J.R. and Henry: Irrelevant, anyone?
In the coaching profession, there is something to be said for leading a team with low expectations. While the glory of the position may not be as great, the benefits of relative irrelevancy outweigh that for many.
As an example, Mark Few, the head basketball coach at Gonzaga, has done a magnificent job at building that program from a low mid-major to a team that is now recognized on the national scene. And while it is now recognized, little is truly expected. Wins against major conference schools are not surprising anymore, but wins are not what keeps Few employed. After all, it is still Gonzaga, a mid-major battling the big boys. Gonzaga will always play the role of David trying mightily to slay the giant.
Reportedly, Few has turned down several jobs at high-profile schools such as Indiana to stay in Spokane. Most likely in part because he enjoys his job and the area. But it could also be because Few is well aware that what he has achieved at Gonzaga would be looked upon as less than true success at a school like Indiana, which enjoys a national following. Few can simply coach his team at Gonzaga, far away from the harsh national glare, at a school where his coaching decisions are given the benefit of the doubt by fans and local writers rather than questioned.
But what Few is rewarded for is making Gonzaga relevant on the NCAA men’s basketball scene. While we haven’t talked to fans out in Washington, our guess is that they don’t sit around talking about the glory days. They’re living it right now. Gonzaga dominates its conference, offers the All-American, and always has a spot in the marquee tournament at the end of the year. More importantly, at the beginning, middle and end of each season, pundits and coaches are talking about the Zags. Administrators like national attention and, if Few ever leaves, the next guy might not get the same treatment (we know how much the hometown press likes winning). Winning, we believe, has become the standard in the now-relevant Gonzaga basketball program.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Razorback football program. Since the late 70s, national irrelevancy has plagued the football program at the University of Arkansas. Although Arkansas has had some good teams after that time, about the last gasp of big-time football in Arkansas was after the 1978 Orange Bowl when Sports Illustrated devoted the cover of its college football preview to Lou Holtz, Ron Calcagni and Ben Cowins and declared the Razorbacks the best team in the land (The Hogs proceeded to go 9-2-1 and play in an irrelevant Fiesta Bowl that year, tying UCLA 10-10.)
The two best Arkansas teams (or at least the teams with the best chance to make national noise) since that time may have been the 1989 Cotton Bowl team led by Kenny Hatfield and the 1998 SEC West runner up team led by Houston Nutt. Both those teams went deep into the season undefeated, the 1989 team at 10-0 and the 1998 team 8-0. Both of those teams played the powerhouses, Miami and Tennessee, both on the road (Miami, the defending national champion, had lost 31-30 at Notre Dame weeks earlier, while Tennessee was unbeaten, ranked No. 2, and on its way to a national championship). And both Arkansas teams just pushing into the top 10 before those games. Of course, both lost in typical Razorback heartbreaking style, with Steve Atwater dropping an interception in the end zone that most likely would have won the game against Miami, followed by Clint Stoerner's inexplicable fumble while trying to run out the clock against Tennessee.
Sorry to bring back bad memories. Just thinking about those two loses makes us wonder, what if? Sure, those teams lost in their respective bowl games, and Houston's team didn't even make it to the SEC championship game thanks to a hangover loss at Miss. State, but football is about matchups, and it would have been nice to see what would have happened had those two Arkansas legends made the winning plays we've all replayed in our minds. We can still see Atwater rising for the ball and Stoerner stretching out his hand with the football like it was yesterday.
Regardless, what has catapulted Coach Houston Nutt to alleged greatness is this 1998 season. No one talks about the poor line blocking or the defensive collapse that gave Travis Henry hole after hole on that UT final drive after Stoerner's fumble. No one talks about the blown double-digit first-half lead. No one talks about how the coaches failed to anticipate Tennessee’s resilience and thus make the appropriate halftime adjustments (Yes, Wally, halftime can be used as a benefit to Arkansas, too). It’s the fumble and how it stole Houston Nutt’s miracle season.
Arkansas fans claim this to be a national program. In 1977-78, we agree that it was. Winning an Orange Bowl over a national powerhouse like Oklahoma, who only had to win that Jan. 2 night to win the national championship, will do that to you. But now? Sadly, no. Part of the reason is because mediocre season after mediocre season has followed Houston Nutt at Arkansas (even those more recent nine-win seasons came with four and five losses). And part of the reason is because of that fumble.
Arkansas fans can live in the past, that is certainly their right. But if living in the past is what it takes, then live in 1977-78 when things were really good. Because now, Arkansas is an afterthought when sportswriters sit down to dissect the SEC. Arkansas is barely in the same breath as South Carolina – and it is nowhere near the upper-tier currently occupied by Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and LSU.
And it’s not just that Arkansas isn’t competitive that bothers us. It’s that almost three decades after Lou Holtz won the Orange Bowl, the words Arkansas football and national program are not even mentioned in the same breath.
But we don’t think Arkansas fans can complain. You can’t claim to be a national program if you’re consistently finishing .500 or worse in your own conference. You can’t claim to be a national program if you’re only marquee wins were over the same Texas team. You can’t claim to be a national program when the team you consider to be your marquee win goes on to win a national championship in the same year your team finishes 4-7. And you can’t claim to be national program when you get out-recruited by Ole Miss.
But more importantly, you can’t claim to be a national program if you give your coach a “two-year pass” in his seventh and eighth seasons, both of which were losing seasons. Nutt’s only won one Cotton Bowl, for goodness sakes. Zero SEC Championships; zero BCS Bowl berths (much less wins); and zero national titles.
It’s all comes back to relevancy. At relevant programs, that doesn’t happen. But at irrelevant ones, well, coaches like Houston Nutt can last forever.
J.R. and Henry, tired of the same tired tripe in the statewide sports columns, are blogging their sport thoughts here, usually every Wednesday and Saturday. They ask that you forgive them for working their real jobs last weekend and being unable to file a column.