By Caleb Talley | Photography by Meredith Mashburn
Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek Aims to Right the Ship for the Razorbacks
UPDATE: Coach Mike Anderson was fired by the University of Arkansas on March 26.
From his office on the fourth floor of the shiny new Broyles Athletics Center, in the newly renovated north end of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Hunter Yurachek can see the field where his student-athletes will compete against some of the best football teams in the nation. He can see the cold gray bleachers spattered with red cushioned seats where devoted Razorback football fans will call out in excitement come fall.
“It’s special,” he says.
Yurachek enters his second year as the University of Arkansas’ athletic director with some big tasks at hand and a few more waiting in the wings. And unlike many of the athletic directors across the country who operate with a degree of anonymity thanks in part to success or competing sporting interests, all eyes are on him.
Yurachek says he’s up to the challenge.
Yurachek, a North Carolina native, is relatively new to the SEC, but he’s no novice when it comes to sports administration. A college athlete himself, having played basketball at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., Yurachek was among the first students enrolled in his alma mater’s sports administration courses despite majoring in business and marketing.
After graduation, Yurachek’s parents urged him to put his business degree to good use, and he went to work in a bank. He says he hated every minute of it. “Don’t tell my banker friends,” he jokes.
After earning a graduate degree in sports administration from the University of Richmond, Yurachek took an unpaid internship in 1993 within Wake Forest University’s Deacon Club, which coordinated the school’s fundraising efforts, much like Arkansas’ Razorback Foundation. After six months, he’d earned himself a salary. And after two years, he was hired as Wake Forest’s assistant director of marketing.
Following his stint at Wake Forest, Yurachek took a job within the athletic department of Vanderbilt University. And from Vanderbilt, he went to Western Carolina University. And from Western Carolina to the University of Virginia. And from Virginia to the University of Akron.
In 2009, Yurachek was able to show what he’d learned over the previous decade and a half when he was named athletic director at Coastal Carolina University. The university’s athletics department enjoyed near immediate success.
Coastal Carolina’s baseball team went on to play in an NCAA regional tournament in each year of Yurachek’s tenure. The Chanticleers’ basketball team finished 28-6 during the 2010-11 season and eventually made a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. The school’s football team, then a part of the FCS, went on to play in three consecutive playoffs, making it to the quarterfinals twice before Yurachek departed for the University of Houston.
After 14 months as COO of Houston’s athletic department, Yurachek was given the reins in April 2015. That fall, the Cougars’ football team won 13 games, including a victory over No. 9 ranked Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
The football team would continue to make a bowl appearance in every year of his tenure as athletic director. The Cougars’ baseball team went 43-20 in his final year at Houston, making it all the way to an NCAA Super Regional. And the season in which Yurachek departed for Arkansas, the Cougars’ men’s basketball team went on to the NCAA tournament, advancing to the second round. In all, 11 of the school’s 17 sports teams made an NCAA tournament during Yurachek’s last year at Houston.
And then, in the fall of 2017, he got the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to lead an SEC athletic program at the University of Arkansas.
Yurachek was hired as the new UA athletic director on Dec. 4, less than three weeks after the firing of Jeff Long, who’d served in the role since the retirement of legendary Arkansas coach and athletic director Frank Broyles.
Long, according to Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz, had lost the support of “fans, alumni, key supporters and members of the university leadership” amidst the worst stretch of Razorback football in university history under then-head football coach Bret Bielema. Bielema was released soon after Long, replaced by SMU’s Chad Morris, whose hiring was announced two days after Yurachek’s.
Yurachek, as well as Morris, came to Arkansas from the Lone Star State with the daunting task of reviving the program that dominates the department’s budget. During the 2017-18 school year, the UA football program accounted for 27 percent of the athletic department’s $115.2 million revenue stream. The only source to account for more of the budget was the SEC distribution, which accounted for 37 percent.
The program, under its new leadership, got off to a slow start in 2018, winning only two games. But Arkansas still managed to rank in the top 15 in Forbes list of most valuable college football teams, despite a decline in season ticket sales, according to Yurachek.
The on-field product does go a long way to putting fans in the seats of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Yurachek says. And the program is already making great strides in improving that product, having recently recruited the highest ranked class of high school athletes in school history. But as people grow less inclined to sit in the bleachers for several hours, Yurachek’s department must be more creative in increasing the paid attendance.
“There is a correlation between wins and losses in your programs,” Yurachek says. “Whether that’s in season ticket sales, donations for tickets tied to seats in our venues or sponsorship sales … There’s a definitive correlation between winning and the number of tickets you sell.
“But,” he adds, “I don’t think that’s the only thing.”
