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College football: Week 4

Monday, September 19th, 2016

The Razorbacks are 3-0 for the first time since 2013.

Arkansas’ 42-3 victory over my wife’s alma mater at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium last Saturday night was little more than a scrimmage. The Hogs outgained the Bobcats 467-105 and outrushed Texas State 226-22. That’s the fewest rushing yards allowed by an Arkansas team since the Texas Bowl in 2014.

Arkansas has scored 40 or more points in eight of its past 10 games.

The victory over Texas State makes Bret Bielema 39-4 as a head coach in regular-season nonconference games. Arkansas improved to 24-1 against schools currently playing in the Sun Belt Conference, and Texas State fell to 0-5 against schools currently playing in the Southeastern Conference.

Now it’s on to Arlington, Texas, for a battle of ranked teams that will air late Saturday night on ESPN. Texas A&M is the higher-ranked team, but Arkansas might be due after having lost the past two seasons in overtime to the Aggies.

We were 7-1 on the picks last week, missing only on UAPB’s upset victory at Alcorn State in three overtimes. That makes the record 21-7 for the season.

Let’s get to the picks for Week 4:

Arkansas 32, Texas A&M 31 — The Aggies gained national attention on the first Saturday of the season when they upset a UCLA team that came into College Station ranked No. 16. The 31-24 overtime victory occurred with a CBS national television audience looking on. Texas A&M had its own scrimmage a week later with a 67-0 victory over Prairie View A&M from the SWAC. Last Saturday, the Aggies went on the road for the first time this season and came away from Auburn with a 29-16 win. The Aggies had 478 yards of offense as Gus Malzahn’s Tigers fell to 1-2 overall and 0-1 in SEC play. Trevor Knight passed for 247 yards for Texas A&M. The previous two games between Arkansas and Texas A&M went into overtime. This latest edition of the series should prove just as entertaining.

Arkansas State 40, UCA 30 — It has been a rough start to the 2016 season for Arkansas State. The Red Wolves fell to 0-3 last Friday night with a 34-20 loss to Utah State in Logan, Utah. Utah State, which plays in the Mountain West Conference, is now 2-1. The home team jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and led 24-0 at halftime. The Red Wolves had 354 yards of offense but also had 18 penalties for 129 yards. Even though UCA is an FCS team, the Bears might be able to hang around in Jonesboro on Saturday night, at least for three quarters. UCA moved to 2-1 overall and 2-0 in the Southland Conference last Saturday with a 24-10 win in Conway over 0-3 Northwestern State from Louisiana. UCA had 227 yards on the ground and a nine-minute advantage in time of possession. Antwon Wells led the Bears with 129 yards on 25 carries.

Jackson State 21, UAPB 19 — As usual, the Golden Lions are hard to figure out. They looked awful in an opening 44-0 loss to Tennessee State and then came home and lost to an NCAA Division II school, Panhandle State of Oklahoma. So what happened next? They ventured down to Lorman, Miss., last Thursday night to take on the defending SWAC champions from Alcorn State in a nationally televised game on ESPNU and came away with that 45-43 victory in three overtimes. Down by 16 points with 5:55 left in regulation, UAPB scored two touchdowns and converted two-point conversions after both of them to force overtime. The third two-point conversion of the evening won the game in the third overtime. Brandon Duncan passed for 505 yards for UAPB. Jackson State, this week’s opponent at War Memorial Stadium, is 0-3 following losses of 63-13 to UNLV, 40-26 to Tennessee State and 35-14 to Grambling. Can the Golden Lions make it two wins in a row? I never know what to expect.

Henderson 41, Southwestern Oklahoma 25 — The Reddies are 3-0 and continue to move up in the national rankings. They rolled to a 62-23 victory over 1-2 Northwestern Oklahoma in Arkadelphia last Saturday afternoon in a game that saw them take a 31-0 lead before Northwestern even had a first down. The Reddies outgained the Rangers 592-305. Southwestern Oklahoma was expected to contend for a conference title this year but has been a disappointment. The Bulldogs fell to 0-3 Saturday with a loss at Ouachita.

Ouachita 49, Northwestern Oklahoma 33 — The Tigers rebounded from their upset loss at Southeastern Oklahoma with a 48-28 win in Arkadelphia over Southwestern Oklahoma on Saturday night. Ouachita quarterback Austin Warford, a junior from Malvern, was named the Great American Conference’s offensive player of the week after rushing for 144 yards and passing for another 268 yards. Warford is the leading rusher in the conference and leads all quarterbacks in NCAA Division II in rushing yardage.

Southern Arkansas 29, Arkansas Tech 27 — Both teams are 2-1 and needing a win to realistically stay in the race for a conference crown. Tech, which finished 9-3 last year, opened with an easy victory over Southern Nazarene and then was upset at Oklahoma Baptist. Last Saturday night, the Wonder Boys struggled before finally posting a 38-31 win over 1-2 UAM. Tech quarterback Ty Reasnor threw for 330 yards. Southern Arkansas won its first two games against Southwestern Oklahoma and Northwestern Oklahoma before falling by 21 points at Harding on Saturday night. It was the 12th consecutive year for SAU to lose to Harding. We’ll give a slight edge to the home team.

Harding 50, UAM 28 — The Bisons are 3-0 and seem positioned to challenge Henderson for the conference crown. In the 35-14 win over Southern Arkansas on Saturday, Harding finished with 459 yards of offense, with 385 of that coming on the ground. The Harding defense, meanwhile, held the Muleriders to just 275 yards of offense. The game is in Monticello, but the Boll Weevils (who lost to Northwestern Oklahoma in the opener, upset Southwestern Oklahoma and then lost to Arkansas Tech) don’t appear to have enough athletes to hang with the Bisons.

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College football: Week 3

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

I almost nailed the final score of Arkansas’ game at TCU.

I had it 40-38 in last week’s post.

It was 41-38.

The problem: I had the wrong team winning.

I ended last week’s prediction summary by writing that “it should be an entertaining game.”

That was an understatement.

My youngest son who was there (I was off broadcasting another college game in Oklahoma) told me that it was “one of the best college games I’ve ever seen.”

Granted, he’s only 19. Most of us have seen a lot more college football. But that doesn’t take away from one of the defining victories thus far in the Bret Bielema era. The Razorbacks ended a 14-game home winning streak for the Frogs, the third longest such streak in the country.

Yes, it was the sixth consecutive victory for Arkansas at Amon Carter Stadium, but this is not your father’s old Southwest Conference version of TCU. This is a talented team that Arkansas beat on Saturday night.

Consider the fact that in its last three true road games, Arkansas has won at No. 18 Ole Miss, No. 9 LSU and No. 15 TCU.

Call them the Road Hogs.

This was, by the way, the fifth victory by an unranked Arkansas team over a ranked opponent since the start of the 2014 season. It was the first time for Arkansas to face a ranked nonconference opponent since 2008.

After a stellar 9-1 record in Week 1, we took a beating in Week 2, going 5-5.

Lessons learned:

— Don’t underestimate Arkansas on the road.

— Pick against UAPB (even when playing a mediocre NCAA Division II team at home) until the Golden Lions win a game or two.

— The Great American Conference is going to be wild this year. There were three upsets in Week 2 with Southeastern Oklahoma beating Ouachita, Oklahoma Baptist upsetting Arkansas Tech and UAM defeating Southwestern Oklahoma.

Thus we’re 14-6 on the season.

Let’s get to the picks for Week 3:

Arkansas 45, Texas State 20 — Louisiana Tech put a scare into Arkansas in Week 1 at Fayetteville. Don’t expect a scare this week from a Sun Belt Conference team that has just one game under its belt in 2016, a 56-54 victory over Ohio in overtime. Texas State is my wife’s alma mater. I’m letting her know that the Bobcats are just coming to our state for that $1 million check. The game should give quarterback Austin Allen a chance to continue to improve. When was the last time an Arkansas quarterback threw a touchdown pass, caught a pass for a score (albeit a two-point conversion) and ran for a touchdown in the same game? Allen was 17 of 29 passing for 223 yards and three touchdowns against the Horned Frogs. Rawleigh Williams also should continue to improve after carrying the ball 28 times for 137 yards against the Frogs. And, heck, Dan Skipper might as well block another field goal attempt while he’s at it.

