In the AMC drama Preacher, hell is characterized as a dark, vast prison where inhabitants must relive their single worst memory for eternity. Through a personalized video loop, each prisoner indefinitely endures their nightmare, obsessing over the myriad missed opportunities, the could-have-beens, should-have-beens, or minor minutiae that may have altered that fateful moment. But the result is always the same for those eternally damned.
That is how the Texas A&M game has come to feel for many Razorbacks fans.
In one corner stood a man with a 47-22 coaching record at his current school that includes a 6-game winning streak against his opponent. Five of those wins come at the expense of the opposing coach, a guy with a 26-28 record (including a putrid 10-23 in conference) hanging around his neck like a rotting albatross. In a just world, how is the former in the proverbial “hot seat” while the latter has been assured job security by his athletic director?
Sure, Kevin Sumlin’s young bunch of Aggies choked away a 34-point 2nd half lead in their opener at UCLA this year. But Bielema says hold my beer and watch this, conceding more than twice as many points across the second halves of three consecutive FBS games.
Sumlin has confidence and charisma oozing out of his swaggercopter. I’m not sure our coach could have made a bolder fashion statement if he had worn his Christmas pajamas to work Saturday. Do you think anyone in the Nike Coach’s Apparel division has ever fielded an order for a sweatshirt with so many Xs before the L?
Bielema’s five losses to A&M have all begun to run together as one recurring nightmare. Some details change, while many other stay the same. We always have an Allen at quarterback. The Hogs almost escaped with a win in three of the past four games, only to lose in overtime. There is often an infamous penalty, be it against Dan Skipper or Kamren Curl. And Aggie wide receiver and kick returner Christian Kirk may have enough combined all purpose yards to connect Dallas to Fayetteville.
There doesn’t appear to be any change on the horizon. Jeff Long recently doubled down on his statement that the YOU of A is “not a win at all cost program.” It’s a great sound bite from a guy responsible for jacking up the cost without delivering the wins.
Though Bielema’s conference record remains below the Jack Crowe line (.375 in the old SWC), Arkansas can only afford to make his seat uncomfortably warm, thanks to the contract provided by Long. It would cost $15.4 million to fire Bielema in 2017, dropping to a mere $11.7 million on January 1st for the annual winter coaches clearance sale.
Who has that kind of money to spend? Surely not the athletic director overseeing his latest vanity project, the $160 million stadium expansion.
By the numbers, Long is considered a great success outside of the whole football wins and losses thing. On Friday, Clay Travis tweeted a list of the most valuable college football teams, according to the Wall Street Journal. Arkansas was ranked number 17. But besides Arkansas, the only other school to have not been ranked in the real top 25 (AP or Coach’s Poll) this season was #14 Nebraska. And Nebraska fired their Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst Thursday specifically for the lack of football competitiveness during his reign, prompting many Razorbacks fans to say, “Wait, you can do that?”
But no, we are likely all stuck with each other, a sinking relationship that stays together because it’s cheaper than a divorce, at least until the new North end zone is paid off.
And like any relationship, there are plenty of good moments.
I saw a team playing with urgency Saturday, behind creative play calling and coaching adjustments on the fly. I saw speed at skill positions that has not been there in years. I saw Dre Greenlaw and fellow linebacker Scoota Harris making tackles all over the field. I saw Thick Ryan Mallett (have you noticed that everyone has their own nickname for backup quarterback Cole Kelley?) unrealistically raise my hopes for the future with every third down he converted.
But as if watching that eternal reel, I saw the exact same mistakes haunt us yet another time. The final score hardly shows it, but the Arkansas offense went ice cold for the better part of two quarters, with our score frozen at 21. The Hogs’ defense is clearly still susceptible to the big play, over and over again. And I may never understand how our offensive line got so bad at pass protection, allowing Austin Allen to take practically a season’s worth of sacks, knockdowns, and other assorted ass-whoopings in a single game.
One of the few changes I’ve noticed over the course of our annual heartbreak in Dallas is the quarterback’s demeanor. Do you remember Brandon Allen’s steely determination? He kept a stiff upper lip whether his truck was being firebombed or his mammoth left tackle thought he could get away with leg-whipping an opponent with tree trunks.
But little brother Austin? I admire his toughness, getting up repeatedly after literally having the snot beaten out of him. That can’t be fun. But as Sean Casey pointed out, you don’t often see his linemen offering to help him up. Nearly every time the Jerry World jumbotron zoomed in on AA’s face, he was yelling at somebody else. Here’s hoping that this weekend’s match up against the lesser Aggies of New Mexico State allows Austin to find his happy place again.
Maybe we all need to find our happy place. It’s not going to be easy. “We’ve got a long row to hoe, and a dull plow,” my dad said after the game.
The 11 a.m. kickoffs alone have already screwed Tusk to Tail over two-night hotel cancellations and Texas liquor stores that close before we could get to Dallas and open after we had gone to start tailgating.
But we keep it rolling, and we try to keep it positive.
We call Craig May the Godfather of Tailgating, because for almost 20 years he has supported the Hogs rain or shine, home and away, even when there was no bandwagon to be found. As usual, I’ll let him take us home.
“The next coach is going to have the same problems and probably suffer the same fate as Bielema,” May says. “We’re always trying to find the next great coach, when we should be trying to figure out how to get better talent to Arkansas so the coach can take advantage of it.”
Editor’s note: Welcome to the sixth season of Tusk to Tail – the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. Members of the Tusk to Tail Team are Sean Casey, Jack Clark, Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Craig May, David Rice and Mark Wagner. Tusk to Tail is managed by Talk Business & Politics against the advice of attorneys and family. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail