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The Last Emperor
Phil Taylor
April 16, 2007
There will never be another AD like Arkansas's embattled Frank Broyles
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April 16, 2007

The Last Emperor

There will never be another AD like Arkansas's embattled Frank Broyles

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AFTER A half century at Arkansas, first as football coach and then as athletic director, the 50th and final year of Frank Broyles's career should have been a victory lap, an extended tribute to a historic figure in college sports. After all, the 82-year-old Broyles—who coached the Razorbacks to their only football national championship, in 1964—is one of the last of a dying breed in big-time college athletics: the emperor, the coach who rises to become the ruler of all he surveys, a la Bear Bryant at Alabama or Darrell Royal at Texas.

But in his farewell year (in February Broyles announced his retirement as AD, effective Dec. 31), the man the Arkansas faithful once dubbed the Hogfather has seen more trauma than tribute. He awkwardly—and ineffectively—tried to calm the turmoil in the football program, in which the offensive coordinator and two prized recruits left after clashing with a coach whose character has recently been questioned. More recently Broyles led a bungled search for a basketball coach that saw a backup candidate take the job only to give it up the next day.

The reaction of Hog Nation has underscored how drastically times have changed since Broyles's heyday. Dissatisfied fans and boosters don't just grumble down at the local diner or barbershop anymore. Instead they take their beefs to cyberspace, sometimes after energetically digging for dirt. One enterprising fan went so far as to post a 48-page report detailing what he claims is an analysis of football coach Houston Nutt's cellphone records (acquired under the Freedom of Information Act), fueling gossip about Nutt's personal life and suggesting that he was talking to Miami about their coaching vacancy.

But Broyles has been the main target. He's often grilled on message boards for being out of touch, and last week rumors swirled that Broyles, a member of Augusta National, was so intent on attending the Masters last weekend that he rushed through the basketball search. (Broyles, who declined to comment for this article, did not attend the Masters.) "With the rise of blogs and message boards and radio talk shows, the pressure on coaches and athletic directors is just incredible, very different from what it was even a few years ago," says Arkansas chancellor John White. "I would think that played a role in Frank's decision to step down."

The football controversy was the beginning of the end for Broyles. After two losing seasons Nutt came under pressure from fans to hire an offensive coordinator. He picked Gus Malzahn, the highly successful coach at Springdale (Ark.) High. Several Springdale recruits, including quarterback Mitch Mustain and receiver Damian Williams, followed. But there was acrimony almost from the start. Nutt had a hard time letting go of the offense, leading to a power struggle with Malzahn, who left after the season to become offensive coordinator at Tulsa. And Mustain was benched for lack of production even though the Razorbacks won seven straight games with him under center. In December the parents of three former Springdale players, including Mustain, met with Broyles to discuss the football program. Though Broyles reportedly supported Nutt's authority, merely agreeing to the meeting reinforced Broyles's reputation as a former coach who couldn't resist meddling.

The unrest spread to the basketball program after Broyles fired Stan Heath on March 26, despite two consecutive 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances. "Stan's firing is indicative that Frank Broyles doesn't have any idea what he's doing," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said when the move was announced. The assumption was that Broyles planned to hire Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie, but when Gillispie turned down Arkansas, the Razorbacks were at a loss. Broyles eventually settled on Creighton's Dana Altman after a whirlwind, 48-hour courtship, but after being introduced Altman changed his mind, citing family concerns. The embarrassment spurred the school to take the search out of Broyles's hands and hire an Atlanta-based headhunting firm to find the Razorbacks a coach. South Alabama's John Pelphrey was hired on Monday.

It's a safe bet that Pelphrey—or Nutt or any coach—will be unable to repeat the arc of Broyles's career at the school. With so many demanding fans doing their own investigative reporting and Internet rabble-rousing, it has become almost impossible for anyone to achieve that kind of longevity. The emperor's throne isn't nearly as comfortable as it used to be.

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