Archive for September, 2009

College football — Week 5

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

I was 6-2 last week, and one of the missed picks came because I’m just plain superstitious. Two weeks ago, I had picked No. 16 Valdosta State over Ouachita. The Tigers upset Valdosta. With No. 9 Delta State coming to town, I really thought a good Ouachita team could pull another upset. But I had gone against the Tigers the previous week, and they had won. I figured that if I went against them in the Delta game, they might win yet again. And win they did. A Delta State team that had won 24 consecutive Gulf South Conference games fell hard in Arkadelphia, 38-14. For the rest of the season, I will tell you what I really think.

The other game I missed was that Arkansas State-Troy showdown in Jonesboro that could have gone either way. I picked a three-point margin, and it was indeed a three-point game. But I had gone with the Red Wolves at home. A fumbled punt in the fourth quarter spelled doom for ASU. That’s a shame since Troy might now run the table in the Sun Belt Conference. This is a good Arkansas State team. Yet it badly needed a win last Saturday in its quest for a conference championship.

As for the Alabama-Arkansas game, I had Alabama winning with 35 points, which is exactly what the Crimson Tide had on the scoreboard when the clock ran out in Tuscaloosa. However, I had predicted the Razorbacks would score 29 points. What happened to that offense we saw against Georgia? Where is the running game? Can Ryan Mallett (the guy who sounds like Vanilla Ice when interviewed) play under pressure? So early in the season; so many questions already.

You can get your fill this week of Arkansas teams on TV. UAPB hosts Alcorn State on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in a game on ESPNU. Arkansas State plays at Iowa at 11:05 a.m. Saturday on ESPN2. And Arkansas and Texas A&M square off at Jerry World in Arlington at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.

We’re 21-9 for the season on picks. Here we go for this week:

Arkansas 37, Texas A&M 34 — I don’t feel good about this prediction since I cannot quite figure out this Razorback team. And the Aggies are 3-0. But look at the opponents thus far. The wins (all in College Station) have been by scores of 41-6 over New Mexico, 38-30 over Utah State and 56-19 over UAB. One thing we saw last year is that a Petrino team gets better as the year goes along. So I’ll go with the Hogs, though I still regret having picked them against Georgia. I was caught up in the hype.

Iowa 35, Arkansas State 26 — The Red Wolves will play well as they head north. And the Hawkeyes are due for a letdown after that 21-10 whipping of Penn State at Happy Valley. But this is a 4-0 Iowa team that has downed Northern Iowa, Iowa State, Arizona and Penn State. The Hawkeyes will be 5-0 after Saturday’s game.

UAPB 21, Alcorn State 17 — Much like the Hogs, this UAPB team is hard to figure out. It loses to Division II UAM in its opener. It comes back to beat NAIA Langston and SWAC opponent Mississippi Valley State. And then the offense is beyond dismal in a loss to Alabama A&M at Huntsville. Alcorn State is 0-3 with losses of 52-0 to Southern Mississippi, 48-0 to Central Michigan and 48-42 to Southern University. This is one of those SWAC games that could go either way. I’ll go with the 2-2 Golden Lions at home in a close one.

UCA 49, Missouri S&T 7 — The 2-1 Bears were a bit lethargic in their home opener despite a win over Division II Glenville State out of West Virginia. UCA is home again this Saturday night. Expect the return of the Bear team that almost beat Divsion I-A Hawaii and destroyed Division I-A Western Kentucky. Missouri S&T (that stands for Science and Technology; it used to be Missouri-Rolla) is bad. This 0-4 team has lost 50-13 to Central Missouri State, 44-41 to St. Joseph’s (is that a team or an aspirin?), 21-17 to Wisconsin-Stevens Point and 48-0 to Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Ouachita 42, UAM 28 — Do the Tigers suffer the inevitable letdown after beating two of the Gulf South Conference’s Big Three on consecutive Saturdays? Ouachita is 4-0. UAM is 1-4. Does Boll Weevil quarterback Scott Buisson have the game of his life? Ouachita is now ranked No. 14 nationally in Division II, and you almost feel like the Tigers are walking into a trap. Buisson is still Buisson, but he lost his top two receivers from last year and his offensive line is not as good. Expect Ouachita’s defensive line to force him to rush his throws most of the evening.

