Columns » Max Brantley

Surprise: Money talks

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I gave up sports writing for politics during my senior year in college, but you can’t beat Razorback athletics for good political stories. And there are few better politicians than University of Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles. He’s smart, personable, a money magnet, ruthless if need be and a master vote counter.

A succession of administrators at the University of Arkansas has chafed at Broyles’ privileged place in the hierarchy. But, at best, they’ve been able to do little more than work around him on rare occasions.

Broyles, 82, has always survived, most notably when a run was made at forcibly retiring him after he angered Central Arkansas Hog fans and the wealthy Stephens family by spurning an idea to expand War Memorial Stadium. Broyles favored moving all Hog games to Fayetteville, on campus and closer to the increasingly important booster base in Washington and Benton County.

Last week, the string ran out. Broyles, seemingly out of the blue but for the Arkansas Times Blog’s early leak, announced Saturday his retirement at the end of this year, when he’ll complete 50 years at the UA. He’s still an impressive figure, but his judgment has failed him recently, particularly in botched interventions in the notorious Springdale fiasco. Whatever his participation in the effort to hire a successful Springdale high school coach and recruit some of the coach’s stars, it came to grief on his watch with the unhappy departure of Coach Gus Malzahn and a couple of those heralded players.

The Springdale fiasco had significance off the field. Important people, including high officials of big companies with long records of Hog financial support, were sorely unhappy at the treatment of Malzahn and his young men. This reflected not only their shared hometown, but a shared background in the private school, Shiloh Christian, or its sponsoring church, First Baptist of Springdale. They are potent politically in the region.

In short, while Frank Broyles has always had critics, he probably never had so many at one time with so much money and clout. Even Jim Lindsey, the real-estate magnate and former Hog great, no longer had the pull to turn away a UA Board of Trustees majority that was anxious for Chancellor John White to defuse unrest at Fayetteville by making a change.

Broyles could count the votes. Though he’d often vowed to match Amos Alonzo Stagg by working into his 90s, he announced his retirement and slipped away. He left the meeting before reporters could ask him the pregnant question: Why now? The football reporters knew the rules of sports writing etiquette. They didn’t press the question too hard with those, such as football coach Houston Nutt, who stayed after the announcement to pay tribute to the old coach.

The other pregnant question is whether this announcement will quell fan unrest in the short term. Football coach Nutt — and his wife, by circulating an ugly e-mail about Springdale quarterback Mitch Mustain — contributed immensely to the unhappiness in the Springdale crowd. He’s still coach. Broyles, for that matter, is still athletic director, a living monument amid the physical temples he’s built to Arkansas sports.

So what’s changed? Important stuff. Chancellor John White soon and at last will be in charge of the athletic director. Houston Nutt will lose his protector, Broyles. The week’s events also illustrated the diminished power of another Nutt protector Jim Lindsey. All of which means this story is not over.

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