Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

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 SportingLifeArkansas.com.

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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Rex’s Rankings: The final edition

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Strange things can happen in football when it rains.

It rained Friday night. And it was cold.

Pulaski Academy, ranked No. 1 all season in Class 5A, went down.

Camden Fairview, ranked No. 2 all season in Class 5A, also went down.

Don’t just blame it on the weather. Pulaski Academy lost to a very good Morrilton team. Camden Fairview lost to a very good Batesville team.

Those two games did shake up the rankings. These will be the final rankings of the season. Once we get to this point in the season, it’s time to let the games on the field do all the talking.

In Class 7A, three of the four semifinal teams are from central Arkansas. That’s quite a change from recent years, which have seen northwest Arkansas teams dominate the state’s largest classification. Bentonville could well keep the title in the northwest, but Conway, Cabot and North Little Rock have the talent necessary to win two more games. It’s going to be a fun final two weeks in Class 7A.

In Class 6A, I still don’t see anyone who can challenge Greenwood.

In Class 5A, the Alma-Batesville and Hope-Morrilton games this Friday night should be dandies. All four teams have what it takes to bring home a state championship — talent, tradition, a good coaching staff.

In Class 4A, there’s a state championship-type game being played in the quarterfinals this week as Arkadelphia travels to Warren. If you were to force me to make a prediction at this point, I would tell you that the state champion will be either the winner of the Warren-Arkadelphia game or Pine Bluff Dollarway.

Class 3A and Class 2A remain highly competitive with all of our ranked teams capable of winning it all.

We’ll see you at War Memorial Stadium the first two weekends of December.

Here are the updated rankings:

Overall

1. Greenwood

2. Cabot

3. Bentonville

4. North Little Rock

5. Conway

6. Arkadelphia

7. Pine Bluff

8. Batesville

9. Morrilton

10. Alma

Class 7A

1. Cabot

2. Bentonville

3. North Little Rock

4. Conway

5. Springdale Har-Ber

Class 6A

1. Greenwood

2. Pine Bluff

3. Jonesboro

4. El Dorado

5. Lake Hamilton

Class 5A

1. Batesville

2. Morrilton

3. Alma

4. Hope

5. Pulaski Academy

Class 4A

1. Arkadelphia

2. Booneville

3. Pine Bluff Dollarway

4. Warren

5. Lincoln

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Harding Academy

3. Glen Rose

4. Hoxie

5. Smackover

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. East Poinsett County

3. Carlisle

4. Des Arc

5. Bearden

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College football: Week 13 (cold weather edition)

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

It’s going to be cold at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday morning when the Razorback game begins.

With duck season starting and Thanksgiving just a few days away, Arkansans will have plenty of excuses to miss a contest between a 3-7 team and a 4-6 team that are a combined 1-11 in Southeastern Conference play.

I’ll be there. So will my wife and our youngest son. Brenda Scisson has put together quite a Saturday morning brunch menu for the tailgate party we’ll attend.

I’ve never tried to hide my love for War Memorial Stadium. There are so many good memories of the high school and college football games I’ve seen there during the past 50 years. I’ve watched games from the stands. Arkansas games. Arkansas State games. UAPB games. Henderson in a bowl game (the 1975 Bicentennial Bowl, the first and only). Ouachita games. Arkansas Baptist games at the junior college level. Semipro games. High school games in the regular season and high school state championship games. High school all-star games.

I played there as a high school athlete in 1976.

I’ve covered games from the press box as a newspaper reporter and broadcast games on the radio.

Magic can sometimes happen there.

I was at the original Miracle on Markham. I was there again for the second Miracle on Markham. And I was there three years ago when Arkansas beat LSU to earn a spot in the Sugar Bowl.

Yes, I’ll be there Saturday. Stop by before the game, say hello and we’ll share a muffin with you.

Granted, there’s not a lot to get excited about in Arkansas on this fourth Saturday in November with the regular season winding down.

UCA will end a disappointing season with a game at home in Conway against a decent team from Sam Houston State.

