If there’s a coaching change, that means the fans consuming our Razorback content have likely been through a rough season or two in the first place, or there has been a huge negative divide in the fanbase. Including situations like Nebraska’s courtship of football coach Houston Nutt in 2003 when I was 10 months into being a pro journalist, I have covered seven football head coaching periods in flux and four in basketball for a total of 11. There have actually only been three true head coaching changes for football and three for basketball during that time.
What I have learned over the last 17 years is to get it right, but also to make sure our subscribers are entertained by the search. During the last three searches in the span of only two years, which resulted in the hires of Chad Morris and Sam Pittman in football and Eric Musselman in basketball, I have made sure to do just that. I typically started mornings off with a long post on our VIP message board, the Razor’s Edge, and would clearly label it as “rumor mill, for entertainment purposes only.”
This is where I would put all the unconfirmed reports — from the absurd to the believable — and fans would interact, sharing what they heard. Sometimes I would end up making a post later confirming a report from the earlier rumor mill. I let people know about the information and leads I was tracking as I was doing it, not just the end result. I wanted our members to be in on the search, discovering information through me as much as possible. And even with this approach, the thing that I am most proud of during these last three coaching searches is that we never once led our subscribers down a dead-end with our reporting.
I informed our membership what I was hearing and most importantly what I had been able to confirm, always making sure they knew I firmly believed this particular piece of information to be factual or this other information to be hearsay or rumor. Examples where we were out in front include reporting that Mike Anderson was on his way out, reporting that Kelvin Sampson would not be the basketball coach hire (even when everyone else reported he would) and reporting that all signs pointed to Eric Musselman.
During the search that led to Chad Morris being hired, I had some great sources both in Arkansas and in Dallas and broke that story wide open a couple of days before everyone else jumped on it. I think that is one reason so many flocked to HawgSports.com for the next coaching search that led to the hire of Sam Pittman. The news of the Pittman hire actually started coming out from us and a couple of other outlets around the same time, but that was a true rollercoaster with so many names in the mix and then out of the mix soon afterward.
In the month of December, our message boards saw more traffic than anywhere else in the entire country on the 247Sports Network — more than 120 sites from Ohio State and Florida to Texas and USC and everywhere inbetween. Arkansas was No. 1. And almost all of this traffic was from our subscriber-only forum, the Razor’s Edge. After back-to-back two-win seasons, there wasn’t another fanbase in the country that deserved a little entertainment, and being informative and entertaining was our goal. This also led us not only to tracking airplane tail numbers — a staple in any good coaching search — but also led us to actually staking out airports. I even grew a mustache just for the occasion and called it the “search ‘stache.”
We had flight-tracking threads started by subscribers that drew an insane amount of activity and entertainment. The first one only had 24,199 views, 324 replies and spanned 13 pages. The next one came when I and others went to Springdale Municipal Airport to check out a plane owned by the George Family (George’s Chicken) that had left Boca Raton headed to Springdale. It was actually carrying a young lady in that family who was coming back from an equestrian event in Florida. Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffen was not on board. They were quite puzzled to see so many people there, but I’m told they all got quite a kick out of it when they found out what was actually happening. That message board thread drew 41,965 views, 570 posts and spanned 23 pages. The last plane tracking thread was much bigger.
Started on Dec. 2, 2019, a post titled “Historic Plane Tracking Thread” drew 213,424 views, contained 3,879 posts and spanned 156 pages of pure hilarity and conspiracy. What’s funny looking back is there was actually information in that thread that turned out to be legitimate, but there was no way to know what was and wasn’t reliable at the time.
Now, the trip to Springdale drew a lot of laughs and some criticism from some reporters and fans. What many did not realize, and probably still don’t get, is what I keep coming back to — Razorback fans deserved to be both informed and entertained. They certainly weren’t getting that on Saturdays in the fall. And to be completely truthful, I actually thought there was a very, very slim chance of Kiffin actually getting off that plane with a conference championship game still left to be played. But maybe there was a chance Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek would roll out of it. Regardless, I knew that our readers would love it, and it only takes seven minutes to get to the airport from my house. While nobody we were looking for came off that plane, the secondary mission was accomplished.
I can’t share details on this story because it would burn a source, but years ago I was getting some intriguing information from a certain individual I knew to have extremely strong connections to the Arkansas athletic department. But that alone isn’t enough to put yourself out there trying to break a big story. I had to confirm the information and be absolutely sure of it. I was able to do so when it was suggested that I go to Drake Field at a certain time and look for a certain tail number. It was fairly late in the evening; nobody else was stirring around Drake Field but me, and I sat there slouched down in my SUV like a true creeper until the plane I was waiting for landed. Then everybody I needed to see coming off that airplane did, all grinning ear-to-ear like no one outside their circle knew what was taking place. That trip to the airport provided the confirmation I needed to eventually break some really big news.
I know we’re doing things right when publishers for other team sites praise how we covered the coaching search or ask me for tips on how we did it for our subscribers. One told me on a trip to Nashville just before the coronavirus pandemic that he had zero interest in Arkansas but stayed glued to our site to follow the Razorback coaching search because it was so entertaining and informative.
So, while some mock plane tracking or rumor mills, I still look at it very differently because I know we can do that without jeopardizing our relationship with Razorback fans for being a source of reliable information at the same time. The way we have covered coaching searches has helped to put the HawgSports.com site on the map as a major name not only in Arkansas but also nationally within the 247Sports Network.
Trey Biddy is the publisher of HawgSports.com.