Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

College football: Week 3

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Way to go, Muleriders.

I had returned to my home in Little Rock late Saturday night after having watched the University of Central Arkansas’ come-from-behind victory over Tennessee-Martin.

I had just checked the college football scores and knew that I was 8-0 on my picks for the week for games already completed.

One game had yet to conclude.

Southern Arkansas University was hosting Southeastern Oklahoma in Magnolia in a game that had been delayed two hours at the start due to lightning. I went to the website (an excellent source for NCAA Division II scores) and clicked on the radio link for the Southern Arkansas broadcast.

I tuned in just in time to hear longtime Mulerider play-by-play man Dan Gregory describe the last play.

Trailing 29-23, the Muleriders had one chance. And guess what? Si Blackshire found Aaron Johnson in the end zone for a touchdown to tie the game as time expired. Dylan Nowak then kicked the winning extra point. SAU had put together a 10-play, 61-yard drive in the final 1:31 to make me 9-0 for the week.

So thank you.

At the FBS level, the day’s big story was Black Saturday for the Big Ten.

Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech.

Michigan lost to Notre Dame, getting shut out for the first time since 1984. That shutout ended an NCAA record string of 376 games in which the Wolverines had scored.

Michigan State lost to Oregon.

Purdue even lost to Central Michigan.

In the Southeastern Conference, it was a day of really bad football games. The only conference game was a rout as Ole Miss downed Vanderbilt, 41-3, in Nashville. It was the largest margin of victory for Ole Miss against a conference team in six years. Bo Wallace threw for 320 yards and a touchdown. The Rebels scored on seven of their first eight possessions. Vanderbilt has now been outscored 78-10 since James Franklin left for Penn State.

At the start of the weekend, Arkansas and Virginia were tied for the second-longest FBS losing streaks at 10 games each.

Miami of Ohio was first, and its losing streak grew to 18 games with a 17-10 loss to Eastern Kentucky.

Virginia and Arkansas both won.

UVA downed the Richmond Spiders.

Arkansas won a glorified scrimmage against Nicholls State. That Nicholls team hosts Henderson this week. How many of you are picking the Reddies after what you saw in Fayetteville on Saturday?

What can you say about Arkansas 73, Nicholls State 7? How about these highlights:

– It was the most points scored by a Razorback team since 1928.

- It was the fifth-largest margin of victory in school history.

– Arkansas set a single-game school record for yards per play with a 12.7 average.

– The Razorbacks’ 684 yards of offense were the third most in school history. The record was set when the Hogs gained 859 yards in a 53-0 win over the Pittsburg State Gorillas in 1936.

– Arkansas scored eight touchdowns in its first 20 plays from scrimmage.

– In the event you were counting, it was 356 days between Razorback victories.

Last week’s 9-0 record makes us 13-0 for the season. That perfect record is going to be hard to keep intact this weekend with some interesting matchups.

Let’s get to the picks for Week 3:

Arkansas 28, Texas Tech 27 — This is a game Arkansas can win. At this point in the program’s evolution, any win over a Big 12 team would have to be considered a quality win. Tech has been less than impressive in its first two games. In the season opener, UCA took a 16-7 lead at Lubbock in the first half. After trailing by two scores in the second half, the Bears cut the Red Raider lead to seven points with 2:57 left and attempted an onside kick. Tech recovered the kick and ran out the clock, but the Red Raiders certainly had been tested by an FCS team. On the second Saturday of the season, Tech went to El Paso and hung on for a 30-26 victory over UTEP. The Red Raiders just aren’t getting it done for second-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. This is a golden opportunity for Arkansas to show the ABC audience that there is indeed improvement in the second year of the Bielema era.

Miami 34, Arkansas State 24 — Too bad this is not Miami of Ohio, which has that 18-game losing streak dating back to October 2012. Instead, it’s the U down in south Florida, though this is not to be confused with the U of old. Bobby Petrino got his return to Louisville off to a rousing start on Labor Day with a 31-13 win over Miami. The Hurricanes rebounded for a 41-7 victory over outmanned Florida A&M, which is better known for band scandals that football. To give you an idea of where the Miami program stands, the Hurricanes went 9-4 in 2013, 7-5 in 2012, 6-6 in 2011, 7-7 in 2010 and 9-4 in 2009. Decent but not dominant. Tennessee had to work hard for its 34-19 win over Arkansas State in Knoxville on Saturday. The Red Wolves had come into that game as a 17-point underdog. ASU quarterback Fredi Knighten out of Pulaski Academy passed for 166 yards and ran for 65 yards. ASU is bothered by injuries right now, but look for the Red Wolves to put up another fight. I like what I’ve seen of the new coaching staff in Jonesboro.

Montana State 30, UCA 29 — The Bears evened their record at 1-1 with that exciting win over Tennessee-Martin in Conway last Saturday night. UCA drove 80 yards in 13 plays at the end of the game for the 26-24 victory. Senior quarterback Ryan Howard replaced Taylor Reed out of El Dorado as the Bears’ quarterback on the final drive. UCA had no timeouts and had to convert a fourth-and-15 play. I saw the Montana State opener as the Bobcats gave ASU all it could handle for a half in Jonesboro before falling 37-10. In the second game, Montana State posted a 57-10 victory over tiny Black Hills State. Sophomore quarterback Dakota Prukop is the real deal. His 176 yards rushing against Black Hills State were the most ever for a Bobcat quarterback. Montana State is a traditional FCS power and is ranked 18th in the current FCS coaches’ poll. UCA would be No. 28 if the poll extended out that far. Expect this to be a good game between two talented FCS teams.

Henderson 42, Nicholls State 33 — There. I did it. I picked Division II Henderson to beat an FCS team on the road. After all, the Reddies have won 24 consecutive regular-season games. I can guarantee you that they won’t be intimidated by anything they find in the swamps of south Louisiana. Reddie senior quarterback Kevin Rodgers could start for a lot of FBS schools. Henderson beat Southern Nazarene by a score of 72-7 in its season opener. It could have been a lot worse since the Reddies led 59-0 at the half. Playing only the first half, Rodgers was 27 for 36 passing for 408 yards and seven touchdowns. Darius Davis set a Great American Conference record with five touchdown receptions. Nicholls could well lose this game and then lose again when the Colonels travel to Conway to play UCA later this month. Nicholls will then have the distinction of having lost to an FBS, FCS and Division II school from Arkansas all in the same season.

Ouachita 49, Southern Nazarene 21 — Ouachita has the only college football program in the state with six consecutive winning seasons and opens its new Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia on Saturday night. The Tigers won’t score as many points as Henderson did against Southern Nazarene, but the home team should do just fine in its season opener with Auburn transfer Kiehl Frazier at quarterback. You’ll remember that Frazier was the USA Today Offensive Player of the Year nationally following his senior season in 2010 at Shiloh Christian. He joins a senior-laden Ouachita team that took Henderson to three overtimes in last year’s Battle of the Ravine and hopes to fight it out this season with Henderson and Harding for the GAC title.

Harding 48, Northwestern Oklahoma 20 — Harding opened the season in Searcy with a 42-6 win over Southwestern Oklahoma, outgaining the Bulldogs 485 to 196. The Bisons have one of the top rushing attacks in the country. They had no turnovers against Southwestern as Romo Westbrook became the fifth player in school history to top 2,000 yards rushing. A Northwestern Oklahoma team that won only two games last year and fell by a score of 33-14 to Arkansas Tech in the 2014 season opener won’t come close to slowing down the Bisons this week.

Arkansas Tech 32, Southwestern Oklahoma 31 — The Wonder Boys began their season on a Thursday night with a school-record 98-yard touchdown pass and a 33-14 victory over Northwestern Oklahoma. Tech scored 24 consecutive points in the first half of that game after the Rangers had taken a 7-0 lead. Wonder Boy quarterback Dennis Robertson was 12 of 29 passing for 226 yards. Tech makes the long trip to Weatherford, Okla., this week to take on a Southwestern Oklahoma team that’s a bit better than it looked against Harding.

East Central Oklahoma 19, Southern Arkansas 16 — The Arkansas schools in the GAC went 4-1 against the Oklahoma schools during the first week of play. The only winner from Oklahoma was East Central with its win over UAM by a final score of 38-34. Southern Arkansas, which lost its quarterback and leading rusher from a year ago, will come in on a high after the last-second victory in Magnolia. But East Central always plays tough in Ada. Look for the Tigers to move to 2-0 against Arkansas competition.