Utah State 37, Arkansas State 34 — It has been a rough start for the Red Wolves. On Friday, Sept. 2, they were whipped in every phase of the game against Toledo in a 31-10 loss at Jonesboro. Eight days later, they went to Auburn and fell by a final score of 51-14. Despite playing substitutes for part of the second half, Auburn finished with 707 yards of offense. Rushing accounted for 462 of those yards. It was the most yardage ever given up by a Blake Anderson-coached team. ASU plays another one of those awful Friday night games this week (Fridays should be reserved for high school football) with a long road trip to Utah State, which beat Weber State by a score of 46-6 to start the season and then fell 45-7 to USC in Los Angeles. The game, which will be televised nationally by the CBS Sports Network, will feature a Utah State team that has won 24 of its last 27 home games, including 13 of its last 16 against nonconference competition. The last time ASU went to Logan, Utah State won, 49-0. It should be much closer this time around despite the recent Red Wolf struggles.

Alcorn State 29, UAPB 13 — It appears as if it’s going to be a long year for the Golden Lions. They lost their opener, 44-0, to Tennessee State at Nashville and then came home last weekend and lost again. This time the defeat was at the hands of a Division II school (Panhandle State of Oklahoma) and not a very strong one at that. Panhandle State had lost 59-21 the previous week to Sam Houston State. Alcorn’s first game of the season against Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach was called off due to severe weather. Alcorn (which will play Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium on Oct. 1) is 1-0 following a 21-18 victory last week over Alabama State. We’ll go with the home team in this Thursday night game at Lorman, Miss.

UCA 28, Northwestern State 25 — The Bears are 1-1 following a 35-29 loss to Samford in Conway on Saturday night. It was a far cry from the 56-13 UCA home victory the previous weekend over Southland Conference foe Houston Baptist. The Bears play a third consecutive home game this week. The opponent Saturday is Northwestern State of Louisiana. Samford returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns, building a 25-point lead by the third quarter. The Bears pulled back within six points with 2:11 left, but Samford then recovered an onside kick. Northwestern has opened the season with losses of 55-7 to Baylor and 21-18 to Incarnate Word.

Henderson 40, Northwestern Oklahoma 22 — This is the first half of an Arkadelphia doubleheader on Saturday that sees Henderson play in the afternoon and Ouachita play on the other side of U.S. Highway 67 at night. The Reddies struggled at home two weeks ago to beat a good Southeastern Oklahoma team, 13-11, and then went on the road to Ada, Okla., and rolled to a 34-7 victory over East Central Oklahoma. The Reddies led 27-0 at halftime. It was the 500th victory in school history. Jaquan Cole and Andrew Black each had two rushing touchdowns for Henderson. Northwestern Oklahoma kicked a field goal with four seconds left for a 59-56 win over UAM in the season opener but found the going much tougher in Magnolia a week later, losing 33-14 to Southern Arkansas.

Ouachita 41, Southwestern Oklahoma 35 — It’s not often that a team has 545 yards of offense and loses. That’s just what Ouachita did on Saturday night in Durant, Okla., as turnovers resulted in a disastrous second quarter in which the Tigers were outscored 24-0. Ouachita dominated the other three quarters, but it wasn’t enough, resulting in a 45-38 loss to Southeastern Oklahoma. Southwestern Oklahoma, this week’s opponent in Arkadelphia, jumped out to a 17-0 lead in its season opener against Southern Arkansas but wound up losing by four points, 21-17. The lingering effects of that collapse were apparent in Monticello last Saturday night as the Boll Weevils secured a 35-28 upset victory. This should be a high-scoring affair since both defenses have had their problems.

Harding 33, Southern Arkansas 27 — This is by far the game of the week in the GAC. Southern Arkansas is 2-0 with those wins over Southwestern Oklahoma and Northwestern Oklahoma. Mulerider quarterback Barrett Renner threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Northwestern. While SAU likes to throw the football, Harding runs (and runs and runs) out of its double-slot offense. The Bisons opened the season with 389 yards rushing in a 38-7 victory over Oklahoma Baptist at home. They then traveled to Oklahoma City for the second game of the season and had 478 yards of rushing on 72 carries in a 63-7 thrashing of Southern Nazarene. The winner of this game will join Henderson as an early favorite to capture the GAC championship.

Arkansas Tech 39, UAM 26 — Tech began its season with a 46-0 win in Russellville over Southern Nazarene. The Wonder Boys, who finished 9-3 last year with a victory over Eastern New Mexico in the Heart of Texas Bowl, had high hopes for 2016. That’s what made last Saturday’s 19-15 loss to Oklahoma Baptist (which was picked 10th out of 12 GAC teams in the coaches’ preseason poll) in Shawnee so shocking. That’s the same Oklahoma Baptist team that lost by 31 points to Harding in Week 1. UAM’s win over Southwestern Oklahoma was almost as surprising. The Wonder Boys might not be as good as we first thought. And the Boll Weevils might be better than we first thought.

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College football: Week 2

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

What a fun week of college football.

Upsets galore.

Near upsets.

Overtime games.

LSU cheap shots.

What more could you ask for?

On a beautiful Labor Day weekend in Fayetteville, the Hogs survived — and we do mean survived — with a 21-20 victory over Louisiana Tech.

Considering how the folks in Starkville are feeling right now after Mississippi State’s loss to South Alabama (a team that was playing the Henderson Reddies just a few years ago), maybe Razorback fans should not feel so badly about their team’s performance.

There’s cause for concern, however, when the offense produces only 106 rushing yards with 96 of those yards coming from Rawleigh Williams.

In his first start as a Razorback quarterback, Austin Allen was 20 of 29 through the air for 191 yards and two touchdowns. He did throw two interceptions. And Louisiana Tech outgained Arkansas through the air, 212 yards to 191 yards.

Looking for bright spots?

How about the defense against the run? For the fourth time in the past five games, Arkansas held an opponent to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Louisiana Tech had 79.

We were 9-1 on picks in Week One, missing only the Southern Arkansas-Southwestern Oklahoma game as the Muleriders overcame a 17-point deficit on the road.

Let’s get to the picks for Week 2:

TCU 40, Arkansas 38 — Only half of the SEC teams that played nonconference opponents won. It would have been less than half had Tennessee, ranked No. 9 in the preseason, not overcome a 10-point halftime deficit to beat Appalachian State in overtime, 20-13. LSU lost to Wisconsin at Lambeau Field (and Les Miles is right back on the hot seat), Southern Mississippi scored 34 unanswered points to beat Kentucky in Lexington (is it basketball season yet?) and West Virginia broke a five-game losing streak to SEC teams with a 26-11 win over Missouri, where the football program is in a downward spiral. So Arkansas was not alone in the conference in leaving its fans a bit disappointed. Among Big 12 teams, the Horned Frogs struggled in Fort Worth on Saturday night before finally putting away South Dakota State. TCU gave up 41 points and 461 yards to South Dakota State, leading head coach Gary Patterson to say: “Hopefully we’ll do a lot better job as a coaching staff on getting them in position against Arkansas. If not, they’ll have 1,000 yards and 1,000 points.” Arkansas will fall short of scoring 1,000 points, but it should be an entertaining game.

Auburn 46, Arkansas State 28 — On Friday night in Jonesboro, Arkansas State was whipped in just about every phase of the game in a 31-10 loss to Toledo. That makes the Red Wolves 0-3 against Toledo since early last year. Toledo won the 2015 GoDaddy Bowl, 63-44, and then came back in the fall to win by a final score of 37-7 in Toledo. Most folks thought Clemson would rout Auburn, but the Tigers looked pretty good at home — at least on defense — before falling 19-13. Gus Malzahn is working overtime this week to make sure his offense, which used three quarterbacks against Clemson, is firing on all cylinders against the school that gave him his first college head coaching job.

Samford 29, UCA 27 — This is the same school from Birmingham, Ala., that led Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium at the end of the third quarter three years ago before falling to Bret Bielema’s first team. In fact, Saturday’s win against Louisiana Tech marked the first time since that game for Arkansas to win after trailing at the conclusion of three quarters. Samford opened the season with a 77-7 win over Mars Hill. Samford won last year against UCA , 44-16, in Birmingham. Saturday’s game in Conway should be closer. The Bears opened the season with a 56-13 Southland Conference win over Houston Baptist. UCA scored on three of its first four possessions and then blocked a field goal that was returned for a touchdown to make it 28-0. The Bears never slowed down after that.

