The red flag went up recently during a gathering of friends.
Someone asked why the Arkansas Razorback basketball game was being televised. One of the most zealous, devoted Razorback fans I know quickly stated, "I don’t know, and I don’t really care."
That grabbed my attention because it seems to speak volumes about the Razorback program.
A glaring issue is things are not likely to get a whole lot better this season. The reality: This is a UA team devoid of significant and consistent offensive firepower and one that overall is mediocre at best.
Now, it’s still well within the realm of imagination that the Hogs could win the weak SEC West, which may be the basketball equivalent this year of the Big East in football. There is some speculation that the SEC may only receive three or four NCAA bids, and all those could be from the East. Unless it wins the tournament, the West champion may be NIT-bound.
And here’s the tangled dilemma for Razorback fans:
• In the fourth year of John Pelphrey’s program, they don’t see things getting significantly better. This team is aggravating fans with the absence of being able to score and its mounting inconsistency. Rotnei Clarke, who teams have figured out how to guard, is the leading scorer at a mundane 12 points per game.
• In the last few years, the Hogs have had an incredible series of embarrassing meltdowns on the road. In fact, the Razorbacks have been amazing in their consistency to not win on the road for seemingly forever. And Saturday’s 75-43 defeat to an unranked and very young Florida team just fanned the flames. Being prepared and motivated on the road is part of coaching.
• Much hope is placed on what appears to be a recruiting class that is ranked among the nation’s best. Right now, that’s hype based on high school performance. It’s a shaky hope right now because high school players, even many of the best, develop at different paces and face different challenges in adjusting to college athletics, whether physical maturity, emotional maturity, change in roles, team chemistry, coaching staff chemistry, personal issues or just all the variables college students have in adjusting to another level. Good help appears to be on the way, but there’s no guarantee that immediate performance will match the hype.
• Pelphrey, fairly or unfairly, is being compared to Bobby Petrino and the contrast among many fans is astounding. Petrino has immediately changed the culture and enthusiasm with the UA football program. He appears to have a clear plan, a rock-solid philosophy, is organized and disciplined to a fault. To many UA fans, rightly or wrongly, Petrino has the perception of being everything Pelphrey is not. Maybe more than any coach in modern history (with the possible exception of Eddie Sutton and John McDonnell and including Frank Broyles), Petrino has the full confidence of Razorback fans and has pulled everyone on the same page. There is confidence in Pelphrey only in pockets. His success has forced direct comparisons, which may not be entirely fair.
The knee-jerk reaction is to change coaches. What effect will that have on recruits?
More tellingly, the SEC is considered a football conference, only a handful of schools have made the commitment — in promotion, finances and facilities — to basketball. Luring a "wow-factor" coach may neither be possible or the answer.
What is hard to acknowledge for many Razorback fans is Arkansas is not the program it was in the 1980s and 1990s. One longed-for savior, Mike Anderson at Missouri, is probably not going to come. Arkansas was a better program than Missouri in 1994 — in most every way you can measure it. In 2011, Missouri is a better job with more long-range potential.
The Razorback program right now is only good in spurts that steady the nosedive only momentarily.
Pelphrey maybe be growing and learning how to be a major college coach the hard way.
But the confidence and interest factor is waning. Attendance, particularly real folks in the seats and not phantom "tickets-sold" totals, is hemmorghing. UA officials are having to offer special promotions and pretty much bribe folks to come to games. And Bud Walton Arena, built for consistently packed houses, doesn’t generally come close to being filled. People are not driving in numbers from central Arkansas to Fayetteville for Wednesday games.
Apathy and frustration are beginning to dominate conversation and thinking.
One person who identified himself as a diehard Hog fan called in to a talk show this week to say, for the first time in any televised Razorback event, he turned off the TV Saturday before the Florida game was close to being over.
Seems the signs, tangible and intangible, point to that.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)