Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
It's easy to walk out of a surly War Memorial Stadium after Arkansas has inexplicably torpedoed hopes of a magical season with a loss to Toledo and think, "Damn this infernal program, teasing me year after year. I hate being a Hog fan."
Reflect on that, then consider, for primacy and recency's sake, two models Arkansas has not elected to emulate.
Baylor football was an outright laughingstock a decade ago, then turned on the aggressiveness in an effort to recapture mislaid success of the Grant Teaff era. The Bears hired Art Briles, who had just done an immaculate reclamation in Houston, to take over for a program that had floundered for over a decade in the Big 12. Briles overhauled the offense and the culture, snagged a keystone recruit named Robert Griffin III, and by the time he had reached his eighth season Briles had the Waco wackos completely over the moon with his fast-paced offense.
Trouble is, as has often been the case in the power programs, character issues of players with marginal on-field impact landed the team in the maelstrom for the past few months. When the words "sexual assault" are bandied about, you'd think the program would heed the Penn State debacle and the coach would be front-and-center in deflecting any allegations that the football team was wagging the university, to turn a phrase. In this case, Briles was being asked about multiple offenses involving multiple players, and he never seemed to be authoritative enough in his declarations about whether the dreaded c-word — "culture" — was one breeding scofflaws.
Briles paid for it last week, losing his A-list status and employment in one fell swoop, and Baylor President Ken Starr was given a rather unsatisfying demotion to mere chancellor status. Recruits started bailing immediately. Those four-win teams of 2008-09 now look like the safe bet for 2016, rather than the 10- and 11-win anomalies the past three seasons. It's a shocking turn of events only if you played the blissfully unaware card like Briles did over the past several months when he had to address the allegations publicly.
Meanwhile, east of Waco in another conservative Southern college town, one of the Hogs' chief rivals felt the sting of its own dearth of in-house discipline. Ole Miss did the whole "self-imposed penalties" thing in the hopes of keeping the foundation of its house of cards intact, reducing athletic scholarships and trying its damnedest to appease the NCAA in the process. The violations were ranging in severity, and it's arguable whether excommunicated former Rev. Houston D. Nutt or present deacon Hugh Freeze did more overt damage to the program with his respective brand of gridiron piety. It's also likely that erstwhile offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, inhaling illicit smoke in a gas mask and then revealing he got cash handouts the past couple of years during a worldwide NFL Draft broadcast, didn't help perceptions.
The Rebels/Black Bears, very much like the Baptist Bears on the Brazos, got plumb sick and tired of losing and looking hideous in the process. They cut corners. They ignored red flags. They excelled at a level not seen in some time, and raked in cash and banner players along the way. For Ole Miss, there's thankfully not some sordid charge about football players being allowed to victimize women, and Freeze got to deflect enough of this mess around to other programs and predecessors that he kept his job. But Oxford has never been a place where consistency of performance has been the archetype, so where do the Rebs go from here? The draft already depleted the centerpieces of their prior recruiting classes, namely Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell, and Robert Nkemdiche, and while quarterback Chad Kelly returns, the specter of these penalties — and the perception that the suspicion about Ole Miss' recruiting was correct — is going to hang over the entire 2016 season and beyond.
Arkansas went through hell when Bobby Petrino went off the highway and John L. Smith was brought in for a patchwork job. Baylor, incidentally, has called upon Wake Forest castoff Jim Grobe to try to stabilize things in an interim capacity. For the Hogs, the climb back to respectability wasn't as awful as feared, and it only implicated one duplicitous coach for personal imbroglios. When things get sour in Waco and Oxford, remember that very fact, and rejoice in knowing that Arkansas is not, at present, a program in turmoil.