Days ago in this space I made a passing reference to a recent Forbes report that assessed the most valuable college football programs in America. It was in the context of that article that author Chris Smith presented us with a rather jarring bit of data: "The biggest change since 2009 belongs to eighth-ranked University of Arkansas, whose football program climbed 59% in value over the past two years."
Smith cited a number of underlying reasons for the Razorbacks' fiscal flourish, specifically the fixed cash influx of the annual game at Cowboys Stadium with Texas A&M (presently imperiled by Aggies and their foolish pride) and increased ticket prices. As Arkansas has now won 29 games, including two bowl victories, the past three seasons, it seems that — brace yourselves, armchair economists! — the on-field success of a program can be directly correlated with how flush the coffers are.
About five years ago, in the throes of what would become swan songs for both Frank Broyles and Houston Nutt, the humiliating Mustain-Malzahn episode triggered a mild uprising that made Razorback supporters a universally reviled lot. The fan base as a whole was depicted as an amalgam of unchecked and unstable jacklegs, the once-rational having been subsumed by the lunatic fringe. We all experienced the smears, and it was torture.
All we really wanted, in retrospect, was to see the university commit itself to something greater with regard to athletics. Broyles was on sports talk radio a few weeks ago, recalling fondly his machinations in getting Arkansas admitted to the Southeastern Conference in the early 1990s. When Razorback Stadium was expanded later in the decade, it struck everyone as if the program was demonstrating a hard and fast devotion to excellence. All of that activity was inspiring — and then it seemed to stall.
So it's no wonder that most of the 2000s gave us all such fits. Nutt flirted with other jobs, bitched petulantly about all the hardships of his million-dollar job and then trotted out a team that would dominate Auburn one week and tank against Kentucky the next. Stan Heath entered a toxic chamber vacated by Nolan Richardson, and basically did a lot of the same teasing Nutt did, sans histrionics. There was a period in the middle of the decade where the baseball team arguably generated more goodwill and enthusiasm than any other program, which logistically isn't where your athletic program's wellspring of passion should be, from a pure dollars-and-common-sense angle.
These prefatory comments are to illustrate the vitality with which Jeff Long has undertaken his charge as Broyles' successor. Long is of the modern school of big athletics administration: he knows that money must be spent in order for more to be earned. He tweets and stumps for the athletic programs feverishly, and his "outsider" status makes him virtually immune to slings and arrows from fans who would clamor for games to remain at War Memorial Stadium even though the economic realities dictate otherwise. Yes, attending games has gotten more expensive, and for some, prohibitively so.
But Long knows that if you invest in a coach in the way he did with Bobby Petrino, and then with Mike Anderson, you are playing favorable odds. Those middle-class fans with mortgages and gaggles of kids may no longer frequent games, but they will still buy merchandise and be an essential part of the athletic program's fiscal health. Those who can afford tickets will pay handsomely, and thanks to Petrino, Reynolds Razorback Stadium now carries more cachet, a genuine home-field advantage and a more raucous social atmosphere. Ray Kinsella put his farm on the brink of foreclosure, remember? Long isn't taking that kind of risk at all. He capitalized on Hogs' fans passion, once viewed as out-and-out lunacy, and he is delivering a product worthy of its cost.
The fact that the Razorbacks can be a top consideration for one of the country's best prep athletes, Dorial Green-Beckham, speaks volumes about the appeal of the university and what Long and his support staff have done to sell the program. It has sex appeal now that it lacked four or five short years ago. As the basketball team continues to show promise in its latest rebuild, there's a sense that Long has effected the sort of culture change that was essential for Arkansas Razorbacks — both the teams and the brand itself — to emerge from purgatory and into the limelight.