Speak as you see fit about college athletics at its highest tier, but there's no doubting that it is a behemoth.
Arkansas is commonly depicted as a pauper of a state by rule of thumb and by generally all publicly available metrics. Yet you wouldn't get that impression if you skimmed over the raw digits on the sporting budget for the University of Arkansas.
The Razorback athletic department, per projections released in June of this year, was an $80.6 million monstrosity as far as projected expenditures for the fiscal year were concerned. There has been a substantial increase in this area on Jeff Long's watch: The athletic director oversaw a budget of around $51 million in his first full year on the job, only five years ago.
Football and men's basketball are the obvious and essential linchpins, as they are at virtually every other university, keeping the program from being a cash bleed. Earnings from those sports buoy the other varsity offerings. That's just how this all works, and no one needs an advanced econ degree to discern it.
But does it truly "work"? Having suffered mightily of late, Razorback fans who are notoriously impassioned to the point of fever dreams and message board/radio show bellyaching would likely answer with an emphatic "no" dressed up with your choice of colorful modifiers. No one can deny that results are spotty at best right now, and it's why Long now stands at the most uncomfortable nexus a man of his vocation can occupy: The university is paying way, way too much for what it's producing. Meanwhile, the donors who comprise an estimated 15 percent of the budget may be losing faith, too.
Football is the alpha and the omega in the South, and in this state, Razorback football animates the populace year-round in a unique and perhaps obscene manner. If the past two years have taxed the loyalty of the normally unyielding Hog backer, all the frustration came to head over Thanksgiving weekend.
On Friday, Arkansas went to Baton Rouge, ever inhospitable, with an eight-game losing skid in tow that was already a program record. The Hogs improbably played their best game of an immensely trying season, fighting to shed the albatross of an oh-fer in SEC play and end Bret Bielema's miserable first campaign as head coach on a blissfully unexpected high. The 24-point underdogs toted a lead much of the second half, looked reasonably sharp doing it, and then knocked LSU's starting quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, out of the game on a clean hit. By the time Sam Irwin-Hill's gorgeous punt got downed inside the 1 with less than four minutes left and the Hogs clinging to a 27-24 lead, we were all biting our lips for fear that a smile might break out. So how'd it all end up?
Why, Anthony Jennings, a freshman with all of three passes thrown all season, came right off the pine and led LSU's unlikely march to victory, of course. The last salvo was a casual 49-yard scoring toss with 1:15 left, which the Hogs could not answer, and all hopes of a miracle went spiraling away. Arkansas was done for 2013, a 3-9, 0-8 mass of wreckage that for several weeks looked like it belonged in another conference due to the paucity of talent at key positions. Insulting enough, but then when Gus Malzahn's spunky Auburn Tigers executed a miracle finish to knock off Alabama and win the SEC West barely a day later, the sodium chloride got worked into the wound, and hard.
Thusly, the living referendum on Long began anew. Not only had the curious choice of Bielema to resuscitate the program faltered out of the gate, there was native golden-boy Malzahn, late of Arkansas State and long a favorite of many Razorback fans (derided by plenty, too, to be sure), taking Auburn from the same depths where the Hogs are now to a top 3 ranking and a shot at glory within a matter of months. Want more? Bielema made in excess of $1 million per win in 2013, and on that scale, Malzahn was an unmitigated bargain at around $200k per victory.
For this fan base and its deep-seated inferiority complex, all of this is too much to shoulder much longer. Going 7-17 over a two-season stretch pocked with farcical moments like Bobby Petrino's derailment, the loss to Louisiana-Monroe and successive 52-0 whitewashings by Alabama is brutal enough. But the success stories — Auburn's resurgence, Missouri and Texas A&M both thriving, Vanderbilt working itself gamely out of the league's depths — are ushering in an even nastier bout of fatigue.
Culling viewpoints from social media is anything but gospel, but it's evident from the Twittersphere and elsewhere that Hog fans are, to be blunt, sick of it all. Long has earned due credit for his endeavors to discard the old, woeful culture of self-pity, but the dividends have been indisputably sparse, and that's not to single out football for underperformance. Incidentally, the scaling back of games in War Memorial Stadium to one per year until 2018, as well as Long's recent pay increase, coalesces all of these systemic failures onto a single lens under one penetrating microscope. There's more grist for the cynic's mill: Shedding another game from the capital city has long been in gestation, but Long rather audaciously suggested that it wasn't a financially rooted decision, and his beefed-up compensation package was made public shortly after it was made known that the University of Texas had considered Long for the same position there. Do with that info what you wish, but it understandably doesn't sit well with many.
Long also more or less gutted the basketball program in 2011 by ditching John Pelphrey and whatever "philosophy" he employed, and followed that by convincing Mike Anderson to leave behind the progress he made at Missouri for a belated homecoming of sorts. It was a celebrated move at the time, but there's a pervading sense of ambivalence about a once-proud program now. Pelphrey's tenure offered nothing but recruiting misfires and disciplinary problems, and Anderson's having a devil of a time trying to shake that and recapture the charm he helped cultivate as Nolan Richardson's aide. The wide-angle view of the drop-off can be measured by both on-court performance and sideline enthusiasm, too: Arkansas won 13 NCAA tournament games, including a national title, in a three-year stretch from 1994 to 1996. In the following 17 years, the Razorbacks have won all of two NCAA tourney games. Average attendance at Bud Walton Arena, though it nudged upward on the strength of Anderson's hiring, has petered out to the point that the team could probably justify moving back to the far cozier Barnhill Arena just for the sake of decibels.
When the cash cows aren't eating, sadly, the health of the rest of the herd takes a hit, too. Arkansas softball has turned into a league competitor after years of dodgy performance, gymnastics is thriving, and track and field is experiencing a rebirth in its own right. Dave Van Horn continues to maintain the baseball program at a level where it is of high national relevance, though the diamond Hogs have a frustrating propensity to stall on the precipice of greatness.
Now the advancements in those sports and elsewhere faces the possibility of petering out, because their very existence — to say nothing of their success rate — is rooted in the financial windfall that the big two sports generate. Meanwhile, Hog fans, wearing their emotions plainly on their sleeves, are turning down opportunities to show up. Ticket prices and travel expenses are ever on the rise while the winning percentage falls. Again, there's no sense putting all this in the form of a Venn diagram: When your team is on fire, you'll drive from corner to corner just to see them drum a patsy in crappy conditions, but when it's a dysfunctional mess not even the sunniest forecast or free tickets will put you in the mood.
This is why urgency is off the charts, not simply for Long and his underlings, but also for the innumerable high school athletes who are trying to decide where they should spend three or four critical years of their lives. Bielema thankfully seems to have a tangible recruiting plan, rather than a scattershot method of cherry-picking the leftovers around the country, so that cannot be anything but positive. He's also pledging to remain committed to a support staff that is, dollar for dollar, better paid than any other cadre of assistants in the country. Anderson's third team also looks like it will be his best, as he is no longer having to lean quite so heavily on the services of athletes he did not personally solicit. You can and should expect an NCAA tournament appearance soon, which is a pretty modest yardstick.
If you stare really hard at this muddled picture, eventually you might make out an image that isn't so bleak.