When they saw Barry Lunney coming, they weren't silent, the way they were in the days when he was Arkansas's failing star quarterback, and they'd see him and look away, and he'd know why. No. None of that awful loneliness now. It was late Saturday in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, and here came Lunney, jogging into the tunnel on his way to the Razorbacks' locker room, and the voices rained down. "Great job!" they screamed. "Barr-eee!" They clapped, they tried to touch his hand. "This time last year I might have needed to get security guards," he said with a laugh. But it was no joke. "I knew I could turn things around," he added. "I knew I could."
He was the only one who knew. Who else would claim such a thing? On Saturday Arkansas, of all teams, put the official seal on an astonishing season by beating Mississippi State 26-21, thereby winning the SEC Western Division title. This achievement is akin to being named the South's most slaughterable hog—because it qualifies Arkansas for the honor of losing horribly to Florida in the conference championship game on Dec. 2. But no one in Arkansas cares about that, because none of this was supposed to happen—not this year, not this way, not with Barry Lunney erasing three years of misery with wins over Alabama and Auburn, and producing a 7-2 record and the season of his life.
Even his parents, battered after too many bad Saturdays, expected little this fall. "We got to the point of just expecting the worst," says Becky Lunney, Barry's mother. "We'd always say, 'It can't get any worse than this.' But it would."
It got so bad, in fact, that Barry considered giving up the game. "But there was something inside of me that said, 'You have some unfinished business left here,' " says Lunney, who completed 16 of 26 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. "This is why I came back. I wanted to finish strong."
When he left Fort Smith for Arkansas in 1992, Lunney was the hottest recruit in the state, the homegrown talent whose decision to stay home seemed to signal Arkansas's rebirth as a football power. In his first start as a freshman Lunney led the Razorbacks to a road upset over then No. 4 Tennessee. That was a mirage. Lunney went 11-14-2 as a starter his first three seasons; one coach ( Jack Crowe) departed, then another ( Joe Kines). So many times, the family would drive the 2� hours home from a game "and nobody would say a word," Becky says. "We were just speechless."
Two years ago, in a game against Mississippi State in Little Rock, Lunney was knocked unconscious. When he returned to the sideline in the third quarter, a drunk fan sitting behind his father, Barry Sr., cursed and screamed how horrible the boy was, how the Razorbacks would never win with him under center. When Barry Sr. turned and identified himself, the drunk snapped, "Good, I've been looking for the parents of the sorriest quarterback that's ever been."
Then last year Lunney, whose grandfather was a four-year starter for Arkansas from 1946 to '49, picked up the student newspaper and read a letter to the editor that demanded the team get rid of him. "It was just the most devastating blow to me," Lunney says. "I tried to show it didn't matter, tried to laugh it off. But it hurt."
It got worse. After deciding against leaving football last spring to pursue baseball—the Minnesota Twins and the San Diego Padres vowed to draft Lunney, a lefthanded pitcher, if he declared his intention to play baseball—Lunney was told before this season's opener against hapless SMU that coach Danny Ford was benching him in favor of sophomore Robert Reed. Reed played two series, the offense stalled, and Lunney came off the bench to hit 14 of 22 passes. That was the good. Then came the bad. Lunney fumbled on the Mustangs' one-yard line with 56 seconds to play, and SMU won its only game of the year, 17-14. Barry Sr. wasn't sure his son could recover. Becky heard fans say that he should be taken on the field and shot.
Lunney had called home in tears before. But the days after the SMU defeat were the lowest of his life; even when he played well, it ended in disaster. "It's devastating to have dreams and have them go down the drain," Lunney says. "I'm thinking, This is not supposed to be happening. It was just unexplainable."
But it was also suddenly reversible. Despite a 4-7 record in '94, no one has ever questioned Ford's coaching ability. He won a national championship at Clemson in 1981 at the age of 33, but after resigning under a probationary cloud in 1990, Ford drifted about, waiting for someone to take a chance on him. Arkansas did in 1993, and the week after this season's loss to SMU it began to pay off. Sparked by the 178-yard, six-touchdown effort by sophomore tailback Madre Hill, the Razorbacks walloped South Carolina by 30 points, then the next week found themselves in Tuscaloosa trailing Alabama 19-13 with six seconds to play and the ball on the Alabama three-yard line. It was fourth down. Lunney figured his lasting reputation as a Razorback would be made here. "It was like it really wasn't happening," he says. "It was loud. It'd been raining the whole game, and then the sun came out."