Southeastern Oklahoma 38, UAM 36 — Both teams are coming off disappointing losses in their openers. UAM fell to East Central despite two kickoff returns for touchdowns. East Central had trailed by 12 points heading into the fourth quarter of that game. And, of course, Southeastern lost on the final play in Magnolia. This appears to be an evenly matched contest. The game is in Durant, and we’ll give a slight edge to the home team.

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Rex’s Rankings: After one week

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Bentonville goes for two at the end of the game against Kansas City Rockhurst. The Tigers come up short and fall by a score of 17-16 on the first Friday night of the high school football season in Arkansas.

The Tigers drop from No. 1 to No. 3 overall.

Meanwhile, Fayetteville outlasts Lawton, Okla., by a score of 45-38 and moves into the No. 1 slot.

At War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, North Little Rock beats an improved Little Rock Catholic squad, 17-7.

So it went in Week 1.

We’re set for No. 1 vs. No. 2 in just the second week of the high school football season.

North Little Rock at Fayetteville this Friday night.

It should be fun.

Greenwood is back in its accustomed spot at No. 1 in Class 6A after Pine Bluff went to Fort Smith Northside and laid an egg, turning the ball over six times and losing 26-15. Greenwood manhandled Springdale by 30 points, 56-26.

In Class 5A, No. 1 Wynne was impressive in a 64-7 victory over Marion, while Batesville moved up to No. 2 with its 34-6 win over Watson Chapel.

In Class 4A, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams, Malvern and Nashville, are from the same conference. And the top three teams (Warren is No. 3) all wear orange.

In Class 3A, it’s Charleston at No. 1 after beating Shiloh Christian, 42-14, and Booneville at No. 2 after defeating Ozark, 27-3.

And it’s status quo in Class 2A with powerhouse Junction City in the No. 1 position following a 33-19 victory over Smackover, which is now ranked No. 5 in Class 3A.

Let’s get to the rankings:


1. Fayetteville

2. North Little Rock

3. Bentonville

4. Greenwood

5. Conway

6. El Dorado

7. Wynne

8. Fort Smith Northside

9. Jonesboro

10. Batesville

Class 7A

1. Fayetteville

2. North Little Rock

3. Bentonville

4. Conway

5. Fort Smith Northside

Class 6A

1. Greenwood

2. El Dorado

3. Jonesboro

4. Lake Hamilton

5. Pine Bluff

Class 5A

1. Wynne

2. Batesville

3. Greenbrier

4. Pulaski Academy

5. Camden Fairview

Class 4A

1. Malvern

2. Nashville

3. Warren

4. Dollarway

5. Star City

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Booneville

3. Lamar

4. Prescott

5. Smackover

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. Bearden

3. Rison

4. East Poinsett County

5. Hazen

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College football: Week 2

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Well, we started 2014 just where we left off in 2013. Another Razorback loss.

Arkansas’ losing streak is now 10 games, the longest in school history. Prior to this streak, the longest losing streak was seven games in 1990 (the Jack Crowe era) and seven games in 1952-53 (the end of the Otis Douglas era and the start of the Bowden Wyatt era). The 45-21 loss to Auburn marked the 13th consecutive conference loss, that obviously another school record.

Arkansas is 0-9 against ranked teams since the start of the 2012 season (curses, Bobby Petrino; you almost killed a program with your affair). For the first time in nine seasons as a head coach, Bret Bielema lost an opener.

Native Arkansan Gus Malzahn, by the way, is 30-3 at Jordan-Hare Stadium as either the offensive coordinator or head coach at Auburn. And to think that they called him “high school” during his one season at Arkansas.

At least there will finally be a victory this Saturday afternoon in front of a lot of hot fans and quite a few empty seats at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Arkansas State, which looked solid in the second half of its season-opening victory over Montana State, travels to Tennessee this week.

All in all, though, it’s a sorry week for SEC football.

The only conference game is Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, not exactly must-see TV. There will, however, be a lot of starched pink shirts and BMWs in the parking lot as the frat boys turn out from both schools.

The rest of the schedule consists of:

Florida Atlantic at Alabama

San Jose State at Auburn

Ohio at Kentucky

Sam Houston State at LSU

UAB at Mississippi State

Missouri at Toledo

East Carolina at South Carolina

Lamar at Texas A&M

Are you kidding?

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to go to Conway and watch the UCA Bears, who played well in a 42-35 loss at Texas Tech last Saturday.

Last week’s record was 4-0.

On to the picks for Week 2:

Arkansas 49, Nicholls State 15 — Yes, this is an improved Arkansas team. But you could be improved and still go 4-8. Auburn outgained an Arkansas squad that still can’t tackle 267-61 in the second half last Saturday. The Hogs had just two rushing yards in that second half. Auburn had both a 150-yard rusher and a 150-yard receiver for the first time in 13 years. This Razorback defense helps other schools set offensive records. It was the 11th consecutive game in which Auburn scored 30 or more points. Meanwhile, Nicholls State lost last week to Air Force, 44-16. I’ll likely pick the Henderson Reddies against Nicholls State next week. I wonder when was the last time Arkansas and Henderson played the same opponent on consecutive weekends.

Tennessee 37, Arkansas State 24 — The Red Wolves struggled for a half to start the Blake Anderson era in front of 26,143 spectators in Jonesboro before rolling to a 37-10 victory. It was the eighth consecutive ASU win over an FCS opponent. In his first career start at quarterback, Fredi Knighten out of Pulaski Academy had 368 total yards — 219 passing, 104 rushing and 45 receiving. Montana State, which trailed only 13-10 in the third quarter, came in ranked No. 18 in the FCS and has been ranked for more than 60 consecutive weeks. After cutting the Red Wolf lead to three points, the Bobcats punted five times and turned it over twice as the ASU defense took charge. Tennessee, coming off four consecutive losing seasons, had its first sellout in seven years and beat Utah State, 38-7, in a rare Sunday night came. Expect ASU to make it competitive for three quarters or so in Knoxville on Saturday.

UCA 29, Tennessee-Martin 20 — The Bears played well in Steve Campbell’s first game as the UCA head coach. In fact, the Bears had a 16-7 lead at one point and trailed just 21-16 at the half. UCA cut the Red Raider lead to seven points with 2:57 left in the game and tried an onside kick, but Tech recovered the kick and ran out the clock. Tennessee-Martin did not play quite as well against its FBS opponent. Kentucky scored on almost every possession in a 59-14 rout and outgained Tennessee-Martin, 656-398.

UAPB 38, Concordia College 27 — Poor ol’ UAPB. Last year, the Golden Lions started the season with a 62-11 drubbing at Arkansas State. This year’s opener was even worse. UAPB opened the season with a 65-0 loss to Dennis Franchione’s Texas State Bobcats down in San Marcos. UAPB is 1-6 in season openers under head coach Monte Coleman. Texas State (FYI, former Arkansas State defensive coordinator John Thompson is now on Franchione’s staff) had a school record 697 yards of offense. UAPB had just 215 yards. The good news is that tiny Concordia College out of Selma, Ala., comes to Pine Bluff on Saturday if the bus doesn’t burn up. Concordia is little more than a club program. Its only victory during a 1-9 campaign in 2013 was a one-point win over Little Rock’s Arkansas Baptist College, which plays at the junior college level. Corcordia did receive national attention last year when all of its equipment was destroyed in a bus fire as the Hornets were traveling to a game. Assistance streamed in from across the country, including the Green Bay Packers. Put this down as a Golden Lion victory. There may not be many more of them in 2014.

Arkansas Tech 35, Northwestern Oklahoma 21 — The Great American Conference season begins tonight (Thursday) in Russellville. Last season, Tech had 445 yards of offense in a 38-10 victory over Northwestern. The Wonder Boy defense gave up just 214 yards, its best outing of the season. The Wonder Boys have won nine of their past 10 season openers and will win again tonight. Tech was 5-6 last season. Northwestern was 2-9.

Harding 40, Southwestern Oklahoma 28 — This Harding program is the real deal. The Bisons went 9-2 a year ago (including a bowl game victory) with one of the top rushing attacks in NCAA Division II. Southwestern Oklahoma was 6-5. A Bison offense that averaged 359.7 yards per game on the ground in 2013 has four of the top five running backs from 2013 returning. That group of returners includes All-American fullback Romo Westbrook, who gained 1,123 yards. A key will be the play of Harding’s new starting quarterback, Ryley Claborn.

Henderson 57, Southern Nazarene 17 — The Reddies went undefeated in the regular season in 2012 and 2013, losing in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs each time. Henderson beat Southern Nazarene by scores of 63-21 in 2012 and 82-10 in 2013. Saturday’s game should be similar. Senior Reddie quarterback Kevin Rodgers could start for a number of FCS schools. In his previous two games against Southern Nazarene, he was 39 of 55 passing for 928 yards and 10 touchdowns. Southern Nazarene was 0-11 in 2013. Blowout alert.

