LITTLE ROCK — An over-the-top temple, the new stadium in the Dallas suburb of Allen illustrates the genuflection to high school football in Texas and underscores why Arkansas’ new coach must mine the talent in the Lone Star State.
Built with a voter-approved bond issue despite a depressed economy, the $60 million facility seats 18,000, and is replete with a 38-foot wide high-definition video screen. Throughout the state high schools, superb weight facilities and large, well-paid coaching staffs are the norm.
No wonder more than 370 football players from Texas signed Division I FBS scholarships in February. Arkansas grabbed six, including starting cornerback Will Hines and back-up running back Jonathan Williams.
Recruiting high-quality players to Fayetteville was made more difficult when Texas A&M joined the Southeastern Conference. Until then, Arkansas could hawk the opportunity to play in the best league in the country. Now, the Aggies can embellish the same pitch by noting the number of games in College Station.
Considering the landscape of the SEC, Texas is an obvious point of emphasis for the Razorbacks. Florida, where a nation-leading one of every 119 players received a Division I scholarship, is flooded with big-name schools from the outside, plus high-profile in-state programs. Alabama and Auburn split the Alabama athletes. Mississippi has three Division I schools and a small population. LSU cherry-picks Louisiana. Tennessee is not fertile ground for high school football and Georgia is targeted by in-state schools and surrounding states.
Besides, Fayetteville is much more closer to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex than it is to Atlanta or Gainesville and not much farther away than Norman, Okla., which does well in the area.
Tom Lemming, whose livelihood is recruiting, recently called the SEC the “No., 1 recruiting conference in the country.” Citing the proximity to Texas, he said, “The biggest sleeping giant is Arkansas.”
He said Alabama’s organization is the best, but praised the skills of Arkansas’ Tim Horton and implied that former head coach Bobby Petrino had failed to follow through on some prospects.
In Texas, Lemming said, recruiting is all about connections. With that, I threw out a couple of head coaches who have been mentioned in Jeff Long’s search. Lemming said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads recruits “with a chip on his shoulder” and that Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes has the appropriate Texas connections, but that hiring him would be something of a gamble because Dykes does not recruit the elite athletes in Ruston.
I asked about them because I do not susbscribe to the oft-repeated premise that the Arkansas athletic director has identified his man.
Consider the risk of zeroing in on a singular coach with three games remaining for some teams and four for others. Suppose Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech or Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State is THE man.
Loser of two straight, Tech gave up 41, 55, and 31 in losses, could surrender a ton more vs. Oklahoma State, and come limping home with a 5-4 conference record. OSU, 3-2 in the Big 12, could lose to West Virginia, Tech, and Oklahoma during the next three weeks and look bad doing it. How appealing is the coach of a 6-6 OSU, that gives up about 100 to the Mountaineers and the Sooners?
Also in play is the coaching search at other schools. The Lexington newspaper offered a list of potential candidates for the Kentucky job and at least six of them, including Dykes, Tuberville, and Butch Jones at Cincinnati, have been mentioned for the Arkansas position. Some of those same names will come up if Tennessee or Auburn or both are in the market.
If Long is all in on one and loses out, what then?
The point is that Long has a list and the search is still in a state of flux.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.