Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Lunney to players: Good is on its way
Arkansas interim head coach Barry Lunney Jr. is shown during a game against Missouri on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, in Little Rock.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Barry Lunney Jr. left the Arkansas Razorbacks a "parting" message after Friday's 24-14 loss to Missouri at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.
Stay focused and good things eventually will happen for a football program that has suffered back-to-back 10-loss seasons, Lunney told the players.
Changes are in store as second-year Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek starts in earnest his coaching search to replace Chad Morris. But the current players have a semester to finish while the coaching staff hangs in limbo.
"The team has a meeting next week, just for academic purposes," Lunney said. "Just to get focused on the finish. It's going to be critical that they finish.
"It's hard times for these young guys. It's hard. Like I told them in the locker room, 'You keep doing right. You keep hanging in there, and in due season there's going to be something good come out of this.'
"I have the insight of hindsight. I have that in my life and know that it's going to be all right. They're going to get through this, and know that something good comes out of these difficult times they've been through. It's one of the beauties of the game. It's a struggle.
"It's a battle. Life is a battle, to be honest with you, in a lot of ways. It develops deep-rooted character in you that carries over into your personal life."
Lunney, the Arkansas quarterback from 1992-95 who led the Razorbacks to their first SEC West title as a senior, tried to connect the current roster to the spirit of Arkansas football during his three weeks as the interim coach.
"Over these last few weeks, he's been a great motivator, just telling us stories and the history of the Razorbacks to get us fueled up and ready to play," freshman receiver Trey Knox said. "So I mean he's done a great job with that."
Sophomore linebacker Bumper Pool expounded on Knox's thoughts.
"That's one thing he's done so well in the past couple weeks is get us back to the roots of being a Razorback," Pool said. "I get chills thinking about how great of a job he did coming in, because he is a true Razorback at heart. Me, being a fan since I was a little kid, it really was cool to see how he rallied the troops. I'm so proud of Coach Lunney. I love that guy."
Lunney had to pause several moments before answering a question about what the three-week interim stint meant to him.
"It's been a special time," he said, his voice filling with emotion. "Despite the circumstances, it's been a special time. I will always remember the way these guys have gotten behind me and listened to me and followed me."
Lunney said the next few weeks prior to Christmas break and the end of the fall semester are going to be a "critical time" for Arkansas football.
"There's no doubt," he said. "One of the first things, and the goal I set forth for our team during the interim, was that we wanted to protect the integrity of our program. We talked about these things at length, so it's going to be critical.
"I challenged them in the locker room. Those that were in the locker room with us heard it very clearly. Listen, this is 'You've got to be a grown man' time. You're a full-blown college athlete. Men do what they've got to do and boys do what they want to do.
"I challenged them to be grown men and to handle their responsibilities. I reminded them that the slate they're writing right now will be handed immediately to whoever's the sitting head coach, and it [won't] start from scratch. This will carry over with them to a large degree. That's how you go about doing that. I'm very confident that these guys will see to it to do those things the right way."
The next Arkansas head coach will inherit a school-record 19-game SEC losing streak and a nine-game overall losing streak. The Razorbacks' display case at the Smith Center will be barren of "trophy game" hardware for the fourth consecutive season.
What will the next roster look like? The Razorbacks lost more than 30 players who still had eligibility in the past two years due to retirements, discipline, academic issues, disagreements with the coaching staff and other factors. The current state of affairs could lead some active Razorbacks to consider the transfer portal.
Knox sounded like a committed Razorback during postgame interviews.
"We're just got to jell together, stick together," Knox said. "We'll see who comes in and we'll buy in. We'll turn this thing around all together."
Later, he talked about the rugged season in his first year as a collegian.
"It's very tough, but I know that tough times don't last, tough people do," Knox said. "I mean, I'm very confident that we can find the right guy to get us playing, get us going again, get us winning again. I'll wait and see who it is and play my heart out for him."
Pool saw the transfer portal from the other perspective.
"I think with a new coach coming in, there's new excitement," Pool said. "So if someone wants to transfer, now they have a new opportunity here. If you buy in, there's a great chance we'll win a lot of ballgames."
Sports on 12/01/2019
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