On the heels of Frank Broyles’s first most significant moment of his career, he got foreshadowing of the second, still a quarter of a century away. It was the winter of 1965, and Broyles had just coached Arkansas to an 11-0 record and a national football championship as chosen by the Football Writers Association of America. For the first time since getting the good news, the lanky 40-year-old paid his athletic director, John Barnhill, a visit.
“I floated into his office on cloud nine, ready to be emotional about the pinnacle of success and so forth,” Broyles recalled in his memoir Hog Wild. “‘Frank,’ he said before I could speak, ‘you’ve just screwed up the best job in America.’” Barnhill continued: “‘Don’t you know you never win all your ball games? Keep ‘em hungry. Eight, nine wins a year—you’ve been perfect. Now that you’ve done it all, they’re gonna expect you to do it all the time.’”
Broyles coached the Razorbacks for 11 years after that, then put in another 31 years as Arkansas’s athletic director, and finally a decade’s worth of fundraising and Alzheimer’s advocacy until his death Monday from complications of Alzheimer’s at the age of 92. “In terms of influence as a great player, great coach, great head coach, great athletic director, great administrator and ambassador for college football and college sports in total, no one on the face of the earth did more in different positions to grow the game and to grow intercollegiate athletics,” Tim Brando told sports radio host Bo Mattingly.
All the same, since that 1964 season, Arkansas hasn’t won another national football title.
Some of the blame here lies with Broyles. In 1990, as AD, he pulled Arkansas out of the Southwestern Conference where it was a charter member to join the more competitive SEC. The move triggered the ultimate dissolution of the SWC in 1996, led to the expansion of the Big 8 to the Big 12 and spurred some of the Power 5 major conference realignments of recent decades. Arkansas regularly contended in the SWC, winning 10 conference championships outright or shared in the Broyles era alone. But since joining the SEC in 1992, it hasn’t won a single football conference title and has only three times surpassed nine wins in a season.
Broyles took a calculated risk by jumping ship. “We had to move. We were going to get left out and the people told us we would be an independent if we hadn’t joined the SEC when we did,” he told Mattingly a few years ago. “When the Big 12 formed, we would have to be an independent and our program would go all the way to the bottom. Being in the Southeastern Conference kept us competitive in recruiting.”
But there was a downside beyond the bridges burned with SWC coaches and administrators: Broyles knew swapping out the likes of Rice and Houston for Mississippi State and Auburn on the regular season schedule would cost his programs wins and potential championships. He also foresaw that football trophies, however, would play a progressively smaller role in securing major programs’ financial futures. Big-game wins are no longer the most dependable and direct route to revenue, as they were before the 1980s when athletic administrators at public universities more heavily leaned on their state’s taxpayers, ticket sales and boosters’ funding for financial support. Broyles had done well in most of those areas, cultivating powerful allies and charming donors with that native Georgian drawl of his. By one estimate, he generated nearly $3 billion in economic impact during his 50-year reign at Arkansas.
While glad-handing still matters, a 1984 Supreme Court ruling “deregulating” college football television rights and ultimately allowing conferences to negotiate their own TV contracts has made conference affiliation more critical to athletic programs’ financial stability.
Broyles saw the writing on the wall. He’d broadcasted alongside Keith Jackson on ABC for eight seasons and made regular trips to D.C. to lobby senators on issues that affected the bottom line of athletic programs. He almost certainly understood the 1984 ruling, in combination with the emergence of cable TV, would propel conferences with a) passionate fans and b) more of them to the head of the pack. The SWC, with all of the rest of its schools in Texas, definitely had the former, but could not compete with the number of TV markets and much larger population across the SEC’s geographic territory.
On June 17, 1990, the Arkansas Gazette’s Orville Henry, Broyles’s longtime confidant and the O.G. of sportswriting around these parts, wrote: “The SWC’s eight teams accrued a gross of $8 million in ancillary revenue; the SEC’s 10 teams amassed $18 million. There is a projection that an expanded SEC with Arkansas and one to three other teams would amass $40 million from TV sources already in place,” far outpacing the SWC’s TV package. With the more recent emergences of the SEC Network and College Football Playoff, this disparity has only widened. In the last fiscal year, the SEC distributed $41.3 million to Arkansas. By contrast, Big 12 schools and their laughable lack of a self-directed football network received payouts of only around $23 million each.
Broyles’s gambit has allowed Arkansas’s athletic department to thrive regardless of whether it ever plays for another football championship or not. It needs only remain competitive, winning around the Barnhill-prescribed average of 8.5 games a season, and by sheer dint of SEC membership it will continue to rake in the cash and enjoy a prestige which also helps attract well-heeled students from out of state to the UA campus. Also, as Dennis Dodd of CBS points out, an “FBS/Power Five label alone affects enrollment, grants, state appropriations and ability to hire top professors.”
The SEC wouldn’t have welcomed Arkansas with such open arms had Broyles not fashioned it into a national powerhouse soon after arriving to the state in 1957. That was the year Arkansas governor Orval Faubus defied federal orders to desegregate Little Rock Central High School, a crisis staining my hometown’s reputation to this day.
“He was part savior and full-time promoter—the personification of the state’s arrival in bigtime sports and the chief advocate of the notion that a people’s self-respect could be enhanced by successful athletic teams,” Michael Leahy wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Just a few years after the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School, he became a welcome symbol for a state happy to shed its doormat status and shine against longtime antagonists, on and off the field.”
By regularly beating Texas to reel off a series of SWC titles and a 22-game winning streak in the mid-1960s, Broyles kindled a somewhat scary statewide passion for the Razorbacks. Perhaps only Nebraskans truly understand how big of a deal one college program can become to an entire state. Nothing, outside of shooting animals in the woods and Walmart, unifies Arkansans like the Hogs.
Evin Demirel has written about college sports history for Slate, the New York Times and the Daily Beast among others. He is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks & Other Forgotten Stories.