UAPB will end an even more disappointing season on the road at Prairie View A&M.

Arkansas State will host an 0-10 squad from Georgia State in front of a bunch of empty seats in Jonesboro.

The best football of the day likely will take place in Arkadelphia as 11-0 Henderson hosts 10-1 St. Cloud State in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.

We were 5-1 on the picks last week.

The record for the season is now 73-15.

On to the picks for Week 13 of the college football season:

Arkansas 24, Mississippi State 21 — Why not? Why not pick these downtrodden Hogs? A Mississippi State team that’s not all that much better comes to Little Rock this weekend. Arkansas is playing its final home game of the season and should be loose since there’s frankly nothing to lose at this point. It’s Mississippi State that must win its final two games to become bowl eligible. So the pressure is on the Bulldogs. MSU has only managed to defeat Alcorn State from the SWAC, Troy from the Sun Belt, Bowling Green from the MAC and Kentucky (which is from the SEC but might as well be from the Southland Conference when it comes to football). I was there when Bobby Petrino’s first team — which was not a good one — defeated LSU in late November at War Memorial Stadium. So why not?

Arkansas State 35, Georgia State 19 — Arkansas State moved to 6-4 overall and 4-1 in the Sun Belt Conference last Saturday night with an impressive 38-21 victory in Jonesboro against Texas State. The win made ASU bowl eligible for a third consecutive season, but the Red Wolves probably could use another victory or two to actually make it to a bowl game. ASU gained 328 yards on the ground against a Texas State squad that had come in holding teams to an average of 106.2 yards rushing per game. Quarterback Adam Kennedy had 78 yards rushing on 18 carries. Georgia State’s 10 losses have come at the hands of Samford, Chattanooga, West Virginia, Jacksonville State, Alabama, Troy, Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Sam Houston State 28, UCA 24 — A talented Sam Houston State team rolls into Conway for Saturday afternoon’s game. The Bearkats are 8-3. The victories have come against Houston Baptist, Texas Southern, Incarnate Word, Eastern Washington, Lamar, Northwestern State of Louisiana, Stephen F. Austin and Nicholls State. The losses have been to Texas A&M, McNeese State and Southeastern Louisiana. UCA, which has been beset by injuries this entire 2013 season, escaped Thibodaux, La., last Saturday with a 17-10 victory over Nicholls State. UCA, which had lost its previous two games to Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana, is now 6-5 overall and 3-3 in the Southland Conference. The Bears need to pull the upset Saturday for a winning season.

Prairie View A&M 38, UAPB 33 — The only contest we didn’t pick correctly last week was the UAPB game. We picked the Golden Lions to win their game against Alabama A&M. They lost, 50-42. It just hasn’t paid this fall to go with UAPB, which is 2-8 overall and 2-6 in the SWAC. Golden Lion quarterback Ben Anderson did have another fine performance last Saturday. He completed 21 of his 35 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Anderson needs to have another big game for UAPB to end its season on a winning note. Prairie View is 5-6. The victories have been over Texas Southern, Alabama A&M, Stephen F. Austin, Grambling State and Mississippi Valley State. The losses have come at the hands of Texas State, Southern University, Alabama State, Jackson State, Alcorn State and Abilene Christian.

Henderson 34, St. Cloud 30 — The Reddies completed their second consecutive undefeated regular season with a dramatic 60-52 triple overtime victory in the Battle of the Ravine against Ouachita. It was one of the best college football games I’ve ever witnessed. Now, 11-0 Henderson tries to come down off that high and advance in the Division II playoffs, something the Reddies were unable to do last year. In 2012, Henderson received a first-round bye but then lost in Arkadelphia to Missouri Western in the second round. St. Cloud is 10-1. This marks the fifth appearance in the Division II playoffs for St. Cloud and the third appearance in the past four years. The winner of Saturday’s game at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia must travel to Minnesota State-Mankato for the second round. I’m cold just thinking about it.

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Rex’s Rankings: The playoffs continue

Monday, November 18th, 2013

One week down in the high school football playoffs.

What do we know?

