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An Appeal To Hogs

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Arkansas is unhinged and ready to fight again, and that’s maybe more important than winning

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Last weekend, the formerly moribund Arkansas Razorbacks found themselves on the short end of a proper screw job from SEC officials. The Hogs led Auburn, 28-27, with under a minute left when Tigers quarterback Bo Nix attempted to spike the ball dead on the Arkansas 19-yard line to set up a field goal. Except Nix muffed the snap, and the “spike” clearly landed behind him, which should’ve been a live ball that Arkansas recovered for the inevitable win.

Instead, the Tigers held on to the ball and kicked the winning field goal, and the SEC issued a word soup simmered in bullshit broth in response to fan outcry, media criticism, and basic human logic.

If you’re an Arkansas fan you’re probably really mad, because the week before you won an SEC game for the first time in a really long time and you want to keep doing that.

Worry not. This is 2020, a season in which 30 games and counting have already been postponed. Just this week, that wave has crossed over the SEC itself, further pushing the boundaries of what we’re willing to consider a “regular” season to the edges of legitimacy.

So with that in mind, the scoreboard is far from a final authority on value this year. This especially holds true if you’re Arkansas, recently reanimated from two dead years under current Auburn OC Chad Morris. This is the season of self-care, of working on you for a minute, and for Arkansas there’s no better centering activity than 1. getting deliriously mad about a slight, perceived or real, and 2. organizing revenge on the Internet.

YES. Old Arkansas is back. To absolute hell with a single game result, even against THAT head coach and THAT OC. Y’all, Arkansas — Batshit Arkansas — is almost back, a development so much more relevant to the purity of this sport than whether or not Texas can dress itself or Miami can go back to scaring old white people.

This is Arkansas. This is The Shroud Of The Ozarks, a fan base more than willing to loudly eat their own and tell you about it, or eat you alive and post about it on Hogville.

(If you’re a Hog fan, this is where I’m gonna need you to pop a squat for a second. Feel free to relive some recent schadenfreude or attempt to justify the Pontiac Aztek of uniform ideas or compare pictures of rice fields while you wait.)

Here we must contend with a beastly amount of exposition, because you either know exactly where I’m headed or you’re missing out badly. And if it’s the latter, steel yourself:

Once upon a time in the 1990s, there was an Arkansas head coach named Houston Nutt, himself a former Razorbacks player, who guided the Hogs for ten seasons (1998-2007).

In the first half of his run, Nutt won SEC Coach of the Year (‘01) and the Western division title (‘02). He pulled off about as many miraculous upsets as he did implosions under big, ascendent expectations for Arkansas as a program:

In his final five seasons, the mercurial native son achieved a level of polarization few have found in this sport: He flirted with the Nebraska opening, pissing off Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. He hired revered local high school coach Gus Malzahn, in large part to lure local blue-chip quarterback Mitch Mustain, then scuttled Malzahn’s offense and drove Mustain to transfer to Southern Cal, fiercely dividing a fan base already at war over the school’s role in the state’s shifting geography.

Nothing to this point is entirely out of the normal realm of off-field drama. But Wal-Mart country had only just discovered palace intrigue. What happened next is what makes Arkansas Arkansas. It’s detailed with wonderful depth here. These are the highlights:

  1. In 2006, a personal friend of Nutt’s sends nasty emails to Broyles and Mustain when the latter’s transfer rumors start. This includes a homophobic slur.
  2. The existence of the emails goes public, inspiring another Arkansas fan to file an open records request for Nutt’s communications on university-owned technology, including his cell phone.
  3. The data on Nutt’s phone shows, among other things, over 2,000 texts to a female news anchor, including one sent 19 minutes prior to the start of a bowl game.
  4. Like a child with a loud new toy, Hog fans flood the university with open records requests. Meanwhile, Nutt elbows Malzahn not just out of the school but the state, and the Hogs finish 4-4 in the SEC.
  5. Aware he’s running on fumes of goodwill and equity, Nutt schemes to leave Arkansas shortly after pulling one more upset, this time of eventual national champion LSU in the regular season finale. Just days later, Nutt lands a new job at SEC West neighbor Ole Miss. Malzahn goes on to win a national title as an OC at Auburn, where he’s the perpetually embattled head coach today (as of this writing).

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL, READER: a sequel with even more intrigue! Seeking an innovative offensive mind once more, Arkansas lured first-year Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino to Fayetteville in December of 2007. Despite Petrino’s notoriously acidic disposition, Arkansas celebrated his play-calling acumen and got what they had hollered themselves into believing to be a birthright: a consistent national contender. In his third and fourth seasons with the Hogs, Petrino won a combined 21 games, and finished the 2011 season ranked No. 5 after winning the Cotton Bowl.

Guess what happened next? In April of 2012, Petrino wiped out his motorcycle on a winding highway in the Ozarks, resulting in (among many things) a wonderfully meme-able photo. In retrospect, Petrino’s rash-riddled punim combined with a comically-sized, foreskin-shaded neck brace sure was foreboding! Petrino wasn’t alone on the bike, it turned out — a former Arkansas volleyball player who’d been working as his subordinate in the football department was along for the ride. She was hired to work in the football department by Petrino during their affair, and at one point Petrino even gave her $20,000 in cash.

So whereas at one point Arkansas’ fan base pushed publicly for an embattled coach to be fired over strong implications of impropriety, suddenly their successful despot was caught, literally red-faced, in an actual sex scandal. The spiciest irony is that the admission of Petrino’s office affair came only on the eve of the public release of a police accident report stating he wasn’t alone during the crash. Again: public records. Arkansas fans had enough agency to topple a king — it just took out the coach who won more consistently.

It’s all too much; a telenovela version of “All The King’s Men” with chase scenes. Certainly any writer’s room for a soap opera or comic book series would cry overkill.

(OK Arkansasians, you’re back up. This next part applies to you and your formerly rabid attitudes. Chins up, please.)

Football results don’t matter this year. What, are you really gonna sweat a game on the schedule that might not even happen in November because you’re hoping to make a bowl that might not exist come December?

Scores don’t mean anything in 2020. Identity does. Normalcy — in American life and in college football — is at present merely a concept, one too many of us are straining to will into reality while lying to themselves and everyone else about how exhausting that effort is. There will be big and gaudy attempts at creating winners in 2020, but I suspect that when things do calm down the asterisks will overwhelm our hindsight.

So don’t worry about it, Arkansas. Just be you. Be the kind of batshit we’ve endured long enough to expect, and in time love.

And please find a way to pry open the internal correspondence of the Southeastern Conference via some kind of open records law. The fact that a billion-dollar operation printing money off the backs of unpaid labor at 13 public schools can’t be treated like a proper corporation OR a damn public institution is a swindle, and an artless one at that. Doesn’t it seem like they’re hiding something from YOU, Arkansas devotee?

Leave everything you’ve got on the field, Hogs. We need you at your worst-best out there.