Thirty years ago, Frank Broyles led his people out from under the thumb of a burnt orange pharaoh and into the promised land, where TV cash and ESPN exposure flow like milk and honey.
A generation later, it looks like the Broyles tribe — awash in Southeastern Conference dividends but struggling to regain its football footing in the nation’s toughest league — will meet pharaoh for the final time on the gridiron…as a non-conference opponent.
This month, 13 years after Arkansas and Texas launched a home-and-home in Austin, the Razorbacks finally get the return game in Fayetteville. The game represents the Hogs’ nonconference marquee matchup in 2021, a chance to showcase on a national primetime stage just how improved they are under second-year coach Sam Pittman. For the college football world, however, it means a taste of SEC life for the Big 12’s bell cow (apparently the SEC needed more cow bell), and a preview of what will once again become a conference game, possibly as soon as next season.
Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC is happening; all that remains to be figured out is exactly when it will happen. But for a large and aging chunk of the Razorback fanbase, Texas and everything it represents — burnt orange bloat, the eyes of Texas, that obnoxious band, those Texas refs — go way beyond a mere glimpse into the future of the SEC — the league’s immediate future almost assuredly will dictate that of college football at its highest level.
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For those Hog fans who remember Kenny Hatfield’s punt return for a score to help topple top-ranked Texas in 1964 on the way to a national championship; who remember the stage of Dec. 6, 1969; who remember “Arkansas 31, Oklahoma 6,” in the 1978 Orange Bowl, the return of Arkansas-Texas means — to borrow from Yogi Berra — “déjà vu all over again.”
Broyles knew Arkansas wouldn’t have been included in the old Big 8’s ultimate absorption of the floundering Southwest Conference, which created the Big 12. Texas politics dictated which schools would ride UT’s back into the Big 12, and as the logo effectively shouted to the heavens, Arkansas was the only non-Texas school in the old SWC. That it represented the league’s No. 2 overall brand didn’t matter, and why should it have?
By 1995, the Big 12 had been launched; had the Hogs not been sitting in the Birmingham clubhouse by then… well, let’s just be grateful we were.
Fortunately for Arkansas, Broyles read the tea leaves and made sure the Hogs were included in what was then a groundbreaking expansion. Sure, Penn State joined the Big 10 in 1990 but was the only school invited. The SEC, however, was truly forward-thinking.
It took advantage of a little-noticed 1987 NCAA ruling that allowed the Division 2 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (made up of HBCU schools along the Atlantic seaboard) to expand to 12 members, split into divisions and hold a conference championship game in football.
What if such a scenario were played out on the big stage of D-1, thought former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, quite possibly to the ultimate chagrin of the NCAA office in Indianapolis. There are tales, of course, of an original plan entailing SEC expansion to 14 with the addition of Arkansas, Texas, Texas A&M and Florida State. Texas politics of the time — there it is again — wasn’t going to abandon the little brothers of the SWC and then-independent FSU decided easier paths to championships lay elsewhere.
Ultimately, Arkansas accepted before the ink on the invite was dry and later in ’91, so did South Carolina, buttressing the league’s east and west flanks. But more importantly, the SEC’s money-printing, conference-championship football game was on.
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Though a founding member of the SWC in 1915, Arkansas was, from 1925 on, the outsider. A big chunk of the state’s collective psyche is tied to Arkansas’ outsider status in the SWC. Sure, UT essentially ran the league and made subordination feel standard throughout the membership. Its perceived bullying ways eventually led Colorado (to the Pac 12), Nebraska (Big 10), Texas A&M and Missouri (SEC) to seek greener pastures. (UT’s forcing the Big 12 to make the “down hook ’em horns sign” an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty says all one needs to know.)
But once the Okies schools skedaddled and the SWC became the modern SWC, Arkansas was on an island. And for close to 75 years, it often felt like a particularly lonely one at that.