Yurachek cites a recent decision by the University of Alabama to reduce the number of seats in Bryant-Denny Stadium in an upcoming renovation. The race for higher capacity stadiums is seemingly over, as nationwide college football attendance experienced the second-largest dip in history. Universities across the country are now expanding luxury options and other amenities to entice fans. Arkansas is no different.
Last August, ahead of the 2018 football season, the U of A completed the renovation and expansion of Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The $160-plus million project included 40 new luxury suites, 70 premium loge boxes and a 10,000-square-foot club space, among other amenities. The project was funded in large part by the largest bond issued in the history of Arkansas higher education.
At the time, the move was met with some criticism, especially from then-UA board trustee David Pryor, who suggested the move put luxury amenities ahead of education. In a letter following the 2016 board decision, he wrote: “The stadium expansion does not put students first … Should we ever decide to issue bonds for classrooms, labs, scholarships, tuition or faculty salaries, count me as a supporter.”
But in this day and age, it’s those additional amenities that help sell tickets and secure donations to the Razorback Foundation, donations that have and will continue to be put toward the principle of the bond issued for the expansion.
“I think it’s a little bit of a sign of the times,” says Yurachek. “There’s a generation that maybe does not want to sit in the stands for three and a half hours. So, that’s why we’re doing a number of things to try to be creative in our thought process of what things can we bring to our venues. We want to bring an in-game entertainment piece to our venues to continue to entice fans to come and not give them a reason not to come.”
Yurachek also recognizes the tremendous responsibility that has been placed on him by UA leadership and the expectations that come with it. Those expectations aren’t nearly as measured as they were with his previous employers.
“Coastal Carolina took a back seat to South Carolina and Clemson,” Yurachek says. “And then, of course, Houston took a backseat to many schools in Texas, as well as professional teams. It’s very exciting for me to be at a place where you are the power five school in this state, where you’re the flagship institution.
“But it does come with great expectations. And with those expectations come great support,” he adds. “I think managing those expectations is what the chancellor charged with me early on, and to go out and get around this state and meet people, learn about the fabric of this state and what makes it special and engage our fan base that supports us tremendously.”
And, like most universities, Yurachek is charged with running the UA athletics department much like a business, of which he is the CEO. And the Arkansas Razorbacks are a big business with an enormous impact on its campus, its community and its student-athletes.
As a department, Razorback athletics are financially self-supporting. The department receives no state or taxpayer funding, or even student fees or university funding. UA athletics operate entirely on revenues derived from ticket sales, revenues distributed by the SEC, sponsorships and support from the Razorback Foundation. During the 2017-18 school year, the Razorback Foundation secured more than $29 million in private gifts, which will be used to support scholarships, facilities and other related programs. It was the seventh straight year of $20-plus million in fundraising. Major corporate sponsors include Walmart and Stephens, Inc., among others.
Annually, the athletics department contributes more than $3.5 million in direct funding to the University of Arkansas campus and nearly $10 million in tuition and fees. The impact on the region is even more profound. Studies have shown the department to have an annual economic impact of more than $160 million on the region and the state. A regional impact of more than $250 million can be attributed to facility construction activity alone. During Frank Broyles’s 50-year tenure with the university, the athletic department was responsible for more than $2.95 billion in economic output and an average of 2,286 jobs per year, according to an economic impact study commissioned by the U of A.
And regarding the revenue generated by the athletic department, Yurachek says every dollar is reinvested in some form or fashion back into the program for student-athletes.
“Probably the least understood part of the business side of [this] is in regard to the dollars we generate,” he says. “Every dollar we generate in revenue goes back in some way, shape or form to support our students. Even the salaries and how they have increased for coaches and administrators over the past 15 to 20 years – we hire and want to retain the best coaches because we want to give our students the best opportunity to have athletic success here at the University of Arkansas.
“Yes, our budget has grown significantly,” Yurachek adds. “But all the money that makes up our $130 million budget is invested back into our student-athletes, in their experience and creating opportunities. That money goes back into creating those opportunities. It could be through nutritional success, or chartering them back from games on weeknights so they can get back in time for class … The money doesn’t just go into the pockets of coaches and administrators. It goes back to support our mission of creating opportunities for student success.”
Of the $115.2 million generated in revenue during the 2017-18 school year, only 6 percent was allocated for administrators and internal support. A total of 64 percent went toward sports programs and student-athlete success, while the remaining 30 percent was earmarked for facility maintenance, event management, debt services and transfers to the university.
Upon his arrival, Yurachek took a hard look at ways in which the department could better serve his student-athletes, and their coaches, in the future through improved facilities.
“One of the first things I did when I arrived here was to meet with each and every one of our head coaches and took a tour of their facilities,” Yurachek says. “We talked about what they really liked about their facilities, where we may have been falling short and had opportunities to enhance their facilities. There was a master plan in place, but we tweaked that.”
