“If you build it, they will come.”
That phrase from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” is often quoted to demonstrate how increasing the supply of something can generate higher demand. Maybe that’s what former Athletic Director Jeff Long was thinking while plowing forward with a $160 million stadium expansion despite a trend of lagging ticket sales across the conference and nationwide.
Arkansas football has been mired in the roadside ditch where Bobby Petrino’s mistress and motorcycle slid on that fateful April Fool’s Day in 2012. Now Chad Morris, the third coach since Petrino was fired, stands poised to lead the Razorbacks through the “A” as the finishing touches are put on the North end zone renovation behind him. That unplanned synchronicity of the program’s literal and figurative rebuilding may be why Long is no longer around to see it.
There was a point this summer when momentum surrounding the Arkansas football program was as strong as it had been in years. The construction project was nearing completion, and looked worth every penny of its eye-popping price tag. Coach Morris and his staff were reeling in commitments from 4-star recruits at an unprecedented rate. Even the stifling summer heat had given way to a welcome glimpse of autumn temperatures. Things were starting to look up for the Hogs.
Too bad the season has to start.
Tusk to Tail is as excited for real live football to start as the next guy, but it seems evident that this year’s team will be another work-in-progress. As David Bazzel recently pointed out, Arkansas coaches rarely experience much success in their first season on The Hill. Former coaches Petrino, John L. Smith, and Bret Bielema had five, four, and three wins respectively in their first year here. You have to go all the way back to Houston Nutt’s 9-win season in 1998 to find success, and we practically ran that guy off with pitchforks and torches before it was all said and done.
It must be hard to win when inheriting a roster that had been recruited and trained to play in a completely different coach’s system. Morris’s philosophy has been summarized by catchy sound bites and social media hashtags such as “Speed, speed, and more speed,” “full tilt boogie,” and “left lane, hammer down.”
Unfortunately, Bielema’s players were built for comfort, not for speed. During most of his Arkansas tenure, Bielema frequently denounced the hurry up, no huddle approach favored by young upstarts such as Morris, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, and Gus Malzahn at Auburn. Bielema preferred a balanced Pro Style offense with a fullback and multiple tight ends to grind out yards and consume the time of possession. He seemed confident that his Hogs would be able to out-Bama Alabama. But in the end, Bielema’s teams failed to even out-Mizzou Missouri.
It is little surprise there’s been a change of regime. Bielema’s best season at Arkansas was back in 2015, and still featured only eight wins, including a loss to Toledo. Things went downhill from there. As the losses piled up, the head coach seemed to check out. He was often seen standing alone, far from his players during timeouts last season. Even Pat Sajak and Vanna White probably thought Bielema was overpaid for doing so little. It got so bad that at least one fan began to kneel in protest during the Hog Call.
Bielema was canned less than two weeks after Long was shown the door. While firing coaches is nothing new, it was the first time an Arkansas Athletic Director had been terminated. Long and Bielema have since been replaced by Hunter Yurachek and Morris, because any time you can land Houston’s athletic director and SMU’s coach for only $16.5 million in buyouts, you have to pull the trigger.
We still don’t know much about Yurachek. But as far as I know, he hasn’t given himself a raise or any bonuses in his first eight months, and ticket prices haven’t gone up. That’s already an improvement over his predecessor.
Whereas Long treated athletics like a business and the Razorbacks as a brand, Yuri appears to gauge success by results on the field. It stands to reason that if the Hogs are winning, more fans will buy tickets, and financial success will follow. Tusk to Tail welcomes the change. It will be nice to be treated as fans rather than customers once again.
It is likely quite evident we are not professional sports writers who rely on the University for credentials, interviews, and press releases. We are dyed-in-the-Pantone-201-colored- wool Razorbacks fans. The members of Tusk to Tail are all sons of an Arky, raised on the highs and lows of Razorbacks athletics. Most of us came of age around the time Lou Holtz’s first squad shocked the world and the Sooners in the 1978 Orange Bowl, and we have been following the Hogs at home and on the road ever since.
Craig May has only missed one game since 1999. He’s riding a streak of 158 straight, and 237 of the last 238 Razorbacks games. At least some of our group was with him every step of the way. Tusk to Tail willingly buys the tickets and takes the ride. Of course, doing so makes us a customer of Arkansas football. If that customer experience is less than satisfactory, we do what anyone else would do these days: get on the internet and bitch about it.
Our observations are generally preceded by an afternoon of cocktails at our world class tailgate, which only serves to strengthen our convictions. Nobody has ever been wrong following a day of drinking. In the days of fake news allegations, Tusk to Tail is about as real as it gets.
It may take a year or so, but we have faith that Morris will right the ship and turn these Hogs into winners. It’s been awhile since our faith has been rewarded. Lately being an Arkansas fan has felt like Charlie Brown charging toward the football, hoping this is the season Lucy doesn’t snatch it away.
If they rebuild it, will they come?
Tusk to Tail will be there. And we will share our observations here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday along the way.
Editor’s note: Welcome to the seventh 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. Tusk to Tail is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by the River Valley Smile Center … because it’s another dang rebuilding year and you’re gonna need a good smile to get through the season. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail