Recently, the Arkansas football program Tweeted out an image of the five Razorbacks from the 2020 season who have a shot at going in this week’s NFL Draft.
One of the five players depicted, Jerry Jacobs, played in a grand total of four games for Arkansas during his entire college career.
Jacobs made his mark as a star defensive back for Arkansas State before transferring to Arkansas early last year. He made 17 tackles as a Razorback in all, but has been involved in numerous promos and press conferences in the 15 and a half months he’s been affiliated with the Razorbacks program.
In fact it was during one of those press conferences that he recently shared his regrets about opting out of the 2020 season only four games in.
“100 percent sure I regret it,” he said during Arkansas football’s Pro Day in March. “If I can go there again and change my life, change that decision, that would be one that I did.”
Jacobs said he had no excuses for leaving other than he was going through personal matters and his heart wasn’t in it. “I should have talked to someone before I made it. Honestly it was my decision. So, own up to it and learn from it.”
The fact that the Arkansas football program and Jacobs still have such a good relationship is just part of the strangely chummy relationship modern football student-athletes, programs and fans have with each other.
It’s especially obvious on the way players and fans think about transferring.
A record number of college basketball and football players are flooding the transfer portal after a recent rule allows them to switch schools once without having to sit out for a season.
Mike Woods shocked Hog fans when he decided to exit stage right before a season in which he would have gotten a lot of playing time. He Tweeted “WP4L” when making his announcement, which seems strange given the “4 Life” suggests the commitment would be strong enough to stick around for a few more months.
Immediately, Woods received a flood of well wishes from fans and other players. A few days later, when Woods announced he was heading to Oklahoma, Mason Jones went so far as to call that a “smart move.”
All of this feels weird, but I think it’s a reflection of two dynamics changing college football at once.
First, players increasingly think of themselves as resources in a huge money-making business, which is hard to argue in light of deals like the 10-year contract between the SEC and ESPN/ABC reported to be worth in the low $300 million range annually.
That kind of money is indicative of how important college sports are to various parts of the economy, from the world of the sportsbook bonus to Dickson Street restaurants after a big Arkansas game in a normal year.
“The players see themselves as the commodity and most of them have the attitude that ‘We have a right to go somewhere else if we want to,’” Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin recently said.
When it comes to college basketball, fans understand this a lot more clearly because star players have been leaving after a single season at their favorite programs for decades now.
Hardly anybody gets offended any more when a freshman decides to be a “one and done” and leave for a better opportunity in the pros. Moses Moody, for instance, was almost unanimously cheered by fans when he declared he was leaving after a single season as a Razorback.
But, until now, that same dynamic hasn’t played out in football because players had to stay at least three seasons in college before making that leap to the pros.
Perhaps the fact that players were essentially forced to stick around created among fans an impression of more player loyalty to specific programs than there really was.
To these fans, Irwin said, “when you become a Razorback, you’re becoming part of my family. ‘I’m a fan, my dad was a fan, my grandpa was a fan. You’re coming into our family. If you came to our house, we’d invite you in 10 years from now.’”
“If you’re down and out and need help and we can help you, we will because you’re a part of the Razorback family.
“And so, when somebody rejects all of that, they get angry.”
So, there’s a disconnect between fans and players. But there is evidence that over time the fans will come around to understanding where the players are coming from.
The athletic programs themselves see it in their best interests to stay connected to players, even when they played only a few games at that school.
For instance, if Jacobs ends up having as good a rookie season in the NFL as Kamren Curl did last year, you better believe that Arkansas will play up its connection to him on its social media channels. Future recruits won’t care that Jacobs only played four games.
The irony is that Mike Woods played in 32 games as a Razorback, yet if he ends up becoming a standout in the NFL, then it will be Oklahoma that will market its connection to him. Because going forward, when it comes to how players and programs play off each other’s brands, the last stop will matter most.
While Arkansas loses out in Woods’ case, the UA athletic department wins in the case of Razorback basketball transfers like Justin Smith and Jalen Tate.
No longer will the “one and done” apply to only first years in college basketball.
The same mindset is now sweeping college football, and fans will go through a few more heartbreaks before it finally hits home that there’s no going back to the way it was.