At the forefront of that master plan is a baseball clubhouse project. The 40,000-square-foot center will be built beyond the right-field wall on the southwest corner of Baum Stadium and is currently estimated to cost $20-25 million. WER, of Fayetteville and Little Rock, and HKS, of Dallas, will lead the design team on the project, while Kinco Constructors, of Springdale and Little Rock, will serve as the general contractor.
“[The baseball clubhouse project] will be very student athlete-centric, with new locker rooms, a new team room, new weight room, a new athletic training facility, as well as new pitching areas and hitting areas, and then coaches’ offices,” Yurachek says. “There’s also a fan area, which will include a revenue piece. We’re going to try to put some boxes or maybe a homerun porch into the facility that gives us an opportunity to generate some revenue off of this new facility.”
The move follows one of the most successful seasons in Razorback baseball history, as the team came within an out of winning the College World Series. Season tickets for the baseball season that is now underway sold out quickly.
A second project is also underway to construct a 20,000-square-foot track and field performance center, just south of the track at John McDonnell Field. The project is expected to cost roughly $8-10 million and will be designed by Hufft, of Bentonville, and AECOM, of Kansas City. Flintco, of Springdale, will serve as construction manager.
The Randal Tyson Track Center will also undergo an extensive renovation and expansion project. The total cost of the renovation and expansion is estimated at $15-20 million. Polk Stanley Wilcox, of Little Rock, and Populous, of Kansas City, will lead the design team while CDI Constructors, of Little Rock, will serve as the general contractor.
Arkansas’ track and field program is among the most successful in the country, having racked up more than 40 NCAA championships including cross country, indoor and outdoor track, including a number of triple crowns.
“We have fallen behind in the facilities we offer student-athletes in track and field,” Yurachek says of the performance center. “There will be a facility that has locker rooms for men’s and women’s track and field programs. It will have a weight room and a training room, probably a lounge and team meeting area.
“We are hosting the Indoor Track and Field National Championships in March of 2021,” he adds. “We’ve got one of the best indoor facilities in our Tyson indoor facility, and the Tyson family has ensured that it will continue to be the best. We’re going to remodel that facility to create a concourse level … and create a new entrance for spectators with elevators and stairwells that take them up to an upper concourse with restrooms and concessions.”
According to Yurachek, the decision to make these improvements weren’t motivated by the national arms race for premier facilities. “They weren’t decided because we were trying to compare ourselves to anybody else,” he says. “They were decided because that’s what’s needed on campus.”
Waiting in the wings are potential renovations of Bud Walton Arena, home of Razorback basketball, and Barnhill Arena, current home of Razorback volleyball and gymnastics. Barnhill Arena also once served as the home of Razorback basketball, including the team’s championship season in 1994.
According to Yurachek, his department has engaged an architectural firm to conduct a feasibility study on Bud Walton Arena for the possibility of adding a “dynamic club level with boxes and club seats.”
“This facility has really served us well, but it’s more than 25 years old now, and there’s a need for a refresh,” he says. “We’re going to parlay that into a feasibility study on what’s best for Barnhill Arena. Is that another renovation to the facility or is it more cost efficient to potentially tear that facility down and build a brand-new facility for volleyball and gymnastics programs, either on that site or somewhere else?”
The decision to potentially add more luxury amenities to Bud Walton, known to Razorback fans as the “Basketball Palace of Mid-America,” comes amid scrutiny regarding the state of the men’s basketball team under the direction of head coach Mike Anderson. Despite consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in 2017 and 2018, memories of the successes of the 1990s are still fresh on the minds of many fans. As with football, Razorback fans long for a return to former glory.
“The passion of our fan base is like none I’ve ever experienced,” Yurachek says. “It’s what’s makes the state special, and it’s what makes our university special. If you talk to Coach Morris, he wants more than anything to get this football program headed back in the right direction for our fans because he understands how passionate they are and how desperately they want our football program to be great.
“I think thats with drives Coach Anderson. I think that’s what drives Coach [Dave] Van Horn. They have a passion for their student-athletes, but they also understand how important the success of our athletic programs is to our fans.”
The athletic director does recognize that enjoying success on the field of play means overcoming some of the toughest competition in the country in the SEC. “We are in a conference where, for the most part, everybody has equal or greater resources than we have, and we’re all driven to have great success,” he says.
“And you know, along the way to that success, you’ve got to have some breaks,” Yurachek adds. “There’s a fine line between winning and losing games. It can be a key injury or injuries to student-athletes that are key components. Or it can be a fumble that bounces one way as opposed to another. We’ve seen that here at Arkansas.
“There are moments –and it’s not just in Arkansas history, but the history of sports – you have to have brakes to win games, and it’s hard when competing in this conference against the best coaches and best resources. We all have great facilities, trying to recruit the best student-athletes, and it’s a challenge, day in and day out.”