I’m going to talk about football. But first, I’m going to talk about futbol.
I’m a big soccer fan. I started paying attention during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and didn’t stop. My appetite for the sport was insatiable. I knew that the World Cup was only every four years though, so when Team USA was bounced by Belgium following a stunning performance by Tim Howard, and a brutal miss from Chris Wondolowski, I started shopping for a club team. What followed was a month-long research project.
Despite my little knowledge of the sport, I knew that the best of the best players played in Europe, so I knew it had to be a European team. TV coverage would complicate things, so I needed to find a team popular enough for me to actually be able to watch. That landed me in the English Premier League. Next, I wanted to find a team with qualities I admired. After doing plenty of due diligence, I found one.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: A once storied program that won a lot of games in the 70’s and 80’s found itself on hard times in the 21st century after the firing of a once beloved coach and terrible mismanagement from a previous administrator. The program is one of the richest in its sport, and boasts a tradition of winning, but has struggled to find an identity since a move to a new division in 1992.
The team I’m describing is Liverpool FC, but perhaps you can think of another program that fits this picture.
Think of your favorite Arkansas games throughout history. What games come to mind? For me, it’s rarely a blowout win. No, the games you remember are ones packed with tension— games that came down to the wire, and in the end, the Hogs pulled together and came out with a win. The Miracle on Markham (both 1 and 2), The 2011 A&M game, The Henry Heave, The 7 Overtime Games against Ole Miss and Kentucky, the 2007 upset of LSU in Death Valley—all of these are games that are discussed among the best games the Arkansas football team has ever played.
These were gutsy performances, many of which involved inferior talent overcoming tremendous adversity. These games took a lot of heart, and to be honest, a little luck. It’s been a while since we’ve felt that.
In 2015, Liverpool hired Jurgen Klopp, who still serves as the manager for the first team. In his opening press conference he swore that he would overcome the hurt of long-suffering Liverpool fans. Too long had the fans been hurt. Too long had they come so close, just to lose out in the end. Too long had the fans doubted, with good reason, that their team could be special. “We must turn from doubters to believers,” the German coach said. Five years later, I’m believing.
Since Jurgen Klopp became the manager of Liverpool FC, the Reds have won 137 games, drawn 57, and lost 38 for a 59.1 percent winning percentage. They have played in two cup finals (a lower level English competition and a high level European competition), two Champions League Finals (the Super Bowl of European soccer), and have come within a point of winning the Premier League for the first time since the 1989-1990 season.
This year, they find themselves 8 points ahead of the pack in the Premier League, sitting pretty, and in pole position to win the League. There’s a long season to go, but that’s a far cry from fans being doubters, as the club faced its worst period in history. What changed?
Liverpool FC became mentality giants under Jurgen Klopp.
This is what it’s going to take to get Arkansas back to the national conversation. This is what’s going to have to be done to play for an SEC division title. This is what is involved to reach the heights we reached in 2011, when we were ranked as high as number 3 in the country. While the great coaches of Arkansas past had their schematic advantages, or recruiting talents, the best Arkansas teams with the best wins were 99th percentile in one category: heart.
I never doubted that we would beat A&M in 2011. Despite being down a massive margin, I knew that our players had tremendous mental fortitude, and wouldn’t let the moment get to them. They didn’t, and we came from behind to win 42-38. Did you think DeCori Birmingham would come down with Matt Jones’ ball in 2002? I’ll bet the entire team did. In 2007 the team marched down to Death Valley and beat the number 1 team in the country who would go on to be national champions anyway. Was talent involved? Absolutely— Darren McFadden being on that team mattered. But it takes a team to win, and that team never gave up.
Jurgen Klopp was able to accomplish this with several factors. Obviously great tactical acumen matters. World class training and conditioning matter. But if you watch Klopp on the sidelines of a Liverpool match, it’s like watching the spirit of the team itself. The only comparable coach I’ve seen to matching Klopp’s energy is actually Eric Musselman. What Musselman is doing right now to engage the fans— thanking the supporters after every game, pumping up the crowds during crucial moments, hearkening back to Arkansas’ history— it’s straight out of Klopp’s playbook. That may be coincidence, or it may be design, as even Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has cited Klopp as an inspiration for elevating the mentality of his players.
There have been many moments of magic under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. A come from behind win against an incredible Borussia Dortmund team, a last second goal to beat the rival Everton in a must win game, an improbable 4 goal comeback against mighty FC Barcelona, all have been never say die moments in Klopp’s tenure. The Hogs need to get that never say die attitude back.
Coaches like Jurgen Klopp don’t grow on trees— otherwise everyone would have a coach like him. But we can learn from his mental fortitude as he man-manages his players into rising above their individual skill, and finding their skill as a team. Yes, it takes talent. Liverpool have signed some of the best players in the world, and Arkansas will have to attempt to do the same. But even the less heralded players end up playing above their skill level because of the mentality Klopp has instilled.
At points in this dreadful 2019 season, I’ve wondered if the players believe they can win. They’ve come so close so many times only to come up short, and after a while, that can weigh you down. It feels like an unbreakable barrier to win. I’ll admit myself, as a fan, I’m such a cynic about this team that it makes me sick. I’m a doubter. The next head coach must take that negative energy, dispel it, and turn us all into believers.
Why not us? Why not Arkansas?
With a mentality giant as a head coach, we won’t have to ask those questions anymore.
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