UAPB 14, Panhandle State 13 — It’s hard to get a read on this one. UAPB doesn’t seem much better than last year following its 44-0 loss to Tennessee State in Nashville. The Golden Lions have lost four consecutive season openers. Panhandle State from Oklahoma, which plays in the Lone Star Conference of NCAA Division II, fell 59-21 to FCS powerhouse Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas. Panhandle was 5-5 a year ago. We’ll give a slight edge to the home team in a game between two schools that will probably struggle throughout the season.

Ouachita 34, Southeastern Oklahoma 30 — Ouachita won its season opener for a 10th consecutive year. The Tigers posted a 42-28 victory over East Central Oklahoma in a Thursday night game at Arkadelphia. Ouachita has the most consecutive winning seasons — eight — of any college program in the state. The offense looked good, but the Tiger secondary is again suspect. Southeastern, meanwhile, had a chance to stun Great American Conference preseason favorite Henderson on the other side of U.S. Highway 67 in Arkadelphia last Thursday night but missed a 30-yard field goal attempt with 1:28 remaining. The Reddies held on, 13-11. Two years ago in Durant, a Ouachita team that would finish the regular season undefeated had to drive the length of the field in the final minute of play for the winning touchdown against the Savage Storm. This should be another interesting game that goes down to the wire.

Henderson 24, East Central Oklahoma 20 — East Central has the best receiver in the conference in David Moore, who had three touchdown receptions in the loss to Ouachita. East Central shocked Henderson in Arkadelphia last year, 35-28. The Reddies rebounded to capture the conference championship and even win a playoff game. Henderson’s defense is just as good, if not better, than it was in 2015. Yet the offense struggled mightily in the opening win over Southeastern Oklahoma. Another night of offensive mistakes by the Reddies could allow East Central to hang around at home in Ada with a chance to win at the end.

Arkansas Tech 41, Oklahoma Baptist 25 — The Wonder Boys have three games at the start of their schedule that should result in relatively easy victories. They were true to form on Thursday night of last week with a 46-0 win against Southern Nazarene. Tech outgained the Crimson Storm 292-9 in the first half. This week’s opponent, Oklahoma Baptist, fell by a final score of 38-7 to Harding in a Saturday game at Searcy. For the Wonder Boys, it won’t be as simple as beating Southern Nazarene was. But it should be a solid victory in Shawnee, Okla., just the same.

Southern Arkansas 36, Northwestern Oklahoma 10 — The Muleriders found themselves down 17-0 to a decent Southwestern Oklahoma team on the road in Weatherford last Thursday. Somehow, they came back to win, 21-17. SAU should be brimming with confidence going into Saturday night’s home opener in Magnolia against Northwestern Oklahoma. The visitors are 1-0 but gave up 56 points to UAM in the process. Expect Southern Arkansas to score early and often Saturday.

Southwestern Oklahoma 39, UAM 23 — If it weren’t for bad luck, they would have no luck at all. That seems to be the motto for the Boll Weevils in recent seasons. In a wild game on the road in Alva, Okla. (it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there) against Northwestern Oklahoma last Thursday night, the Weevils made a furious comeback attempt in the fourth quarter before losing by a basketball-like score of 59-56 on a field goal with four seconds left in the game.

Harding 50, Southern Nazarene 16 — Harding, which still confuses its opponents by running the option, had 389 rushing yards in the 38-7 win over Oklahoma Baptist. The Bisons head to Oklahoma City this week and might top 700 yards of rushing against woeful Southern Nazarene.

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Friday, September 2nd, 2016

We didn’t know quite what to expect from the new man who entered our football radio booth at Ouachita Baptist University eight years ago.

His name was Patrick Fleming, though he went by Patrick Thomas on the air.

The Ouachita Football Network had entered into a new arrangement with Noalmark Broadcasting of El Dorado, and I had asked my contact there, Sandy Sanford, to assign me a stadium engineer who could take our broadcasts to the next level.

I didn’t know Patrick, but Sandy assured me he was the man for the job. He was an interesting mix — a Marine veteran, a radio man, a Presbyterian minister.

Ouachita was opening the 2008 season against Fort Lewis College from Colorado, which had agreed to make the long trip to Arkadelphia if the kickoff were early enough for the team to fly back home that day. So it was a noon start, meaning I arrived at the stadium in Arkadelphia at 9:30 a.m. I had spent that entire week at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. There wasn’t much time to prepare for the broadcast, and I was uneasy with a new engineer. Ouachita easily defeated Fort Lewis, 58-7, and I determined that Patrick was a pro.

Ouachita moved the kickoff of the next game up to noon in an attempt to beat the remnants of Hurricane Ike, which was entering Arkansas from Texas that day. The Tigers defeated West Georgia, 41-17, and Patrick again was at the top of his game.

The first road game of the season was a long one — Valdosta, Ga. Ouachita athletic director David Sharp and I flew to the game. Patrick made the drive with the broadcast equipment and met us at the stadium.

The Tigers would finish the season 7-3 with a thrilling victory over Henderson in the Battle of the Ravine on a Thursday night. It would be the start of what’s now a streak of eight consecutive winning seasons for Ouachita, and Patrick was along for the ride.

Jeff Root and I have worked together on the Ouachita broadcasts for decades. Not only that, we grew up together. Richard Atkinson also joined us in 2008, but he’s an Arkadelphia native and a Ouachita graduate; a known commodity in other words.

Patrick had no connection to Ouachita until Sandy assigned him to us. But he came to love the school and its football program as much as we do. I would look down to my right, where Patrick always sat, during the final minutes of close games and see him nervously chewing on his knuckles.

Patrick was a perfectionist. I knew we would get on the air despite the gremlins that show up from time to time when you’re doing live radio. And I knew we would sound good. I could count on Patrick.

He was with me in Omaha, Neb. We stuck our toes in the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville Beach, Fla. We covered a lot miles together. In fact, he never missed a game until last year when he informed me that he would skip our three games in Oklahoma so he could see his daughter play in the band at Bethel University in Jackson, Tenn. How could I argue with that? But I was a nervous wreck without him in the booth.

This year, Patrick vowed that he would be at all 11 games. We had exchanged emails throughout the summer, talking about the team. Then, on a Sunday night last month, there came a phone call that devastated me. It was Sandy Sanford, Patrick’s former boss. He was calling to tell me that Patrick had been killed in a one-vehicle accident on Interstate 40.

Patrick had taken his daughter back to Bethel for her final year of school. The last thing he posted on his Facebook page was a photo of the Welcome To Arkansas sign on the Memphis bridge.

I’m glad Patrick got to experience the first 10-0 regular season in school history two years ago. More than anything, though, I’m glad he became my friend. When you spend every weekend of the fall with the same group of people, you become almost like a family. And Patrick had indeed become a beloved, trusted member of my Saturday family along with Jeff Root, Richard Atkinson, David Sharp and Casey Motl.

We’ll carry on, but there’s a big void in our broadcast booth this season. Prior to the first game Thursday night, we dedicated the 2016 season to the memory of our colleague, our friend, Patrick Fleming.

He’s no longer with us on the broadcasts. But because he’s a believer, he has received his reward of eternal life.

To borrow a line I use from time to time on the football broadcasts, Patrick has gone to the Promised Land.

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College football: Week 1

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

So what to make of these Razorbacks of 2016?

Bret Bielema, a man for whom the glass is always half full, enters his fourth season at the University of Arkansas thinking the Hogs have a chance to be in the running late in the season for an SEC championship.

Senior leadership is important in college football, and Bielema is a believer in this senior class. The captains are Dan Skipper, Kody Walker, Brooks Ellis and Deatrich Wise.

“One thing that’s very apparent with this team is we have great senior leadership,” Bielema says. “I don’t think I’ve ever, going into my 11th year as a head coach, been blessed to literally have a senior at every position. … They’re great role models, leaders and players.”

Redshirt junior Austin Allen is, of course, untested at quarterback but reportedly has looked good in preseason drills.

Enough of the preseason talk. It’s time to suit up and see how this edition of the Razorbacks looks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on what should be a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

Let’s get to the picks for Week 1:

Arkansas 40, Louisiana Tech 29 — Tech should provide a decent test for this Arkansas team even though the Bulldogs return just three starters on defense and six on offense from a team that went 9-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA last season. Coach Skip Holtz is 22-17 in his three seasons at Ruston. A major weapon is senior wide receiver Trent Taylor, who had 99 catches for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Those who have departed include tailback Kenneth Dixon from Strong, quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Vernon Butler, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. A media panel picked the Bulldogs to finish second in Conference USA West. Tech is one of just 18 FBS programs to win nine or more games in each of the past two seasons.

