Hunter Yurachek had a super busy second year as the University of Arkansas athletic director in 2019.
Yurachek fired men's basketball coach Mike Anderson in March, then he pulled the plug on the Chad Morris football era in November with two games remaining on the schedule.
• The top 10 Arkansas sports stories of 2019 as selected by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports staff:
- Yurachek fires Anderson, Morris
- Death of Wendy Anderson
- UA women’s track, cross country teams sweep national titles
- UA plays in-state schools
- Hogs return to College World Series
- Pittman hired as UA football coach
- Musselman hired as UA basketball coach
- Bryant dominates 7A football
- Richardson Court unveiled
- Fassi a national champion
For the first time since John Barnhill did it in 1952, a UA athletic director made coaching changes at the top of the two biggest revenue sports on campus in the same calendar year.
The major coaching shakeup, which led to the hiring of Eric Mussleman to guide the men's basketball program and Sam Pittman to take the reins of Razorbacks football, is the story of the year in the state as determined by the staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"It wasn't obviously intentional on either one of those, they just happened to fall within six or seven months of each other," Yurachek said in a year-end interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "I don't want to go through that again, and I think we've got two people leading those programs now that are very stable and will be here for the long haul."
Yurachek had been on the job for about 15 months when he conducted a program review with Anderson after an 18-16 season, and he did not get the feedback he was hoping to hear. Anderson was out after compiling a 169-102 record in eight seasons, a .624 winning percentage that was the third best at Arkansas behind Eddie Sutton (.776) and his mentor Nolan Richardson (.697) since 1950, including no losing seasons.
"I just thought that our basketball program had become stagnant and needed kind of a shot of energy and life," Yurachek said. "Mike had done a great job and represented this university very, very well. He never had a losing record here.
"I just thought we had kind of flatlined a little bit as a basketball program, and we needed to breathe some life and energy into it, and I think Eric Musselman has done that."
Musselman enters a road game at Indiana on Sunday with a 10-1 record, the best start at Arkansas since Anderson was 11-1 in the 2016-17 season.
Morris could not gain traction in football, and Yurachek fired him with a 4-18 record, an 0-14 mark in the SEC and no victories over Power 5 schools on the day after a 45-19 home loss to Western Kentucky.
"Obviously, our football program has been struggling the past two to three years," Yurachek said. "It needed some new life and new energy and new direction."
Yurachek pointed to Pittman's passion and his unyielding desire to want to be at Arkansas as key factors in hiring the former Razorbacks' offensive line coach Dec. 8.
Yurachek said the intensity of very visible, high-pressure coaching searches in a nine-month period was not physically or mentally draining.
"The search process is really somewhat invigorating and exciting," he said. "Not that I want to continue to go through these. It's something that energizes me as an athletic director.
"There is a lot of work that goes into it. I kind of cut myself off from the rest of the world. I kind of just get myself in a little bunker and just try to keep my mind clear. But I mean, I'm very energized and passionate because I think I have an opportunity to do something that's special for the future of our university and our athletic program and our football and men's basketball programs."
Yurachek said it was helpful to have infrastructure in place for the football search after going through the process for basketball in March and April.
"I took my basketball model and our external team and our legal team and our CFO [chief financial officer], we had that model and it was very fresh in our minds and it was easy -- kind of the rollout of Coach Pittman very much mirrored the rollout of Coach Musselman," he said. "The piece I don't like, it kind of shuts me down from the rest of our department for a two to three, four-week period. I'm not as engaged with our other coaches and student-athletes, and that's really what I enjoy about my job. From that standpoint, I don't feel like I'm a very good athletic director to our other 18 sports programs and our other 400 or so student-athletes when I'm going through that process."
2. 'Mama Wendy'
Eight days before the season opener against SMU, Arkansas State University football players and coaches were among hundreds gathered inside Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro to mourn the death of Wendy Anderson, the wife of 27 years of Coach Blake Anderson.
Wendy died shortly before midnight Aug. 19 after enduring a lengthy battle with breast cancer. She had celebrated her 49th birthday four days prior.
Anderson announced the devastating news in a tweet at 5:18 a.m. on Aug. 20.
"My beautiful girl has gone home to be with Jesus ... no more pain, no more suffering, and praise Him no more cancer," Anderson wrote. "She passed as peacefully and gracefully as you could ever hope just a few minutes before midnight with me laying right beside her."
After her death, players and coaches spoke of how Wendy was motherlike figure for the program. To many, she was known as "Mama Wendy."
Wendy's story attracted national attention, the biggest example coming during ASU's Week 3 game at Georgia in Athens. Georgia fans decked out Sanford Stadium in pink in Wendy's memory, a gesture that nearly brought her husband to tears.
"I feel [Wendy's] presence out there," Anderson said after the game. "She's as competitive as I am and supportive of what we did and loved those kids. It's kind of the energy that keeps you going. I don't want to let her down either, and her legacy."
After they dropped to 3-4 in mid-October, the Red Wolves rallied to win four consecutive games to gain bowl eligibility for a ninth consecutive year, before falling at South Alabama in the regular-season finale.
The season ended on an emotional high in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 21 as ASU claimed a 34-26 victory over Florida International in the Camellia Bowl.
"All I could think about [was] I wish Wendy was here to be a part of it," Anderson said after the game. "I've been trying to hold onto it for months and get to the finish line, and it was really a tough few days -- a really long day today just knowing that she wouldn't be here to be a part of it. Proud of the guys for how they got us across the finish line."
-- Trenton Daeschner
3. UA women's triple crown
Choices for the nation's top women's cross country and track and field program in 2019 came down to Arkansas, Arkansas and Arkansas.
The Razorbacks began the 2019 track season by winning the national indoor title 64-51 over USC in March in Birmingham, Ala., then topped the Trojans outdoors 64-57 in June in Austin, Texas.
Arkansas completed the calendar year triple crown by edging BYU 96-102 in November in Terre Haute, Ind.
"To win any national title is pretty special," said Razorbacks Coach Lance Harter, who has led Arkansas to five NCAA championships in 30 years. "It happens so rarely. So very few teams get to win one. Then to win three in the same year is an unbelievable feeling."
Twin sisters Lexi Jacobus and Tori Hoggard swept the pole vault titles, with Jacobus winning indoors and Hoggard outdoors.
Payton Chadwick and Janeek Brown scored big in the sprints and hurdles indoors and outdoors, including Brown winning the 100-meter hurdles.
Taylor Werner led Arkansas' distance runners indoors, outdoors and in cross country.
The Razorbacks were ranked No. 1 going into the indoor season and quickly moved up to No. 1 outdoors, but opened the cross country season ranked No. 8 before gradually moving up to the top of the poll.
"Winning the triple crowd really wasn't a thought until midway through the cross country season," Harter said. "Then it started becoming a little more realistic as this team jelled together."
Arkansas became the second women's program to win NCAA indoor and outdoor track and field and cross country in a calendar year along with Texas in 1986.
"It took 33 years to do the first one," Harter said. "I'm sure it'll be longer than that to duplicate it because we're in an era of specialization, either going all distance or all sprints.
"It's very rarified air that Arkansas was able to secure a triple crown. We'll ride that as long as we can."
-- Bob Holt
4. In-state dates
Now that it's happened, sports fans across the state might be wondering what took so long.
Arkansas ended a decades-long tradition of not scheduling in-state schools on the fields of competition by playing the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in multiple sports in 2019.
The change -- engineered by UA campus leaders and the UA board of trustees, and embraced by sister institutions --
led to increased attention and publicity.
The UA women's tennis team defeated UAPB twice Jan. 27 to kick off the new scheduling philosphy. Teams in baseball, softball and women's basketball also competed. The stakes go up in the near future when the Razorbacks and Golden Lions play in football in 2021 and 2024.
UALR baseball dealt the No. 9 Razorbacks a 17-7 loss before a crowd of 7,956 at Baum-Walker Stadium on April 2, but that did not stop Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn's team from playing its way into the College World Series in June. Van Horn was one of the biggest proponents of scheduling in-state schools.
"You know our baseball fanatics will say the baseball one was a hiccup," Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek said. "That one didn't go as well as we planned, but I mean, I think it's gone very, very well. It's been well received."
Another highlight of the change: Former Razorback Darrell Walker brought his UALR men's basketball team into Walton Arena for an exhibition game Oct. 20 in which Nolan Richardson Court was dedicated.
"We played Little Rock in that scrimmage to dedicate Nolan Richardson Court, which was a really cool environment," Yurachek said. "I'm very thankful to Darrell for bringing his team over here."
The Arkansas women's basketball team defeated UALR 86-53 in North Little Rock on Dec. 21.
-- Tom Murphy
5. Back-to-back OmaHogs
After Arkansas finished runner-up to Oregon State at the 2018 College World Series, the Razorbacks had plenty of holes to fill.
Center fielder Dominic Fletcher was the only Razorback who started at the same position in 2019 that he did the previous season, though Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin were returning starters at new spots. Kjerstad moved from left to right field, and Martin moved from third base to shortstop. Isaiah Campbell was the lone returning pitcher from the SEC rotation.
