State of the Hogs: Optimism always the best option

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, July 31, 2020
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman speaks to the crowd during a basketball game between Arkansas and Tulsa on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman speaks to the crowd during a basketball game between Arkansas and Tulsa on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

There is a reward to a glass-half-full philosophy.

For one, there is less stress. It also seems like more people want to hang out with optimistic souls than those woe-is-me sorts.

I do not always look for the riskiest move, although I’ve taken some highly questionable journeys.

Some of my favorite advisors warned that starting Hawgs Illustrated 28 years ago was highly risky. As I pondered the move, Tulsa World sports editor Bill Connors invited me to lunch and handed me a written letter — just for proof for my wife — that I’d be the sports editor in less than a year.

Then, the man who was like a father during 14 years in Tulsa, said, “I expect you to go to Arkansas. It’s home and I believe you can make it work.”

There was another father-like figure in Tulsa with an invitation to lunch. Highly successful clothier Ed Beshara promised a job “selling suits” if things went wrong. He later told me, “Hoss, I really didn’t think you could sell suits and really glad I didn’t have to make good on my offer.”

Beshara knew I was still iffy on the decision to become executive editor for the men who owned Sooners Illustrated and Huskers Illustrated as they expanded with magazines at Arkansas, Texas, Texas A&M and Iowa.

Then, Beshara said the magic words: “You are never going to own the Tulsa World. You might own Hawgs Illustrated if you do well.” I concentrated on the Arkansas magazine and owned it — with the help of George Billingsley — inside of 24 months.

Asking my father about leaving the Tulsa paper did not provide comfort. He stayed clear of anything that resembled encouragement. There was no optimism from him, just realism.

“It would appear to be dicey,” he said. “How can you depend on the postal service to deliver a product on time?”

Well, you couldn’t then and it’s no better today. And, then there were some haunting words that produced one week of sleepless nights as I plotted my course.

“A project like that would be much easier with a big winner in football,” he said. “Can that happen at Arkansas in the SEC?”

That’s probably what led the owners of Sports Magazines of America to sell Hawgs Illustrated. They didn’t see anything positive happening with the Razorbacks in the SEC and took my low-ball offer.

But a funny thing happened just before I struck a deal: Nolan Richardson took the Hogs to two straight national title games, winning one.

I’ll never forget standing under the goal near the Arkansas bench as the net cutting began. There was a grand Hog Call and my father cupped his hand to his ear and said, “Do you hear that?”

Yes, it’s a beautiful sound. And, he said, “Yes, it’s the sound of the cash registers opening over and over for Hawgs Illustrated. Cha-ching. I’m no longer worried about your family!”

I guess winning in the SEC does cause worries. It’s never more appropriate to discuss than one day after the leaders of the league adjusted their football schedules to make it 10 games, all against SEC teams.

That is probably the ultimate in ambition. There are teams in the SEC that could go 0-10. Arkansas is front and center among them. The good news is that there are three other teams on the schedule, like Arkansas, playing with first-year head coaches.

Do you see this schedule as a chance to go 0-10, or do you see opportunity?

I’m the optimist. Firmly, I believe there are two more chances to end that SEC losing streak.

Take Georgia and South Carolina, teams from the SEC East that might make it onto the Razorbacks' schedule this year. The Gamecocks knocked off the Bulldogs last year to illustrate my point that upsets are always possible. That was such a massive victory that the Gamecocks celebrated by taking home chunks of the famed hedge at Sanford Stadium in Athens.

Absolutely, I believe that upsets are possible. If there are more games, your chances improve. The best team doesn’t always win.

Waiting until Sept. 26 also sends good vibes for Arkansas. New coach Sam Pittman has more time to understand his personnel. It might also give some extra days to instill a toughness in the trenches that has been missing in the Ozarks over the last four or five seasons.

It was there briefly under Bret Bielema, perhaps late in Year 2 or Year 3 under his watch. No doubt, toughness was absent in his first season and last two seasons.

Pittman has the better part of 10 weeks to prepare for the opener. That’s enough time to figure out if any of the talented freshman class — most notably the offensive line candidates — can provide a boost in ability. Normally, first-year offensive linemen don’t have enough time in August to be prepared for an SEC game.

The key to playing a 10-game SEC schedule is depth. Actually, that’s the critical aspect in an 8-game schedule, too. The good teams can survive with a few injuries. It’s even more critical this year with the possibility of a covid-19 quarantine so high.

The extra time will be invaluable as offensive coordinator Kendal Briles figures out his quarterbacks, the key man for every team. Can he get two ready to play? The most important man in this 10-game schedule might be the back-up quarterback. No SEC team is likely to make it to December playing just one.

It reminds me of a conversation with Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom two months ago. Did he have a thought on how to develop third- and fourth-team players if the two lead defenders at a position were quarantined at the same time?

“You aren’t very optimistic, Clay,” Odom said. “I am going to look at the positive side.”

But two questions later, it became obvious that building depth has long been one of Odom’s strengths. Both as a head coach and a coordinator, Odom has played freshmen. He said he played 15 and 17 true freshmen the last two seasons as Missouri head coach.

Odom said the task is always to teach everyone on your roster, no matter the class. He said you don’t put an age on players in the SEC. It’s a personnel league. Yes, talent rules, but those who win are the ones who coach their entire roster the best.

OK, I’m more optimistic than the new defensive coordinator thinks. Never mind that not one other company has offered me a job in the last 28 years. I probably wouldn’t have opted out from the challenge of printing magazines at an SEC school.

My glass has been way more than half full all these years. There is one other aspect of my move in 1992; the first Arkansas game in the history of Hawgs Illustrated was against The Citadel.

On the way home from the stadium that stunning day, my wife had offered one thought: “What have we done? You left a pretty good job, didn’t you? And, that wasn’t even an SEC team.”

There was a short discussion on the drive to the house in Tulsa that had yet to be sold that maybe it would be good to wait a few months. It was only blocks away from Beshara’s clothing store.

And, then Jean Ann asked a question that almost every Razorback fan was asking that day: What will the SEC be like?

I had the answer, delivered by my father at the Board of Trustees meeting when Arkansas formally accepted the SEC offer. He leaned to my ear to provide an unsolicited prediction on life in the new conference.

“You know what this is going to be like?” he said. “It’s going to be like playing Texas every week.”

No doubt, that can be bad. But, I always look forward to beating Texas. It means more.

Oh, that’s the SEC slogan. Give me 10 this year. When there is victory, it does mean more.

Like a vaccine for covid-19, wins are coming. Hope reigns supreme. Things must turn eventually.

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