In Class 7A, we know that two-time defending state champion Fayetteville (which had started the season 8-0) proved to be a pretender rather than a contender, losing its final three games. Cabot, Bentonville, North Little Rock and Conway all have the talent necessary to win the title. We do know there will be a team from central Arkansas in the title game this year.

In Class 6A, it’s still Greenwood and everyone else. It’s the Year of the Bulldog.

In Class 5A, Pulaski Academy overcame a big deficit against Watson Chapel on Friday night. PA is still the favorite to win a state championship but Camden Fairview, Batesville, Morrilton, Hope and Alma all have the talent to upset the Bruins.

In Class 4A, Arkadelphia shows no signs of slowing down, but a quarterfinal game at Warren could determine the state championship. The Lumberjacks know how to win in the playoffs.

In Class 3A, there are at least six teams — Charleston, Harding Academy, Glen Rose, Hoxie, Smackover and Barton — capable of winning it all.

In Class 2A, Junction City remains the favorite with East Poinsett County, Dierks, Gurdon, Carlisle, Des Arc and Bearden all having the ability to get hot at just the right time.

Here are the rankings:

Overall

1. Greenwood

2. Cabot

3. Bentonville

4. Pulaski Academy

5. North Little Rock

6. Conway

7. Arkadelphia

8. Camden Fairview

9. Fort Smith Southside

10. Springdale Har-Ber

Class 7A

1. Cabot

2. Bentonville

3. North Little Rock

4. Conway

5. Fort Smith Southside

Class 6A

1. Greenwood

2. Pine Bluff

3. Lake Hamilton

4. Jonesboro

5. El Dorado

Class 5A

1. Pulaski Academy

2. Camden Fairview

3. Batesville

4. Morrilton

5. Hope

Class 4A

1. Arkadelphia

2. Booneville

3. Pine Bluff Dollarway

4. Warren

5. Gosnell

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Harding Academy

3. Glen Rose

4. Hoxie

5. Smackover

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. East Poinsett County

3. Dierks

4. Gurdon

5. Carlisle

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College football: Week 12 (Battle of the Ravine)

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

It’s the week when the college football focus in Arkansas turns briefly from the Division I teams to Division II.

To be exact, it’s the week of the Battle of the Ravine in Arkadelphia.

It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year, given that I grew up within walking distance of the Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University stadiums. This series has been a big part of my life.

This year, Ouachita is good.

Henderson is very, very good.

Ouachita is 7-2 and only about three or four plays away from being undefeated. There were close losses to Harding University and Southern Arkansas University. This will be the Tigers’ bowl game, in essence, since their postseason hopes ended with the loss to SAU in Magnolia a couple of weeks ago.

Henderson is 10-0, going for its second consecutive undefeated regular season (an amazing feat at any level) and ranked fourth nationally in Division II by the American Football Coaches Association.

The Reddies likely are headed to the Division II playoffs regardless of the outcome Saturday afternoon. Henderson will enter the contest as a heavy favorite. That said, it’s a rivalry game in which strange things can happen. And Ouachita is much healthier than it was a year ago when the Reddies easily disposed of the Tigers in the final game of the regular season.

Kickoff is at 2 p.m. on the Ouachita side of U.S. Highway 67. A joint tailgate party begins early that morning on the Henderson side of the highway. Organizers are making a strong push this year to publicize the events surrounding the game, especially since the University of Arkansas has an open date and some Razorback fans might want to sample the only college football game in America in which the visiting team walks to a road game.

We were 7-1 on the picks last week, missing only on Arkansas State’s game at Louisiana-Monroe as the Red Wolves played their best football of the season.

The record for the year is 68-14.