Despite all the changes, the Razorbacks ended the 2019 season back at the CWS in Omaha, Neb. It was Arkansas' 10th CWS appearance -- sixth under Coach Dave Van Horn -- and first back-to-back trips.
"It just shows how good a program Arkansas is year after year," Kjerstad said. "No matter who leaves, there's always someone that's going to come in and fill the void because of the amount of talent we're able to get."
Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek called Van Horn an amazing coach.
"We have a number of amazing head coaches, but he has built a program and he is sustaining that success year after year in going back to back to Omaha," Yurachek said. "He knows how to plug in the pieces."
Arkansas' new lineup included catcher Casey Opitz, first baseman Trevor Ezell, second baseman Jack Kenley, third baseman Jacob Nesbit, left fielder Christian Franklin and DH Matt Goodheart.
Campbell became an ace, and he was joined in the rotation by Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander.
After the Razorbacks beat TCU to win their regional and beat Ole Miss in a super regional, they lost to Florida State and Texas Tech at the CWS.
"The best celebration you have is when you win that super regional, because everybody's ecstatic," Van Horn said. "A lot of pressure's been relieved and you're so happy for the players and the fans and the parents. Then you get to Omaha and there's only one team that really leaves with a good feeling."
-- Bob Holt
6. Pittman returns as head Hog
When former University of Arkansas offensive linemen wrote an open letter to UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek in November advocating for the hiring of ex-Razorback offensive line coach Sam Pittman as the Hogs' head coach, his candidacy looked like a long shot.
It turned into reality Dec. 8 when Yurachek and Pittman came to an agreement at Pittman's house in Athens, Ga.
Pittman flew back into Fayetteville that night, four years after he had departed the program to join Kirby Smart's first staff at the University of Georgia.
Yurachek interviewed the top candidates of the season -- such as Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach and Eliah Drinkwitz -- as well as well-regarded interim coach Barry Lunney Jr. But he landed on Pittman, whose recruiting, player development and relationship building was evident during his tenure as offensive line coach under Bret Bielema at Arkansas from 2013-15.
"Sam's passion was very much a deciding factor," Yurachek said. "The fact that he wanted to be here, and he understood the challenge that we had here.
"He had been here, and so ... he's got a leg up from other coaches who have never been here before because he's just four years removed from working here on this campus."
Pittman had not been a head coach since a two-year tenure at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in 1992-93. But he's been an assistant head coach at Arkansas and Georgia, and he's turned down offers to be an offensive coordinator.
"To say I'm proud to be the head football coach at the University of Arkansas is an understatement," Pittman said. "We can breathe confidence, we can breathe work ethic from us as a staff, and communication to our players."
-- Tom Murphy
7. Hogs hire Musselman
Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek didn't have to see Eric Musselman's reaction when Yurachek offered him the job as the Razorbacks' basketball coach. He heard Musselman's excitement through his cellphone.
"My ear was shaking he was yelling so loud," Yurachek said. "That's what you want when you offer somebody a job. He was about ready to jump through the phone if he could have."
Musselman, who was announced as Arkansas' coach on April 7 after leading Nevada to a 110-34 record in four seasons, interviewed at his home in Reno, Nev., with Yurachek and deputy athletic director Jon Fagg.
"I just started watching as much [Arkansas] game tape as I could to see what the talent was," Musselman said. "When Hunter and Jon came, I thought it was real important I could convey to them my feelings on the team.
"I wanted them to feel as excited as I was about the job. It's kind of easy to go into an interview and just talk philosophically, but I wanted Hunter to know I'm really invested in this from the moment he made the first phone call."
Musselman, whose previous 15 jobs include being an NBA head coach with Golden State and Sacramento, said he hopes Arkansas will be his final stop.
"There's not going to be a better job come along for me than Arkansas," he said. "An NBA job isn't better than the Arkansas job. Now we've just got to win."
The Razorbacks are off to a 10-1 start.
"I think it's nothing short of incredible what he's done," Yurachek said. "He's changed the environment and the belief of our men's basketball program. You look at the players and just how much fun those guys are having playing basketball right now, and the energy and passion that they play with.
"He's kind of transformed those young men in a very short amount of time, from April to now. I just love watching our team play and how they play and the energy and passion they play with. They really following suit with him. You see the energy and passion that he coaches with and that's the passion our guys play with."
-- Bob Holt
8. Bryant dominates Class 7A
There was no doubt who the state's best high school football team was in 2019.
The Bryant Hornets entered the season as defending Class 7A state champions, then won their second consecutive title under Coach Buck James.