North Alabama 33, Arkansas Tech 28 — Expect the 3-1 Wonder Boys to play well against the 5-0 Lions. Tech was impressive in its 59-14 win over UAM. Quarterback Nick Graziano, the transfer from Nevada, is the real deal. He was 33 of 49 passing for 403 yards and five touchdowns. That is the most by a GSC player this season.

Southern Arkansas 24, Harding 21 — SAU struggled in a 51-17 loss against a Henderson team that gets better by the week. At 1-3, the Mulriders are still trying to find themselves under new head coach Bill Keopple. The 2-3 Bisons have been up and down. The last two weeks have not been pretty — losses of 48-10 to Delta State and 38-0 to North Alabama. In a game that’s hard to figure, we’ll go with the home team.

Henderson 45, West Georgia 27 — The Reddies’ 2-3 record is deceiving. West Georgia, which did not win a game last season, is 0-4 thus far this season. The past two games have seen losses of 48-14 to Ouachita and 55-7 to North Alabama. Henderson rolls in an afternoon game at Arkadelphia.

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Newport on the river

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

In my column in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I wrote about Newport and its musical heritage.

I noted the colorful history of this city on the White River. But I also noted that Newport has not kept up during the past 50 years with the next town of any size upstream on the White River, that being Batesville.

It comes down to the fact that Newport is on the edge of the Delta, meaning it must face all of the struggles that characterize Delta towns in this era. Batesville, meanwhile, is on the edge of the Ozarks. And that makes a difference. Both are delightful towns. Both are filled with good people who love where they live. For decades, though, they were headed in opposite directions.

Yet I can’t help but think of my friends in Delta towns who are working so hard to maintain viability and spur growth. I think of the good people of Wynne, with whom I worked in recent months. I think of the good people down the road in Forrest City. I think of those working so hard in Helena-West Helena, where I head tomorrow.

Newport also has people who are working hard. The information handed out by Newport economic development officials contains the slogan “Proud Past. Bright Future.”

No doubt there’s a proud past. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Newport High School product, will attest to that.

But a bright future? If people such as Jon Chadwell, the executive director of the Newport Economic Development Commission have their way, I think so.

On a lengthy driving tour of the area, Jon pointed out the many positive things that are now happening in Newport. There’s the expansion of the four-lane portion of U.S. Highway 67 this fall to north of Tuckerman. There’s the continued growth of Arkansas State University-Newport, a two-year institution that has done much to train workers for the jobs that now are available in Jackson County. There’s the continued success of industries such as Arkansas Steel Associates and Medallion Foods. Those companies employ almost 300 people each at Newport. There’s a new elementary school. And with the expansion of the golf course at the Newport Country Club from nine to 18 holes, it’s probably the only golf course in the state where there’s a cart crossing on a state highway.

Jackson County’s population dropped from 27,943 in the 1930 census to 18,418 in the 2000 census. Crops that once took hundreds of sharecroppers to grow can now be grown by three or four people. That change has led to similar population losses across the Delta.

Jackson County was created on Nov. 5, 1929, with land taken from Independence County. It was named for Andrew Jackson.

For many years, it was Jacksonport, just south of where the Black River flows into the White River, that flourished. Jacksonport State Park captures the history of that town and is one of the most delightful parts of our state parks system. On the afternoon I visited the park, the grounds were manicured as well as someone’s front yard.

Newport did not begin to flourish until the Cairo and Fulton Railroad’s north and south lines met there in 1873. With the completion of the railroad, Jacksonport and the steamboat traffic it had enjoyed began to decline. The county seat was moved from Jacksonport to Newport in 1891.