Toledo 34, Arkansas State 31 — Razorback fans remember Toledo all too well. That’s the school that shocked Arkansas, 16-12, on Sept. 12 of last year at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Two weeks later, Toledo easily disposed of Arkansas State, 37-7. The Rockets have a new head coach in Jason Candle, who had been an assistant at the school since 2009. Toledo was 10-2 in 2015, its sixth consecutive winning season. This is a rare Friday night game (I hate Friday night college football since it infringes on the high school game, but television now calls the shots) in Jonesboro. It will be the third game between the two schools in the past three seasons. The Rockets also defeated Arkansas State in January 2015 (63-44) in the GoDaddy Bowl. On offense, the Rockets return two All-MAC running backs, senior Kareem Hunt and junior Terry Swanson. Blake Anderson is 16-10 in two years at ASU, including a 9-4 record last year when the Red Wolves went to the New Orleans Bowl (and fell 47-28 to Louisiana Tech). ASU lost key skilled position players. The Red Wolves likely will play both Chad Voytik and Justice Hansen at quarterback Friday.

UCA 28, Houston Baptist 17 — The Bears open at home Thursday. UCA finished 7-4 a year ago, making Steve Campbell 13-10 in his two years as the head coach. Five starters return on defense, and four starters return on offense. Houston Baptist was 2-9 last season and 0-8 in the Southland Conference. The Bears won last year’s meeting in Houston, 43-7, and should be able to roll to victory again Thursday on the stripes in Conway despite having a young team. Campbell says several new assistant coaches have infused a sense of energy into the program. It probably won’t be enough for a conference championship given the number of first-time starters, but the Bears appear poised for another winning season.

Tennessee State 19, UAPB 16 — Two teams that struggled a year ago square off in Nashville on Saturday. UAPB was 2-9 overall and 1-8 in the SWAC last year. Tennessee State finished the season 4-6. The Golden Lions have had three consecutive losing seasons. UAPB won a SWAC title in 2012 but has gone 8-25 since then. Head coach Monte Coleman added four new coaches to his staff in an attempt to address the problems. Last year, UAPB averaged just 19.5 points per game. That ranked ninth in the conference and 93rd nationally. We’ll give a slight edge to the home team in what should be a close game.

Ouachita 30, East Central Oklahoma 22 — Ouachita has had eight consecutive winning seasons, the most of any college program in the state. The Tigers were 10-0 in the regular season two years ago en route to a Great American Conference championship but fell to 7-4 last year. There are, however, 17 starters returning. A key to the season will be how junior Austin Warford out of Malvern performs at quarterback in his second season as a starter. East Central always plays Ouachita tough, and Thursday night’s game at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia should be no exception. East Central finished 6-5 last year, including a 31-24 loss to Ouachita in the season opener at Ada.

Henderson 41, Southeastern Oklahoma 27 — The Reddies also open at home in Arkadelphia on Thursday night. Henderson has won three of the past four GAC titles and is favored by most people to win the conference again this year. The Reddies were 11-2 in 2015 and won an NCAA Division II playoff game for the first time. There are six All-GAC performers returning. Among that group is JaQuan Cole, who led the GAC in rushing last year with 1,189 yards. There also are four offensive linemen returning to block for Cole. Southeastern Oklahoma was 6-5 last season.

Arkansas Tech 44, Southern Nazarene 21 — Arkansas Tech was 9-3 last year, including a victory over Eastern New Mexico in the Heart of Texas Bowl. It was the Wonder Boys’ best record since 2009, but Tech must find a way to replace quarterback Arsenio Favor and defensive standout Logan Genz. Still, the Wonder Boys should start the season 3-0 with the first three opponents being Southern Nazarene, Oklahoma Baptist and the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Southern Nazarene, which comes to Russellville on Thursday night, was 1-10 in 2015.

Southwestern Oklahoma 35, Southern Arkansas 33 — This could be the best of the GAC games in the first week of the season as the Muleriders make the long trip to Weatherford, Okla., for a Thursday night game. Southern Arkansas returns 15 starters from a 7-4 team. Quarterback Barrett Renner was a first team all-conference selection as just a freshman, passing for 3,333 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also has four of his top five receivers returning. Renner set team records for passing attempts, pass completions, touchdowns and total yards in a season. Southwestern Oklahoma was 8-3 a year ago and has high expectations for this season. We’ll give the edge to the home team in a game that could easily go either way.

Northwestern Oklahoma 25, UAM 23 — Again, let’s give a small edge to the home team. This is a battle between programs that struggled a year ago. Northwestern Oklahoma was 3-8, and UAM was 1-10. The Boll Weevils have won just three games the past two seasons.

Harding 50, Oklahoma Baptist 20 — The Bisons were 7-4 in 2015 following three consecutive 9-2 seasons. Harding has a 75.5 winning percentage in GAC games since the conference was formed in 2011 and expects to be strong again in the final season for head coach Ronnie Huckeba, who became an assistant at the school in 1986. Oklahoma Baptist finished 2-9 last year as it struggled to make the move up from the NAIA to NCAA Division II. Harding returns its quarterback and top two running backs from a team that averaged 377 yards per game rushing in 2015. Harding should have no problem in Searcy on Saturday night against Oklahoma Baptist.



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Red: Born to coach

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

There must be something in the soil in those pine woods of south Arkansas, something that produces football coaches.

Paul “Bear” Bryant, the greatest college coach ever, came out of the Moro Bottoms and played high school football at Fordyce.

Barry Switzer was a product of Crossett.

Larry Lacewell likes to say he was “a bug all my life” — a Chigger and Redbug at Fordyce and then a Boll Weevil at what’s now the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Tommy Tuberville played high school football at Camden Harmony Grove and college football at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia.

Sam Bailey, who was Bryant’s right-hand man for years, came out of rural Union County and played his college football at what was then Magnolia A&M (now SAU) for two years and at Ouachita for two years.

Legendary Henderson head coach Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter hailed from Hamburg.

I could go on and on.

No one worked at it longer, though, than Jimmy “Red” Parker, who died Monday at age 84.

Parker coached his last game on the evening of Friday, Nov. 13. His Benton Harmony Grove team lost to Fordyce, 22-8, in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs at Paul “Bear” Bryant Stadium in Fordyce.

Parker was born in 1931 — in the middle of the Great Depression — to Madelyn and Floyd Raymond Parker of Hampton in Calhoun County.

“As a young boy in Hampton, there were only two things that Parker ever dreamed of becoming,” Doug Crise wrote for the Pine Bluff Commercial back in 2003. “And neither of them had anything to do with football. ‘One of them was to be a big league baseball player,’ Parker said. ‘The other one was to be a cowboy.’ Parker spent his youth throwing himself into his twin passions — playing baseball and riding horses and bulls.

“When he moved with his mother to Rison, the cowboy interests faded when he was introduced to football. While his dreams were still pointed toward the diamond, Parker at least now had a more viable fallback option. ‘The only thing I ever had in my mind was playing big league baseball or being a big league football coach,’ Parker said. ‘I don’t know if it was a calling, and I don’t know if it was elimination. But those were the two things that motivated me, and I knew I could be happy doing them.'”

Parker graduated from Rison High School in 1949 and headed to Arkansas A&M, where he was a halfback for the Boll Weevils from 1949-52.

“In 1953, Parker was a young man with ample confidence and a $10,000 signing bonus sitting on the table courtesy of the Detroit Tigers,” Crise wrote. “The Tigers didn’t have confidence in Parker’s ability to hit a major league fastball, but aptitude tests revealed the 21-year-old to possess what it took to be a future manager. For Detroit, it seemed like a wise investment. The problem was that Parker had a wife and child, and no desire to move to Warsaw, Wisc., to play for the Tigers’ low-level minor league team.”

Parker’s wife, Betty Ann, also hailed from south Arkansas — from Herbine in Cleveland County, to be exact. She died last April after 64 years of marriage. The Parkers are survived by three children — Vicki Wallace of Hot Springs, Cindy Yoos of South Carolina and Jim Mack Parker of Bryant.

“I hated cold weather, so I said, ‘I’m going to Fordyce,'” Parker said of the offer to play professional baseball.