East Central Oklahoma 39, UAM 36 — An East Central team that was 5-5 a year ago and a UAM team that was 5-6 square off in one of the most evenly matched games of the weekend. East Central took a 33-8 lead over the Boll Weevils in the first half last year and ended up winning by a score of 46-22. UAM had just 23 yards rushing in that game. East Central returns quarterback Spencer Bond, who threw for 2,811 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2013.

Southern Arkansas 26, Southeastern Oklahoma 25 — The Muleriders were 6-4 in 2013, while Southeastern finished with a 2-9 record. The Muleriders have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2002-03, but Southern Arkansas looks to be a bit down this year after losing quarterback Tyler Sykora and leading rusher Mark Johnson.

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Rex’s Rankings: The season begins

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I attended my first high school football game of the season Monday night. My alma mater, Arkadelphia, took on Stuttgart at War Memorial Stadium, and the Badgers rolled to a 42-13 victory.

The game between these two tradition-rich programs brought back a lot of memories.

I was in the stands at War Memorial Stadium in 1970 when Max Graham’s Ricebirds upset Frank Spainhour’s Badgers in the state championship game.

A few years later, I played against Stuttgart as the Badger center.

In 1982, I covered a Stuttgart victory over one of John Outlaw’s good Badger teams in the state semifinals for the Arkansas Democrat.

If all goes according to plan, I will be back out at War Memorial Stadium tonight, Thursday night and Friday night for more high school football.

It’s a good week for football junkies.

Each week, we’ll reveal the Rex’s Rankings on Friday nights on the high school scoreboard show that I co-host on more than 50 stations across the state. In central Arkansas, you can hear us on KARN-FM 102.9 and KARN-AM 920. We’ll be on each Friday from 10 p.m. until midnight.

We’ll also post the rankings each Monday beginning next week here on the Southern Fried blog.

Here’s the first edition of Rex’s Rankings for 2014 as the season begins:


1. Bentonville

2. Fayetteville

3. North Little Rock

4. Pine Bluff

5. Greenwood

6. Conway

7. El Dorado

8. Wynne

9. Pulaski Academy

10. Cabot

Class 7A

1. Bentonville

2. Fayetteville

3. North Little Rock

4. Conway

5. Cabot

Class 6A

1. Pine Bluff

2. Greenwood

3. El Dorado

4. Lake Hamilton

5. Jonesboro

Class 5A

1. Wynne

2. Pulaski Academy

3. Camden Fairview

4. Batesville

5. Greenbrier

Class 4A

1. Malvern

2. Warren

3. Nashville

4. Dollarway

5. Star City

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Booneville

3. Harding Academy

4. Smackover

5. Lamar

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. Bearden

3. Rison

4. East Poinsett County

5. Carlisle

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College football: Week 1

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Here we go.

Labor Day weekend approaches, and that always meant three things when I was growing up in southwest Arkansas: My birthday was coming up (it falls on the day after Labor Day this year), dove season was about to start (Saturday, Sept. 6, this year) and college football season was beginning.

I love this time of year.

Once more I’ll make predictions for all of the NCAA Division I and Division II schools in the state.

The Division II schools don’t get started until next week, but the four Division I programs kick off their seasons Saturday.

Arkansas travels to Auburn to play an afternoon game on the plains of Alabama. After launching the new SEC Network’s extensive schedule of games on Thursday night with Texas A&M at South Carolina, the No. 1 crew of Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer will be in Jordan-Hare Stadium for Saturday’s game.

Meanwhile, Arkansas State unveils its new video board in Jonesboro with a game against traditional FCS power Montana State.

UCA begins the Steve Campbell era with a trip to west Texas to take on Texas Tech.

And UAPB travels to the hills of central Texas to take on Texas State, coached by Dennis Franchione.

I’ll try to attend all or parts of 17 to 18 college football games this year. I say “parts of” since there are several Saturdays when I’ll broadcast a Ouachita game in Arkadelphia and then rush across the street to catch the second half of a Henderson game. Those are golden Saturdays: Tigers, Reddies and steak night at Fat Boys in Caddo Valley all on the same day. I make it a point each season of seeing as many of the Arkansas schools as possible. This Saturday will take me to Jonesboro, where excitement is high following the announcement this week of Johnny Allison’s $5 million gift. The money will go toward a new press box and private suites. Even with the fifth head coach in as many years, the perception still is that this is a program on the way up.

For the first time since 1980, Arkansas opens a season with a conference game. That brings back a lot of memories.

ABC moved up the Arkansas-Texas game in Austin to the evening of Labor Day that year. Wally Hall and I decided to make a Texas road trip in my Olds Cutlass. Wally was not yet the sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat, but he was the lead sports columnist. I was the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia. We covered a Dallas Cowboys preseason game in Irving on Saturday night. We headed to Austin on Sunday, in plenty of time for Mexican food at Matt’s El Rancho. We covered the Arkansas-Texas game on Monday.

I was even cursed by Jones Ramsey, the legendary Texas sports information director. Ramsey was the man who once uttered the famous quote: “The only thing worse than track is field.” And this one: “There are only two sports in Texas. Football and spring football.”

Long after the game had concluded, I noticed a typed sheet of seating assignments taped to the wall of the press box. I wanted to write a column about how writers had come from across the country to cover the game. I figured no one would have use for that sheet. I could take it back home to Arkansas for reference. Ramsey saw me and let me know — in no uncertain terms — that he saved the seating charts from past games.

Lesson learned.

It’s hard to believe it has been 34 years. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Enough ancient history. On to the picks for Week 1 of the 2014 season:

Auburn 29, Arkansas 17 — Thank goodness they’re actually playing a game. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love college football, but my interests are just too broad to listen to radio talk shows in April, May, June and July with people calling up day after day to ask: “How do you think the Hogs are going to do?” I don’t know how the hosts do it. Now we have an actual game to play, a conference game at that. Will the Gus Malzahn magic continue in 2014? It’s hard to believe that anyone could repeat that kind of season. Once August hit and I decided it was time to get fired up for football, I went to the computer and listened to Auburn play-by-play man Rod Bramblett’s call of the late scoring play against Georgia and the final play of the Iron Bowl. If those calls don’t excite you, you just don’t love college football (or you’re a Georgia or Alabama fan). Yes, I think Arkansas will be better. It’s hard to be worse than 0-8 in the SEC, isn’t it? And, yes, I think Brandon Allen will be improved at quarterback. Let’s rally ’round the old burning truck and say that Arkansas hangs around for at least three quarters Saturday afternoon before being worn down by a team with superior talent and depth.

Arkansas State 39, Montana State 24 — ASU opened the season last year with a 62-11 victory over UAPB in Jonesboro. This won’t be the same type of game. At No. 19 nationally, Montana State is one of four Big Sky Conference schools in the preseason FCS coaches’ poll. Montana State has been nationally ranked for 61 consecutive weeks. Coach Rob Ash is a legend in Montana. He is 233-126-5 in 34 seasons overall as a head coach and 57-27 at Montana State. Due to a massive buyout provision in his contract, it certainly seems as if Blake Anderson will be the head coach at ASU for more than one season. The school is making all the right moves to keep him around. The 39,000-square-foot addition to the stadium will cost more than $15 million and include not only a new press box but also 18 private suites and 300 club seats. As noted, a new video board debuts Saturday. An indoor practice facility is being built. And ASU officials still say that a $28 million football operations center is in the works. ASU fans also were excited when athletic director Terry Mohajir announced this week that Missouri will be coming to Jonesboro next year rather than playing the game at a neutral side — Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

Texas Tech 42, UCA 21 — The Bears’ new coach has won national titles at the junior college and the NCAA Division II levels. Now we’ll see what he can do at the FCS level. Clint Conque has moved on to the Piney Woods of east Texas as the head coach at conference foe Stephen F. Austin, and Steve Campbell has moved north from south Mississippi to Conway. The Bears were picked fourth in the preseason Southland Conference polls. The Red Raiders enter their second season under head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Texas Tech jumped out to a 7-0 start in 2013 and moved to No. 9 in the USA Today coaches’ poll on Oct. 27. They faded down the stretch, though, and finished with an 8-5 record. They were 4-5 in Big 12 play but ended the season on a high note with a 37-23 win over No. 16 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. The Red Raiders enter the 2014 season unranked for a sixth consecutive year.