In the early 1900s, Newport was a center of freshwater pearl production and the creation of pearl buttons from mussel shells. Almost 1,000 commercial fishermen on the White and Black rivers supplied the Muscatine Pearl Works, which had 200 button cutters in the 1930s. Pearl buttons, of course, had been replaced by plastic buttons by the middle of the last century.

Hundreds of new people came to Newport during World War II with the construction of an air base at a cost of $13 million. The Newport Air Field, which operated from 1942-46,  was deeded to the city in 1947 and is now an industrial park. In 1951, the Newport Daily Independent reported that Jackson County ranked 10th in the nation in cotton production, eighth in rice production and 11th in soybean production. A Federal Reserve report in 1954 singled out Newport as a town that was doing things right in the area of economic development. A fellow named Sam Walton operated the Ben Franklin Store there from 1945-50.

As I noted in the newspaper column, Newport was the first place my parents called home after they finished college. I hope it does well. With the efforts I saw on my recent visit there, I think it will be just fine.

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Lessons from Little Rock

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

It was shortly after 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and Little Rock’s River Market was hopping. As I walked to the Darragh Center in the main libary, where I have heard so many lectures through the years, I thought about the number of fascinating speakers who pass through Little Rock.

It’s amazing for a city this size.

The Central Arkansas Library System and its Butler Center for Arkansas Studies bring a stream of well-known speakers to the city. Meanwhile, the lecture series sponsored by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service has become, in my opinion, the greatest cultural amenity the city offers. In fact, I will leave soon after writing this post to hear Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian ambassdor to the United States, speak during lunch at the Clinton School.

On Tuesday night, the Butler Center welcomed Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine. After leaving Little Rock Central High School, Dr. Roberts graduated from California State University, received a master’s degree from UCLA and earned his doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University.

Dr. Roberts, who owns a management consulting firm in California, has appeared on numerous national televison and radio programs to talk about racial issues in America. He was in Little Rock last night to promote his new book, “Lessons from Little Rock,” which has just been released by the relatively new books division of the Butler Center. He was a delightful speaker — upbeat, humorous, insightful.

As I looked around the room last night, a thought struck me: The crowd was almost equally divided between blacks and whites. Based on their questions and comments, these all appeared to be thoughtful, engaged people – people concerned about the state’s largest city, keenly aware of its past and determined to work toward a bright future for our children and grandchildren.

Even though the black percentage and white percentage of the Little Rock population is almost the same, it is rare to see a crowd at any event in Little Rock that is so evenly mixed. Think about it. They say that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America, and that’s true. Blacks tend to go to their churches, and whites go to their churches. This is not to argue that it’s a bad thing. It’s merely to point out the obvious.

Due to the increased migration of white children in Little Rock to private schools, even athletic events have become segregated for the most part. The home crowd at a Pulaski Academy, Little Rock Christian or Little Rock Catholic football game is almost all white. The home crowd at a Little Rock Central, Little Rock McClellan, Little Rock Parkview or Little Rock Hall football game is mostly black. That’s not to pass judgment. My own sons are in Catholic schools. It’s to point out the fact.

So the even mix of the audience last night — and the fact that such even mixes are rare here – made me think about issues confronting not only our city but our entire society. I’m still sorting those thoughts out in my mind and not prepared to write about them here. But merely being at the Darragh Center last night got me to thinking about issues I normally wouldn’t be thinking about on a Tuesday night. And isn’t that the point of a lecture series?

In the audience last night was Elizabeth Eckford, forever made famous by that haunting photo of her walking down Park Street as Hazel Bryant screamed at her. As fate would have it, I opened the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning and found that photo reprinted on the editorial page.

It was one of the most famous American news photos for the entire decade of the 1950s. It was, for years, the image many Americans had of Little Rock.