On to the picks for Week 12:

Henderson 39, Ouachita 28 — Kevin Rodgers, Henderson’s junior quarterback, doesn’t lose games. At least not in the regular season. Rodgers, among the finest quarterbacks in Division II, continues to pile up impressive numbers as his team dominates its opponents. Henderson wrapped up its second consecutive Great American Conference title last week. Ouachita won the first GAC title in 2011, so the football championship has never been away from Arkadelphia in the young history of the conference. Henderson warmed up for the Battle of the Ravine by thumping a decent Southern Arkansas team by a score of 66-24. The Reddies set a single-game school record with 40 first downs. Across the street last Saturday, Ouachita warmed up by shutting out UAM during the game’s final 43 minutes en route to a 35-10 victory over the Boll Weevils. Ouachita had 344 yards rushing. Senior tailback Chris Rycraw from Bryant had 198 of those rushing yards on 29 carries. Ouachita’s veteran defense held the Boll Weevils to 67 yards rushing and 81 yards passing. The keys to Ouachita staying in the game this Saturday will be to get its running game going again, control the time of possession and thus limit the time Rodgers spends on the field. If Ouachita falls behind early and has to get into a passing duel with Henderson, it could get ugly for the Tigers, just like last year.

Arkansas State 30, Texas State 27 — As noted, Arkansas State played its best game to this point in the season when it went to Monroe last Saturday and dominated the second half en route to a 42-14 victory. The Red Wolves are 5-4 overall and 3-1 in the Sun Belt Conference. The score was tied 14-14 at halftime, but the second half belonged to the Red Wolves. It was the 10th consecutive conference road victory for ASU and the biggest margin of victory in a conference road game since the league was formed. Red Wolf quarterback Adam Kennedy passed for 235 yards and rushed for 102 yards. ASU finished the game with 259 yards rushing, the most since the season opener against UAPB. Texas State comes to Jonesboro on Saturday night (it’s too late in the year to be playing night games, by the way) with a 6-3 record. Most of the wins have come against weak opponents. The victories were by scores of 22-15 over Southern Mississippi, 28-3 over Prairie View A&M, 42-21 over Wyoming, 24-17 over Georgia State, 33-31 over South Alabama and 37-21 over Idaho. The losses were by scores of 33-7 to Texas Tech, 48-24 to Louisiana-Lafayette and 21-14 to Louisiana-Monroe. Ever wonder what happened to Dennis Franchione (Alabama fans are still trying to forget him)? Well, he’s in San Marcos coaching Texas State, my wife’s alma mater. We think Coach Fran will lose a close one in Jonesboro.

UAPB 21, Alabama A&M 20 – It’s a 3-7 Alabama A&M team hosting a 2-7 UAPB team in a SWAC game that’s hard to figure. We’ll go with the Golden Lions by a point since they’re the defending conference champions and have a bit of momentum following back-to-back victories over Mississippi Valley State and Grambling State. UAPB quarterback Ben Anderson was outstanding in the 45-42 victory over Grambling. He was 19 of 29 passing for 280 yards and four touchdowns. He rushed for another 192 yards on 21 keepers. Alabama A&M’s three victories have come against Grambling, Texas Southern and Alcorn State. The losses have been to Tuskegee, South Carolina State, Prairie View A&M, Mississippi Valley State, Southern University, Alabama State and Jackson State.

UCA 36, Nicholls State 34 — A disappointing season for the Bears became even worse last Saturday night in Conway as UCA gave up 58 points at home in a 58-31 loss to Southeastern Louisiana. There won’t be any playoff trips this year for UCA. The Bears are 5-5 overall and 2-3 in the Southland Conference. Southeastern Louisiana is alone atop the Southland standings at 8-2 overall and 5-0 in conference. Southeastern led only 24-17 at halftime but then scored 27 third-quarter points. The visitors outgained UCA 545 yards to 418 yards and had 343 yards on the ground. This week’s opponent, Coach Clint Conque’s alma mater, is not as talented as Southeastern. Nicholls State enters the contest with records of 4-6 overall and 1-4 in conference. The victories have come against Western Michigan, Langston, Arkansas Tech (by only 10 points) and Northwestern State. The losses have been to Oregon, Louisiana-Lafayette, Stephen F. Austin, McNeese State, Lamar and Sam Houston State.  Nicholls has lost its past four games.

