LITTLE ROCK — Like a Texas Hold ‘em player who has a straight made before the “river” or seventh card is unveiled, Bret Bielema has a winning hand with one more assistant to be hired.
The addition of Barry Lunney Jr. completed the three Rs — recruiters, recognizable names, and Razorback — on the checklist of any Arkansas fan.
Right away, Bielema checked off recruiters, hiring Chris Ash, Charlie Partridge, Jim Chaney, and Sam Pittman. Adding Joel Thomas, who recruited Texas while at Purdue, and George McDonald, underlined his point of emphasis, even though McDonald is moving on to Syracuse.
Around Christmas, Bielema teased another hire, saying his linebackers coach would probably “amaze a lot of people.” My first thought was Bob Diaco at Notre Dame, but he is the assistant head coach and is compensated accordingly. A friend mentioned Randy Shannon and I agreed that he would fit Bielema’s description.
National media noted the hiring of the Miami native who started at linebacker on Miami’s 1987 national championship team, was on the staff when the Hurricanes won two national championships, and coordinated defenses that piled up impressive stats year after year. Equally important, high school athletes with an eye on the NFL know that as head coach and defensive coordinator, Shannon coached 14 defensive players selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
For many Arkansas fans, the hiring of Shannon was the cherry on top.
The holdouts’ singular complaint was the lack of Arkansas ties, a sticking point exacerbated when assistant coach Tim Horton, an Arkansas native, former Razorback wide receiver, and son of UA fixture Harold Horton, left for Auburn to coach tight ends, the same position that was open in Fayetteville.
The why and wherefore of Horton’s departure are unclear, but I am sure that Bielema felt the need to hire somebody with an Arkansas background. He even described Lunney as a “tremendous bridge” to former Razorbacks and high school football in the state.
Undoubtedly, Bielema interviewed others who could have served the same purpose, but Lunney qualifies on all fronts, including experience in college where he coached quarterbacks and wide receivers. Coaching is coaching and the former quarterback and son of a long-time high school coach, Lunney can handle tight ends.
He knows virtually every high school coach in the state; those he doesn’t know will know his father.
As the quarterback who got the Razorbacks to the SEC championship game for the first time, he made the list when a Little Rock radio station asked listeners to vote for the 25 Most Beloved Razorback football players. Lunney was right there with honorees ranging from Lance Alworth and Frank Broyles to former announcer Paul Eells to Billy Ray Smith Jr., Darren McFadden, and Matt Jones.
It’s been almost 20 years and I wish I could recall more of the specifics, but I remember leaving an interview impressed with quarterback Lunney’s maturity, awareness outside of football, and ability to articulate.
Contacting Fort Smith Southside principal Wayne Haver for confirmation about Lunney’s character, the feedback was more than anticipated. Haver, who has held the position for more than 30 years, has an autographed picture of Lunney Jr. on his wall so you know the former Southside student was more than a quarterback.
Haver referenced Lunney’s “positive impact on other students,” him being a “great role model for younger kids and for his peers,” and pride in the accomplishments of his brother, Daniel, also a quarterback.
During the years when Southside and Bentonville were in the same conference, Jr. and Sr. made it a point to visit with Haver. The Lunney family and Haver are close enough that the principal was comfortable saying, ” … I’m glad he is leaving Bentonville because that means that Barry, Sr. will have to start working again since Barry, Jr. has ‘carried him’ all these years.”
A well-respected educator’s endorsement means more than praise from a fellow coach of Lunney Jr. carries much weight.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.