Texas State 40, UAPB 19 — The Golden Lions won’t take the beating they suffered in the opener at Jonesboro last year, but it probably won’t be pretty. Texas State begins its second season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference and is playing an FBS schedule for a third year. Texas State beat Houston in the season opener in 2012 and defeated Southern Mississippi in the season opener last year. Franchione is in the fourth season of his second term as the Bobcats’ head coach. He’s 29-29 at Texas State and 203-121-2 as a head coach, a career that has included stops at Alabama and Texas A&M. His new defensive coordinator is Forrest City native John Thompson, who was not retained by Anderson at Arkansas State despite the fact that Thompson is 2-0 in bowl games as the Red Wolves’ interim head coach.

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Curtis King: Arkansas’ legendary coach

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Sometimes you strike a chord with people.

I did that with my weekly newspaper column when I wrote about Coach Curtis King, who was the coach at Augusta High School from 1944-73, compiling a 182-105-12 record in football despite annually playing larger schools such as Batesville, Newport and Searcy. King also coached boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball and track while doing whatever else needed doing around the east Arkansas school.

He touched the lives of hundreds of former students, and I’ve heard from many of them this week.

I chose to write about Coach King this week because of the huge amount of national media coverage about the fact that Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn spent much of his career as a high school coach in Arkansas.

As I pointed out in the column, high school coaches are an important part of the fabric of this state. Start talking to Arkansans and you’ll find a lot of them who will tell you that outside of their parents, the people who had the most influence on them were high school coaches.

King died in October 1980 but is still remembered fondly.

I closed the column this way: “Gus Malzahn often tells interviewers that he comes from the high school coaching tree in Arkansas. For years, Augusta’s Curtis King was the base of that tree.”

I want to share a couple of things that I didn’t have room for in the newspaper column.

First, some quotes from a story Heber Taylor did on King for the Three Rivers Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette back in April 1997.

Next, some memories from longtime Little Rock businessman and lobbyist Bill Brady, who played for King at Augusta.

This from the newspaper story of 17 years ago: “He was a natural as a teacher. Although small (5-7 and about 160 pounds), he had a booming voice and a presence that demanded respect. Former students say he would throw an eraser or a piece of chalk at a recalcitrant student.

“He might have the class sing the math principles he was teaching.

“He used the Bible to back up his quest for student achievement. A favorite statement was ‘woe be unto him that does not get his homework, for there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.’

“To emphasize the mathematical formula for determining a circle’s circumference, he had his wife bake a special pie. He brought it to class covered and asked a student what shape the pie was. When the answer was ’round,’ he took a towel off his square-shaped pie as a reminder: ‘Pie are squared.’

“He was known to kneel beside the desk of an unprepared student and pray, ‘Lord, send your great angels and put some brains in this poor nincompoop’s head.’

“Billy Ray Smith remembers, ‘He would tear you up in class if you didn’t have your lesson.’ But he and other former Augusta athletes all say King was a great teacher.

“Bobby Pearrow, who played as a 135-pound guard in the early 1950s, said: ‘He went to great lengths to help. He gave me a good math background and that benefited me more than any other subject.’ King had such an influence on Pearrow, in fact, that he and his wife named their son Curtis after the coach.

“Smith and his cousin, Boots Simmons, who also played tackle for Augusta, told about King making them come to the front of the class for a spanking with a book. ‘He wouldn’t hurt you much, but he could sure scare you,’ Smith says.

“In 1978, Suzy Potter Lawler, who played basketball at Augusta in the late 1940s, wrote: ‘He not only taught us to work math problems and be good in sports, he taught us how to cope; how to get along in life; how to respect and be respected; how to live and, when necessary, to fight to live with dignity.’”

I’ll never forget how King described his offense during his induction speech at the 1980 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame banquet: “I ran a single wing with an unbalanced coach.”

One of the most famous games of the King years occurred at Pocahontas in 1949 when King learned that the home team was planning to use a white ball with no stripes to blend in with its uniforms. King had a colored ball and told the officials that if Pocahontas used a white ball during the first half, Augusta would use the colored ball that matched its uniforms during the second half. The Pocahontas coach would not agree to the arrangement, and the officials awarded a forfeit to Pocahontas. On appeal, the governing board of high school athletics in the state reversed the decision.

Brady played for what he describes as the worst team King ever coached. He writes: “By any measure, Coach King was one of the finest coaches ever to field a high school team in Arkansas. However, as good as he was, he was not a miracle worker. And thus the Red Devil football team of 1958 stands alone as perhaps the worst team Coach King ever had. I was a member of that team. The 1957 team was a talented one. Ten guys from that team got college scholarship offers. For the 1958 season, we had only three lettermen returning — Larry Wayne Matthews at fullback and linebacker, Robert ‘Roebuck’ Arthurs, who moved from end to quarterback, and me.

“I’ll never forget being in Little Rock with Matthews late in the summer of 1958. He had been in an accident and was either still on crutches or limping pretty badly from having had his leg messed up. We wandered into Spaulding Sporting Goods in downtown Little Rock, just looking around and killing time. There was Coach King, talking with some of his fellow coaches and buddies. When he saw us, he called us over and began to tell all of the other guys just how bad it was going to be for the Red Devils. He pointed out that we were exactly two-thirds of his total returning lettermen. Then, he pointed out that Matthews was a ‘cripple,’ having been in an accident a month or so earlier.

“He pulled me to the front of the group and said: ‘Right here is my right halfback. He may be small, but he sure is slow.’ I had never heard that before, and we all had a good laugh. It was true. I was small at 144 pounds, and I was anything but fast. Well, coach was prophetic. We were awful in 1958, winning only one game, the homecoming game against Cotton Plant. He coached his heart out, but he couldn’t work miracles with an undersized bunch of guys who had made up the B team the previous year. We couldn’t get it together, no matter how hard we tried or how many trick plays we ran. During halftime of one game, he didn’t even want to come into the dressing room with us to give a halftime talk. It must have been the absolute low point in his otherwise stellar career.

“I think that we all learned a lot that night. I know I did. Somehow we pulled it together for him. We went back out onto the field and played solid, error-free football against a superior Trumann team. We didn’t win the game, but we did OK that night. I think Coach King was proud of the effort.

“Coach King told me one day when we were fishing on the bayou south of Gregory that he felt he hadn’t done a good job of coaching that year. I reminded him that he didn’t have much to work with and that perhaps we should be proud of that lone victory over Cotton Plant. We discussed the fact that sometimes you can learn more and develop more in the way of character in defeat than you can in victory. I’ve never forgotten how bitter those defeats were that year, how sweet that one victory was and how much respect I had for Coach King during both the great season of 1957 and the sorry season of 1958. Next to my parents, he was the most influential man in my life. I will forever be grateful for having known him. And he taught me some pretty good math, too.”

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All aboard the Gus Bus

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Do you want to understand what makes Gus Malzahn tick?

Well, don’t spend the weekend in Pasadena (though the warmer weather would be nice).

Don’t head to east Alabama to visit Auburn, either.

Drive instead through the rice, soybean and cotton fields of the Arkansas Delta and visit the poor farming community of Hughes.

Hughes’ population in the 2010 census was 1,441. That was down from a high of 1,919 in the 1980 census.

The Hughes entry in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes that the second largest town in St. Francis County is “typical of the towns in this part of the state, although it is not known for any major historical events or as the home of any significantly famous people.”

Translation: Not much happens here.

But if you really want to understand why the head football coach at Auburn University is so driven, go to Hughes.

It was at Hughes, far from the limelight of American sports, that Malzahn’s coaching career began.

It was at Hughes that Malzahn learned to love the challenges of being a football coach.

It was at Hughes that Malzahn began to refine his coaching philosophies.

Remember the Hail Mary pass that Auburn used back in November to beat Georgia?

In the Auburn playbook, the play is called Little Rock, as in the city that hosts the high school state championships in Arkansas each year. Malzahn thought back then that such a play might be necessary to get his team to War Memorial Stadium.

George Schroeder, the former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter who’s now the lead college football writer for USA Today, was in Arizona three years ago this week as Auburn prepared to play the University of Oregon for the national championship (a game Auburn would win). Schroeder was writing for the Sports Illustrated website at the time and remembered the weekend in 1994 when Malzahn brought his Hughes squad to War Memorial Stadium for the Class 4A title game.

“They’d arrived a few minutes late, and as they were about to take their seats in the stands, the coach turned around, pointed to the state championship game unfolding below and addressed the stunning reality,” Schroeder wrote. ”The next day, his bunch would play for a title, too. ‘This,’ Gus Malzahn told the Hughes Blue Devils, ‘is the big time, guys.’ For those wide-eyed kids from a tiny farming community in the Mississippi River Delta, there was nothing bigger. For their 29-year-old, third-year head coach, too.”

Hughes lost to Lonoke the next day, 17-13.

“I thought I’d never be back,” Malzahn told Schroeder. “I thought I’d never get a chance again.”

This is the man who will try to lead Auburn to a national championship on Monday night in just his second year as a college head coach.

He’s a man who often describes himself as a “high school coach who just happens to be coaching college.”

Two years ago, soon after he had taken the head coaching job at Arkansas State University, I sat down with Malzahn at his office in Jonesboro. I asked him about the coaches he had looked up to when he was just getting started in the business.

He didn’t list college head coaches.

He listed Don Campbell of Wynne, now retired and soon to be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

He listed Frank McClellan of Barton, also retired and already in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

He listed Barry Lunney Sr., formerly of Fort Smith Southside and now at Bentonville.

And he said his football bible in those days was a book titled “The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football.”

Schroeder described that 1994 state championship loss to Lonoke: “In the final moments, the Blue Devils drove inside the 10. But a halfback pass misfired. A sure touchdown pass was dropped. Their last chance was intercepted. And the head coach still second-guesses himself. He knows he should have run the ball because there was still time and that was the Blue Devils’ strength. He remembers the awful empty feeling, that this was his one shot at the big time.”

Malzahn coached one more season at Hughes and then moved across the state to Shiloh Christian, a private school at Springdale that had started in 1976 as an outgrowth of the First Baptist Church.

In 1986, a Texas native named Ronnie Floyd came to First Baptist as the senior pastor. In addition to the growth at the church, the dynamic minister oversaw growth at the school.

We all know how important high school football is to Texans. Having a winning football program at Shiloh Christian was important to Ronnie Floyd, especially since his son Josh was the quarterback.

The Shiloh Christian athletic director was Jimmy Dykes, now an ESPN commentator. When Malzahn saw a note on his desk at Hughes High School asking him to call Dykes, he knew what it was about. He knew he would be heading from the Delta to the Ozarks.

At Hughes, his offense had depended primarily on the running game. At Shiloh, Malzahn moved from a run-oriented offense to the hurry-up passing attack for which he’s known. He coached the Saints from 1996-2000. The 1998 team set what at the time was a national record with 66 passing touchdowns, and Josh Floyd almost set a national record with 5,878 yards of offense (5,221 passing yards and 657 rushing yards).

Malzahn, who had feared he would never get back to War Memorial Stadium for a state championship game, led the Saints to four consecutive title game appearances. His teams lost 54-30 to Frank McClellan’s Barton Bears in 1997, defeated Hector 49-14 in 1998, defeated Carlisle 47-35 in 1999 and lost 30-29 in overtime to Rison in 2000.

Following the 2000 season, Malzahn was the choice of the Springdale School Board to replace highly respected Springdale High School head coach Jarrell Williams.

“What people don’t remember is that there were still a lot of questions about whether I could coach in the state’s largest classification,” Malzahn told me that day two years ago. “I guess I was the only one crazy enough to try to fill Coach Williams’ shoes. He was Springdale football.”

The memory of the Williams years cast a long shadow over Springdale High School football during the 2001 season.

“The job I did wasn’t good enough for the people of Springdale, and I knew it,” Malzahn said.

Across town, Shiloh was winning another state championship, defeating Augusta 34-20 in the 2001 title game. Malzahn questioned whether he had made the right career move. By 2002, though, Malzahn had the Bulldogs in the state championship game, where they lost to Barry Lunney Sr.’s Fort Smith Southside Rebels, 17-10.

Gus Malzahn was well on his way to becoming an Arkansas high school coaching legend at age 37.

Malzahn’s legend grew at Springdale when his 2005 squad went 14-0, outscored its opponents 664-118 and routed West Memphis, 54-20, in the state championship game at War Memorial Stadium in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a high school event in the state.

Sportswriter Kurt Voight even wrote a book about that 2005 Springdale team.

All Arkansans who follow sports are familiar with what happened next.

Malzahn joined Houston Nutt’s staff at the University of Arkansas in December 2005. There are those who believe that Frank Broyles, the school’s athletic director at the time, forced Nutt’s hand. Nutt mispronounced Malzahn’s name at the news conference that was held to introduce the coach, and Malzahn was never fully accepted by members of the coaching staff (some of whom derisively referred to him as “high school”) even though Arkansas won the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship in 2006.

With the tension between Malzahn and the rest of the staff evident, few were surprised when Malzahn accepted an offer from the new head coach at the University of Tulsa, Todd Graham. The two men had become friends when Graham, now the head coach at Arizona State University, was coaching the high school powerhouse at Allen, Texas. Graham purchased a video that Malzahn had hosted. It concerned the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Graham discovered that they had the same ideas.

With Malzahn as the offensive coordinator, Tulsa ranked first nationally in total yards per game and third in passing in 2007. The Golden Hurricane became the first college team to have a 5,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season. In 2008, Tulsa led the nation again in total yards, averaging 570 yards per game while ranking second in scoring.

It didn’t take Auburn’s new head coach, a defensive specialist named Gene Chizik, long to lure Malzahn back to the SEC in December 2008. The Tigers finished the 2009 season ranked 16th in total offense and 17th in scoring after having been tied for 100th in the country in scoring the previous season.

Auburn won the 2010 national championship, quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and Malzahn won the Broyles Award as the top assistant football coach in the country.

No assistant coach in America had a higher profile at the time. Some reports had Vanderbilt University offering Malzahn as much as $3 million a year to be its next head coach. Malzahn feared that accepting the Vanderbilt job in December 2010 would take the focus off preparations for Auburn’s appearance in the national championship game. Auburn increased his annual salary from $500,000 to $1.3 million, making him one of the nation’s highest paid assistant football coaches.

Gus Malzahn stayed at Auburn for the 2011 season.

To the west in Jonesboro, Arkansas State relieved Steve Roberts of his duties as head football coach at the end of 2010 and promoted first-year offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to the top position. At the time, Freeze was best known as the man who had coached Michael Oher at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. Oher was the subject of Michael Lewis’ 2006 book “The Blind Side” and the 2009 movie of the same name in which Freeze was portrayed by Little Rock actor Ray McKinnon.

ASU went 10-2 in 2011, won the Sun Belt championship and earned a spot in a bowl game at Mobile, Ala.

Freeze parlayed his success at ASU into the head coaching job at Ole Miss, where he replaced Houston Nutt.

A year earlier, then-ASU athletic director Dean Lee had called Malzahn at Auburn to ask him about Freeze. At the end of that phone conversation, Lee joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”

As soon as Freeze left for Ole Miss in December 2011, Lee again called Malzahn to pick his brain about possible successors. Once more the ASU athletic director joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”

This time, though, there was a long pause.

Finally, Malzahn said: “I would consider that.”

He was ready to be a college head coach.

On Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, Lee and Malzahn talked three more times on the phone. By 10:30 a.m. that Saturday, Lee was on the way to Auburn in his personal vehicle. Paranoid that Malzahn’s home was being watched by the media, Lee had taken the ASU license plate off the front of the vehicle and even removed the Red Wolf bumper stickers. For three hours that Saturday evening, Lee visited Malzahn and his wife in their home.

Lee pulled out of Auburn late that evening. Too nervous to sleep, he drove through the night to Jonesboro, arriving at 6:45 a.m. Sunday. He had made calls on the way back to ASU President Chuck Welch and Gov. Mike Beebe, an ASU graduate and strong supporter of the school’s football program.

By the following Wednesday, Malzahn was being introduced as the next ASU head coach before a large, enthusiastic crowd in the Convocation Center on the ASU campus.

Things had moved quickly.

No one, however, could have guessed all that would happen during the next two years.

Like Freeze, Malzahn led ASU to a Sun Belt title and a spot in a bowl game at Mobile.

Like Freeze, Malzahn left ASU after one season to become a head coach in the SEC.

Like Freeze, Malzahn turned around an SEC program and got his team to postseason play.

But this is a far larger game than the one in Birmingham where Freeze took his Rebels a year ago.

This is the national championship game.

This is the famous Rose Bowl stadium.

This is indeed the big time.

This is a long way from Hughes.

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War Memorial Stadium memories

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

I look forward to the first two weekends of December.

It has become a tradition of mine to spend large parts of those weekends at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, watching the state high school championship games.

This year, Mother Nature did her best to ruin that tradition. The ice storm that hit just before the first weekend in December pushed the games back a week.

There were three state title games played the second weekend of the month and three played the weekend before Christmas. The first of those six games — the Class 7A title contest between Bentonville and Cabot on the evening of Friday, Dec. 13 — was played in a steady rain with temperatures in the 30s.

