Because events were postponed due to the pandemic, the Arkansas Press Association didn’t get around to presenting its 2020 and 2021 Headliner of the Year awards until a banquet last month. The 2020 honoree was Gov. Asa Hutchinson for his daily communication at the onset of the pandemic. The 2021 recipient was Hunter Yurachek, the University of Arkansas athletic director who has taken the athletic program to new heights.
I’ve covered politics, sports and business in my career. In addition to being a former assistant sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat and a former political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’m a former editor of Arkansas Business. The worlds of business, sports and politics intersect on a regular basis in this state.
Who were the three most important people when it came to moving Arkansas forward in the 20th century? They were Winthrop Rockefeller, Sam Walton and Frank Broyles–politics, business, sports.
After being elected governor in 1966, Rockefeller altered the course of Arkansas. He was the first governor to bring Blacks into prominent positions in state government. He cleaned up the state’s poor national reputation, which enhanced economic development. Wins over Democratic Party nominees Jim Johnson in 1966 and Marion Crank in 1968 forced what was then the state’s dominant party to change its ways. Rockefeller’s victories opened the door for Democrats Dale Bumpers, David Pryor and Bill Clinton.
We all know the Walton story. Having lost his lease on a Ben Franklin five-and-dime store in Newport in the early 1950s, Walton moved to tiny Bentonville and created one of the greatest private companies in world history. The success of Walmart led other corporations to consider Arkansas. The vast fortunes created by Walmart’s success are now being used to transform northwest Arkansas into one of the best places to live in the country.
Broyles came to UA as head football coach in 1958 when the state was at a low point. Arkansas had been losing population faster than any other state since the 1940 census. The 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis became the biggest news story in the world and left a stain that took years to remove.
The success of Broyles’ Razorback football teams not only gave Arkansans something to look forward to, it helped them start believing in themselves. If Arkansas could compete at a high level in college football, it surely could do so in other areas. The state that lost population faster than all other states from 1940-60 has been gaining population since the 1960s.
Neither Hutchinson nor Yurachek will go down as the transformational figures that Rockefeller and Broyles were, but they’ve represented our state well on the national stage.
Hutchinson is in a line of governors dating back to Rockefeller who have been pragmatic and moderate in their governing style. Of those nine governors, five have been Democrats (Bumpers, Pryor, Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Beebe) and four have been Republicans (Rockefeller, Frank White, Mike Huckabee and Hutchinson). All governed from the middle. It’s yet to be seen if that fortunate run of moderation and pragmatism will continue.
In introducing Hutchinson at the APA banquet, Arkansas Business publisher Mitch Bettis said: “As cases rose across the state and nation in 2020, the governor responded to the need for current information with daily press conferences for months on end so Arkansas citizens knew what was happening. He provided information and answered questions without hesitation despite the extraordinary difficulties of the rapidly changing situation.
“The governor also mobilized the Economic Recovery Task Force, which was formed to help Arkansans confidently and safely return to life and work during the pandemic. The task force’s work was based on science and data.”
During a recent interview, Hutchinson said: “A free press is one of the tools the public uses to keep an eye on elected officials. FOIA laws and reporting by journalists require officials to act responsibly and honestly or face the consequences.”
“It’s for this dedication to the Freedom of Information Act and freedom of the press, along with the transparency and leadership he showed during the pandemic, that we’re honoring the governor,” Bettis said.
Like Rockefeller, Walton and Broyles, the UA athletic director wasn’t born in Arkansas. But like those three titans, Yurachek adopted the state and shows a genuine affection for its people.
In his introduction of Yurachek, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editor Rusty Turner said: “Now in his fifth full year as vice chancellor and director of athletics, Hunter has solidified the Razorbacks as one of the nation’s elite intercollegiate athletic programs while leading it to unprecedented success along the way. Since being announced as the AD in December 2017, he has worked tirelessly to foster success in 19 sports, restore the tradition of a storied program and, most importantly, enhance the experience for 465 student-athletes.
“Hunter has implemented a program-wide strategic plan that focuses on fostering student-athlete excellence and academic achievement. Results are being realized on and off the field. … Hunter has been so successful in managing and rebuilding the athletic program that many have sought his counsel in other areas of leadership.”
It should thus come as no surprise that Hutchinson named Yurachek to the aforementioned Economic Recovery Task Force. Sports and politics again mixed.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.