Razorbacks in national spotlight thanks to homegrown heroes

LITTLE ROCK (ArkansasSports360.com) - Did you happen to catch the front page of ESPN.com last night?

Front and center you had Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson and Chicago Bulls guard Ronnie Brewer, two Arkansans and former Razorbacks. Brewer was guarding Johnson in Game One of a second-round NBA playoff game and an Associated Press photographer captured the moment.

Johnson, who signed a monster contract last summer, scored 34 points to lead the Hawks to a victory. Brewer and the Bulls lost, creating a bit of quandary for Razorback fans trying to figure out who to support in the playoffs.

What a great "problem" to have.

Seeing the two of them featured on the front of ESPN.com got me thinking about how relevant the state is on the national sports scene right now, particularly as it pertains to the Razorbacks. Arkansas – the state and university — has a modest history of successful pro athletes and big years on the college sports scene.

Arkansas won a national championship with President Bill Clinton looking on in 1994. From a sports perspective, the late 1970s were great for the Razorbacks in all three major sports.

Could this be the high point, though?

Consider all that has happened in just a little over a month. I cobbled together a quick list below. Keep in mind these are in no certain order and might not even include everything. There have probably been some national sports highlights shows and Arkansas-themed moments we've missed along the way.

* Peyton Hillis won a fan vote for the cover of Madden '12 last week. He followed up his video game success with appearances on the NFL Draft and the Late Show with David Letterman and seems poised for more opportunities despite being a relative unknown outside the state.

* Former Arkansas golfer Stacy Lewis won the Kraft Nabisco Open, the first major tournament on the women's calendar. Lewis has three Top 10 finishes in six tournaments played.

* ESPN produced "Sports Science" pieces and feature packages for both tight end D.J. Williams and quarterback Ryan Mallett. Both were recently drafted along with offensive lineman DeMarcus Love.

* Bobby Petrino and the Razorbacks had their spring game broadcast on ESPN. That comes on the heels of a BCS Bowl appearance in January.

* ESPNU will broadcast an "All-Access" special on Arkansas baseball Thursday. It's similar to programs put together on Duke basketball and Alabama football. Arkansas baseball isn't quite to the level that Duke and Alabama are in their respective sports, but national exposure like this could help it get there.

* Arkansas made national headlines by making Mike Anderson one of the Top 10 highest-paid coaches in college basketball. Plus, last week Dave Van Horn was locked to coach baseball here through 2020. Don't forget Petrino has signed a letter of agreement (with a contract eventually coming) to coach the Razorbacks until 2017.

You know it's only a matter of time before other former Razorbacks and homegrown heroes like Cliff Lee, Jerry Jones, John Daly or Wallace Spearmon make headlines in their respective sports.

People are taking notice, especially ESPN. For a network that many fans assumed has a bias against the Razorbacks, there sure seems to be a lot of Razorback-themed programming of late. That goes for the website, too, where Williams, Mallett and Petrino have been consistent sources of copy recently.

There's an argument to be made that some of the exposure for Arkansas is merely a product of the SEC's expanded TV deal with ESPN. Sure, it helps that ESPN has numerous platforms that need a constant flow of content.

But Arkansas has been doing its part to help fill those programming needs. As we saw last night on ESPN.com, this state's sports stars aren't merely filling space, they're front and center right now.