In prior editions of Pearls, I have freely disclosed being a bit of a "newbie", a child of the 1980s who nonetheless has devoted generous portions of his life to studying the overall history of Arkansas Razorback athletics. Therefore, at the risk of offending those whose memories may be longer than my own, I still think I'm qualified to say that 2012 was the most oddball, bass-ackwards mess of a year for that institution since the leather helmet/peach basket era.
How else do you possibly explain a 12-month period that more or less began with one of the football program's happier recent moments, an efficient if unspectacular Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State that left the Hogs with their first 11-win season and Top 5 finish in 34 years, and essentially ended with a completely different head coach assembling an entirely new support staff?
Things got surreal. Often. In the spring, Bobby Petrino flipped a bike and with it, his own legacy and the program's fortune. The hiring of John L. Smith as a tourniquet conclusively proved that giving an aging coach a short-term chance is ill-advised, particularly when he has personal woes that are nakedly public and incredibly crippling. If you thought matters couldn't get worse after the Hogs succumbed to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock on Sept. 8, you were dealt grim reminders throughout the next ten weeks that they actually could. A proud team with lofty aims just fell apart, seemingly in the span of a couple of quarters but in retrospect, the decline was probably more predictable than we care to admit.
Along came Bret Bielema from Wisconsin after an officially 10-day search that earnestly was months in the making. It was a dramatic and radical shift in ideology, one that many questioned, but Bielema himself diffused a lot of doubt with a savvy press conference and several subsequent hires that demonstrated a sincere commitment to branding the football program as a bold contender. Recruiting concerns are ever pervasive but at the tail end of 2012, Bielema is doing furious work securing transfers and other prospective signees.
On the hardcourt, the women's program finally regained some footing, and Tom Collen bounced off a possible hot seat by steering his team into the NCAA tournament. Mike Anderson didn't have the same luck in his first year at the helm of the men's team: the Hogs fizzled in the spring and had to deal with yet another postseason-free March. But there are signs of progress, and Anderson still has the inherent feel of being the proper fit.
Summer doldrums? Hardly. Arkansas had another choppy trip through the conference schedule on the diamond. Then, as has been typical in the Van Horn era, the team was rejuvenated when it was ushered into the tournament. The Hogs rode a miraculous bounce-back in the Waco Super Regional to Omaha, put themselves in the driver's seat for the final, then watched helplessly as a known umpiring liability flushed them out against two-time champion South Carolina.
As with so many Razorback experiences, that was both glorious and torturous. It's a mantra we repeat often, to the point of likely irritating those who embrace other universities, but the Hogs are such a living dichotomy that it's become a running joke. Only here could such a beloved coach self-implode so spectacularly, or could his understudy fail in such a manner, or could a high-level baseball program surge one weekend and fizzle the next.
Hope is alive, though, in spite of it all. Let's keep it sustained for as long as we can in 2013.