Tusk to Tail: ‘We are glad that this one is over’

by David Rice ([email protected]) 913 views 

It was a time to count blessings. One day after Thanksgiving, the members of Tusk to Tail sounded as grateful as they had been in months. The football season had finally ended.

If that sounds like self-pity, I apologize. That is not our intent. I cringe every time the state newspaper’s sports columnist bitches about his travel conditions while following the Hogs with all expenses paid.

None of our gang is a professional sports writer. We buy our own tickets and pay for our own food, gas and lodging. We keep going to games because we genuinely love the Razorbacks, but this season has outlived its usefulness. If the 2018 Arkansas football season were a workhorse, it would have been taken behind the barn and shot several weeks ago.

Following a 65-degree afternoon at Mississippi State’s renovated Davis Wade Stadium, it was said that even a bad day of SEC football beats a good day on the couch. Missouri ripped that theory to shreds.

You have to really love the Hogs or hate spending time with your family to drive to Columbia over Thanksgiving.  It was already cold and windy when our small group made its way to campus Friday morning. Then the rain began to fall.

Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Forrest Acuff and Mark Wagner put on their warmest waterproof gear before heading to the tailgating lot across from the stadium. For the second straight week, there would be no tent to put up, nor television to turn on. Why bother? The only problem was that the layers of thermal gear and jackets made them too hot to stay inside their vehicle. Time for a backup plan.

Tailgating has evolved into a cottage industry. The amount we have invested in portable tents, chairs, tables, cookware, satellite televisions and the like would probably dwarf what any avid golfer, hunter or fisherman has spent on his hobby. But this week, TTT was traveling light.

Facing adverse conditions, there was only one thing left to do: drink inside a covered bus stop. With a roof over their heads and a bottle or two of sweet tea flavored vodka left to drain, the boys attempted to put their game face on. If you have been sober while watching the Hogs play this year, then you will understand.

Before long, a few others wandered into the bus stop to avoid the wind and rain. Fans tailgating inside nearby tents began to break down their gear, presumably getting ready to walk into the game. Instead, they packed up and left, forgoing the main event for the dry warmth of their homes.

Despite being billed as the Battle Line Rivalry, attendance to the Arkansas-Missouri game has been far below capacity the past few years. One factor, of course, is the weather. The next ten years’ worth of Farmers Almanacs could forecast cold and/or rainy late November conditions for this region, and they would be right more often than not.

Of course, the football usually isn’t much better. One team or the other tends to limp into this matchup with a losing record. The Razorbacks have played the role of sad sack losers for the past two years, but the Tigers had little to play for the two seasons before that.

Missouri’s 28-24 victory at home in 2016 stands out as a turning point for both teams. The 3-8 Tigers were trailing 24-7 at halftime, but have since won 16 games heading into the bowl season. Arkansas was 7-4 before blowing that lead but has only managed six more victories over the course of two seasons. The head coach and athletic director have changed at Arkansas, but so far the results have not.

The Razorbacks had already been pummeled on the plains 34-3 by the Auburn Tigers. They didn’t fare much better in Fayetteville against the Tigers of LSU, though the 24-17 final score sounds closer than the game really was. As a longtime member of the Big Eight (eventually becoming the Big XII), Missouri is a Tiger of a different stripe. Simply put, Missouri was not much of a football school until around the turn of the century.

Memorial Stadium was built as a tribute to alumni who lost their lives during World War I, and few notable improvements seem to have been made since. With the possible exception of Vanderbilt, it is the worst venue in the conference. The stadium has been known as Faurot Field for the past few decades to honor a former coach, as well as acknowledging the removal of a lousy artificial surface at the request of their former conference.

In an attempt to boost attendance this year, Missouri head coach Barry Odom offered to buy tickets for any fans who were without.  The Tigers’ ticket office received orders for 5,537 tickets, costing Odom $138,425.

The gimmick seems to have backfired. Attendance was announced as 52,482, but it appeared that only a fraction of that actually showed up.  For the second week in a row, the members of TTT were among the few in the visitors’ section who were not part of a player’s family or in the band.

It seems that most Arkansas fans consider this rivalry beneath the Razorbacks, but hopefully, that will change soon. It’s hard to feel superior to a team that holds a 5-1 advantage over you the past decade.

Missouri’s 38-0 pasting of the Hogs wasn’t much of a surprise. Head coach Chad Morris ended his first season at Arkansas with only two wins (none in the SEC), and a record-setting ten losses. Across social media, some fans claim Morris is in over his head, while others say his hands were tied by the players he inherited.  Nearly everyone seems to agree that his highly regarded signing class of 2019 should allow him to start making progress if he is capable.

There have been some glimpses of hope. Veteran leaders like offensive guard Hjalte Froholdt and Scoota Harris at linebacker played their hearts out, and their efforts should be rewarded at the next level. Harris led the SEC in tackles this season. Newcomers such as running back Rakeem Boyd and linebacker Bumper Pool always tried hard and kept getting better. This coaching staff also developed a handful of players who had previously been buried deep among the roster.  Notable examples here include tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, receiver La’Michael Pettway and defensive tackle Armon Watts. There are several others who should not be accused of lacking the talent to succeed in the SEC.

As for Morris and his staff, time will ultimately tell whether he can be successful at Arkansas. At times, it felt like another coach could have enjoyed more immediate success. But other high profile coaches in their first year at prestigious programs, including Chip Kelly at UCLA, Scott Frost at Nebraska, and Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee each failed to become bowl eligible. Their records weren’t much better than that of Morris.

Tusk to Tail anxiously awaits the arrival of next season to see if the Razorbacks can return to a winning record.  But for now, we are glad that this one is over.

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 and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.