A week later, the Class 4A title game between Booneville and Warren finished at 11:45 p.m. after two lengthy lightning delays.

The next afternoon, the Class 2A title game between Junction City and Des Arc was played in a downpour with heavy winds throughout the contest.

I shouldn’t complain. I was in the press box for all six championship games. Hats off to those fans who survived the elements in the outdoor seats.

Between games this past Saturday, I hung out in the swank, multimillion-dollar press box that was added three years ago. The comfortable leather couches and flat-screen television sets on which we watched the season’s first college bowl games were reason enough to stay put.

The bad weather this month gives me more War Memorial Stadium memories. I have so many.

I have played on that field (Arkadelphia vs. Cabot in the state semifinals in 1976).

I have watched countless games from the stands.

I have covered numerous games from the press box as a newspaper reporter.

I have broadcast games on radio and television.

The old stadium is special to me.

War Memorial Stadium opened in 1948 — 11 years before I was born — with a natural grass surface, open end zones and about 31,000 seats. The changes of recent years have been drastic. In the past decade, we’ve seen new lights, a new artificial playing surface, renovated rest rooms and concession stands, the addition of large video screens in both end zones, the renovation of the outside of the stadium and the new press box.

War Memorial Stadium, which is owned by the state of Arkansas, still stands as a tribute to those Arkansans who have given their lives to defend our country. The Sturgis Plaza was added in 2008 to further honor those who served America. It was built as part of the celebration of the stadium’s 60th anniversary.

The first event at the stadium in 1948 was a University of Arkansas Razorback football game. Some of the most memorable games in program history have taken place in that stadium. I’m glad that I’ll always be able to say that I was there for the Miracle on Markham in 2002. We know Arkansas will continue to play games there the next five seasons. I hope that tradition will continue far into the future.

My memories go beyond Hog games, though. As I said, I played a game there back when the artificial turf was as hard as concrete. The Arkadelphia team for which I was the center recovered a fumbled punt and scored late to defeat an outstanding Cabot team. During this year’s Class 5A state championship game between Morrilton and Batesville, I sat in the press box with two close friends who just happened to be the quarterback and star receiver on that Cabot team 37 years ago. We didn’t know each other at the time. We became friends in college.

Arkansas is a small state, isn’t it?

I saw the first (and last) Bicentennial Bowl in the stadium in 1975 (the game did not survive until the actual bicentennial year) as Henderson took on East Central Oklahoma.

I’ve broadcast several Ouachita games from there.

I’ve seen Arkansas State play there and have enjoyed the UAPB and Grambling bands at halftime of games between those teams.

I go to most of the Little Rock Catholic home games and try to attend the annual Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant, which draws the biggest crowd of any high school game in the state each year.

The Rev. Billy Graham once attracted 270,000 people to War Memorial Stadium during the course of a week.

Elton John, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, George Strait and many others have played outdoor concerts there.

This past weekend, several people asked me what I thought would happen to the stadium if the Razorbacks cease playing games there after 2018. As a state facility dedicated to those who have served our country, I’m convinced the stadium will be just fine.

This is the final Southern Fried blog post of 2013. In the comments section below, I invite you to give us your favorite War Memorial Stadium memory. This is NOT a place for the Great Stadium Debate. There are other outlets for that. This is for memories. I hope to hear from many of you.

I’ve been writing a weekly newspaper column for almost five years. One of the most requested columns is the one I wrote about watching my son during Arkansas’ victory over LSU at War Memorial Stadium in 2010. As my Christmas gift to you (a needed gift after two bleak seasons for the Hogs), here again is that column.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Published Dec. 4, 2010:

Sugar fell from the sky in Little Rock shortly after 6 p.m. last Saturday.

You couldn’t see it, but you can bet it was there.

I glanced over at my 13-year-old son, who had yelled himself to the point of exhaustion during the previous four hours, and I hoped he would remember this moment.

I could feel my eyes misting up as the memories came flooding back — memories of the drive from Arkadelphia to Little Rock in my father’s big Oldsmobile to attend games at War Memorial Stadium, the anticipation building with each passing mile; memories of watching the crowd simply refuse to leave following Arkansas’ victory over Texas in 1979; memories of looking over at my older son (who was 9 at the time) following the Miracle on Markham in 2002 and hoping that he would cherish the moment.

Isn’t that one of the reasons for attending such events?

We’re there not only to enjoy the moment but hopefully to create memories along the way, perhaps even picking up a new story to tell around the dinner table 10 or 20 years from now.

Arkansas’ 31-23 win over LSU last Saturday afternoon was one of those memory-making games. I’ve been attending games at War Memorial Stadium for more than 40 years and can never remember when the fans stood for every play. We only sat during television timeouts, and goodness knows CBS requires plenty of those.

There can be magic in late November games – the ones that start in the sunlight and end under the lights.

As was the case after the wins over Texas in 1979 and LSU in 2002, no one wanted to leave. The stadium remained packed 10 minutes after the game had ended. I hope my son remembers that.

In the north end zone, motorcycle officers in their helmets from the Little Rock Police Department protected the goal post from being torn down. In the south end zone, the goal post was protected by troopers from the Arkansas State Police. I hope he remembers that.

Coach Bobby Petrino was surrounded by troopers (the more troopers around a Southern football coach, the bigger the game) and television cameramen as he exited the field, smiling more than I’ve ever seen him smile. I hope Evan remembers that, too.

The weather had cooperated fully on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous November day for college football. We parked in Hillcrest and walked down Harrison, Lee and Van Buren streets. I knew immediately this wasn’t an average contest when I saw people who had charged $10 to park for the Louisiana-Monroe game now charging $30. There were dozens of fans at the intersection of Van Buren and Markham wanting tickets. No one was selling.

The policeman signaled for us to cross Markham Street. We walked into War Memorial Park for what would turn out to be an afternoon never to be forgotten.

I’ve never made a secret of my fondness for Little Rock games. I cherish those traditions that make our state unique, and having the state’s largest university play its home football games in two places sets us apart in an era when Alabama no longer plays at Birmingham and Ole Miss no longer plays at Jackson.

After entering the park, we made our way to stadium commissioner Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party in the lot directly behind the new press box. I can think of few things better than this: A beautiful November afternoon, good friends, what promises to be a great college football game, fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches.

An integral part of a Little Rock game day for me is the time spent watching the fans walk by. I greeted friends from all sections of our state. It was, in a sense, a large family reunion.

When it was over after almost four hours of pressure-packed action, I looked at Evan as he joined thousands of his fellow Arkansans in chanting, “BCS! BCS!”

I’ve never been in this stadium when it was louder. We returned to Brenda’s tailgate party after the game and listened to the Hog calls, yells and whoops that were coming from the now dark golf course.

It was a happy night in Arkansas.

Remember this sweet November day, Evan.

Remember that you sat between your mother and father.

Remember how you screamed at the top of your lungs each time LSU came to the line, feeling as if your effort were playing a role in the game.

Remember that touchdown as time expired in the first half.

Remember that fourth-down play that resulted in a touchdown right in front of you in the fourth quarter.

Remember the smile on the coach’s face and the fans who didn’t want to leave, staying in their seats to savor it all for a few more minutes.

Remember the day sugar fell from the sky.

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Cliff Harris Stadium: A family affair

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

This story originally ran at

It has been quite a year for Cliff Harris, especially when you consider that he last played football during the 1979 season.

The old Des Arc Eagle, Ouachita Tiger and Dallas Cowboy has been back in the news in a big way, and you can thank Little Rock’s David Bazzel for much of that.

Bazzel — the idea man who came up with the Golden Boot for the Arkansas-LSU football game, the Frank Broyles Award and the Little Rock Touchdown Club — wanted a national football award to be presented at the Touchdown Club’s annual postseason banquet.

Since it was founded in 2004, the Little Rock Touchdown Club has presented player and coach of the year awards in each high school classification. It also has given a most valuable player award for each college program in the state.

David, who is always on the search for something new, was looking for an award that would garner the club some national attention. He spent dozens of hours bouncing from website to website, trying to find a category that didn’t already have an award.

Everything was covered at the NCAA Division I level.

Division II already had the Harlon Hill Trophy over in Florence, Ala., which since 1986 has been presented annually to the top player from that level.

However, there wasn’t a major award for the top small college defensive player in the country. While driving from Siloam Springs to Little Rock on a hot day this summer, I spent more than an hour discussing the idea with David. He wanted to include nominees not only from Division II but also from Division III and the NAIA. He wanted to name the award after Cliff. And he wanted me to help convince Cliff that the Little Rock Touchdown Club does things in a first-class manner.