Without a natural rival in the league, Arkansas came to see UT as the evil empire and usual chief impediment to Dallas, home of the Cotton Bowl and the SWC champion every New Year’s Day. And by the ’60s, Arkansas and Texas were playing almost every year with championship implications on the line. Indeed, for Arkansans of a certain age, the University of Texas is the boogeyman.
Almost every big season included if not necessitated a win over Texas, and in several of the Hogs’ biggest years, Texas represented the lone loss.
And though even Arkansans admit the “rivalry” is one-sided, not just on the football field but in how it’s viewed by the respective fan bases, Hog fans don’t care. (Bevo, frankly, should feel flattered.)
“Arkansas-Texas” maintains some historical weight in the CFB world, even if teasippers are loath even to acknowledge us. But there’s no denying the addition of Hogs-horns to the annual SEC slate — on top of adding the Red River Shootout and possibly UT and A&M on Thanksgiving again — helps further separate the league from the pack.
And most importantly for Hog fans, despite pre-SEC history with Ole Miss and LSU, adding Texas to the permanent schedule fuels whatever organic vibe was added for Arkansas when former conference-mate A&M joined the SEC in 2012. Though nothing is yet set in stone and never really is (as proven by the 30-minutes-from-being-official Pac 16 roughly a decade ago), what probably will happen is this: The SEC, for football, will be divided into four 4-team pods. Pod winners would face off in an SEC “semifinal,” likely on campus, the week before the SEC championship game.
I’d bet the farm on Arkansas being placed in a pod with UT, OU and Missouri. And I’ll happily trade Bama and Auburn every year for the horns and Sooners. Texas hasn’t really been relevant on the national stage since Vince Young fueled a BCS title in 2005, and OU is a playoff regular because, well, it plays in the Big 12. That offense is legit, to be sure, but can the Sooners hold up against the grind of an SEC schedule, and likely a nine-game conference slate moving forward?
And how cool would it be to alternate hosting UT and OU on campus in alternating years? An OU “rivalry” might start out a little manufactured, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. In game weeks, Fort Smith might be boiling over by Friday night.
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Pros outweigh cons for Arkansas in an expanded SEC, starting, of course, with money. Because both new additions deliver enough brand and revenue-generating power to make slicing the SEC pie even further worthwhile.
And let’s face it, Texas and Oklahoma are CFB bluebloods. Texas also generates the most money of any collegiate athletics program ($224 million annually as of 2019, per USA Today). It ranks fourth (both overall and among the Power 5) in all-time wins, claims four national championships and has been awarded versions of five others. Meanwhile, OU ranks sixth in all-time wins (overall and P5), is eighth in revenue ($163M) and claims seven national titles.
Despite just enduring arguably its worst decade in the history of the program, Arkansas remains in the top 25 (at 24) in all-time wins (720) among P5 schools and 32nd overall; 2019 revenue came in $137.5 million, good still for 20th in the nation; and of course, we rightfully claim the ’64 national title and should claim a share of the ’77 championship, versions of which actually were awarded to us.
(Counting UT and OU, the SEC will include 12 of the 20 richest programs in the country.)
Earlier this year, the SEC signed a 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN that starts in 2024 and will drop $300 million a year into SEC coffers. Currently, the SEC makes $55 million a year from CBS for broadcast rights. The new deal will commit the SEC exclusively to the ESPN family of networks, and ABC and is expected to raise the league’s annual member distribution from around $45.5 million to possibly $70 million.
Before the move became official a few weeks ago, Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing forecast what the member distributions might look like with UT and OU on board:
“The two key numbers … are the 2019-20 per-school distribution ($45.5 million per school, which, multiplied by 14 members, gives $637 million in central conference revenues to be distributed) and the expected boost of $300 million per year conference-wide from 2024-25 on (which, divided by 14 members, is $21.4 million per school, leading to a total of $66.9 million per school each year). That provides the foundation to run what the current and future per-school numbers would look like if the league went to 16 schools (with Texas and Oklahoma) under three scenarios: no change to the central pot, enough change to the central pot to keep the per-school numbers equal to now, and enough change to the central pot to grow the numbers to $70 million per school annually. Here’s what that looks like.”
