After his speech to the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club on Wednesday, it was my great thrill to give former Ohio State football coach John Cooper a quick tour of the University of Arkansas campus.
Cooper had not seen it since 1984 when his Tulsa team lost to the Hogs. Some 27 years later, Cooper was wowed.
During the drive, I explained the new master plan unveiled Tuesday by athletic director Jeff Long. Cooper asked the most pertinent question: What is the current debt service for the UA athletic department. He knew the answer before asking. Low, right? How did Cooper know that? He knows Frank Broyles.
"That man has every penny he ever earned," Cooper said.
That may or may not be entirely true, but it's the perception most old coaches have of the former Arkansas athletic director. Cooper said he knew the Hogs were in good shape financially.
Long confirmed that Tuesday. He said the debt service at Arkansas is "roughly $40 million." That's much better than almost every school that is seriously trying in college athletics. Alabama has a debt service of over $200 million.
"I think we are over that at Ohio State," Cooper said. "We have spent a lot of money on facilities in the last few years. We bring in $8 million per football game, but we owe a lot more than Alabama."
That low debt service for what Cooper called "nice" facilities is a major reason why Long can move forward with what he calls a 30-year vision at Arkansas. Don't be scared by that $320 million price tag that Long put on the long-term project. The Hogs have averaged $18 million for facilities over the last 11 years. If you do the math over the next 30 years, Long's plan will average $16 million.
Some of that will come from what is likely to be a much bigger television contract as the SEC expands to 14 schools. Long is counting on that, although he also knows that the low debt service gives him some wiggle room to secure funding through bonds and private gifts and solid support from the Razorback Foundation.
It's wonderful to take a visitor down Razorback Road. But Cooper nodded when it was explained that some of the things now in place are outdated.
"It's a constant battle to keep up and you better or you won't be able to recruit," he said. "I just read something today about Florida spending $58,000 a year on post-practice snacks — smoothies. Can you believe that?
"Do you know what that means? Everyone else is going to have to spend more on smoothies for their athletes. It doesn't ever stop.
"You have to recruit nationally if you are going to compete. We have great high school football and 11 million people in Ohio, but we had to go coast to coast for the best athletes. Arkansas has to do the same thing and you need great facilities to do that."
Cooper thinks the Big Ten has dipped in football power over the last 15 years. He said they "don't have the coaches" that made the league strong in the 1990s.
"The SEC is the best league, hands down," he said. "They have very good coaches right now. I'd say Bobby Petrino here at Arkansas is one of the top 10 nationally."
Cooper grew up in east Tennessee, so he's a southern boy at heart. So it's no surprise that he pointed to southern pride in football as the key to SEC dominance.
"There is just more passion in the south for football than anywhere else," he said. "The Big Ten just has so much NFL influence. We are covered up with NFL football in our league. The SEC doesn't have that.
"But it's always about players. The teams with the best players are going to win most of the time. You can have good coaches, but you better have players. The SEC has both.
"What the SEC has that's better than anywhere else is the number of defensive linemen. They have the best, big, fast aggressive linemen."
Cooper has a theory on that, too. It's sultry weather.
"I think SEC teams have to account for the heat, so they play a lot of defensive linemen early in the year," he said. "So they build more depth. They have more defensive linemen in the south, but they also have to play them because of the hot weather. That's a big reason the SEC is the best."
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