Crise wrote of Parker’s decisions to take over the struggling Fordyce football program: “Clearly, this was the road less traveled. Parker admits now that he didn’t know then what it took to turn a young man into a winner. Relatively young himself, Parker attacked his first coaching gift with equal parts enthusiasm and instinct.”

Parker said: “I guess I just had enough gall to think I could do that. It was gall. It wasn’t ability. … I didn’t have a philosophy then. I didn’t know until the third year that I coached that I didn’t really have a philosophy.”

Parker was eager to learn. He used his own money to travel to Florida for a coaching clinic. While there, he met one of the nation’s most famous coaches, Bud Wilkinson from the University of Oklahoma.

“For some reason, Bud Wilkinson just took a liking to me,” Parker said. “I just kind of got into his head and listened. I was running plays and calling defenses and had no idea of what it was all supposed to mean together. He made me understand.”

Parker coached at Fordyce from 1953-60, compiling a record of 76-15-4. The Redbugs had a 37-game winning streak from 1957-60.

His college alma mater called, and Parker moved down the road from Fordyce to Monticello, where he was the head coach of the Boll Weevils from 1961-65. He won two Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championships there, and his teams from 1963-65 had a combined record of 24-5-1. He was 29-19-2 overall with records of 2-8 in 1961, 3-6-1 in 1962, 9-1 in 1963, 8-2 in 1964 and 7-2-1 in 1965.

Parker’s climb up the coaching ladder continued when The Citadel, a well-known military school in South Carolina, took notice. Parker coached there from 1966-72, compiling a 39-34 record.

Parker was hired to replace Hootie Ingram at Clemson University following the 1972 season.

“Losses were more frequent than wins during Parker’s four-year stint with the Tigers, but his recruiting work laid the foundation for Clemson’s return to national prominence in the late 1970s under Charley Pell,” Rudy Jones wrote for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina in 2013. “At least 11 members of the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame played under or were recruited by Parker.”

Parker was 17-25-2 at Clemson. His Tiger teams went 5-6, 7-4, 2-9 and 3-6-2. He was fired following the 1976 season and replaced by Pell, a man he had hired as an assistant.

Pell’s first team went 8-4. That began a streak of 15 consecutive winning records at Clemson, which won the national championship in 1981 under Danny Ford and will play for another national championship next week.

Parker always felt he was betrayed by Pell.

Pell had been an all-conference guard and defensive tackle for Bryant at Alabama from 1961-63. He was a graduate assistant for Bryant in 1964 and then was an assistant coach at Kentucky from 1965-68. Pell’s first head coaching job came at Jacksonville State in Alabama, where he compiled a 33-13-1 record. He left Jacksonville to become the defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech, where he stayed for two seasons before being hired in 1976 by Parker to be the defensive coordinator at Clemson.

Parker said Bryant had warned him that Pell was deceitful but “I was too arrogant to listen.”

Pell’s first Clemson team as head coach went to the Gator Bowl. It was the school’s first bowl invitation in 18 years.

“We took a whole lot of lumps that last year I was there, but we knew we were going to be good, and we knew we had a chance to be outstanding,” Parker said. “I didn’t mind taking the lumps, but I really didn’t plan on Pell knifing me. That was the one thing I didn’t plan. Everything else I had laid out pretty well.”

Steve Fuller, Parker’s Clemson quarterback, said: “The thing I remember about Coach Parker is he worked so hard to get the thing turned around and got such a recruiting group with my group and the group after me. The way things turned out, he just never got a chance to enjoy the success of that group and what was generally the turnaround of the whole program. It’s a shame. I know it’s part of the business. I can’t say we were shocked, but certainly disappointed and kind of uneasy about the situation. … I think I can make the argument — anybody can — that we would have been pretty good the next year if you or I had coached them.”

Pell’s second team at Clemson went 10-1 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference title.

Pell was hired at Florida at the end of the 1978 season and left immediately. Assistant coach Danny Ford coached the Tigers in the Gator Bowl. That was the game that led to Woody Hayes being fired at Ohio State. The Tigers were leading the Buckeyes 17-15 late in the game, but freshman quarterback Art Schlichter was driving the Buckeyes into field goal range. On third-and-five at the Clemson 24 with 2:30 left in the game, Hayes called a pass play. The pass was intercepted by Clemson’s Charlie Bauman, who ran out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline. After Bauman stood up, Hayes punched him in the throat and then stormed the field to argue with the referee.

Hayes was dismissed the next day.

Ford, meanwhile, was hired to replace Pell at Clemson.

Pell’s first team at Florida went 0-10-1. But the Gators improved to 8-4 in 1980, 7-5 in 1981, 8-4 in 1982 and 9-2-1 in 1983.

Following the 1982 season, the NCAA began an investigation into recruiting violations by Pell and his staff. Pell announced in August 1984 that he would resign at the end of the season. Three games into the season, the NCAA announced that Florida was alleged to have committed 107 infractions. Pell, whose team was 1-1-1, was fired that night and replaced by Galen Hall.

Pell fell into a deep depression that lasted for years. He attempted suicide in 1994 and died of lung cancer in 2001.

Red Parker returned to Arkansas after being fired at Clemson and bought a Chevrolet dealership in Fordyce, where he was still a hero.

Feeling the urge to get back into coaching, he headed to Nashville and Vanderbilt University in 1980 at the behest of George MacIntyre (whose son Mike is now the head coach at Colorado), a friend who was in his second year at the school.  Vanderbilt struggled to a 2-9 record that season (0-6 in the Southeastern Conference), but Parker again had the coaching bug.

Southern Arkansas University offered him its head coaching job, and he led the Muleriders to a 7-3 record in 1981. That led to an offer to be the head coach across the Mississippi River at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., where Parker compiled a 34-26-4 record from 1982-87.

Parker attracted the attention of Billy Brewer at Ole Miss. Brewer hired Parker to be the Rebels’ offensive coordinator, and Parker was part of Ole Miss teams that finished with records of 5-6 in 1988, 8-4 in 1989, 9-3 in 1990 and 5-6 in 1991.

After four years at Oxford, Parker returned to Fordyce and his automobile dealership. But the football bug was still there.

In 1993, Parker returned to the high school coaching ranks for the first time since 1960. The destination: His alma mater at Rison.

Parker was 38-4 in three seasons at Rison, including a Class A state championship in 1995 when his team went 15-0.

To the west in Arkadelphia, another legend, Buddy Benson, had decided to step down as the head coach at Ouachita following 31 seasons. The school’s president, Ben Elrod, was a Rison native and a longtime friend of Parker’s. Elrod called and asked if Parker would like to take one more shot at being a college head coach.

Parker accepted.

Ouachita, the smallest college in the state still playing football at the time, was struggling to make the move from the NAIA to NCAA Division II following the dissolution of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. Parker’s teams there went 3-7, 4-6 and 3-7. Ouachita played as a Division II independent the first season and was a member of the Lone Star Conference the next two years.

Parker decided that the college job needed a younger man. But high school football? That was another matter.

He went to Bearden at the start of the 1999 season and compiled a 26-16-4 record in four seasons as the Bear head coach.

In 2003, Parker returned to where it had begun, Fordyce. He was the coach there from 2003-05, but he couldn’t reproduce the magic of the 1950s. The Redbugs were 11-20-1 when Parker resigned at the end of the 2005 season.

Most people thought Parker had finally retired for good, but he was talked into heading up the tiny program at Woodlawn in 2008. His team there went 7-4.

After Parker’s wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he moved to Saline County to be near his son. Benton Harmony Grove was starting a football program, and Parker had an interest in helping out.

“About three or four days after I moved here, the school decided it wanted to have football,” Parker told an interviewer in 2013. “I called the superintendent, and he said he would hire me today if I would come. It just worked out that way. I work half a day. … What I’m doing is more like babysitting. Really and truly, it’s not like coaching because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do: Teach kids to play football who never have played before. My heart played out two years ago.”

Parker had what’s known as a ventricular assist device inserted in 2010 to help fight congestive heart failure. In 2011, a mechanical pump was inserted.

“I was really too old for them to do it, but I had a doctor that I had coached when I coached in high school the first time,” Parker later told an interviewer. “He was a noted heart surgeon, and he told the doctors here: ‘He can survive. Don’t you worry about him.’ He talked them into doing it.”

Parker’s first team at Harmony Grove went 2-8 in 2010. The second and third teams were 4-6.

Parker finished with a record of 28-35 in six seasons at the school.

His combined record as a college and high school head coach in a career that began in 1953 and ended in 2015 was 322-221-13.