Southern Arkansas 42, UAM 38 — It’s a south Arkansas battle between two teams with similar records. SAU is 5-4 both overall and in conference play. UAM is 4-5 in conference play and 5-5 overall. SAU was picked high going into the season and has been somewhat of a disappointment. UAM, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise following its 1-10 season of a year ago. Both teams are coming off lopsided losses in Arkadelphia, SAU at the hands of Henderson and UAM at the hands of Ouachita. This looks to be an evenly matched game. We’ll give the edge to the home team with the contest being played at Magnolia.

Harding 50, Arkansas Tech 31 — With two losses, Harding is out of the running for a spot in the Division II playoffs. But this talented group of Bisons can secure the host spot in that new bowl game at Texarkana with a victory in Russellville on Saturday afternoon. Harding improved its record to 7-2 last Saturday with a 52-30 victory over East Central Oklahoma. The Bison defense had 10 quarterback sacks in that game along with interception and fumble returns for touchdowns. The 10 sacks were a school record. East Central finished with a negative 21 yards rushing. Tech improved its overall record to 5-5 and its conference record to 5-4 by beating Southeastern Oklahoma in overtime at Russellville. Randy Velazquez kicked a 38-yard field goal to give the Wonder Boys a 37-34 victory. Ketrich Harmon rushed for 159 yards and Preston Conder passed for 326 yards for the Wonder Boys.

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Rex’s Rankings: It’s playoff time

Monday, November 11th, 2013

It’s playoff time across Arkansas.

What do we know after 10 weeks of the regular season?

In Class 7A, we know that Bentonville beat Fayetteville on Friday but that Fayetteville is capable of bouncing back and winning it all. The Purple Dogs have shown that the past two years.

Cabot may well be the best 7A team to come out of central Arkansas in recent seasons. North Little Rock. Conway, Fort Smith Southside and Springdale Har-Ber all have the talent to pull a surprise or two along the way.

In Class 6A, we know that it’s Greenwood and everyone else. It’s hard to see anyone challenging the Bulldogs in the playoffs.

In Class 5A, Pulaski Academy and Camden Fairview are the class of the division. But Batesville, Morrilton, Hope, Alma, Wynne and White Hall all could make some noise. Hope already has defeated Fairview and White Hall. The Bobcats are playing as well as anyone in the state right now.

In Class 4A, Arkadelphia has been No. 1 since the start of the season. The Badgers were dominant in the second half Friday night in a 42-10 rivalry game victory against a Malvern team that had come in with a record of 8-1. Pine Bluff Dollarway and Warren have the athletes to give the Badgers problems, though. In fact, Arkadelphia could find itself going on the road to Warren in the quarterfinals. That will be a state championship-type game.

In Class 3A, there are at least seven teams that have a chance of getting hot at the right time and winning a state title. They are Charleston, Harding Academy, Glen Rose, Hoxie, Smackover, Barton and Lamar.

Junction City is the big dog in Class 2A but could be challenged along the way by East Poinsett County, Dierks, Gurdon, Carlisle, Des Arc, Bearden or Hector.

Let the playoffs begin.

Here are the rankings:

Overall

1. Greenwood

2. Cabot

3. Bentonville

4. Pulaski Academy

5. North Little Rock

6. Conway

7. Arkadelphia

8. Camden Fairview

9. Fayetteville

10. Fort Smith Southside

Class 7A

1. Cabot

2. Bentonville

3. North Little Rock

4. Conway

5. Fayetteville

Class 6A

1. Greenwood

2. Pine Bluff

3. Lake Hamilton

4. Jonesboro

5. El Dorado

Class 5A

1. Pulaski Academy

2. Camden Fairview

3. Batesville

4. Morrilton

5. Hope

Class 4A

1. Arkadelphia

2. Booneville

3. Pine Bluff Dollarway

4. Warren

5. Gosnell

Class 3A

1. Charleston

2. Harding Academy

3. Glen Rose

4. Hoxie

5. Smackover

Class 2A

1. Junction City

2. East Poinsett County

3. Dierks

4. Gurdon

5. Carlisle

 

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