FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Washington, D.C., always could have used a man like Frank Broyles. Perhaps now more than ever.
Broyles was a man of principle, a man of character, and a man of determination. The Arkansas icon knew his way around a table of power players. He, himself, was one. Not just small-town, middle-America power plays, either. Lest anyone think Broyles was too folksy to succeed in the Beltway, the coach could cajole and maneuver, if he wanted. Frank Broyles could even make you like the verbal or psychological whippin’ he was about to give you.
There are a lot of similarities between Washington and the NCAA. Broyles succeeded in both arenas.
Broyles, the legendary Arkansas football coach and athletic director, died last Monday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 92. Until those final few weeks, when he was on hospice — when medical personnel tended to his needs inside the Broyles home — he was still the same man. The disease be damned.
Broyles lost his first wife, Barbara, to Alzheimer’s in 2004. The loss motivated him to start the Broyles Foundation, with the aim of raising awareness about the disease.
The endeavor put him back in touch with one of his former players.
Sen. John Boozman played football for the Razorbacks in the late 1960s and early 70s. After Boozman was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2001, he and Broyles, then serving as athletic director, worked together on Alzheimer’s research and other issues.
“We spent a lot of time with that,” Boozman said. “He could come to Washington, and I would help take him to different offices and things. When he was in Washington, everybody knew him. It was the generation that grew up with him either coaching or listening to his broadcasts through the years.”
Broyles knew how the political game worked, and his foresight in the world of collegiate athletics politics put Arkansas in a position to thrive financially. He’s the man who anticipated the demise of the Southwest Conference years before it came to pass. Despite being a good geographic fit for the Razorbacks, Broyles knew the SWC was also becoming the University of Texas’ conference.
The SEC, on the other hand, was a stronger league. Arkansas wasn’t a powerhouse football program, and the move garnered wariness along with excitement. But as the athletic director, it was Broyles’ move to make, and it was a shrewd one. The SWC did indeed collapse a few years later. Had Arkansas stayed, the Razorbacks might be in the Big 12 right now, living in the financial shadow of the Longhorns.
“I believe he did that to get out from underneath Texas’ thumb and then also saw the potential for increased revenue,” Boozman said. “He did a great job. He also realized the state was excited, but he knew how difficult it would be in the SEC. I think he went into it eyes wide open.”
The move took tremendous vision. It also took required winning over influential people to bring the plan to fruition. Broyles the man, not Broyles the athletic director, had to do that. Whatever role he had to play, he did so.
As well as Broyles could schmooze, he could lay the heavy hand just as effectively. In 2002, with two games left in the men’s basketball regular season, coach Nolan Richardson practically dared Broyles to fire him. Richardson’s press conference between a loss to Kentucky and a loss to Mississippi State was racially tinged. He accused Broyles and Arkansas of discrimination. Days later, Broyles relieved Richardson of his duties.
It had to be done.
“Coach Broyles was a politician in the sense [of] keeping the University of Arkansas at the forefront,” Boozman said. “He was a guy who always put the university first, did what he felt like was best — sometimes under tremendous pressure. He was very, very good at that. He was very diplomatic, and yet if he needed to be, could be very firm.”
That combination of skills won hearts and minds in D.C. When politicians and lobbyists came to know the man they watched on television as children, things changed. With their help, Broyles published the book Coach Broyles’ Playbook for Alzheimer’s Caregivers.
Just like the coach himself, the book is a blend of two seemingly incompatible worlds. Written like a football playbook, it’s based on the time Broyles spent caring for Barbara during her final years. It’s a work of great significance, yet it’s easily understood. Just like Broyles.
That’s the man Boozman will remember.
“He had lots of tremendous leadership qualities in so many different ways,” Boozman said.
Former SEC Country reporter Jason Kersey contributed to this report.