State of the Hogs: Bad Times

Arkansas has fallen into college football's abyss the last two weeks. Publisher Clay Henry looks at how it happened.

The natives are restless -- no, they are just plain mad -- and I don't blame them. Losing to Vanderbilt, then giving up 70 points and 736 total yards to Southern Cal is BAD stuff.

Neither one should ever happen at Arkansas, but I understand where we are and how we got here. It's not all that hard to explain, either.

Remember, I'm not making excuses, just stating what I think is the obvious. Doesn't make it right, nor should it make anyone feel good. It's just an explanation.

First, I go back to a discussion I had in November of 1995 with Rockey Felker, then Arkansas' offensive coordinator. His lecture -- let's call it SEC Football 101 -- outlined what it's like in our new conference. He warned that it was his experience after a couple of years in our state that most of our natives didn't get it when it came to life in the SEC, especially in football.

What I'm about to let Rockey say may not be the gospel. You don't have to agree with it. But, if it isn't spot on, I'd say it is close. Just days after the Hogs played Florida in the SEC championship, here's what Rockey said:

"I don't know if folks around here appreciate what we just did, winning the West and going to the title game," Felker said. "It is hard to do and won't happen often here. You can do everything right and still not make it back here but once every six, seven or eight years.

"Just look around at what you are going up against in this league. Just in our division alone you have Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Year in and year out, they are going to have more than you've got even when you do well. And, then there's Florida, Tennessee and Georgia in the other division. Those teams can screw up and still sign top 15 and maybe even top 10 talent every year. They either have it in their backyard or not far away. They've done it for years and years."

Felker should know SEC football. He coached at Alabama under Bear Bryant. He was the SEC's total offense leader as a quarterback at Mississippi State. He later served as head coach at Mississippi State, where he's now director of football operations after calling plays at both Tulsa and Arkansas. His Tulsa offense was good enough to beat San Diego State (and Marshall Faulk) in the Freedom Bowl.

Felker loved it at Arkansas. He actually tried to stay here after he lost his job when Danny Ford was fired. He set up shop as an insurance man before finances sent him back to coaching. I think he knew our state pretty good, too.

I listened intently as he called our football recruiting base "fragile and slim." I think he was right.

By fragile, he meant in a good year you could win by getting most of the best Arkansas high school players and add top-notch talent from Texas, Oklahoma and perhaps a few from either Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.

But, in a bad year in Arkansas, you better do really well out of state. And, if something unusual is going on within your program, there may be a few years when you don't get enough out-of-state talent to compete with Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

I know what he means now. He was talking about an NCAA investigation, one that might linger for three to four years. Guess what? That's what happened to the football program at Arkansas. That's why the top two classes at Arkansas are so thin and so void of SEC talent.

Look at the Arkansas depth chart. Where is the talent? It's in the last two classes where you'll find most of the studs on the current roster. From last year, there is Marcus Monk, Marcus Harrison, Michael Grant, Jamaal Anderson, Darius Vinnett, Chris Houston, Matterral Richardson, Randy Kelly, Fred Bledsoe and Anthony Brown. This year's class includes Felix Jones, Darren McFadden, Marcus Shavers, Jose Valdez, Freddie Fairchild and Tyrell Graham.

There are others in this group of freshmen that look like studs, too, but aren't quite ready to play. I'd put Cord Gray, Casey Dick, Colin Tucker and Rod Coleman in that group.

I also remember talking to Dave Wommack just after he was fired as Arkansas' defensive coordinator last November. He pointed to the investigation, too.

"I think we have coaches who have proven through their career that they can close in living rooms (in recruiting)," Wommack said. "Look back and see. They've done it at other places and done it here.

"But we didn't close on the good ones the last two or three years. We got them to campus. We did fine in our evaluations and in talking them into visiting. We just didn't get them to sign. That was the investigation. I know it. Everyone across the SEC knows it."

Where is Arkansas hurting right now? Defensive end, defensive tackle and linebacker. That's where the investigation hit hardest.

Most suspected things were going to fall off last year and again this year, they just didn't expect there to be a loss to Vanderbilt. To me, that hurts worse than giving up 70 to SC. You know when you went to Los Angeles that it could get ugly.

That doesn't mean the season is lost. There are still some winnable games out there. Heck, even this week's trip to Alabama is a doable mission. Except for trips to Georgia and LSU, I don't see any more weeks where I think the Hogs are terribly overmatched. Alabama and Auburn have better talent in many places, but they are at least vulnerable if Arkansas improves.

So what's the answer? Time. It's not what people want to hear. They'd rather see someone fired -- perhaps several people fired -- or see the Hogs look for greener pasture, like the Big 12 Conference.

Why not go to the Big 12? First, there isn't an opening. Second, you don't run from trouble. You bow up and fight.

I don't see the Big 12 as a dramatic drop in competition as some do. I've heard plenty of folks say that we'd be much better off in that league. If Arkansas went to the Big 12, the most likely scenario would be as Baylor's replacement. That's no better than where the Hogs are now in my view.

Baylor's running mates in the Big 12 South are Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The teams from the Big 12 North which would rotate on and off the schedule are Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State and Missouri.

Show me how playing OU, Texas, A&M, Tech and OSU every year along with the possibility of Nebraska, Colorado and K-State is better than what the Hogs face now?

What we have to realize is that we can't go back to SMU, Baylor, Rice, TCU and Texas Tech on a regular basis. That's not an option. We walked away from that situation because it was a poor financial deal.

No, we are where we are for good reason (money) and just have to bow up and fight. Seems like that's what I heard Reggie Herring say this week when reporters asked options were for the defense the rest of this season.

What happens at the end of this season, I don't know. There may be some more good coaches follow in Dave Wommack's footsteps. I'll understand it if it happens. As Wommack said at the time, it's just business.

Yes, that's all it is, just business, kinda like when Arkansas left the comfort of the SWC for the big dollars of the SEC.

Arkansas football will be back. In fact, it could be that most of the bad times are already over. The only question in my mind is how many of the current coaches on this staff will be around to see the good times.

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