossal failures as head coaches. 

Lunney does have coordinator experience now and the UTSA offense has been very good with the 2020 Conference USA player of the year Sincere McCormick as the featured back. The lack of coordinator experience is a tired standard and hopefully Pittman’s success gives more non-coordinator assistants a chance to lead a program. 

Pittman’s straight shooter personality and charisma exude head coach material. Not the slick, fast talking snake oil salesman type vibe we got with Houston Nutt, but a salesman nonetheless. Not only has that worked on the recruiting trail but also assembling his really, really good staff. Pittman comes across as very genuine and makes sure to let everyone know he’s aware how blessed he is to be the head coach at Arkansas. It’s a job nobody else really seemed to want…outside of Barry Lunney, Jr. 

Based on what I’ve seen of Lunney in interviews, he’s not quite there with the charisma and that matters. It matters to recruits, it matters to fans and it matters to the overall brand. Can that be developed over time? Not sure as a lot of times your personality is your personality. But it is possible.

Lunney also doesn’t have cachet in coaching circles and the connections of Pittman so the odds are slim that Barry Odom, Kendall Briles and the like would be in Fayetteville now if Lunney were the Razorbacks’ head coach.

My Experience with Barry Lunney Jr.

I’ve spent some time with Barry, although it was 28 years ago. Lunney moonlighted from his gig as starting QB for the football Razorbacks with the baseball team and was a freshman when I was a senior in 1993. Both being left handed pitchers, we spent a good amount of time together in a baseball setting. 

From what I recall, he was pretty reserved and pretty serious but possessed a quick, dry sense of humor. There was no question he was a coach’s son and he had a great head on his shoulders. Definitely not overly charismatic back in those days. 

That probably stems from being a highly decorated high school player, then thrust into the starting quarterback role for a SEC football team all at the age or 18 or so. He was “the man” early on in football while he was able to ease into his baseball role at Arkansas. I have no doubt he’s changed some since then but whenever he was interviewed on TV during the interim coach era, there was a lot of the Barry I knew from way back when

By the way, the only time in my career playing Razorback baseball that I saw Frank Broyles at a ballgame was when Barry pitched. 

As a former teammate and just a general Razorback fan, I do hope for Lunney to keep climbing the ladder coaching football. If his offense at UTSA keeps putting up big numbers and the team keeps winning, he won’t be there long. 

The next logical step is an offensive coordinator position at a Power 5 school. Continued success at UTSA will definitely lead to interest from some name brand schools in the near future. He could also jump at a head coaching position at a smaller school. Maybe even replace Traylor at UTSA when he makes an upstream jump. 

Winning and success provide lots of options and Lunney should have plenty. His time at Arkansas and now UTSA have probably shown him how to run a football program and definitely how not to. Bielema and his all-star staff of assistants had things on the right track, then quickly derailed once many of them left and Bielema got a little over-confident in his coaching abilities. Some say he got lazy.

The Chad Morris era was simply a train wreck but he did recruit pretty well at certain positions. Knowing Barry Lunney Jr., I am sure he gleaned lots of ideas from his playing and coaching days to funnel into his own program someday. 

Coaching, quarterback play and pitching are a lot about preparation and Lunney’s got a ton of applicable experience doing all of those things and that likely pays off today and in the future. 

As of today, imagining anyone else other than Sam Pittman getting Arkansas respectable so quickly is hard to do. The program wasn’t totally void of talent as many of Morris’s recruits are playing huge roles but it had bottomed out in terms of knowing and believing how to win at the SEC level. Pittman has rectified that and will continue to build and build and build until Arkansas is a top half of the SEC West caliber program. 

Would Barry Lunney have been able to do that if hired back in December of 2019? Doubtful and super risky. Most “experts” thought Pittman was an extremely risky hire. The experience and the connectivity with recruits and fans just wasn’t there for Lunney at the time. Maybe he continues to climb the coaching ranks and gets his shot at a head coaching position someday. Who knows…maybe his past and near term experiences put him in the running to return to the University of Arkansas down the road. 

Whether that is in an offensive coordinator or head coaching role, I am certain he would be welcomed with open arms. As the saying goes: Once a Razorback, always a Razorback.

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