Cliff’s father and my father played football together at Ouachita in the 1940s, and our parents became close friends. Cliff’s mother was a Henderson Reddie. A mixed marriage, in other words.

Growing up a block from Ouachita’s football stadium, I walked the sidelines as a water boy when Cliff played college football from 1966-69. Cliff’s sister and my sister later attended Ouachita together.

When Cliff played for the Cowboys from 1970-79, we spent many weekends in Dallas watching Cowboys games. Tom Landry would require the players to stay in a hotel the night before a home game. Once the team moved from the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fairgrounds to Texas Stadium in Irving, the team hotel was the Holiday Inn Regal Row, which was in a nondescript warehouse district in Irving. We would stay at the team hotel on Saturday nights and ride a bus to the games on Sundays.

George Bernard Shaw wrote that “youth is wasted on the young,” and indeed I didn’t fully appreciate all those Sundays in the 1970s as much then as I do looking back now. It was a rare opportunity for a boy like me from a small town in Arkansas to be around those players and coaches. That was a golden era for the Cowboys as the team went to five Super Bowls in a 10-year period. Not only were the players famous, but Landry was already an icon. Even the general manager (Tex Schramm), the director of player personnel (Gil Brandt), the guy who played the national anthem on the trumpet (Tommy Loy) and the public address announcers (Bill Melton and James Jennings) were celebrities in those days.

Of all the players who have worn the Cowboy uniform through the decades, only 18 have been inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor. Cliff is among those honorees. He has continued to live in the Dallas area but still considers himself an Arkansan and is in the state often.

Once the award was explained to him — and once he was comfortable that there would be a big-time effort to publicize it — Cliff was on board.

The creation of the Cliff Harris Award was announced during a Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting on Monday, Aug. 26. The club has had some famous speakers through the years, but never has there been so much talent on the stage at the same time. They had all come up from Texas to honor Cliff.

There was quarterback Roger Staubach, who played from 1969-79 and was a 1983 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was cornerback Mel Renfro, who played from 1964-77 and was a 1981 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was Charlie Waters, the other safety in the Cowboys secondary during the 1970s.

There was wide receiver Drew Pearson, who played from 1973-83 and was a 2011 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was Gil Brandt.

And there was Gene Stallings, Cliff’s position coach with the Cowboys who went on to win a national college football title as the head coach at the University of Alabama.

It was a special day.

Still, David didn’t have a feel for how popular the award would be since it had never been given before. He was pleasantly surprised several weeks ago when nominations began to roll in from across the country. He was even happier when, after the list of 100 finalists was unveiled, athletic websites at dozens of colleges and universities featured stories about the Cliff Harris Award.

David also was pleased with the trophy — anyone who has ever seen the Golden Boot and the Broyles Award knows that David goes for big and heavy — which was unveiled in Arkadelphia on Nov. 16 at halftime of the Battle of the Ravine. A record crowd packed every nook and cranny of Ouachita’s outdated A.U. Williams Field that day. With the University of Arkansas football team open, the rivalry received unprecedented statewide media attention. The game itself was one for the ages. Henderson completed a second consecutive undefeated regular season with a 60-52 victory in three overtimes.

Ouachita — which finished 7-3 and compiled its sixth consecutive winning season (the most consecutive winning seasons of any college program in the state) — received more positive exposure for its gallant effort against the heavily favored Reddies than it had received in any of its victories earlier in the season.

Cliff and David went home happy that night. But the huge crowd, the lengthy concession lines, the overcrowded press box and more had convinced Ouachita officials that the time had come for something to be done to A.U. Williams Field. Within a couple of weeks, a donor who has so far remained anonymous had made a substantial contribution to the school.

Last Thursday, the Ouachita Board of Trustees voted to launch a 120-day campaign to match that lead gift. The playing field, which is in good condition, will remain the same. There will be new stadium seating, a new press box (I’ve broadcast Ouachita games from the same booth since 1978), new parking lots and other improvements.

There also will be a new name: Cliff Harris Stadium.

To cap it all off, the day after the Ouachita board made its decision, the Des Arc Eagles beat Bearden (which ironically is the hometown of Cliff’s dad) in the Class AA semifinals and earned a spot in this weekend’s state championship game at War Memorial Stadium.

Like I said, it has been quite a year for Cliff Harris.

“Super Bowls and Pro Bowls say a great deal about his contributions to the game, but what many don’t know is the way he did it,” says Ouachita head coach Todd Knight. “Hard work and the values he learned in the Ouachita football program made him unique. Cliff is a great representative of the game of football.”

Cliff was born in Fayetteville, spent his formative years in Hot Springs and graduated from high school at Des Arc after his father was transferred there by Arkansas Power & Light Co. prior to Cliff’s senior year in high school. He played multiple sports growing up but received little interest from college recruiters. Some Harris family friends convinced second-year Ouachita head coach Buddy Benson that Cliff deserved a chance to play college football, and Cliff made a name for himself in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference in the late 1960s.

Cliff was overlooked in the 1970 NFL draft, but Brandt was well aware of the player at the small school in Arkadelphia. Cliff, in fact, won a starting position with the Cowboys as a rookie in 1970. His rookie season was interrupted by a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, but he wasted no time regaining his starting position following his military commitment.

During the next decade, Cliff Harris changed the way the position of free safety was played in the NFL. He rarely left the field, often leading the team not only in interceptions but also in yardage on kickoff and punt returns.

In his 10 years as a Cowboy, Cliff not only played in those five Super Bowls but also was named to the Pro Bowl six times and was named a first-team All-NFL player for four consecutive seasons by both The Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers Association. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, was named to the Dallas Cowboys Silver Season All-Time Team and was selected by Sports Illustrated as the free safety on the magazine’s All-Time Dream Team. He later was awarded the NFL Alumni Legends Award.

Through tenacity, perseverance and old-fashioned hard work, Cliff overcame numerous obstacles in his football career to become one of the best defensive players in the history of the game. Now, he has a major national award and a college football stadium named after him. I just wish his parents, both of whom are deceased, were around to enjoy the moment.

O.J. “Buddy” Harris often was described by my father, who saw a lot of football, as the toughest player he ever knew.

“Buddy” Harris, a pilot during World War II, was shot down and left floating in the ocean at one point. He was tenacious, just like his kids (Cliff’s younger brother Tommy played for the Razorbacks in the 1970s). By the time Cliff began playing for the Cowboys in 1970, “Buddy” Harris was having a difficult time finding him on the field due to complications from diabetes.

“Cliff Harris keeps several images of his father close to his heart,” Kevin Sherrington wrote in The Dallas Morning News. “Linebacker and center at Ouachita Baptist; P-38 Flying Cross; educated, disciplined, upbeat husband and father of three. And then there’s this, too: O.J. Harris, his face inches from a TV screen, making out fleeting shadows. O.J. had first learned he had diabetes through a routine physical. The diagnosis washed out his plans to be a test pilot. But he did as he was told, gave himself insulin shots daily and never complained. And diabetes took his sight at 50. … Cliff didn’t think much about it back then. He was too caught up making and keeping his position with the Cowboys. Cliff says he is who he is because of his father. He figures he still owes him.”

Cliff also is who he is because of his mother. Margaret Harris wasn’t famous like her oldest son, but the redheaded lady known around our house as Big Margaret (so as not to be confused with her daughter, Little Margaret) should have been famous.

Don’t let the term Big Margaret confuse you. She wasn’t a big woman in a physical sense. It was her personality that was big. Margaret Harris died in October 2009 at age 83. My dad always claimed that Little Margaret was a better athlete than either Cliff or Tommy. He enjoyed telling the story of how Cliff made his own high jump pit in the backyard when the family lived in Hot Springs. Cliff tried all afternoon but couldn’t clear the bar. Little Margaret cleared it on her first try. Big Margaret loved it when my dad would tell that story.

Big Margaret, a Glenwood native, would cross the ravine from Henderson and marry a Ouachita football player. When the Harris family moved to Des Arc, my mother’s hometown, they wound up living in the house next to my grandparents. Arkansas is a small place, isn’t it?

After “Buddy” Harris lost his sight, Big Margaret cared for him for years without a complaint. She was always upbeat. In the words of her obituary, “Her devotion to her husband was an inspiration to all those around her.” She had taken her marriage vows seriously — every word of them.

Big Margaret had given up a potential singing career to marry “Buddy” in February 1946, though her voice would continue to bless the churches she attended through the years. During her funeral service at the Piney Grove United Methodist Church near Hot Springs, there was much talk about her singing abilities. Her strong voice also was effective in questioning the calls of football officials from her spot in the stands. She wasn’t shy about questioning a coach, be it Buddy Benson, Frank Broyles or Tom Landry.

