While I read today’s edition of my colleague Matt Brown’s newsletter “Extra Points” this morning (a series you absolutely should subscribe to— click here to do so!), very quickly, I was made to think about class mobility in college athletics. Matt’s thesis is a popular (and generally correct) one— there isn’t much in the way of class mobility in college football. Simply put, “if you were really good decades ago, chances are, you’re probably still pretty good now.” Blue bloods tend to stay blue bloods, and more often than not, a “bad year” for them is “8-4 and go to the Outback Bowl” as Matt observes. While I largely agree with this thesis, it begs an interesting question: has any school tested the bounds of class mobility more than Arkansas?
I feel like it’s important to first establish Arkansas’ place in college football. So often this conversation begins with different understandings of Arkansas’ position among colleagues. I think that’s probably due to recency bias tainting our view of things, but for now, let’s consider all history, ancient and recent.
Arkansas is not a blue blood. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But consider this: among active Division I schools, Arkansas ranks 23rd in wins, with 715 in program history. Sure, by that logic, there are 22 teams better than Arkansas all-time, but it’s not like Arkansas is threatening for a place in the top twenty five right now either. So where does that put us?
I’d say all things considered, we’re a tier below blue blood, and maybe for the time being a little below that second tier as well. If Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC, Notre Dame, and Michigan are platinum tier all time, we’re probably in the very tarnished gold tier, or perhaps, a pretty good looking polished silver tier. We’re kind of in a ‘tweener position. Not quite gold, but probably better than silver, all things considered. So why do our lows feel so low, and our highs feel so high? What’s the realistic ceiling at Arkansas? And was last year a fluke, or a sign of what could be our floor?
Let’s look at winning percentages.
Warning: Big table ahead
Arkansas Record by Coach
|2||B. N. Wilson||1897–1898||4–1–1||0.75||—|
|5||D. A. McDaniel||1903||3–4||0.429||—|
|6||A. D. Brown||1904–1905||6–9||0.4||—|
|9||E. T. Pickering||1913–1914||11–7||0.611||—|
|10||T. T. McConnell||1915–1916||8–6–1||0.567||—|
|12||J. B. Craig||1919||3–4||0.429||—|
|27||Joe Kines †||1992||3–6–1||0.35||—|
|30||Reggie Herring †||2007||0–1||0||0–1|
|32||John L. Smith||2012||4–8||0.333||—|
|34||Paul Rhoads †||2017 (offseason)||—||—||—|
As you can see, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There have been some bad years (a lot of those in the pre-Broyles era), and some really good years. The 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s were good to us in terms of winning percentage. Obviously we were in the SWC instead of the SEC, so it’s kind of apples to oranges, but that is essentially three decades of really good football. Shouldn’t that be enough? We said if you won decades ago, you probably win now, right? Well there’s one problem with that.
For the three decades of success from the 60’s to the 80’s, there are two bad to mediocre decades immediately after. Like denim outfits and bag phones, Arkansas didn’t look too good during the 90’s. It’s kind of a who’s who of bad coaches. Jack Crowe took over, went 9-15, and was fired after infamously losing to The Citadel. The interim, Joe Kines went 3-6-1. Then Danny Ford came, went 26-30-1, and was fired in 1997. It’s amazing to witness the fall from the winningest coach in Arkansas history in Ken Hatfield, to a complete and utter shambolic decade. So what happened?
Well, Arkansas did a thing that was good for the long term, but not so great in the short term. It moved to the SEC. The SWC was the Arkansas and Texas show, with some bit parts played by other Texas schools. When the school made the move to the SEC, it was the Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee show. That’s a bit of a murderers row. To say the transition was rough, is an understatement.
So one bad decade undid all of the good of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s? Not necessarily. Houston Nutt had his flaws, but he did what no other coach but Danny Ford could manage: he won the SEC West Division Title. That was followed up by some mediocre years, before his jettison to Ole Miss. Then Bobby Petrino entered the picture, and suddenly, Arkansas was capable of being a top 10 team. The SEC competition was better, but so was Arkansas.
Then April Fools Day 2012 happened, and we hired Bret Bielema, who showed promise early, only to fall apart at the end. That tenure was mired by the question “what if” though, as the Missouri and Virginia Tech games slipped away, undoing what could have potentially been a 9 win season.
He was fired, and Chad Morris is now the coach, and in his one year has posted the worst season in Arkansas history with a 2-10 record.
So where does that leave us?
Most wins in a season: 11 coached by Broyles and Petrino
Fewest wins in a season: 2 coached by Chad Morris (or 1 by John Futrall when we played one game)
That’s a very high ceiling and a very low floor.
That’s why it’s so hard to gauge what a successful season at Arkansas looks like. Should 8 wins a year be expected? 10? 6? No matter how you cut it, it’s hard to say, because the all time record is all over the place.
Now, let’s go back to Matt’s thesis. In truth, the blue bloods are going to remain blue bloods. But is it possible for a non-blue blood to break the cycle and jump into that circle? My answer to that question is yes, and I have an example that’s quite appropriate.
Clemson is not a traditional blue blood. They had several very good runs with Frank Howard between 1940 and 1969, but the 70’s were very bad for them. The end of the 70’s and the 80’s, by contrast were very good. By the 90’s and the early 2000’s though, things were more or less mediocre. Neither Tommy Bowden nor Tommy West reached the heights of their predecessors (those predecessors including former Arkansas coach Ken Hatfield, and future Arkansas coach Danny Ford). In 2008 though, Terry Don Phillips (another former Razorback) hired Dabo Swinney, and now it’s hard to imagine college football without Clemson at or around the top of the sport.
That’s a drastic change. Yes, Clemson had historical precedent to be good— great even, but to go from good to elite in so little time? That shows a possibility for class mobility that should excite Arkansas fans.
Does Clemson have a better base for being a blue blood? Yes. Recruiting for them is easier, as Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida are hotbeds for prospects, while Arkansas produces between two and five SEC prospects every year. They also boast more national and conference titles. With Chad Morris revitalizing our presence in Texas though, perhaps at the very least, the status of that base for recruiting will change. But Clemson clearly has the advantage. But I’m wagering that Arkansas can do it nonetheless.
I believe Arkansas can reach the pantheon of college football goodness because Arkansas bucks the trend of a traditional immobile program. We’ve had seasons of greatness and seasons of sadness and seasons of utter mediocrity. With Chad Morris though, Arkansas at least possesses the blueprint to break into blue blood status, though I would certainly take being a gold tier team. The history suggests it’s possible. So if you think that perhaps we’re stuck in the dregs of mediocrity or even just plain badness, fear not. Arkansas once again proves to be a quirky place, and may just be capable of some extraordinary mobility. Because if we can’t hope, what’s the point of watching college football anyway?