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Oklahoma State football: How do Arkansas & Tennessee compare?

by Berry Tramel Published: December 4, 2012

Mike Gundy is flirting, to some degree, with Arkansas and Tennessee. He’s probably doing it as some kind of leverage, but anytime you flirt, it can lead to other things. So here’s a question. How does the OSU job compare with Arkansas and Tennessee? Let’s look.


In bygone days, this would not have been up for discussion. The schools would rank this way: 1. Tennessee; 2. Arkansas; 3. OSU a distant third. But that has changed.

National titles: Tennessee won it all in 1998 and also finished No. 4 in 2001, No. 3 in 1995, No. 5 in 1989 and No. 4 in 1985. Arkansas has no real national titles (an obscure championship in 1964 doesn’t count) but was No. 5 in 2011 and No. 3 in 1977.  OSU has no national titles but was No. 3 last season.

BCS bowls: Tennessee hasn’t made a major bowl since 1999 but went to five in the ’90s. Arkansas made the Sugar Bowl in the 2010 season, its first major bowl trip since the Orange Bowl in the 1986 season. OSU’s trip to the Fiesta Bowl last season was its first major game since the 1940s.

Conference landscape: The Vols and the Hogs are in the nation’s toughest conference, the SEC. The Cowboys are in the Big 12, which ranks with the Pac-12 as the second-best. But the disparity goes deeper than that. The SEC recently went to 14 schools. The Big 12 is at 10 schools. So just numerically, it’s tougher to win the SEC. And the conference format is a factor, too. Tennessee’s mission in the SEC East (catch mighty Florida and Georgia, not to mention South Carolina), is similar to OSU’s in the Big 12. Catch OU and Texas (the latter, the Cowboys have accomplished over the last five years), while staving off the likes of Kansas State and West Virginia. Similar to Arkansas in the SEC West — catch Alabama and LSU, with Texas A&M and Auburn (this season disaster notwithstanding) also viable. But one big difference. If OSU can achieve its mission, the Cowboys are champs. If the Hogs or Vols achieve their mission, they’ve still got a killer SEC title game awaiting.

Bottom line: Arkansas and Tennessee have more tradition. But OSU offers a better chance to win in the contemporary setting.


Not since Kenny Hatfield after the 1989 season has an Arkansas coach retired or left for a better job. Hatfield made a lateral move (at the time) to Clemson. Since then, Jack Crowe, Danny Ford, Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino were fired or felt the heat and bolted. Ford and Crowe had losing records at Arkansas.

Tennessee has fired two of its past three coaches (Phil Fulmer and Derek Dooley), and the other (Lane Kiffin) stayed just one season before bolting for Southern Cal. But the Vols had enviable stability for a long time. Johnny Majors was the Tennessee coach from 1977 through 1992, Fulmer from 1992 through 2008.

OSU has fired or forced out or worn out three of its seven coaches over the last 40 years — Jim Stanley, Pat Jones and Bob Simmons. But Jimmy Johnson and Les Miles left OSU for national-championship platforms at Miami and LSU, respectively.

So all three schools are typical of big-time football programs. They can be both fruitful and tough for a coach. However, OSU has been a more stable environment the last 10 years. And Gundy is not a graduate of, nor the favorite son of, Arkansas or Tennessee. He’s a beloved Cowboy who will foster a lot of patience from OSU fans, should things ever get dicey.


In Arkansas, the Razorbacks rule. In Tennessee, the Vols don’t necessarily rule, but the NFL Titans are three hours west. In Oklahoma, the Sooners rule. That might be the chief downside to the OSU job. No matter what Gundy does, the massive shadow of OU football has to be a constant thorn.

On the other hand, at places like OU and Arkansasa and Tennessee, pressure and scrutiny is increased significantly. It’s a lot more comfortable coaching in Stillwater.


Money: OSU has Boone Pickens, but Arkansas and Tennessee have more benefactors, if not any as prolific as Boone. But more importantly, Tennessee and Arkansas have been bigger stadiums and bigger fan bases, which means a more consistent influx of money through ticket sales.

Facilities: OSU’s digs once were among the nation’s worst. Now they’re among the nation’s best. But Arkansas and Tennessee have excellent facilities, too.

Bottom line: Lack of money is not going to be an excuse at any of the three places.


Gundy and athletic director Mike Holder had a contentious contract negotiation last year, and Gundy wants more say in OSU’s non-conference scheduling. I don’t claim to know what the relationships are like at Tennessee and Arkansas, but Razorback AD Jeff Long fired Petrino earlier this year in part because the coach failed to tell Long the truth about a fidelity scandal. Long probably is not in the mood to just leave a coach alone.


None of the three schools are in recruiting hotbeds, though Oklahoma and Arkansas high school football is better than Tennessee high school football. But OSU has recruited well in Texas, where Arkansas once thrived but no longer does. Tennessee is close to the fertile Georgia/Florida/Alabama recruiting grounds.


Historically, it’s not even close. Tennessee and Arkansas trump OSU easily. But the Cowboys have made great strides. Over at least five years, OSU has proven to be no worse than the third-best program in the Big 12. Over at least five years, Arkansas and Tennessee are not the third-best programs in their own divisions. Arkansas and Tennessee perhaps have a higher upside, because of their tradition and fan bases. But OSU is closer to championship status.


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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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