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GREG HARTON: Bound for success?

The many meanings of “Arkansas ties”

Today, I've chosen a precarious path: Writing about the University of Arkansas' search for a coach and athletic director when, by the time this column appears, one or both of those decisions might have already been announced.

My observations don't really rely on a decision having been made or not made.

I don't like most coaching changes, even when they are a necessity. They create a huge amount of chaos and churn up emotions across the state. And I can guarantee that whoever the next coach is, and to a lesser extent athletic director, there will be people who applaud and those convinced it's the beginning of the end of Arkansas football.

Unless the UA hires John L. Smith, Bobby Petrino, Larry Culpepper or Donald Trump as its next coach, I'll be fine with whoever they select. As the experience with Bret Bielema demonstrates, past records do not guarantee any outcome. What the new coach achieves once he sets foot on The Hill is the only measure that matters.

I wish it had turned out differently with Bielema, who by all accounts and observations impressed as a decent person who wanted the best for the young men in his charge and for the institution that put its faith in his capabilities. He didn't have any "Arkansas ties," a phrase that's been thrown around a lot lately in this state, but he consistently demonstrated an understanding of and appreciation for what the Razorbacks mean to a lot of Arkansans, from Texarkana to Blytheville and Eudora to Gravette. Frank Broyles built a statewide fan base that is vital to the Razorbacks' success, and I never heard Bielema say or do anything that disrespected that relationship with the fans.

Many fans felt differently about Jeff Long, who followed Broyles as athletic director. When he was hired, I predicted Long would last maybe five years. I felt anyone who followed the great Frank Broyles, no matter how skilled, would have limited success. Broyles became an Arkansas legend. He came to represent the very soul of Razorback athletics. How could any mere mortal follow him?

It's a testament to Long's abilities that he lasted a decade in the job, but when things got difficult, he didn't have a Southern drawl to fall back on.

When people now say the program needs someone with Arkansas ties, I think that's a reaction to Long. He was here a decade, but it was only in those final years I started hearing people refer to the "Yankee" in Fayetteville who didn't understand Arkansas culture. What that really means is this: When football is winning, you understand; when it's losing, you don't.

But what does this push for hiring based on "Arkansas ties" mean? Here are my theories:

• No. 1 is a desire to hire Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn, a move that might be great for Arkansas but makes no sense for Malzahn unless it's driven by issues that have nothing to do with football or collegiate competition. Those issues might be family preferences about being closer to family and friends. I can also see Malzahn explaining a decision to become the Hogs' coach as a spiritual move. Otherwise, he'll stay where he is (with a resulting pay raise and guaranteed contract extension).

• Among substantial financial supporters and some in the media, the Arkansas connection expectation says less about the program than it does about the wishfulness of those advancing the idea. These folks are really saying they want the Razorback program to go back to the way it was when Frank Broyles ran it and they had better connections and influence within the program. The good ol' boy system isn't going to be the program's salvation. But the more a coach and athletic director can build real relationships with fans across the state, the more those fans will handle the ups and downs that are historically part of the program's fortunes.

• "Arkansas ties" for some really means this: Hire someone who will keep Razorback football playing games at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. There are those who blame Long for the loss of games in the Capitol City, but that started under Broyles, driven by financial concerns. Broyles made the Razorbacks a strong statewide program by splitting games between the campus and Little Rock, but in the 21st century, is that the only way the program can maintain that statewide strength? And what financial trade-off for the program is worth keeping a game or games in Little Rock?

Georgian Frank Broyles, Texan Nolan Richardson and Irishman John McDonald didn't have any Arkansas ties when they came to the university. Success bound them into the state's athletic lore.

The only Arkansas ties any coach or athletic director needs is a drive to win and a commitment to operate a financially strong program that earns respect on and off the field. Being an Arkansan, whether native or by choice, involves acceptance that our state will never automatically be at the top of practically any list or ranking, that any respect we get will be hard earned through character and hard work.

The same holds true for Razorback athletics.

Commentary on 12/04/2017

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