Arkansas State’s Coaching Carousel of Success Not So Historic?

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.


The Hogs Ran A Hurry-Up, No-Huddle Offense 100 Years Ago

“P” could very well also stand for “Pushing the limit.”

Former head Arkansas football coach Hugo Bezdek lived a full and innovative life. He remains the only person to coach an NFL team (Cleveland Rams) and MLB team (Pittsburgh Pirates), as I found out while researching for my new history feature on Sporting Life Arkansas.

But, before all that, he he spent 1907 through 1912 in Fayetteville pioneering in all sorts of ways. He’s credited, for instance, with changing the team name from Cardinals to Razorbacks. Of the two stories regarding this switch, my favorite comes from one of his players –  Phil Huntley – in an interview with longtime columnist Orville Henry:

“We were on a trip in Texas, getting off the train for a stroll — I think in Dallas. Somebody yelled, ‘Here come the hogs.’ See, there were a lot of jokes about Arkansas at that time.

Bezdek stopped and thought a minute. He said, ‘Hmmm, boys, I like that. We’re the Razorbacks from now on.’

Bezdek also led Arkansas to its first undefeated season (and the program’s only undefeated season in its first 70 years of existence).

He spearheaded the first athletic advertising in school history, Huntley added. “He understood importance of placing his program in front of the public. He had cards printed and distributed in towns like Rogers, Springdale, and Fort Smith advertising his home games.”

Lord knows they needed the promotion, given at this time Arkansas’ home facilities consisted of a single wooden grandstand that held about 200 people.

“The field wasn’t too good even though we worked on it, graded it, carried water from the creek to wet it down before every game,” Huntley said in “The  Razorbacks: A Story of Arkansas Football.”

One of the most interesting innovations Bezdek developed was an emphasis on fast play. His teams practiced extremely hard to be fit enough in games to pull this off.

As Orville Henry and Jim Bailey wrote in “The  Razorbacks”: “Bezdek coached [Arkansas QB Steve] Creekmore to call plays as rapidly as possible — nobody ever huddled then — and so the Razorbacks would run a play, chase the ball, put it in play immediately when it was downed, and drive as far as they could as quickly as they could.

“I guess it was the forerunner of Oklahoma’s hurry-up style in the split-T days under Bud Wilkinson,” Steve Creekmore told an interviewer in 1960. “I know we’d often run four or five plays and then find the official had penalized us back down field for the first one. He’d catch up, and we’d have to go back. The LSU coach protested our system, but it was legal.”

Of course, nowadays, this style of play isn’t unique. College football coaches such as Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze and Chip Kelly have taken the concept to the next level to bring unprecedented scoring to the game.

Kelly, in particular, has gotten a lion’s share of credit for innovating a frenetic, no-huddle approach on the major college football level. By 2011, his tactics had fueled the University of Oregon’s first appearance in a national championship.

To date, this is the biggest splash on the national football scene the Ducks have made. Their first splash? Signs point to around 1917, when Oregon made – and won – its first Rose Bowl appearance.

Their coach was none other than Hugo Bezdek.

For more on his career, check this.


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