He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in October: “I struggle walking. I struggle standing. I struggle doing everything. To be honest, I’m worn out.”

Back in 2003, Parker had told the Pine Bluff Commercial: “No matter how bad we are, I always feel like there’s going to be something happen to give us a chance to win. What I don’t do now is I don’t get nervous before a game because I know we’ve prepared well. I can honestly say that once the game begins, I don’t know the difference between Neyland Stadium and Redbug Field.”

He was born to be a coach.

Like Paul “Bear” Bryant, he was dead within weeks of his final game.


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Give me Liberty (Bowl)

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Bud Dudley had a dream.

At a time when there were far fewer bowl games than there are now, the former athletic director at Villanova wanted a bowl in Philadelphia. Its name would be the Liberty Bowl, and its logo would be the Liberty Bell.

Dudley was the only person in college football history to create and then become the sole owner of a bowl game. Dudley, a Notre Dame graduate and a World War II veteran, died in June 2008 at age 88.

The game was marred by poor attendance during its five seasons in Philadelphia. The first game in 1959 drew 36,211 fans as Penn State defeated Alabama by a final score of 7-0. The crowds got smaller in each of the next four years.

“Spectators were lashed by icy winds as they huddled in Municipal Stadium for the inaugural Liberty Bowl,” Frank Fitzpatrick later wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Piles of snow impeded their trips to concession stands. And several swore their coffee froze before they could return to their seats.”

Penn State graduate Bill Jaffe told the newspaper, “That was the coldest I’ve ever been at a football game.”

“Overhead, an airplane, tilting in the heavy gusts as it dragged an ad for General Copper & Brass, provided shivering spectators with perhaps the afternoon’s most entertaining moment,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Wind tore away the sign’s second S, an act of alchemy that instantly transformed metal to lingerie.

“On the field below — far, far below in a stadium notorious for its poor sight lines — the football played by Penn State and Alabama never really thawed out either, the teams combining for just seven points. But had those frostbitten Penn State players and fans been aware, they might have been warmed by the knowledge that what that first Liberty Bowl lacked in amenities, it made up for in history. Until that 7-0 loss to Penn State, Alabama had never faced an integrated opponent in its 67-year football history.

“The first of 24 consecutive Alabama teams that Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant would take to bowl games was all white. The Nittany Lions’ roster included a handful of blacks, including tackle Charlie Janerette, a Philadelphian. Janerette would be shot to death during a 1984 confrontation with a Philadelphia policeman. A jury later found police to be negligent and awarded the ex-player’s family $188,000.”

When Alabama accepted the bowl invitation, the chairman of the Tuscaloosa Citizens Council wrote to Frank Rose, the Alabama president: “We strongly oppose our boys playing an integrated team. The Tide belongs to all Alabama, and Alabamians favor continued segregation.”

Bryant, however, ignored the segregationists back home.

Dudley would say years later, “Every year the weather would be fine until the day of the game. I was looking for a way to merge patriotism and football. And I still think it could have worked in Philadelphia if only it weren’t for the cold.”

The other eights bowls at the time — Cotton, Sugar, Rose, Orange, Gator, Tangerine, Sun and Bluebonnet — were all played in warmer locations.

The 1959 game’s only score came on a trick play. Alabama finished 7-2-2, and Penn State finished 9-2. The teams passed for a combined 68 yards on the windy day.

Dudley had scheduled a dinner for the players that night at a downtown hotel. Longtime Philadelphia Daily News writer Stan Hochman, who covered the game from an unheated press box, said Dudley “was working on a shoestring, a tattered shoestring. They ran out of food early in the buffet line.”

Hochman’s future wife was doing public relations work for the downtown hotel. She ran to the kitchen and convinced the staff to cook some hot dogs for the players. Dudley, meanwhile, had talked his friend Ed McMahon into bringing a relatively unknown comedian named Johnny Carson to perform after dinner.

By 1963, Mississippi State’s game against North Carolina State drew just 8,309 fans in Philadelphia.

Tourism promoters in nearby Atlantic City, looking for a way to bring people to town during what normally was a slow period in December, convinced Dudley to move the 1964 contest to Convention Hall (long the home of the Miss America pageant) for the first bowl game to be played indoors. Two inches of burlap was placed on top of the concrete floor, and sod was laid on top of that. Utah defeated West Virginia, 32-6. There were 6,059 people at the game.

Dudley decided the indoor venue would no longer work. He also decided that Philadelphia was too far north. He looked south, and Memphis greeted him with open arms.

Memphis had spent $4 million to build a stadium in 1965 to replace aging Crump Stadium. The original seating capacity was 50,160, and what’s now the University of Memphis would play its home games there. It was to be known as Memphis Memorial Stadium and would be at the Mid-South Fairgrounds along with the Mid-South Coliseum and the Libertyland amusement park.

The mayor of Memphis had a sports committee charged with finding other events for the new stadium. The committee’s chairman, Early Maxwell, learned that Dudley wanted to move the Liberty Bowl. Maxwell sent Memphis businessman Bill McElroy Jr. to Chicago in the summer of 1965 to meet with Dudley during the annual convention of the College Sports Information Directors of America. McElroy invited Dudley to attend the first regular-season game in the stadium between Ole Miss and Memphis. Dudley agreed to attend the game, and he was treated like a king by a who’s who of Memphis business and civic leaders.

Just a few months later, the 1965 Liberty Bowl was played in the new stadium. Ole Miss beat Auburn, 13-7.

Dudley’s intention was to move the bowl game every year or two to a city that didn’t have a bowl.

“After I got to Memphis, I never got to the other cities,” he said.

Coaches who have taken teams to the Liberty Bowl through the years include the likes of Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and Tom Osborne.

Four Heisman Trophy winners — Ernie Davis, Terry Baker, Doug Flutie and Bo Jackson — have played in the game.

Archie Manning played in the Liberty Bowl in December 1968, leading his Ole Miss Rebels to a 34-17 victory over Virginia Tech. Manning would lead the Rebels to a win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl the following year.

Holtz brought his North Carolina State Wolfpack to Memphis in 1973 and saw his team beat Kansas, 31-18.

Three years later, Bryant was back with the Crimson Tide, which posted a 36-6 victory over Terry Donahue’s UCLA Bruins.

Tom Osborne brought his Nebraska Cornhuskers to Memphis in 1977, and the Huskers beat North Carolina, 21-17.

In 1979, Joe Paterno brought his Penn State team and it edged Tulane, 9-6, in the only game in Liberty Bowl history in which a touchdown wasn’t scored.

The most notable game in Liberty Bowl history came on Dec. 29, 1982, because it marked Bear Bryant’s final game as a coach. Alabama came from behind in the second half to defeat Illinois, 21-15. Less than a month later, the most famous former Fordyce Red Bug was dead.

Arkansas lost in its first three visits to the Liberty Bowl — 14-13 to Tennessee in 1971, 21-15 to Auburn in 1984 and 20-17 to Georgia in 1987. In the game against Auburn, Bo Jackson ran for two touchdowns, including a 39-yard scamper late in the fourth quarter.

Arkansas finally got a Liberty Bowl win on Jan. 2, 2010. A field goal in overtime gave Bobby Petrino’s Hogs a 20-17 victory over East Carolina as the second-largest crowd in Liberty Bowl history — 62,742 — looked on in frigid weather.

With this being its fifth Liberty Bowl, Arkansas will now have more Liberty Bowl appearances than any other school. Ole Miss, Louisville, Mississippi State, Air Force, Alabama and East Carolina have been four times each.

The Liberty Bowl affiliated with Conference USA in 1996. The opponent in 1996 and 1997 was from the Big East. Beginning in 1998, the Liberty Bowl had second choice behind the Cotton Bowl between the WAC champion and a Southeastern Conference team. From 1999 to 2005, the Conference USA champion played the Mountain West champion all but two times. From 2006-13, the Conference USA championship game winner was contracted to play an SEC team. The game now features an SEC team against a Big 12 team. That contract, which began last year, runs through 2019. In the first game under the arrangement, Texas A&M defeated West Virginia, 45-37.

In February 2014, AutoZone extended its title sponsorship agreement through the 2019 season.

Were he still around, Bud Dudley would be smiling. With an SEC team, a Big 12 team, a presenting sponsor, an ESPN television contract and an ESPN radio contract, the Liberty Bowl has never been stronger.