Money is everything. Visiting aliens know that much about our planet. But in the fast lanes in which college football runs, prestige and power matter almost as much, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest. By adding two of the biggest brands in the sport (and make no mistake, CFB runs college athletics because it essentially funds college athletics), the SEC crossed the Ohio River, lifted its leg and marked its territory.
Some sort of Frankenstein-like scheduling alliance reportedly is in the works between the Big 10, ACC and Pac 12, and the jetsam of the Big 12 is looking to add four new members — BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF. But the SEC is now setting the agenda, and it looks as if that agenda will include a Power 5 breakaway (at least for football) from the NCAA, minus the Big 12 leftovers that don’t get picked up. A super-division consisting of four 16-team conferences could very well be on its way.
It makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense is schools like Texas competing on the same level as Louisiana-Monroe. What’s good for the goose in this case is not what’s good for the gander.
Don’t be surprised to see the Big 10 match the move to 16 soon. The SEC just clearly gained the perception advantage and to sit still is to fall further behind. The Big 10 already has had informal discussions with Kansas and Iowa State, both geographic fits and both AAU members. (The Big 10 still likes to lord its academics over the SEC.)
But could Notre Dame be convinced to break off its quasi-ACC membership to join the Big 10 as a full member? Adding Notre Dame and Kansas (for its basketball brand despite ongoing investigations into alleged cheating) would not match the prestige of UT and OU to the SEC but would serve as something of a counterpunch.
Otherwise, prospects of this multi-conference alliance notwithstanding, might the Pac 12 change its mind about expanding and pick the four biggest brands left in the Big 12? To do so, it would have to amend its policy against adding schools with religious affiliations. And that said, could BYU with its strong brand and huge global following somehow end up in an expanded Pac 12? (Probably not, but it’s fun to speculate.)
And might West Virginia end up in the ACC? Time will tell. If I’m Oklahoma State, TCU, Baylor, Kansas State, Iowa State or West Virginia, I’m sweating bullets. One thing’s for sure. It sure is nice to have a seat in the Birmingham clubhouse to watch it all unfold out beyond the hedges.
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Robert Mann is one of the old school Texas haters. He’s 59, grew up in Bryant a lifelong Hog fan, and he hates Texas. He HATES Texas. Not only does he wear his feelings symbolically on his sleeve, Mann wears them quite literally on his person. And tries to ensure as many Arkansans as possible do too.
Mann owns The Stadium Shoppe on Razorback Road in Fayetteville, a Charlie Welch dinger down the street from Baum-Walker Stadium. He plans to sell a lot of merchandise this fall now that full capacities are back at college stadiums. Having Texas coming to Fayetteville is nothing short of a lottery ticket for businesses like his.
In addition to his usual Razorback merch, Mann is selling a lot of gear designed just for the Texas game. He paused for a moment when asked about Texas, in particular.
“Texas back on the schedule… As much as I despise Texas, this game will be a windfall for Fayetteville and businesses in general, and mine in particular. Strictly from a business perspective, every business in Fayetteville is gonna love having Texas back on the schedule.”
As the former longtime manager of the UA’s Hog Heaven stores and a lifelong fan, Mann knows what moves fellow Hog callers. In essence, when Razorbackers see burnt orange, they see red. And be cause of that, businesses like the Stadium Shoppe see a lot of green.
“One thing, too, is that with Texas, I can do merchandise especially for that game,” he told me.
Aside from a few LSU-specific or Alabama game shirts and the usual array of “Beat [insert team here]” buttons, Arkansas really hasn’t had that in the SEC. Of course, game-specific merch generally is reserved for big rivalries. And from Arkansas’ perspective, at least, it doesn’t get any bigger than beating Texas. Mann said younger generations are catching on to why it’s so easy to hate Texas.