Despite a schedule that featured eventual state championship runner-up teams North Little Rock in Class 7A and Benton in Class 6A -- along with title contenders Bentonville West and Conway -- Bryant finished 13-0 for its first undefeated season in program history. It capped the run with a 21-7 victory over North Little Rock in the state title game Dec. 6.
Bryant went wire-to-wire as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's top team in the overall Top 10 and Class 7A Super Six.
Junior quarterback Austin Ledbetter passed for 3,334 yards with 43 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Senior running back Ahmad Adams had 1,032 yards and 15 touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Jake Meaders caught 59 passes for 994 yards and 18 scores.
Bryant finished the season outscoring its opposition 560-114, with three shutouts and only one game allowing more than 14 points (North Little Rock scored 21 in a 35-21 loss at Bryant on Nov. 1). The Hornets also invoked the mercy rule 10 times in 2019, including nine of its 10 regular-season games and in the Class 7A semifinals against Bentonville West.
James was asked after the state championship game where the Hornets rank among the state's all-time teams.
"I question how many teams had 10 mercy-rule games and then go 13-0 in this league, especially winning a state championship," James said. "The critics can say whatever they want. There's been some good football teams. I've been coaching for 33 years. I've seen a lot of it.
"But I have to put this team up there. You can talk about them in the same conversation, and that's all we deserve."
-- Jeremy Muck
9. Richardson Court unveiled
Before Arkansas played UALR in an exhibition basketball game on Oct. 20, Nolan Richardson Court was unveiled in Walton Arena in honor of the coach who led the Razorbacks to a school-record 389 victories in 17 seasons, including the 1994 national championship.
"You can have a lot of individual awards," Richardson said. "But having a court named after you, that goes to everyone that made it possible for this to happen."
More than 40 of Richardson's assistant coaches, staff members and players at Arkansas attended the game, including St. John's Coach Mike Anderson, who was fired as the Razorbacks' coach after last season. Fans cheered loudly when Anderson came onto the court.
In March, it was announced the Arkansas board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of naming the court to honor Richardson.
"I think it was a well deserved and earned honor for Nolan Richardson and what he did for our basketball program, what he did for our university and what he did for our state," Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said. "I've heard in two years [at Arkansas] a few hundred Hog calls, I guess, and I don't know if I heard a more passionate Hog call than when we called the Hogs that afternoon at Bud Walton Arena on Nolan Richardson Court. It was really, really cool, and it sent chills up my spine."
After Richardson was fired at Arkansas with one game left in the 2001-02 regular season, he sued the UA and its administrators for racial discrimination. The lawsuit was dismissed after a trial in Little Rock.
Richardson stayed away from the Arkansas campus for several years, but he had a reconciliation after the UA changed chancellors and athletic directors.
Richardson never lobbied for the Walton Arena court to be named for him, but he's appreciative it happened.
"Some things come at their own time," Richardson said. "I'm just happy that I'm here to enjoy it with my family and my friends and some of my players and the fans."
-- Bob Holt
10. Fassi wins NCAA title
FAYETTEVILLE -- Maria Fassi did not let the pressure of playing on her home course rattle her at the NCAA Women's Golf Championships.
Fassi strode to the 18th green with Coach Shauna Taylor at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville with a big lead as fans called the Hogs on May 20.
The 21-year-old senior polished off her four-stroke victory over Florida's Sierra Brooks and celebrated with Taylor and teammates to become the second NCAA women's golf champion at Arkansas, joining Stacy Lewis in 2007.
Fassi deferred her rookie season on the LPGA Tour to make a final run at the NCAA title, and she helped propel the Razorbacks into the eight-team match play.
"I've told Shauna I don't know how many times that we were going to be walking down the 18th fairway holding hands, knowing that I was going to be a national champion," Fassi said. "I'd seen it in my head I don't know how many times. I dreamed it, and this was so much better. It just felt surreal. It was way better than what I dreamed."
Taylor said Fassi's championship run was more than she had envisioned.
"It was definitely way cooler in person," Taylor said. "She thrives when the spotlight is on, and that's what she did today."
Lewis had been on hand much of the week to watch Fassi's run at history.
"Stacy Lewis put our program on the map, and Maria Fassi put a cherry on top of it," Taylor said.
"It was a really cool experience for us to host that and see her win a national championship on her home course," Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek said. "What an incredible representative Maria was for our program and still continues to be as she makes her way on the LPGA Tour."
-- Tom Murphy
Sports on 12/26/2019
Print Headline: TOP 10 ARKANSAS SPORTS STORIES OF 2019: UA’s firing of high-profile coaches dominated news cycle