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Crowe's Return to Razorback Stadium Brings Back Bitter-sweet Memories

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April 21, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorback running back Dennis Johnson (33) carries the ball as fullback Kiero Small (36) blocks during the spring game at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium. Beth Hall-US PRESSWIRE
April 21, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorback running back Dennis Johnson (33) carries the ball as fullback Kiero Small (36) blocks during the spring game at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium. Beth Hall-US PRESSWIRE

Most Razorback fans probably don’t have too many favorable memories of Jack Crowe, the head coach of the Jacksonville Gamecocks.

Crowe, who coached Arkansas for the 1990 and ’91 seasons and the first game of 1992, returns to coach in Razorback Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday for the first time since The Citadel’s infamous 10-3 upset of the Hogs on Sept. 5, 1992. The embarrassing loss to a Division-1AA program provoked Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles into firing Crowe the very next day.

As for me, I actually like the guy, or did the year I worked as a graduate assistant in Arkansas’ sports information department in 1991-92.

It was Crowe’s second year as the Hogs’ head coach. In late January of 1990, Broyles gave Crowe what amounted to a battlefield promotion from offensive coordinator to the Razorbacks’ top spot when he hastily hired the deep-voiced, blue-eyed, ginger-haired coach to replace Ken Hatfield, who abruptly left the Ozarks to replace Danny Ford as the Tigers’ head coach.

Hatfield had been feuding with Broyles like his last name was McCoy for half of his six-year tenure as Arkansas head coach. Broyles didn’t feel that Hatfield’s coaching staff, particularly his defensive assistants, were up to snuff. Broyles pressured Hatfield to make changes, but Kenny stood pat. Hatfield also spoke with Georgia, Florida and Alabama on the down low about their coaching vacancies during bowl seasons of 1988 and '89, but withdrew his name from consideration when he learned he would not be allowed to bring all of his Arkansas staff with him. The man is loyal.

Problems with the NCAA and trouble with Clemson’s president sent Ford, who ironically would become the Hogs’ next head coach after Joe Kines finished the 1992 season on an interim basis, to his cattle ranch after the 1989 season. Clemson wanted Ford’s influence swept out of the program, and the school didn’t have the leverage to dictate demands to Hatfield in the quick negotiations that brought him east. Crowe was all set to go to Clemson as Hatfield’s offensive coordinator until he was literally pulled off the plane by Broyles.

Crowe's hire as head coach was a desperation move by Broyles, who previously had only hired proven head coaches, to salvage the recruiting class, but it looked like a good one on the surface. Crowe had coordinated the offense for Pat Dye at Auburn during a portion of Bo Jackson’s tenure on the plains, and Arkansas had its most productive offense ever under Crowe's direction in 1989 when the Hogs captured their second consecutive Southwest Conference title.

But Crowe was not up to the task. He was indecisive as a leader and that lack of confidence trickled down to the team.

What I noticed that year working on the inside of the program is that successful coaches like John McDonnell, Nolan Richardson and Norm DeBriyn not only made decisions but more importantly "made" those decisions the right ones for their teams through force of will. I imagine that quality is evident in most who are highly successful to some degree or another. Players, employees and followers want a leader with a plan he/she believes in and is willing to make work through sweat equity.

At that time, Crowe didn’t have that quality. He was feeling his way through being head coach, not grabbing the opportunity with gusto.

He is the only major college coach I’ve ever heard actually ask the media’s opinion about sports and genuinely want to hear it. Most coaches could care less what any one thinks, other than trusted associates, especially the media.

So why do I like Crowe? Well, he was just a good guy. That’s all. Just good people. And he didn’t mind courting the media either. He brought the media donuts — like we needed them — to early morning practices more than once and actually served steak and lobster at one of his weekly press luncheons.

Each Monday, Crowe would set down with the media to review the previous game and preview the upcoming one. Generally, the meal was comprised of tasty little deli sandwiches, chips and outstanding cookies made by the dining hall at Wislon-Sharp, the athletic dorm back when the NCAA allowed such animals.

At one of the early season gatherings in 1991, Crowe asked if the lunch was OK. Given the opportunity, the legendary sports columnist Orville Henry chided Crowe like only a veteran of his stature would and said he’d like to have steak and lobster. Crowe just laughed, but he didn't forget.

Well, later that season on the Monday after the Hogs defeated Texas, 14-3, in their last regularly scheduled meeting due to Arkansas’ impending exodus from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference, Crowe surprised the media and the members of the sports information office with a steak and lobster lunch catered by Coy Kalor for a celebration the victory and also a bit of a toast to the Arkansas Gazette, which closed its doors on the previous Friday, and merged to form the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

It was the first time I had ever eaten lobster. I was surprised and pleased with buttery succulent taste. So, even though Crowe wasn’t up to the task of being the Hogs head coach, I’ll always remember him as one heck of a guy.

While we still have two days until the Hogs kick off the season, the Southeastern Conference’s slate begins tonight when Vanderbilt hosts South Carolina at 6 on ESPN.

The game not only gives us a chance to take an early look at Steve Spurrier’s No. 9 Gamecocks, whom the Hogs visit Nov. 10, but it also gives us a look at a coach whose name has been linked to the possible opening the Hogs will have late this year or early next in Vandy head coach James Franklin.

Franklin’s Commodores were the surprise of the SEC last season, and they led the Hogs for the longest last year at Nashville before the Arkansas eventually pulled ahead. If Franklin can guide Vandy to another bowl game this season, he will be a candidate any opening he likes.

Franklin made a few waves this summer when said a hot wife is one of the criteria he looks for when evaluating assistant coaches who apply for jobs. His thinking was if an assistant doesn’t have the confidence to court and marry an attractive women, then he doesn’t have the type of confidence needed to be a top recruiter.

After a quick look at the family photos of assistant coaches in Arkansas’ press guide, every Razorback assistant would at least pass Franklin’s eye test in an effort to retain their spot on the staff should Franklin get the job and they wish to stay.

All kidding aside, I wounder if the job Franklin did last year just was just a flash in the pan or can he back it up with another winning season at perhaps the toughest coaching job in America. An upset of the No. 9 Gamecocks tonight would likely be the biggest win on his resume, and it might just help him pass Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long’s own eye test.