Only 17 states in the U.S. have Major League Baseball teams. The state of California by itself boasts five MLB teams: the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. Of course, Arkansas is in the large majority of states that don’t have a major professional team of any kind. But this doesn’t mean the state lacks great baseball action.
Arkansas, Home of the Razorbacks
Founded in 1897, the University of Arkansas’ baseball program has taken on a number of nicknames through the years, from “Diamond Hogs” to “OmaHogs.” As part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, as well as the Southeastern Conference, Arkansas baseball teams competed for a total of 96 seasons. 2019 is the powerhouse program’s 72nd consecutive season, a streak which began in 1947 after a 17-year break that started in 1930.
The Norm DeBriyn Revolution
Coaching stability has been a trademark of the baseball Hogs. Between 1947 and 1970, the Arkansas Razorbacks had three different coaches. Coach Wayne Robbins left in 1969, and his replacement pulled a Dana Altman, resigning after just one day on the job. This led to the appointment of Norm DeBriyn, who went on to revolutionise the team on and off the field over a 33-year period that ended in 2002.
DeBriyn knew he had a tough row to hoe after taking over the program. For starters, he found that the team’s entire set of paper records was stored in a single manila folder. Its stadium, at the Washington County Fairgrounds, was ramshackle to say the least. But in just three years DeBriyn turned the team around and in 1973 they earned an appearance in the NCAA Tournament — the first appearance in program history.
By the time of his retirement, the Arkansas Razorbacks had made 15 NCAA tournament appearances, had won three conference championships, and made it to the College World Series four times. The team also saw two new homes under DeBriyn, moving from the Washington County Fairgrounds to George Cole Field in 1975. Their current home, now called Baum-Walker Stadium, opened in 1996.
Good Baseball – Good Business
Unlike the majority of baseball teams in the Southeastern Conference, the Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team turn a profit for the university. They were one of only four SEC universities which did that in 2017. On average, the team’s $8.9 million stadium welcomes more than 8,000 fans to each Arkansas Razorbacks game. Baum-Walker has become one of the most exciting and well-attended venues in the nation.
Late to the Game
Throughout most of the 20th century, the Arkansas Razorbacks played in the Southwest Conference. That changed in 1990 when the SEC expanded to 12 teams. That year, both Arkansas and the South Carolina Gamecocks got the green light to join the SEC, though the Hogs’ first baseball SEC season didn’t happen until 1992.
Factory for Major League Baseball Players
The state of Arkansas has always punched above its weight when it comes to producing professional athletes, and baseball is no exception. More than 150 Major League Baseball Players have been born in the state. By itself, the University of Arkansas has produced more than 50 MLB players. Players from the Arkansas Razorbacks team have been drafted into Major League Baseball since 1965, when Bill Gray was picked by the Minnesota Twins. After Norm DeBriyn coached the Razorbacks to their first NCAA tournament, Arkansas players have been drafted to MLB teams every year.
In the 2018 MLB Amateur Draft, Arkansas Razorbacks produced 11 draftees — behind only Kentucky for the number of drafted players (13) from a single program that year, according to Baseball America. Few draftees, however, actually end up playing in the majors.
Year after year, a large percentage of first round picks fail to play for the MLB teams which picked them. Of the players drafted in 2018, few were selected by top MLB teams that are favorites to win the World Series. The only team with strong odds of taking that top prize, according to odds comparison site Oddschecker, is the New York Yankees who drafted Barrett Loseke in the 17th round.
21st Century Dominance
Fueled by the talent of all these future MLB draft picks, the Arkansas Razorbacks have emerged as a powerhouse on the field. Since the turn of the millennium, the program has had more than half of its all-time NCAA Tournament appearances. Sixteen of its 30 overall NCAA Tournament appearances since 1973 have come in the last 18 years. The team have also been NCAA regional champions seven times since 2002 with College World Series appearances in 2004, 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2018.
The majority of this success has been at the hands of coach Dave Van Horn, who took over for Norm DeBriyn. Van Horn had been a player for the Arkansas Razorbacks under DeBriyn in 1982, when he won the “All-Southwest Conference Newcomer of the Year” award. He was later drafted by the Atlanta Braves, and spent three years playing for them in the minor leagues.
Overall, the Arkansas Razorbacks are one of the greatest success stories in collegiate baseball. After a rough start, and lack of structure and discipline off the field, the 1970 appointment of Norm DeBriyn was the turning point sparking a program trajectory that is still curving upward.
The relationship between DeBryin and his heir apparent, Dave Van Horn, is a special one. Their bond, which has created a coaching consistency dating back nearly 50 years, makes Arkansas unique among college programs in any sport.
Read more about their amazing friendship and mentorship here: