In the early 1990s, Arkansas joined the SEC and the conference began awarding a baseball player of the year award to complement already established football and basketball MVP titles. Since then, the conference has soared to lofty heights, becoming arguably the NCAA’s most powerful organization. Much of that has to do with stretches of dominance by Alabama, LSU and Florida in football; Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida in basketball and the likes of LSU (five national titles 1993-2009) and South Carolina in baseball.
Many of these programs have produced multiple players of the years in various sports, yet no one school has yet been able to hit a POY trifecta by having a male player win the ultimate individual honor in each major team sport in one calendar year.
That may soon change.
In 2015, the Razorbacks athletic department has a chance make SEC history by sweeping these honors. The push started earlier this spring with sophomore Bobby Portis winning basketball SEC Player of the Year. Then, on Monday, sophomore Andrew Benintendi was announced as SEC baseball’s player of the year. Benintendi, of course, has helped spearhead the Hogs’ surge from a 1-5 start in SEC play to 18-7 finish including two wins so far in the SEC Tournament. The outfielder from Cincinnati, Ohio leads the nation in slugging percentage (.760) and ranks first in home runs. “He’s probably the best player in college baseball right now,” Tennessee coach Dave Serrano told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bob Holt.
I write more about this unique record in the context of SEC sports and the Razorbacks’ upcoming football season for Sporting Life Arkansas, but here I want to look beyond the SEC.
Specifically, how many times has a school pulled off this one-year POY trifecta among all major conferences?
Three times – sort of.
Here they are:
In basketball, Grant Hill secured ACC player of the year and first team All-American honors. But thanks to the Razorbacks, “national champion” was one honor he didn’t grab for the third straight year. Ryan Jackson took home ACC POY honors after setting a single-season school record with 22 home runs. In football, bruising back Robert Baldwin won it after helping lead Duke to its highest national ranking in 23 years.
Baldwin was the last Duke player to win ACC player of the year honors in football, but was the 10th such POY in school history (which is a surprisingly high number to my 33-year-old self. It reflects how un-dominant Florida State once was).
This is the time of year when we get comprehensive. What mattered most, what was best, what will be remembered: there is something about the late days of December that puts people in a retrospective mood. So it goes, and so it has gone, and so a storyline has emerged that’s maybe more comforting than true. Anyway, it is almost time to say goodbye to 2014, The Year Sports Reclaimed Its Social Conscience.
To be fair, the ingredients are there — LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Reggie Bush and others wore their “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts, and so made common cause with a massive public movement for more just policing; a cadre of St. Louis Rams emerging from a stadium tunnel with their hands up, in solidarity with the movement in nearby Ferguson, MO; after two police officers were killed in Brooklyn, the New York Giants and Jets took the field brandishing NYPD hats.
Add to that mix entire college basketball lineups that have voiced their opposition — usually through those same comic sans I Can’t Breathe t-shirts — to the verdicts in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and their support of the movements that rose in their wake. In almost every sport, at seemingly all levels, athletes have openly spoken their minds about police brutality and social justice. In California, the issue sparked a Monday morning protest even at the high school level, after one girls’ program was banned from a tournament for intending to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. The ostensible wall between sports and Everything Else has always been false, but now it was flattened. Athletes in every sport, at the professional level and at every level below, were making it clear that they would not sit this debate out.
Not so fast.
While in the last month the American sports scene has experienced a level of social activism not seen since the Vietnam era, there has been one glaring omission: college football. The story of the Razorbacks’ All-SEC running back Jonathan Williams makes this evident, as I wrote today in The Classical.
— AStateNation (@AStateNation) December 25, 2014
Arkansas State fans often feel slighted by media in central Arkansas (despite KATV sports anchor Steve Sullivan’s strong ASU ties as an alum), but reasons for that chip on the shoulder are dwindling. On Christmas Day, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette made an unusual move in naming not one – but 10 individuals – as its “Sportsmen of the Year.” More unusual was the fact the sportsmen weren’t associated with the University of Arkansas.
Reporter Troy Schulte did a good job writing the piece [$$], and he got some interesting insight from ASU linebacker Frankie Jackson, one of the ten fifth-year seniors who persevered despite going through the tumult of five head coaches in five years. “No matter what came in, it was still, turn to your left, turn to your right and you still have the same players you knew from your freshman year,” Jackson said of his classmates from the 2010 signing class. “It wasn’t the head coach, it was the team that I wanted to be a part. It didn’t matter that Roberts left, Freeze left, or Malzahn left or Harsin left — I was still with my team.”
Those are rare words coming from a player still playing for a mid-major/major Division I football program.
Usually, football program try to sell the coach as the face of the program for obvious recruiting reasons. Putting the coach front and center as the program’s public figurehead also helps boost coaches’ show ratings and sell tickets for booster club meetings. Arkansas State’s situation is so unique, however, that the “players first” slant is the only one that works without coming off as ridiculously out of tune. That being said, it will be interesting to see if the ASU football program makes this article part of its recruiting package to its current high school and junior college targets.
On one hand, this kind of front page exposure and honor seems like something the Red Wolves would want to play up to its recruits – “Hey, look, the Hogs aren’t the only major football player in state, and Arkansas’ biggest newspaper agrees!” On the other hand, if you’re current ASU coach Blake Anderson, what do you do say in response to Jackson’s words here –
“It wasn’t the head coach, it was the team that I wanted to be a part.”
Anderson’s got much bigger things to worry about, of course. He’s leading ASU into the GoDaddy Bowl on Jan. 4 in Mobile, Ala., where it hopes to pick up its third consecutive bowl win. This would cap the fourth consecutive winning season for the ASU, a major accomplishment considering from 1992 to 2010 the program had endured 16 losing seasons.
For the Red Wolves, annual coaching turnover has gone hand and hand with consistent winning since Hugh Freeze took over for Steve Roberts in December 2010. Schulte points out that in the last 100 years this unusual combination is unprecedented: “The only other known team to go through such change at the sport’s highest division was Kansas State in 1944-1948, but those teams won just four games through that transition.”
Going back farther in time, though, there is one program that likely comes closest to replicating ASU’s combination of high success and high coaching turnover.
From 1895 to 1906, Oregon had 10 winning seasons and two undefeated ones. Still, the Webfoots went through nine coaching changes in that span. Granted, college football coaching was then approximately 6.5 million times less lucrative in that era, so the young men who so often became coaches immediately after their playing college careers sometimes jumped ship simply to pursue a career in which they could make serious money.
Take Hugo Bezdek, who led Oregon to a 5-0-1 record in 1906, his only season there. Instead of returning, though, he returned to his alma mater the University of Chicago to pursue medical school. Still, nobody forgot the Prague native’s prowess. “Bezdek is by nature imbued with a sort of Slavic pessimism that makes him a coach par excellence,” according to a 1916 Oregon Daily Journal article. “His success lies in his ability to put the fight into his men.”
Someone at the University of Arkansas heard about Bezdek’s ability and reached out to the 24-year-old to offer a position as the football, track and baseball coach (Oh, and entire athletic directorship, while he was at it). Bezdek arrived in Fayetteville in 1908 and a year later his team went undefeated (7-0-0), winning the unofficial championships of the South and Southwest. In 1910, the team was 7-1-0. Impressed with the mean-tempered hogs that roamed the state, Bezdek observed that his boys “played like a band of wild Razorbacks” after coming home from a game against LSU. The new name caught on, and in 1914 the Cardinals officially became the Razorbacks.
The Red Wolf Ten
Below are the ten 5th year seniors who have ASU on the cusp of 36 wins – what would be its second-most successful four-year run ever. “It’s a miracle on a cotton patch up here,” former coach Larry Lacewell told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Lacewell, ASU’s all-time winningest coach, led the program to its best four-year run of 37 victories in 1984-1987. Lace well said these seniors “brought tradition and pride back to Arkansas State.”
1. Brock Barnhill; DB; Mountain Home; Former walk-on; special teams contributor
2. William Boyd; WR; Cave City; Walk-on earned scholarship. Caught first career pass this season
3. Tyler Greve; C; Jonesboro; Started 12 games at center this season
4. Frankie Jackson; DB; Baton Rouge; Played RB and LB (917 career yards, 65 career tackles)
5. Ryan Jacobs; DB; Evans, Ga.; Played mostly on special teams; 11 tackles, 1 fumble recovery
6. Qushaun Lee; MLB; Prattville, Ala.; Fourth all-time on ASU’s career tackles list (390)
7. Kenneth Rains; TE; Hot Springs;7 starts; 14-160 receiving, 3 TDs
8. Andrew Tryon; SS; Russellville; 24 starts; 149 tackles, 20 breakups, 3 INTs;
9. Alan Wright; RG; Cave City; 21 starts
10. Sterling Young; FS; Hoover, Ala.; 45 consecutive starts: 268 tackles, 151 unassisted; 7-59 INTs
NB: Defensive tackle Markel Owens also would have been a fifth-year senior this season. He was shot and killed at his mother’s home in Jackson, Tenn., in January, 2014.
Above information taken from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and ASU athletic department.
Last month, the Razorback defense played as well over a three and a half game stretch as it had at any point since its 1964 national championship season. Maintaining such intensity and execution won’t be easy, though. Significant losses loom ahead of the 2015 season. The defense loses two all-SEC caliber players in senior linebacker Martrell Spaight and senior defensive end Trey Flowers, and possibly a third in redshirt sophomore Darius Philon.
Philon, the nation’s 14th-ranked defensive tackle, is getting feedback on high how he’d be taken in the 2015 NFL Draft. Regardless of whether he leaves, Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith knows it’s vital he restock the cupboard this coming off-season.
Along those lines, there’s good news.
Today, one of the nation’s most highly sought JC defensive linemen signed a National Letter of Intent with Arkansas. Jeremiah Ledbetter, a 6’3″, 280 pound four-star recruit ( according to Rivals.com), will join the team in January after spending the past two seasons at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
From Arkansas’ sports information department:
A first-team All-Jayhawk Conference selectee, Ledbetter (@leddy_55) completed his sophomore campaign at Hutchinson with 76 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, nine quarterback hurries and two recovered fumbles. Ledbetter concluded his sophomore season as a second-team National Junior College Athletic Association All-American.
A native of Orlando, Florida, Ledbetter finished his senior year of high school at Gainesville (Ga.) High School, the same high school as Arkansas senior linebacker Daunte Carr. Ledbetter then redshirted his freshman year with the Blue Dragons.
Ledbetter selected the Razorbacks over offers from Georgia, Oklahoma State, Florida, South Carolina, Auburn and Miami (Fla.).
“Jeremiah is another fantastic addition to our growing 2015 class,” said Bielema. “He will bring experience and physicality to our defensive line and joins a group of outstanding future Razorbacks that will make an immediate impact with our team. The sky is the limit with Jeremiah and we can’t wait to see what he’ll bring during spring practice on and off the field.”
According to Rivals.com, Arkansas’ 2015 signing class ranks No. 20 in the nation. Ledbetter joins quarterback Ty Storey (@tystorey4), offensive lineman Zach Rogers (@HebronHawks75), defensive end Daytrieon Dean (@_dwoop) and defensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt (@Y3llur) as Arkansas’ early signees that will enroll January.
Arkansas will travel to Houston to take on the Texas Longhorns in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. The SEC/BIG12 matchup will take place at NRG Stadium in Houston on Monday, Dec. 29 at 8 p.m. and will be nationally televised on ESPN.
To see Ledbetter’s 2014 highlights, click here.
The Arkansas Times‘ Max Brantley recently pointed out the changing demographics of UA’s student population mean that, increasingly, resident Texans – not Arkansans – represent the University of Arkansas:
Texas, if anything, feels kindly these days to UA-Fayetteville. It has become a haven for Texas students for the cut-rate tuition we offer Texas students who meet grade and test criteria and for the competitiveness of flagship Texas campuses. Almost half of new freshmen are from out of state at UA, a quarter of them alone from Texas. All told, there are 4,595 Texans on campus at Fayetteville.
Out-of-state and foreign students now comprise almost 46 percent of the University of Arkansas’ enrollment, and Texans comprise the fastest-growing subset of those groups. Nearly 25% of all University of Arkansas freshmen are Texans, with 4,600 Texans now comprising the overall 26,237 student population.
That’s an 803% increase from 2002, when there were 572 Texan students on campus.
The rate of growth among Arkansan residents has been much slower, going from 12,357 in 2002 to 14,629 this year. Given how the Texans have been rolling over the Ozarks in such increasingly large waves, I thought it would interesting to see when they would outnumber Arkansans as students enrolled in the state’s flagship campus.
At the current rates, we’re on track for 2022.
Perhaps you laugh at this extrapolation*.
True, it would be nearly impossible to maintain such an aggressive growth rate for a simple brick and mortar university, but the UA is increasingly making entire classes digital. Indeed, the University of Arkansas President Donald Bobbitt’s plans to vigorously push the launch of an online UA system university, eVersity, in the fall of 2015.
Success here means the rate of enrolled resident Arkansans should also incease in the coming years. But don’t assume the Texans’ rate of growth will steeply drop off, not with the number of online degree tracks to be rolled out in the next eight years. Plus, Texas has tens of millions of more people than Arkansas and is growing a much faster rate**. All those people have to get degrees somewhere, and as Brantley pointed out the the UA isn’t shy about extending a fiscal carrot or two to out-of-state parents looking for the best deal.
Should a UA of more Texans than Arkansans be of any concern to Razorback fans? Probably not. In the short term, don’t expect a contingent of Texas-born UA students to go rogue, roll down to the upcoming Texas Bowl in Houston, emerge from a burnt orange bus with repurposed “LIVESTRONG” gear and proceed to sabotage the Hogs’ hopes of a season-ending win. In the long term, expect thousands of the resident Texans who end up enrolling in online classes with eVersity to also be transplanted Arkansans. Many will be University of Arkansas grads looking to pad their resume. Plus, many of the Texans (Razorback players included) who become UA students also become Hog fans.
A more pressing issue is how the proliferation of eVersity, coupled with the increasingly sweet HD TV viewing experience most sports fans are getting accustomed to, will change the live experience at Reynolds Razorback stadium. Let’s say, tens years from now, you’re a UA student who doesn’t attend classes in person. You do support your Hogs, but it’s by representing them in a new, football offshoot of eSports***. The points you win for the program as a fan play into a highly lucrative meta-point ranking system of which the Hogs’ on-field performance is only a part.
Do you want to attend games in person anymore?
*Future estimates derived from Excel by using the GROWTH function, which provides predicted extrapolations using existing data.
** Texas’ population increased 20.6% from 2000 to 2010, to 25.1 million people. Arkansas increased by 9.1% to 2.9 million people in the same span.
*** Don’t tell me the SEC won’t find a way to grab a piece of this rapidly expanding pie in the next 10 years.
NB – The above post is an update of a previously published post.
The meaning of “rivalry” and whether it can already be applied to Missouri-Arkansas has been much debated this week. Although today’s game marks only the sixth time the programs have ever met, it appears both sides are comfortable with the notion of a bona fide border feud. “Arkansas – they have the word ‘Kansas’ in it, so it’s got to be a rival,” Missouri center Evan Boehm told media a few days ago, referencing his program’s top rival during its Big 12 days. Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel added: “It will be [a rivalry]. I kind of compare it to the Kansas rivalry. It didn’t happen overnight.”
The potential for a real, intense and disturbingly partisan rivalry is here, alright. Today, Missouri has an SEC East title and second straight appearance in the SEC Championship Game on the line. And Arkansas is arguably the nation’s hottest team after shutting out LSU and Ole Miss. A win sends it roaring into bowl season as a Top 25 program.
From a numbers standpoint, though, what would such an “authentic” rivalry look like and how close is Mizzou-Arkansas to it? We have actual data along these lines thanks to Dr. David Tyler and Dr. Joe Cobbs, two professors who have studied the perception of rivalry* among 5, 317 fans of 122 different major college programs. Here are two of their most interesting finds:
1) Arkansas’ fans, on the whole, feel that they are rival to other programs more than the other way around. The blue columns below signify, through points, the strength of Arkansas’ fans’ passion directed toward a particular program. The red columns represent how many “rivalry points” that program’s fans have for Arkansas.
You’ll notice among SEC programs only Missouri fans believe Arkansas is a bigger rival than visa versa:
LSU’s ranking shows that the Texas Longhorns’ grip on Arkansas’ fans hearts is slowly loosening 22 years after the Hogs left the Southwestern Conference. No one program has yet filled the void. “This is a pretty big distribution of [rivalry] points by a fan base,” researcher David Tyler told me. “The average points received by a team’s top rival is 54.2 points (median & mode are right around there too), so the 35 points that Razorback fans give to LSU is on the low end.”
[*The researchers assigned “Rivalry points” after collecting data from online questionnaires they posted on 194 fan message boards. The survey asked respondents to allocate 100 rivalry points across opponents of his or her favorite team. The closer the number to 100, the more intense feelings that programs’ fans have for their perceived top rival. Missouri, for instance, has 71.58 rivalry points directed at Kansas. One Tiger fan divided his 100 points, 75 to Kansas and 25 to Arkansas. “This would have been 100 points for Kansas prior to the SEC switch. Not really sure how to handle this now, but this split seems okay.” More details at KnowRivalry.com]
2. The other FBS programs perceiving Arkansas as a bigger rival than visa versa are Tulsa and Arkansas State University. Tulsa has 6.57 points toward Arkansas, though Tulsa doesn’t register at all on Arkansas fans’ radars. Arkansas State, meanwhile, has 24.7 points allocated to Arkansas, while Arkansas has .096 for A-State.
These programs, of course, don’t even play each other. Dr. Tyler points out “frequency of competition isn’t a necessary condition of perceived rivalry (at least in the eyes of some fans). Frequency of competition is an antecedent to most rivalries, but this is a great example where the teams don’t play but fans [on one side] still perceive a rivalry.”
Tyler and his colleague found “Unfairness, Geography and Competition for personnel (e.g. recruits)” as common themes among those poll respondents who listed Arkansas as their biggest rival. Below are some responses/themes from A-State fans he shared with me:
“We don’t play the pigs on the field, yet they have tried to keep us from growing our program since the beginning of time. They even tried to block us from gaining ‘university’ status in the late 60’s. / They want to be the only team in the state, and refuse to acknowledge our existence…all the while, playing every one of our conference mates. / I hate them, and hope they lose every game in every sport they participate in.”
“Arkansas refuses to play us because they are scared.”
“Hogs is scared to play us.”
ASU fans hate Arkansas fans and vice versa (Big brother keeping little brother down – UA will not play Ark St because they feel they own the state support and media and don’t want to let Ark St have any).
It should be interesting to see if A-State fans’ passion towards the UA wanes or waxes as the program continues to carve out a niche as a mid-major power. As for Missouri-Arkansas, there is no doubt both programs’ level of mutual hate permanently rises once the game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. today.
Perhaps, one day, Missouri’s fans will hate Arkansas as much as they have Kansas, and Hog fans will find in their hearts Texas-sized enmity for their neighbors to the north. It will take a few games of this magnitude before that becomes even a remote possibility. Until then, though, expect to read more fan comments like this: “Missouri is to Arkansas what Canada is to America. They’re too damn nice to hate.”
Below are detailed results from Arkansas Razorback fans’ responses, according to KnowRivalry.com
For at the least the third time in school history, students swarmed the field at what’s now the Reynolds Razorback Stadium. In 1999, I was in the stands as a freshman UA student. Seeing so many classmates rush the field to tear down the goalposts (en route to Dickson St.) in the aftermath of a 28-24 win over Tennessee was an amazing thing. But it’s only in my mind. No iPhones back then.
That wasn’t the case Saturday night, in the aftermath of the most cathartic sports event I’ve ever experienced. I happened to be in the stands once more, this time with means to document the historic night.
Here are a few snapshots –
— Evin Demirel (@evindemirel) November 16, 2014
Below are a couple videos, too. The one at top shows hundreds of UA students gushing all of the sudden onto the field. If I were to make a horrible analogy, I’d say it’s similar to seeing someone’s water break. But I won’t do that.
(PS – Excuse the initial shakiness. It took a while to get my bearings with all the pandemonium.)