The Hogs travel to LSU to face the No. 1 Tigers on Saturday night, but the bigger news, of course, marinates off the field.
Interim head coach Barry Lunney Jr. will lead Arkansas for the final two games of the 2019 season after the firing of Chad Morris on Nov. 10. By all accounts, Lunney “killed” it at the Nov. 11 press conference during which AD Hunter Yurachek addressed the media for the first time since letting Morris go and introduced him as the interim. Home run. Knocked it out of the park…
An Arkansas kid, long-time UA assistant (Morris was the third Hog coach for whom he worked) and former stellar Hog quarterback, Lunney was the natural choice to guide the program through this transition. And he’s among a few current staff members fans and media alike agree would make a great holdover addition for the new coach.
But let’s be real — with no head coaching experience, Lunney’s not a realistic candidate (yet, anyway) for the permanent job. But he has seemed to infuse a sense of the old “Fightin’ Razorbacks” back into the team. It’s become clear in the aftermath of Morris that players weren’t being inspired. Some might argue coached, as well. Whatever it was, few appeared ready to run through a wall for Morris. I was ready to run through one for Lunney after his introductory presser.
What that says about athletes today, well, could fill several columns. Blame likely exists in enough volume to pass between players and coaches, but one thing’s for sure: The program seemed to be going through the motions following a close, tough loss at Kentucky in which the Hogs surrendered a two-touchdown lead and had a shot to win at the end.
Books will be written — are being written? — chronicling the freefall of a once proud program into the seeming abyss. But for now, the Hogs have to begin to crawl out, one knee at a time. That begins in Baton Rouge. Lunney understands, and just wants his team — HIS team, for now — to play its best game of the season on Saturday, whatever that entails and however it turns out. The Hogs are 44 point underdogs as of this writing, something once considered unfathomable.
The 1978 Orange Bowl saw the SWC co-champ Hogs facing top-ranked Oklahoma without a trio of their biggest stars, suspended before the game by coach Lou Holtz for breaking team rules. OU was in its juggernaut phase under Arkie and former Hog Barry Switzer, and the line swelled to plus 18 for Arkansas after the suspensions were announced. At the time, just 14 years removed from a national championship and Arkansas still a consistent top 10 program, such a line was mind-boggling.
But we all know how that game turned out. I’m not suggesting anything remotely similar will take place in Tiger Stadium this weekend. Of course not. But I’ll be surprised if the Hogs don’t provide their best effort of the year. Lunney, of course, was thrust into his role as starting QB as a true freshman in 1992. It was our first year in the SEC, and the transition entailed bad timing. Ken Hatfield had led Arkansas to back-to-back SWC titles in 1988 and ’89 but following his abrupt departure for Clemson (the culmination of lingering control issues with the legendary Frank Broyles), the Hogs entered a down cycle. Not a good time for the level of competition to bump up.
The SWC was a beast in its day. But by the late ’80s, it was limited to maybe three or four spots including Fayetteville. Still, Arkansas limped into the SEC in ’92 and lost its first game as a league member to 1-AA The Citadel. (At the time, Razorback fans figured it would endure as the program’s modern-day low point. Sigh…) It cost Jack Crowe his job and beloved assistant Joe Kines finished out the year as interim. The Hogs would go 3-7-1 that year (the NCAA remained satisfied with 11 regular-season games back then), but the highlight of the season was a last second win at No. 4 Tennessee. Arkansas was down, no doubt, but it took out (then) mighty Tennessee in Knoxville. Led by true freshman Barry Lunney.
The parallels are interesting. Lunney as an interim, Lunney leading a heavy underdog on the road in his first game… But again, let’s be real. The goal simply, sadly, is to show some fight, and I think they will. The talent level isn’t as bad as the product displayed on the field, and we’ll see improvement effort-wise, at least, this weekend.
It’ll take the new coach a couple of years, but don’t be surprised if the record improves a little next season despite a tough schedule. Remember Houston Nutt’s first year in ’98, taking over a beaten down but solid and strong foundation from Danny Ford? The foundation is not nearly as strong — by a long shot — as it was then. But the new coach, whoever that may be (and I don’t think anyone really knows just yet but dare we look due north?), will not have a high bar to clear.
In terms of wins and losses, the bar is set high this weekend though. Here’s hoping the Fightin’ Razorbacks of old show up. We think they will. And they’ll cover.
Prediction: LSU, 48-17.