Being a redhead myself, I always admired her redheaded feistiness.

I most admired the way she cared for her husband and remained true to her friends. When my father was in the hospital, she would call our house each day for an update on his condition. She was one of those ladies who make living in Arkansas such a pleasure.

When they dedicate Cliff Harris Stadium next fall, I have no doubt that “Buddy” and Big Margaret will be there in spirit.

I also have no doubt that Cliff will be thinking about them that day.

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College football: Week 14 (the gray edition)

Monday, November 25th, 2013

I realize I’m past the age of 50.

I realize I’m a traditionalist.

I realize that I probably don’t understand what young athletes want today.

Just consider this a sincere plea from a native Arkansan who has always loved my state’s college football teams.

To whom it may concern: We want our Razorbacks back in 2014.

Our Razorbacks don’t wear gray uniforms.

And they certainly don’t wear gray helmets.

Our Razorbacks wear red helmets. They also wear red jerseys at home.

There. I said it.

I feel better.

In the blog post last week, I picked the Razorbacks and asked “why not?” I expected the game to be close and relatively low scoring, calling it Arkansas 24, Mississippi State 21.

It was close, and it was low scoring by today’s standards. But this Arkansas team just doesn’t know how to win, does it? So we have the first eight-game losing streak in University of Arkansas history. This team has already tied the record for most losses in a season. The Hogs went 2-8 in 1950, 2-8 in 1952, 3-8 in 1990 and 4-8 in 2012. A loss at LSU on Friday will result in the most losses in school history.

It also was the first time for Mississippi State to beat Arkansas in consecutive years. Arkansas is 15-6-1 against Mississippi State since joining the Southeastern Conference and had been 9-0-1 against MSU in games played in Arkansas in the SEC era. These two schools like to play overtime games. Arkansas won overtime games at Starkville in 1996, 2000 and 2010. There was also a 13-13 tie in 1993.

Silver linings?

Well, Arkansas’ record at War Memorial Stadium is still a stellar 149-48-5. Let’s not blame it on War Memorial.

Meanwhile, the Razorbacks started seven true freshmen on Saturday. So a lot of young players are getting experience.

Despite the Razorbacks’ awful season, college football remains fun. After 13 consecutive Saturdays attending college football games, I hope to hibernate this week and watch a whole lot of football. Yes, I’ll have the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night while eating leftovers (I love cold cornbread dressing). Yes, I’ll watch the Arkansas-LSU game on Friday while eating more leftovers.

Saturday will be especially fun as I check in on traditional in-state rivalries such as Florida State at Florida, Georgia at Georgia Tech and Clemson at South Carolina while polishing off the leftovers (there’s no better man’s holiday than Thanksgiving since it combines football and food).

Then there’s the Iron Bowl, which might just become as big a rivalry as the Battle of the Ravine if those folks over in Alabama will continue working at it.

I had the privilege of attending four Iron Bowls back when they were all played at Birmingham’s Legion Field. It’s a special rivalry, and the stakes have never been bigger than this year.

Auburn has had two weeks to prepare for the game. Alabama, meanwhile, warmed up with a 49-0 victory over Chattanooga as A.J. McCarron became the school’s winningest quarterback. Think about that. Think of all the great quarterbacks who have played at Alabama through the decades. McCarron now has more wins than any of them with a 36-2 record as a starter.

A few other notes from the SEC:

– Steve Spurrier might be getting old, but he’s still getting it done at South Carolina. The Gamecocks have won 17 consecutive games at home. Saturday’s 70-10 victory over Coastal Carolina marked Spurrier’s 75th victory in his nine seasons as South Carolina’s head coach. Before his arrival, South Carolina fans (among the most loyal in college football) were not used to winning consistently.

– Tennessee can’t seem to get off rock bottom. Tennessee now has had four consecutive losing seasons, the first time that has happened since 1903-06. Gen. Neyland must be rolling in his grave. Vanderbilt beat Tennessee for a second consecutive year for the first time since 1925-26. Maybe they should consider hiring James Franklin at Knoxville.

– Why does Kentucky even bother to field a football team? The Wildcats have now lost 15 consecutive SEC games.

– The shocker of the day last Saturday was Georgia Southern 26, Florida 20. Georgia Southern had come in as a four-touchdown underdog. Florida had entered the game 7-0 against FCS teams with an average margin of victory of 45 points in those seven games. Given the success of recent decades, it’s hard to comprehend that Florida is 4-7, has lost six consecutive games and will have its first losing season since 1979. Will Muschamp will make someone a good defensive coordinator next year.

– Missouri is for real. Missouri’s game against Texas A&M is going to be another fun contest to watch on Saturday as I reheat the sweet potatoes. After missing four games due to a shoulder injury, James Franklin is back at quarterback. The Tigers had no problem ending Ole Miss’ four-game winning streak as Mizzou improved to 10-1 overall and 6-1 in the SEC. Now Missouri is one win away from playing in the SEC championship game at Atlanta.

– LSU put together the game it had been looking for all season as Texas A&M fell to the Tigers in Baton Rouge by a score of 34-10. Here’s how Johnny Manziel put it: “We just got punched in the mouth tonight, and it wasn’t fun.” Manziel passed for 224 yards and a touchdown, but he was sacked twice and intercepted twice while completing just 16 of his 41 passes. LSU ended A&M’s 13-game streak of scoring 40 or more points. The game saw the lowest Aggie point and yardage totals since Manziel began starting at quarterback.

We should have quit picking games a week earlier as our percentage took a small hit with a 2-3 record last Saturday.

We’re 75-18 on the season.

As noted, we picked Arkansas to win a close game.

We also picked Henderson to win by four. Instead, the Reddies lost by five in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

We figured Sam Houston State would defeat UCA in Conway. It was good to see the Bears go out on a winning note to end a season that didn’t live up to expectations.

We correctly picked ASU to defeat winless Georgia State, but it was much more difficult than expected. The Red Wolves had to stop a two-point conversion attempt and then recover an onside kick with two minutes left to hang on 35-33 in Jonesboro on Saturday afternoon. ASU trailed 17-7 at halftime and was outgained 432 yards to 290 yards for the game. The Red Wolves were just one of 12 on third-down attempts. In the end, four turnovers doomed 0-11 Georgia State as Arkansas State improved its record to 7-4 overall and 5-1 in the Sun Belt Conference.

UCA finished the year at 7-5 overall and 4-3 in the Southland Conference with its 49-31 upset of a Sam Houston team that had come in ranked ninth in the FCS. UCA forced six turnovers. Junior quarterback Ryan Howard was 24 of 36 passing for the Bears for 349 yards and four touchdowns in his sixth start since replacing the injured Wynrick Smothers. Sophomore quarterback Taylor Reed, the son of El Dorado High School head football coach Scott Reed, also threw a touchdown pass for UCA.

The other prediction we got correct (in addition to picking ASU to win) was picking UAPB to lose. In 2012, UAPB won the SWAC championship. In 2013, the Golden Lions went 2-9 overall and 2-7 in conference play. The season ended in Texas on a cold Saturday afternoon with a 43-23 loss to Prairie View A&M. Prairie View had 597 yards of offense and scored the game’s first 22 points.

For a second consecutive season, Henderson went undefeated in the regular season and then lost its first game in the NCAA Division II playoffs. Last year it was Missouri Western that beat the Reddies. This year it was St. Cloud State out of Minnesota that won at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia. St. Cloud escaped with a 40-35 victory as the 11-1 Reddies committed four costly turnovers. The Reddies are 21-2 during the past two seasons with both losses coming in the playoffs.

The bad news for Great American Conference opponents of the Reddies is that Henderson quarterback Kevin Rodgers still has another year. He passed for 567 yards on Saturday and now has 10,076 career passing yards.

Let’s hope that Harding and Ouachita can pick up victories in their bowl games on Dec. 7 over Lone Star Conference teams to earn the GAC some respect.

Here are the picks for this week:

LSU 42, Arkansas 17 — Good riddance to the 2013 Razorback season.

Western Kentucky 35, Arkansas State 31 — We’re hoping the Red Wolves will take down Bobby Petrino’s Hilltoppers in Bowling Green on Saturday afternoon, but we’re giving the advantage to the home team. Western Kentucky is 7-4 overall and 3-3 in Sun Belt Conference play. The Hilltoppers have won three consecutive games. The seven victories were over Kentucky, Morgan State, Navy, Louisiana-Monroe, Georgia State, Army and Texas State. The losses came against Tennessee, South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy.

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