Neal Jones covered Arkansas’ merger into the SEC over 30 years ago. He was in Kansas City when Missouri joined the almighty league in 2012. He lends some valuable perspective as we anticipate OU’s relocation.
(A version of this story originally appeared in Guerin Emig’s newsletter, deliverable to your inbox on Thursdays. Sign up here.)
Neal Jones reached his 30th anniversary as a sports anchor/reporter for Kansas City CBS affiliate KCTV last September. That’s terrific.
I remember driving from my Wichita radio gig to Kemper Arena for Big Eight basketball tournaments and seeing Neal there. My career has turned over 10 times since but his hasn’t. At a time journalism outlets cut inside the bone, you forget it’s even conceivable that a reporter can last that long in one place. Good for Neal and for KCTV.
He has reached out occasionally since I traded broadcasting for writing. He did so the other day in response to my column on Arkansas fans’ advice for their OU brethren (Neal has some skin in the Sooners’ SEC move, being an OU alum).
“I was covering Arkansas when they made the jump from the Southwest Conference to the SEC,” Neal wrote. “Everything AD Frank Broyles promised came true, except one.
“The Hogs’ athletic facilities improved, the stadiums got bigger, the practice and support areas expanded and got better and the athletic budgets exploded. The only thing that didn’t happen was winning.
“The Razorbacks found themselves cut off from their traditional football recruiting ground – Texas. I contacted Houston Nutt, who was heading up the program when the U of A made the move. He told me how the Arkansas staff was instantly given the ‘cold shoulder’ by the families of Texas kids.
“‘We could no longer promise them four or five games played down there in the Lone Star State every year,’ the then-Ole Miss coach said. ’And (before the SEC Network) our SEC games weren’t even on TV in Texas.’
“That was in 1992. In 2024, the two biggest Texas schools will be SEC members, and recruiting Texas kids to Norman, Oklahoma, will be like it’s always been for the Sooners: doable.
“I interviewed Coach Nutt because the University of Missouri was looking to jump leagues. At the time they had their hearts set on the Big Ten, but the SEC became their landing place the next year. Like Arkansas, they lost their foothold in Texas (and Oklahoma), hurting their football recruiting. Thanks to an aggressive head coach and NIL money, the Tigers are now recruiting at a level Mizzou fans haven’t seen since Gary Pinkel was bringing NFL talent into Columbia.
“If the Sooners have a great head coach in the mold of Wilkinson, Switzer, Stoops and yes Riley, they will be fine in the SEC. If not, they’ll settle into the league’s second tier. Only time will tell whether Coach Venables is a superstar… or just a really good coordinator.
“Either way it’s going to be a fascinating story.”
Really good stuff from Neal. I appreciate him sharing with me, and for allowing me to share with you guys.
Neal was working at a Fort Smith TV station when Arkansas moved to the SEC in 1991. He knows what he’s talking about when he says the new digs came with new money and facilities, but that the football ledger suffered.
Broyles made the Razorbacks a Southwest Conference powerhouse beginning in 1959, his second year on the job. Successors Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield chalked up 10-win seasons out of the SWC.
Then came Jack Crowe in 1990 and SEC football membership in ‘92. Nutt was next to win 10 in 2006 (he went 10-4 and lost the Capital One Bowl). Bobby Petrino went 21-5 in 2010-11, was fired for being a terrible person in the spring of ‘12, and Arkansas has gone 24-74 in SEC games since.
That’s right. 24 wins, 74 losses. Arkansas is the ultimate SEC football cautionary tale.
Missouri’s SEC record is 47-51. Since Neal referenced Pinkel, it should be noted that the Tigers went 23-5 overall and 14-2 in the SEC in 2013-14, Pinkel’s second and third seasons coaching in his new conference. Near as I can tell, the only Missouri football teams to post better back-to-back league marks were the 1941-42 Tigers who went 9-0-1 in the Big Six.
Pinkel crashed in 2015, finishing 1-7 in the SEC and resigning, but that 13-14 run becomes an OU model assuming Sooner fans would gladly take a 14-2 SEC record in 2025-26, their second and third seasons in their new home.
This feels, to borrow Neal’s word, “doable.”
Neal makes a valid point about OU’s Texas recruiting base, about the Sooners maintaining Lone Star advantages that the Razorbacks lost 24 years ago. Nutt’s reflections are telling in that vein.
Neal strikes again with his closing comments about Venables.
Joe Castiglione cast OU’s athletic future with the first-time head coach when he hired Venables two years ago. He trusted Venables would clean up Lincoln Riley’s debris. He trusted Venables could do so while taking on college football’s changing times related to the transfer portal and name, image and likeness, and OU’s changing times related to the SEC.
That faith appeared to be shaky after Venables’ opening 6-7 season. Now it feels much firmer, same as the Sooners’ prospects in their dangerous new conference beginning next fall.
Just so long as they veer from Arkansas’ path.