It has come a long way since that cold afternoon of Dec. 19, 1959, in Philadelphia.


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The Most Southern City on Earth

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

In 1992, historian James Cobb’s book on the Mississippi Delta came out.

The title: “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”

Having spent four years as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I have no doubt that Cobb got it right.

The city at the heart of the Delta — the place that serves as a regional hub for east Arkansas, north Mississippi, west Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel — is Memphis.

That must make Memphis the Most Southern City on Earth.

Thousands of Arkansans will descend on Memphis next week to watch the University of Arkansas football team play Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. Many of them — especially those from the northwest part of our state — will have no idea of the strong ties between the Bluff City and eastern Arkansas.

For decades, those who lived in the eastern half of the state read Memphis newspapers.

They listened to Memphis radio stations.

They watched Memphis television stations.

They went to Memphis to eat out and have a good time.

They went to Memphis to visit the doctor.

They went to Memphis to do their Christmas shopping.

A friend who grew up in the Arkansas Delta was fond of saying, “We thought that when you died, you went to Memphis.”

The connections between east Arkansas and Memphis have frayed some in recent decades.

As the newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat heated up in the 1980s, people who once had subscribed to The Commercial Appeal from Memphis began getting one of the Little Rock newspapers since subscription prices were steeply discounted.

Cable television opened up new worlds.

The perception became that Memphis was a dangerous, crime-ridden place. People in small towns in the northeast quadrant of Arkansas who once had driven to Memphis to go to the doctor and shop now went to Jonesboro to do those things. As a result, Jonesboro prospered as a regional center.

The late Willie Morris, who’s among my favorite writers, joked that the two most important cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans.

In some ways, despite the growth of Jonesboro, Memphis remains the most important city for east Arkansas.

It was 1935 when writer David Cohn from Greenville, Miss., penned these words: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby … ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.”

Those words still ring true. I can’t count the number of famous people I’ve seen in the Peabody lobby through the years.

Razorback fans will hang out there in force next week, turning that ornate lobby into an Arkansas family reunion.

Julia Reed, the talented New Orleans-based writer who grew up at Greenville, describes the Peabody as a “legendary hotel where my great-grandfather stayed when he came to town to get hot-towel shaves and meet his cotton broker — and where he once dropped a pint of contraband liquor (this was when Tennessee was still, supposedly, dry) on the marble floor of the grand lobby. The doorman swept up the glass so fast no one was the wiser, and the current staff remains now as attentive.”

Reed went on note that the Delta “probably doesn’t officially begin at the Peabody’s address on Union Street, but there is no mistake that Memphis was the Delta’s spiritual capital and the Peabody its clubhouse. Jackson, our actual state capital, was two hours south of my hometown of Greenville, and therefore an hour closer, but we never even thought of going there. Like the bluesmen before us, we headed north, following the river on old Highway 1, before cutting over to the blues highway, U.S. 61, that takes you almost directly downtown.

“To us, the difference between the two cities could be summed up with a line from Peter Taylor’s excellent novel ‘A Summons to Memphis,’ with Jackson standing in for Nashville: ‘Nashville … is a city of schools and churches and Memphis is — well, Memphis is something else again. Memphis is a place of steamboats and cotton gins, of card playing and hotel society.’

“We knew exactly where we’d rather be, and we made the three-hour trek to Memphis with astonishing regularity. We went for school clothes and allergy shots, the Ice Capades and trips to the zoo. We saw movies, got our hair cut, ate barbecue. When we felt especially festive, we’d go just for dinner at the late lamented Justine’s, a justifiably famous Frenchish restaurant in a gorgeous old mansion, where we’d eat lump crabmeat swathed in hollandaise sauce and run into everybody we knew.”

The first Peabody Hotel was built by Robert Campbell Brinkley in 1869. He named it in honor of philanthropist George Peabody. The two men had met several years earlier on a ship bound for England. Brinkley’s reason for going to England was to find financing for a railroad linking Little Rock and Memphis. Brinkley later gave the hotel to his daughter, Anna Overton Brinkley, and her fiancé, Robert Snowden, as a wedding gift.

The Snowden family would have a connection to the hotel for the next 96 years (in addition to developing the Horseshoe Plantation across the river in Arkansas and building a home on Horseshoe Lake).

“The hotel was magnificent,” a history of the Peabody states at “It had 75 gas-lit rooms with private bathrooms, a first-class dining room, shops, entertainment, a large and beautiful lobby and a grand ballroom, where lavish balls were held. It was the place to see and been seen. The hotel was highly successful. Guests paid $3 to $4 for a room with meals included in the price. … After the turn of the century, the Peabody constructed a $350,000 addition at the back. It was an all-steel structure, the first of its kind in Memphis. But it wasn’t enough. In 1923, hotel management decided it was time for a new and larger building and closed the Main Street Peabody. They had negotiated with Lowenstein’s, who wanted to take over the corner and build a grand new department store.

“A block away at Second and Union, a new, bigger and better Peabody was scheduled to open within two years. Construction began on the new Peabody within a month after the old Peabody on Main closed. The new hotel was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager with a plan for 625 rooms with baths. … The cost in 1925 was $5 million. For the 1925 opening of the Peabody, 1,200 preview party invitations were sent to the who’s who of the South. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be seen at Second and Union during the event. Once again the hotel established a reputation as the center of social life for the entire region. The grand new Peabody saw a steady stream of the wealthy and prominent congregate to dine and dance. It was the largest and most elegant hotel in the South.”

The story then picks up in the early 1950s: “During the 1950s, a nationwide move to the suburbs began. Memphians were no longer shopping regularly on Main Street, and downtown Memphis began to feel the pain. The Peabody was no exception. The hotel had many vacancies, and the restaurants were almost empty. The building was beginning to be in need of repairs, and by 1953 it was known that the Peabody was for sale. There were two bidders. … The hotel went to the Alsonett Hotel Group.

“It soon became obvious that the hotel would never be the same. Alsonett set aside tradition in favor of economy. Cost-cutting practices were evident everywhere. Downgrading was the name of the game. And any profits were used to upgrade Alsonett properties elsewhere. The profitable convention business completely disappeared. The hotel faced huge debts and was unable to get financing. In 1965, the grand old Peabody was forced into foreclosure.

“The auction began in December 1965. Robert B. Snowden placed the winning bid. Within 48 hours, he sold the Peabody to the Sheraton chain. … Snowden knew that Sheraton was going to improve the hotel. And Sheraton assured Memphis that all Peabody traditions would remain the same and set about restoring the old building. But they neglected to mention there would be a name change. For the next nine years, the hotel would be called the Sheraton-Peabody. Memphians felt this was better than nothing.

“Sheraton really tried. Unfortunately the steady decline of downtown Memphis continued, at a much faster pace after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In December 1973, Sheraton-Peabody closed the doors and posted a for-sale sign. … The Peabody had a short reprieve in 1974 when a group of Alabama investors reopened the hotel. But it was doomed to failure and by April 1, 1975, this group was forced to declare bankruptcy, and the Peabody was put up for public auction by the county.”

Belz Enterprises bought the hotel for $400,000 in July 1975. Six years and $25 million later, it reopened and has been going strong ever since.

A number of those Razorback fans next week will leave the Peabody lobby, cross the street and walk down the ally to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous for ribs. Though it has become fashionable for foodies to turn their noses up at the Rendezvous for being too touristy, it remains a Memphis landmark.

Vergos cleaned up a basement below his diner in 1948, discovered a coal chute and decided that it would give him a vent, allowing him to smoke ribs in addition to serving sandwiches. Vergos was a major force in the revival of downtown Memphis. When he died, the city’s mayor described him as an “icon for saving downtown.” His three children continue to run the restaurant.

The famous Peabody ducks even have an Arkansas connection.

Frank Schutt, the hotel’s general manager from 1925-56, and one of his friends had been duck hunting in east Arkansas one day in 1932. They had too much to drink that evening at the hotel and put their live decoys (which were allowed in those days) in the lobby fountain.

The guests loved it.

Schutt decided to train mallards to walk into the fountain each morning and exit the lobby each evening. The daily tradition continues.

Have fun in Memphis next week, Hog fans.

The Most Southern City on Earth has a knack for welcoming visitors from Arkansas.

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College football: Week 13

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

What could I possibly say about last Saturday’s 51-50 Mississippi State victory over Arkansas that hasn’t already been said?

For the first time in school history, Arkansas lost after scoring 50 or more points.

