Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Bordelon previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Springdale. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America, and was awarded 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Lunney: More heart needed in final weeks
University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek (left) listens to new interim head coach Barry Lunney Jr. on Monday, November 11, 2019, during a press conference at the Broyles Athletic Center in Fayetteville. Lunney is replacing Chad Morris.
FAYETTEVILLE — In Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek's evaluation of the Chad Morris-led Razorbacks in 2019, he felt as if the team and program had taken steps backward, and it ultimately led to Morris' dismissal Sunday.
Arkansas, after a stunning home loss to San Jose State, was competitive against then-No. 23 Texas A&M in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and again in a position to notch a Southeastern Conference win on the road at Kentucky in the following game Oct. 12. The Razorbacks, though, fell short to the Wildcats, and since have been in free fall.
Expectedly, Arkansas fell to No. 1 Alabama and No. 11 Auburn in October, but ahead were winnable games against Mississippi State, which had lost four consecutive games entering the matchup, and Western Kentucky, a 5-4 team from Conference USA - games that, with a victory, could infuse confidence down the stretch.
The Razorbacks were blown out at home in both instances (by a combined score of 99-43), giving way to the first in-season change in leadership at Arkansas in 27 years.
"I had one goal for football program — one main goal for our football program as we headed into this season and it was a simple goal: I wanted us to be competitive game-in and game-out," Yurachek said Monday at a news conference in the Broyles Center. "Not to win the Southeastern Conference, but to be competitive game-in and game-out. I think it was clear over the past couple of weeks that we were no longer competitive.
"A big thing about that is our student athletes, those 120 men work their tails off for nine months to have the reward and the opportunity to put on that uniform for 12 Saturdays during the fall," he continued. "That should be a rewarding experience for them. That should be something they enjoy. As I spent time with our student-athletes before, during and after games I got the sense that they were no longer enjoying that experience on Saturdays. ... We had 120 student-athletes within our football program that were no longer experiencing the success I thought they needed to experience."
Barry Lunney Jr., in his seventh season as the Razorbacks' tight ends coach and first as special teams coordinator, was chosen as Arkansas' interim coach by Yurachek on Sunday. In his message to players during a meeting Sunday night and again in his address to media Monday, Lunney said the remainder of the season, which features a road game at No. 1 LSU on Nov. 23 and a meeting with Missouri on Nov. 29 in Little Rock, is about the players and breathing life back into a sunken program.
Lunney has been in this position before as a player, and he believes with great confidence he is the right coach for this moment. Now, for him, it is about rallying the coaches at his side and players in his locker room.
"This is all about the players," said Lunney, who famously guided the Razorbacks to a 25-24 upset of No. 4 Tennessee on the road in his first start and went on to start 40 games in his career, including the SEC Championship Game as a senior. "So, our job and my job is to make sure that these next few weeks that we figure out a way to play like Razorbacks. We’ve lost that the last few weeks.
"We are going to do our darndest and everything we can to pump some life back into these guys and go and play our best football game of the year when we go to Baton Rouge in a few weeks."
Lunney also reiterated Yurachek's point that players are not reaping the benefits of their year-round work. Continually losing, and doing so at a nearly unprecedented clip, takes its toll and becomes tiresome.
"We owe that to them as a staff, these kids," he added. "And we owe that to ourselves to put our best foot forward for these last two football games. I’m very confident we’re going to do that."
Yurachek, sitting to Lunney's right in the standard post-game interview room, commended the 45-year-old Fort Smith native for his handling of the team's meeting on Sunday. He noted that Lunney did a great job energizing players, and left them believing special things happen in the final weeks of the season.
Both men noted that Arkansas had not been the same since its 24-20 loss at Kentucky, a game in which it led entering the fourth quarter. Yurachek said it was at that juncture when players began to lose belief that they could "get over the hump" with Morris. Lunney concurred, adding they have not recovered from that night in many ways.
Asked about potential schematic changes in all three phases, Lunney said that is not his primary focus. Wholesale changes are not necessary at this point. The main charge, as he stated more than once, is preparing the Razorbacks to play their best game of the season at LSU, and then again against Missouri in War Memorial Stadium to cap the season.
"We could install the triple-option in the bye week, and if our guys don’t believe in each other and believe they’re going to win and play with great resolve and effort and toughness and grit, it doesn’t matter what we do in that regard," Lunney said. "We’ve been working hard the last two years on our schemes on both sides of the ball and special teams.
"Really, at the end of the day, what it comes down to is we’ve got to play with more heart. It doesn’t matter what scheme we have."
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