This week showed why Arkansas fans should be especially grateful for Hunter Yurachek
If there was ever a time for Arkansas fans to appreciate Hunter Yurachek, this past week was it.
Why? As Arkansas fans know, Yurachek couldn’t be in a more different standing than his predecessor, Jeff Long.
Long was fired from his role as athletic director at Kansas following the release of a 2013 investigation into sexual harassment claims made against then-LSU coach Les Miles. It was Long who didn’t use a search firm and instead hired Miles more than 2 years after he was fired at LSU. Earlier in the week, Miles was fired at Kansas. Even worse for Long was the fact that in a separate investigation into LSU’s Title IX protocols, it was revealed that then-LSU athletic director Joe Alleva sent emails to the LSU president and chancellor in which he advised firing Miles with cause.
In other words, it paints the picture that Long didn’t do his due diligence when hiring his buddy from their days at Michigan. That’s the type of thing you need to figure out before you hire a head coach at the Power 5 level. Shoot, even Hickory High wasn’t caught off guard when it trickled out that Norman Dale had some skeletons in his closet in “Hoosiers” (people forget that it wasn’t actually Hickory High and it was “Milan” in the real story).
Long looks like the guy who didn’t do his homework, or if he did, he should’ve known that eventually, it was going to be revealed that he cut one corner too many.
Meanwhile, Yurachek looks like the guy who not only did his homework, but he passed the test with flying colors.
That’s not just a Sam Pittman/Eric Musselman reference. That’s a reference to having this type of athletic success heading into the ever-pivotal month of March:
How about that weekend for the @ArkRazorbacks @RazorbackMBB wins their 9th straight in Hoops@RazorbackBSB #1 team in Country@RazorbackWBB won their 5th game in a row@RazorbackTF wins Men’s and Women SEC Indoor Title@RazorbackSB won 10 in a row
Nice job @HunterYurachek
— Peter Burns (@PeterBurnsESPN) March 1, 2021
Sure, Yurachek only gets credited with hiring the football and basketball coach, but if that tweet isn’t hung in his office in the finest frame he owns, well, he’s doing it wrong. He should be proud. Beyond having a nice stretch of multi-sport success at a specific time, he should be proud of the fact that in the 2 biggest revenue sports, he appears to have found the right people to dig Arkansas out of its rut.
That rut wasn’t entirely the fault of Yurachek’s predecessor. Yurachek might’ve given his vote of confidence after Associate Vice Chancellor & Executive Associate Athletics Director Julie Cromer Peoples led the search that ended with hiring Chad Morris, but who was it who pulled the plug in the midst of a disastrous Year 2? Yurachek.
Long had to make an unconventional firing himself. The shortcomings in the Bobby Petrino motorcycle scandal fell more on the Arkansas football coach (whom Long hired) for lying about hiring his mistress to work in the athletic department and then misleading his boss about their relationship. Ironic it is that for the second time in a decade, the football coach who Long hired had a sexual misconduct scandal involving a female student. Once again, Long had to announce the firing of a football coach amidst the public fallout.
This time, Kansas didn’t let Long stick around to hire a John L. Smith.
Athletic directors, especially in the SEC, don’t get to whiff on the football coach hire twice. Long got away with it because while Smith was technically brought back to Arkansas after he left Petrino’s staff to coach FCS Weber State, he was still a 1-year interim coach. Even though he didn’t make the Morris hire, Yurachek couldn’t afford to whiff on his successor, especially not with Morris’ 8-figure buyout and the millions the university was still on the hook for after firing Bret Bielema (he got the boot just after Long in 2017).
So what did Yurachek do? Not only did he make an unconventional hire of Pittman, but he also had an unconventional buyout structure. Yurachek actually said that buyouts should be performance-based before he even hired Pittman, who agreed to those terms:
“The buyout situation throughout college athletics I don’t think is great,” Yurachek said after firing Morris back in 2019. “There’s huge buyouts in all these contracts. And I did say I thought that — and I said it in my opening press conference — losing football games should be condition for terms of your employment to be nullified. And that’s tough to be a pioneer in that because that hurts your candidate pool moving forward. It has to be an industry-wide change. It can’t be one where Arkansas takes the lead on that, per se, or it’s going to hurt our candidate pool. I don’t see any significant changes in how we do our contracts and we will pay what we need to pay to get the best person to take this position.”
That’s about as blunt of a comment as you’ll see from an athletic director set to embark on hiring a coach to an 8-figure contract. One might read that and think that Yurachek comes off like the cheapskate. In Year 1, Pittman didn’t even rank in the top 50 among FBS coaches in annual salary.
But twice, Barry Odom got raises at Arkansas. Pittman said Odom’s post-2020 raise to $1.75 million annually — a raise that made him the highest-paid assistant in program history — took 15 minutes with administration. The time before? It was a walk in the indoor facility with Odom, Pittman and Yurachek that got it done.
They didn’t wait multiple days to get it done. Yurachek recognized Odom’s value and didn’t get into a back-and-forth. It remains to be seen what those future negotiations for Pittman will look like, if and when he’s due for a new deal at the end of Year 2.
It also remains to be seen what that inevitable extension looks like for Musselman, who put himself in the national coach of the year discussion and has a team more than capable of leading Arkansas to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the 21st century. Will Yurachek follow in the footsteps of Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, who locked in fellow Year 2 coach Nate Oats to a 6-year deal worth more than $19 million? It wouldn’t be a surprise.
And if for some crazy reason Yurachek couldn’t settle on a new deal with Musselman, athletic directors across America should be lining up to hire someone like that, especially with how sustainable his up-tempo, modern style is.
What can’t be debated is that those conversations are better to have than the ones Long had in the last week.
There’s no doubt that Arkansas is better off with Yurachek after Long’s firing. While Long fell in love with (to a fault) the splashy hires, Yurachek made the right hires. Long overlooked the wrong things with Miles, and Yurachek overlooked the right things (lack of coordinator/head coaching experience) with Pittman.
It’s really not a comparison anymore. After all, one is still a Power 5 athletic director and one is not.
Yurachek helped turn around an athletic department that not long ago, was inundated with rich buyouts for a revolving door of coaches who helped dig that metaphorical hole. At this time 2 years ago, Arkansas was void of answers and paths to success in the two big revenue sports. Finally, that’s not lacking. Arkansas fans now know first hand how important it is to have the right person in charge.
Maybe the grass isn’t always greener, but in this case, Yurachek looks about as green as the day is long.