“Personally, I’d rather Texas just go away,” he’ll quip to anyone within earshot. “But in the SEC, Texas is about to find out that they’re not in Kansas anymore.”
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Mike Irwin is a broadcasting legend in Arkansas. Based in Fayetteville, he’s covered the Hogs for 45 years, currently for KNWA in Northwest Arkansas and KARK in Little Rock. He’s probably as connected as any sports journalist in the state.
For a recent “Ask Mike” segment on Pig Trail Nation, Irwin opened up about Texas and OU to the SEC and its repercussions.
“The fact that there hasn’t been more opposition tells me that other than [initially] Texas A&M and Missouri, SEC teams are looking at dollars and are not worrying about other issues.
“There are a lot of things going on here. But there may be more going on in the long term. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey is not happy with the NCAA. He didn’t like the way Mark Emert canceled the NCAA basketball tournament in 2020 without informing member schools first.
“Supposedly, Sankey and other ADs didn’t like the threats the NCAA issued this past spring to schools in states that passed bans on males competing against women as transgenders. These states were largely in the footprint of the SEC.
“Then there are the change in name/image/likeness rules which were largely brought about by the NCAA getting money from video game sales by offering up athletes who had the same numbers and likenesses as real college athletes. The NCAA got sued and lost.”
Irwin also believes, as many do, that Sankey intends to lead a restructuring of college sports at the highest level.
“So, there’s talk that Sankey may have his eye on reducing the Power 5 conferences to a Power 4 and then at some point, leading those schools into a new athletic association a step above the NCAA,” Irwin said. “Essentially, colleges that compete at the upper level of athletics would be grouped together, make their own rules and voting on common interests without having to deal with getting voted down by so called mid-major schools.
“I’m assuming this new governing body would also be free of politics.
“As far as Texas causing issues in the SEC and trying to boss the other schools around, that was easy to do in the Big 12. It’s not happening in the SEC. Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida are right up there in revenues with Texas. This league has too many big boys to let one big boy try to run things. Especially when they’re the new kid on the block.
“Also, I don’t know about Oklahoma, but Texas is going to get a rude awakening in terms of the level of competition in all sports.”
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For Arkansas fans, much of the Texas mystique harkens back to the 1969 Big Shootout, the real Game of the Century. Surely no other contest encapsulates the “you gotta be kidding me” feeling of big games slipping through fingers, of what ifs and how comes than that one does.
The Denver Post’s Terry Frei published a book in 2002 about the game and its setting. Horns, Hogs & Nixon Coming: Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie’s Last Stand is a must-read — up to a certain point for some of us — and not just for college football fans. (It’s about college football, but then again it’s not really about college football. Definitely worthwhile.)
In it, Frei recreates the intense hype that led to the game and ABC’s then-unprecedented move to approach the schools about rescheduling the game from its typical October slot to December. With both teams expected to compete for the national title in ‘69, on the advice of former CFB historian and broadcaster Beano Cook, ABC rolled the dice and bet on the Hogs and horns entering the game undefeated and ranked 1 and 2. And Beano knew his stuff — that’s exactly what happened.
Frei wrote of UT’s flying into the Fort Smith airport and the bus ride up 71 into Fayetteville. He wrote of UT players seeing fans on the side of roads gazing upon them as the enemy, of business signs everywhere forecasting their doom. As the UT bus careened through the fog over Mount Gaylor and its neighbors, players likened the experience to what it must’ve been like parachuting into Vietnam. (It’s always been called Fayette-nam for a reason, I suppose.)
This year’s Sept. 11 revival of Arkansas-Texas may not quite match that level of anticipation. But Texas to the SEC seems to be stirring some echoes. And maybe that’s exactly what we needed.