Brandon Allen’s seven touchdown passes set a school record and tied the Southeastern Conference record, and his team still lost.

Arkansas’ defense allowed the most passing yards in school history, 508. The previous high for a Razorback opponent was 499 yards passing by Kentucky’s Tim Couch in 1998.

So the Razorbacks enter the final game of the regular season with a mediocre record of 6-5. Most Hog fans were expecting better, at least eight or nine wins.

What a strange season this has been.

Back in the preseason, no one was expecting losses to Toledo and Texas Tech.

And only the most optimistic Arkansas fans were expecting the Hogs to beat Ole Miss and LSU on the road in back-to-back games.

The regular season will end at Fayetteville on what looks to be a rainy, chilly Friday afternoon against a bad Missouri team that’s 5-6 overall and 1-6 in the SEC. There likely will be as many empty seats as seats with people in them at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It’s a Black Friday clunker of a game for CBS, though the “reported attendance” will be much higher than the actual attendance, as is usually the case.

This is the final week to pick college football games on the Southern Fried blog. The record after 12 weeks is 72-23.

Here are the picks for Week 13:

Arkansas 39, Missouri 30 — Expect Arkansas to score its share of points, but no lead is safe with this Razorback defense. The defense gave up 51 points to Mississippi State, 52 points to Ole Miss and 46 points to Auburn. Razorback fans should hope that the defense that only surrendered 14 points at LSU chooses to show up. Coach Gary Pinkel, who led his Tigers to SEC East titles the previous two seasons, is going out with a whimper. Missouri’s lone SEC victory was by a score of 24-10 to an awful South Carolina team, which lost last Saturday to The Citadel. The last time The Citadel had won against an SEC team was in the 1992 season opener. Anyone out there remember that game? The Tigers’ six SEC losses have been by scores of 21-13 to Kentucky, 21-3 to Florida, 9-6 to Georgia, 10-3 to Vanderbilt, 31-13 to Mississippi State and 19-8 to Tennessee. Advantage Razorbacks with a bowl appearance in Nashville or Memphis to follow.

Arkansas State 29, New Mexico State 21 — The Red Wolves have had two weeks to prepare for Saturday afternoon’s game at New Mexico State. They’re 7-3 overall and 6-0 in the Sun Belt Conference with two games remaining in the regular season. New Mexico State lost 10 of its first 11 games against Sun Belt opponents after rejoining the conference in 2014. After an 0-7 start this season, the Aggies have won three consecutive games and don’t figure to be a pushover on Saturday. New Mexico State started the season with losses of 61-13 to Florida, 34-32 to Georgia State, 50-47 to UTEP, 38-29 to New Mexico, 52-3 to Ole Miss, 56-26 to Georgia Southern and 52-7 to Troy. The wins the past three games have been by scores of 55-48 over Idaho, 31-21 over Texas State and 37-34 over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Red Wolves will earn at least a share of the conference title with a victory Saturday. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are right behind ASU at 5-1 in conference play. ASU ends the regular season in Jonesboro on Dec. 5 against a Texas State team that’s 3-7 overall and 2-4 in conference play.

Emporia State 28, Henderson 24 — The Reddies came up with an interception in the end zone with 10 seconds remaining on a cold afternoon in Arkadelphia en route to a 23-16 victory over Sioux Falls of South Dakota last Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The Reddies, the Great American Conference champions, recorded their first playoff win since moving to NCAA Division II in 1993. The GAC had been 0-5 in the playoffs since being formed in 2011. Henderson has won 10 consecutive games, and seven of them have been by eight points or less. Emporia State shocked Minnesota State-Mankato, 51-49, to earn this week’s trip to Arkadelphia. Emporia is 10-2, having lost to Fort Hays State and the powerhouse Northwest Missouri State team. The Hornets have an offense that has scored 45 or more points six times this season. Does Henderson’s ability to win the close games finally end in the second round? This should be a fun one to watch.

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College football: Week 12

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

What a night in Baton Rouge.

Back when Arkansas was sitting at 1-3, who would have thought that the Razorbacks would become bowl eligible with two games still remaining in the regular season?

Not me.

The 31-14 win over LSU was convincing, to say the least. This is, mind you, a Tiger team that was No. 2 in the country when Jeff Long’s committee released its first rankings of the season. Arkansas made the Tigers look like UTEP, and the vast majority of the 101,699 people in Tiger Stadium had headed back outside to their gumbo pots long before this one was over.

Arkansas outrushed LSU 299-57, had a season-high five sacks and saw Alex Collins move past Dickey Morton into third on the school’s career rushing list with 3,335 yards. Collins topped 100 yards for the eighth time this season and the 15th time in his college career.

Coach Les Miles, who is 48-6 in night games at Tiger Stadium, has only seen a team lose two consecutive games on three occasions during his tenure in Baton Rouge. The second loss each time was to Arkansas. This was the first time for the Tigers to lose back-to-back games by double digits since 1999.

We were 5-2 on the picks last week to make the record 70-21 for the season. Here are the picks for Week 12:

Arkansas 34, Mississippi State 26: This should be an interesting game on what promises to be a cold night in Fayetteville. Alabama had no problem with Mississippi State in Starkville last Saturday, beating the Bulldogs by a final score of 31-6. It marked the eighth consecutive season for Mississippi State to lose to Alabama. Derrick Henry rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns against the Bulldogs. Collins must be licking his chops after having seen that on film. Mississippi State’s three losses have come by scores of 21-19 to LSU, 30-17 to Texas A&M and the aforementioned 31-6 loss to Alabama. The victories have been over Southern Mississippi, Northwestern State of Louisiana, Auburn, Troy, Louisiana Tech, Kentucky and Missouri. In other words, not a big-time win in the bunch; certainly nothing to compared with the Arkansas road victories over Ole Miss and LSU the past two Saturdays. We picked against the Razorbacks in both of those games. We won’t make that mistake again.

Sam Houston State 29, UCA 27 — The Bears need a victory to have a chance of getting into the FCS playoffs. UCA improved to 7-3 overall and 7-1 in the Southland Conference with a 34-31 win last Saturday night at Nicholls State. It was the seventh victory in the past eight games for the Bears as Blake Veasley rushed for 139 yards on 30 carries. McNeese State, which edged UCA in Conway last month, continues to lead the conference. Sam Houston comes into Conway with an identical 7-3 record. Just like UCA, Sam Houston lost back-to-back games to start the season (Sam Houston lost to Texas Tech and Lamar while UCA lost to Samford and Oklahoma State) and then lost later in the season to McNeese. The Bearkats’ victories have been by scores of 63-14 over Houston Baptist, 34-28 over Stephen F. Austin, 59-7 over Incarnate Word, 49-21 over Abilene Christian, 37-7 over Nicholls State, 38-24 over Texas A&M-Commerce and 59-21 over Northwestern State. The two teams appear to be evenly matched. It should be a fun game, and I plan to be there.

Henderson 24, Sioux Falls 21 — The Reddies won the Battle of the Ravine, 21-17, in front of a crowd of 9,868 at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia last Saturday afternoon. Henderson finished the regular season 10-1, and Ouachita finished 7-4. It was a well-played game with no turnovers. Neither defense gave up a long scoring play. Henderson had already wrapped up the Great American Conference title, but the win ensured that the first game of the NCAA Division II playoffs would be at home at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium. The opponent from South Dakota, the University of Sioux Falls, is a small Baptist school (smaller than Ouachita) that’s making its first appearance in the Division II playoffs since moving up from the NAIA. The Cougars are 9-2 and have won 21 of their past 24 games. The winner of Saturday’s game in Arkadelphia (noon kickoff) will play the winner of the game between Minnesota State and Emporia State. The Cougars were 36-12 with four national titles when they played in the NAIA. A year ago, they went 10-1 in the regular season and then beat Central Oklahoma in the Mineral Water Bowl. Henderson’s offense is not as good as last year. But the defense is much better. Give a slight advantage to the Reddies since Sioux Falls is the one making the long trip.

Mississippi Valley State 17, UAPB 15 — Well, somebody has to win this final game of the regular season. Both teams are 1-9. The Golden Lions fell by a final score of 49-31 to Grambling in the homecoming game at Pine Bluff last Saturday afternoon. Grambling, which is now 8-2 overall and 8-0 in the SWAC, led 35-3 at one point in the game. We’ll give a slight advantage to the home team. Both schools will be glad to see the season end.


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