It’s abject folly to reduce John Franklin Broyles’ legacy to something quantitative. Officially speaking, Broyles had more than a half-century’s worth of public employment with the University of Arkansas (head coach from 1958 to 1976, and a 33-year tenure as athletic director that started in 1974 when he was still at the helm of the football program), but Broyles’ death on Aug. 14 came after a mostly private battle with the damnable Alzheimer’s disease against which he had become an impassioned fighter when it claimed his first wife, Barbara, 13 years ago. It marks the end of 92 years lived well, not entirely without controversy but absolutely without fear, and it signals that the forthcoming 2017 season will be one played in tribute for the only man to ever lead the Hogs to a national championship in the sport that, to fans and boosters alike, matters most.
Further proof that Broyles’ impact on Arkansas athletics cannot be reduced to mere numbers: his 144 wins over 19 seasons remains a school record by a long margin, but that only nominally substantiates the acumen he boasted as a sideline general. Broyles cut his football teeth as a standout quarterback for Georgia Tech, winning 1944 SEC Player of the Year honors, so he actually wasn’t as passing-averse as many of his contemporaries. As a result, quarterbacks like Jon Brittenum, Ronny South, Bill Montgomery and especially Joe Ferguson got to enjoy a slightly more vertical attack than other signal-callers of the era. Arkansas was consistently one of the nation’s most efficient rushing teams, never turnover-prone, and along with a defense that could be suffocating over stretches of weeks at a time, Broyles regularly assembled a well-rounded unit. Save for the grave disappointment of losing the 1969 Game of the Century to Texas with President Nixon among the crowd in Fayetteville and a moribund final season in 1976, Broyles’ performance as coach was A-list material.
It was Broyles’ deferential nature as head coach that arguably made him iconic, and the creation of the Broyles Award in 1996 was inspired by that willingness to delegate duties to coordinators and position coaches. For his nearly two decades as head coach, Broyles’ coaching progeny could only be described as exceptional. Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer famously both joined the staff after playing for Broyles in Fayetteville; Hayden Fry and Joe Gibbs both spent a season under his wing before taking flight as head coaches elsewhere, and eventual Tennessee and Pittsburgh boss Johnny Majors was on staff for four years in the 1960s. Wilson Matthews rose from the high school ranks to become a top aide to Broyles for a decade, and it’s no wonder the former Little Rock Central legend is depicted alongside his boss in the trophy handed out annually to the top assistant in the college football ranks. It’s also no wonder that out of two decades’ worth of recipients of the trophy, 14 have become head coaches with varying degrees of success.
As an administrator, Broyles struck a more autonomous tone. He was a deft fundraiser and his perception of what would and wouldn’t work in a place like Fayetteville was shockingly acute. The facilities on The Hill are first-rate across the board, and the Razorback Foundation’s growth throughout his tenure was at least partially attributable to Broyles’ homespun Southern charm. Baum Stadium became a cathedral of collegiate baseball when it opened in 1996; three short years before that, Bud Walton Arena opened and immediately welcomed a national champion on the basketball court. Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium will soon reach an attendance capacity of double what it was in Broyles’ final seasons on the sideline, though in a bit of morose irony, its latest expansion was facilitated by the leveling of the Broyles Athletic Center in the north end zone.
His reign as athletic director was buoyed by smash-hit hires and threatened by them all the same. Lou Holtz had an abbreviated run as Broyles’ immediate successor as head football coach, including winning the 1978 Orange Bowl in a memorable upset of Oklahoma, but the mercurial coach high-tailed it for the less glamorous Minnesota job in 1984 amid rumors of a falling out with Broyles (and some apparent concerns over Holtz’s Jesse Helms fetish). A hero of the ’64 championship team, Ken Hatfield came onboard, won 55 games and two Southwest Conference titles in only six seasons, but left for Clemson abruptly after the 1990 Cotton Bowl due to perceived discord with his former coach. That led to the infamous decision to promote Jack Crowe to head coach, and the equally infamous one to dismiss him after the 1992 loss to the Citadel in the season opener.
Broyles’ last football head coaching hire was Houston Nutt, and in an era where message boards surfaced as a visible thermometer for fan discontent, it was a personnel decision that posters would decry at length as the onetime Hog expat floundered his way into multiple contract extensions. Nutt’s decade-long run as coach brought heat on the AD in other ways: Nolan Richardson, the man who authored the Hogs’ basketball success in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, publicly bristled at the favorable treatment his football counterpart received while he seemed to struggle to curry favor with Broyles. Ultimately, Richardson sued the university following his 2002 firing, and even as the lawsuit was deemed without merit, Broyles’ genteel reputation took a few brutal hits amid allegations that he used racial epithets and had been unduly tough on the African-American firebrand he hired in 1985 to replace a disillusioned, Kentucky-bound Eddie Sutton.
Of course, Richardson’s animus toward the university has since softened, Holtz and Hatfield never genuinely aired their apparent grudges for long, and Sutton later recanted his embittered statement about “crawling to Lexington” to coach the Wildcats. For all his faults, Nutt did win 75 games over 10 years to place a distant second on the career wins list, John McDonnell made the track and field program an unparalleled national juggernaut, and Norm DeBriyn’s retirement allowed Broyles to retain the services of Dave Van Horn, who has guided the baseball program to its greatest heights over a 15-year tenure.
For all the upheaval, it was Broyles’ boldest decision, to leave behind the Southwest Conference, that served as the catalyst for the program’s profitability and visibility to soar. A quarter-century in the SEC has had its share of lowlights among all sports, but it also enhanced the school’s image across the nation and served notice that Arkansas athletics would not be stagnant. Arkansas’s announced exit from the SWC hastened that old conference’s demise and accelerated Broyles’ growth plan for the department, which thereafter added new sports and expanded its campus footprint.
There will be some who express bewilderment at Broyles’ celebrity, noting he won but a single (and disputed) national title as head coach and then clashed with many that he hired. They might also point to the Hogs’ underwhelming performance on the football field in the SEC era or the Richardson lawsuit exposing unsavory goings-on within the department. But Frank Broyles was inarguably one of the last of his kind, too — he was old-school in his manner and methods, but undeniably shrewd and forward-thinking in a cutthroat era of college athletics.