I like good stuff. Hence, I'm very excited about Mad Men premiering Sunday night. So excited, that an idea struck me to write an easy and fun column comparing each SEC school to a Mad Men character. You've seen these things before. Things like, "Which Star Wars character is your team?" I thought of some fun ones pretty quickly. Tennessee is Roger Sterling, the former big shot who tried to use a flashy young toy (Vols: Lane Kiffin - Sterling: sexy new secretary) in a failed attempt to reclaim past glory. Missouri is Betty Draper, the annoying, childish character who everyone thinks the show is better without.
But I hit a snag when thinking of Don Draper. On the surface, Draper is a popular character because despite his moral faults, he's considered incredibly cool. He dresses well. Every word he says is delivered perfectly. He drinks his way through work every day and is still one of the top people in his profession. Of course he's also the main character. These qualities would likely make Draper the LSU or Alabama character. But on a deeper level, Draper is the signpost of the show's trademark: the issue of identity. Draper is constantly trying to figure out who he is, torn between his Dick Whitman past and current Draper persona. As he said, "In a nutshell, it all comes down to what I want versus what's expected of me."
And when I think of identity issues in college sports, is there any school that has struggled with their own identity more than Arkansas?
I don't mean that as an insult to Arkansas in any way. I think any objective observer would note that the Razorbacks have had issues fitting in seemingly wherever they've been. In the Southwest Conference days, Arkansas had to deal with identifying as a member of that league despite being the only conference school outside the state of Texas. After shedding that Dick Whitman conference and moving to the SEC, people still wondered if Arkansas was a good fit for the league. Whether or not Arkansas should join the Big 12 was debated by television announcers during game broadcasts, fans throughout both leagues, and even people within Arkansas. The Razorbacks didn't help themselves with a, let's say, less than stellar entrance to the league. Nothing says "we're SEC ready!" like a loss to the Citadel.
Identities are gained from doing things. They don't just appear. That's why the name of the agency is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. That is the identity of the agency because those people have accomplished things and people trust that. This is why most schools push their history and tradition like it's the most important thing in the world. Several schools post championships and great former players in prominent locations in their stadium. You won't go to a game in Neyland Stadium without knowing Peyton Manning and Reggie White played there. Want to know how many All-Americans and bowl victories Oklahoma has had? Just look at the front of the press box. You can't set foot in Tuscaloosa without seeing dedications to all of their championships. Even Ole Miss honors teams claiming national titles, even if no one else considers them national champions.
But in Arkansas? The glory from the SWC days are hard to find. A couple of years ago, Arkansas began putting "13 conference championships" and other honors on signs down at field level that aren't easily seen. Bowl games are recognized inside some of the concourse, but otherwise someone would have to look in a program to find it. The team's pregame intro videos from the last few seasons don't acknowledge any history. Arkansas' successful past fades farther and farther away each year instead of actively using it to promote Arkansas' endless efforts to become an annually elite program. It would probably help, at least couldn't hurt, if Arkansas' proud tradition was displayed more prominently. Help remind folks throughout the country why the SEC wanted Arkansas in the first place.
The Razorbacks also share a common trait with Pete Campbell. But, to be fair, nearly every program does as well. Campbell is a young, ambitious account executive yearning to be identified in the same respect as Draper, Cooper, and other executives. Even now, with three 10-win seasons in the last six years, a BCS appearance, and a two-time Heisman runner-up, Arkansas still hasn't won an SEC title and isn't considered the SEC elite - at least not the same level as Alabama and LSU. Even though Arkansas has beaten LSU three of the last five years. Even though Arkansas is a better program right now, it still is rarely mentioned in terms of prestige with the top half of programs in the conference.
Another parallel to Mad Men is the Arkansas fan base's internal struggle to figure out what's best for the program. On the show, Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway are often at odds because both have different philosophies on what it means to identify as a successful woman in the 1960's. Holloway has more of a traditional perspective while Olson is the career woman trying to make it in a man's world. Both despise and admire the other. They can be friends, or at least congenial, but there is a near-constant tension between them. This reminds me of The Great Stadium Debate. Razorback fans come together every game day, but when it comes to this toxic topic, they often find themselves split on generational or geographic lines. Fans of games in Little Rock often site tradition as a reason to stay while people who want all the games in Fayetteville site demands of the current college football landscape such as recruiting and financial benefits. Even now, when feelings toward the football program are nearly as positive as possible, the Stadium Debate will rear its ugly head several times each year.
The Razorbacks, like the characters on the show, have an ideal vision for where they want to be. The fascination is in watching them try to get there. Bobby Petrino has established an organization within the program providing a clear role for each person, as well as an identity for the program as a whole. As a result, Arkansas is as close to the goal of conference and national titles as they've been in decades. It's not a coincidence. Not every move to get to this point was correct and there are some where we'll have to wait and see if they work out. That's the intriguing thing. Every team has that goal, but not many are able to achieve it. Five years ago, few could realistically envision Arkansas getting this close. Will Arkansas be able to claim an identity among the championship elite? Will Don Draper find happiness? We don't know, but can't wait to watch.