In his book, Dr. Roberts writes: “The adjective most of us would quickly apply to Elizabeth is shy. We see her as one who would prefer not to be in the center of action. But, in our haste to label her, we miss the fact that she simply wants the time to herself to evaluate and analyze the situation as it emerges before her. When she does speak up it is with the voice of authority. Behind that veil of reticence to engage we find the proverbial steel-trap mind ready and able to take on all comers.”

As I left the main library last night, Ms. Eckford sat by herself on a bench by the front door, deep in thought. I didn’t bother her.

What an amazing city. Thank you Bobby Roberts at CALS and David Strickland at the Butler Center for the things you bring to our community. Thank you Skip Rutherford at the Clinton School for your lecture series. Far larger cities than this offer far less when it comes to speakers who make you think deeply about our state, our country, our world.

It’s time to go hear the Egyptian ambassador.

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College football — Week 4

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

I had my first bad run of predictions last week, going 3-4. Yes, I knew it would be a high-scoring game in Fayetteville. I knew the two defenses weren’t very good. I just didn’t think there would be that many points scored. I thought the defenses would be better than that, especially the Arkansas defense. I won’t make the mistake of picking the Hogs again this week.

Offensively, the future is bright for Arkansas. The quarterback is a sophomore. He completed the first four of his five touchdown passes to sophomores. But defense? That’s another story. And you must have a solid defense to win the SEC. This is not Conference USA where you just outscore people.

I also incorrectly picked Mississippi Valley State to beat UAPB in Itta Bena, based largely on the Golden Lions’ terrible performance in that 27-3 season-opening loss to Division II UAM. It’s the only victory thus far for the 1-3 Boll Weevils. Coach Monte Coleman had his team ready for the SWAC opener. Things get tougher this week with a trip to Alabama A&M.

Frankly, I was delighted to miss two Gulf South Conference picks. Ouachita was 0-9 in school history against Valdosta State. Valdosta is Division II royalty, having won two of the previous five national championships. We often say that the GSC is the SEC of Division II. Well, this was like Vanderbilt beating Florida when Ouachita beat Valdosta. And it was not a fluke. Ouachita won by 10 points, and it should have been worse since the Tigers missed two short field goals.

After a brutal start against North Alabama and Valdosta State, the Muleriders of Southern Arkansas got their first win in the Bill Keopple era with a five-overtime victory over previously undefeated West Alabama in the Thursday night GSC television game of the week. That was a big confidence booster for the Muleriders. They’re on television again this Thursday night at they travel to Arkadelphia to take on Henderson.

Here are the picks:

Alabama 35, Arkansas 29 — The Razorbacks will play well in Tuscaloosa. They will score some points against one of the nation’s best defenses. However, they don’t have the talent on defense to upset the Crimson Tide. With the cupboard stocked on offense, expect a focus when it comes to recruiting on better defensive players. And expect a new defensive coordinator for 2010.

Arkansas State 24, Troy 21 — The Red Wolves have been on both ends of the college football spectrum in their first two games — an easy home win over Mississippi Valley State and a tough trip to Nebraska. Now, it’s time to begin Sun Belt Conference play. And wouldn’t you know the first conference game would be against a traditional Sun Belt power. The game is in Jonesboro. ASU has the best quarterback and the best running back in the conference. The winner will be the favorite to capture the conference title and go to the New Orleans Bowl. This is an early season showdown, and our money is on the Red Wolves in a close one.

UCA 49, Glenville State 19 — This contest against a Division II opponent was added to the schedule late to give the Bears six home games. Glenville State, a school from West Virginia, is 2-2 after a 50-37 loss to Fairmont State. UCA came oh so close to knocking off Hawaii, had a week off and then picked up the school’s first win over a Division I-A opponent with a 28-7 whipping of Western Kentucky. UCA is now No. 12 in both of the Division I-AA national polls. And the Bears get to enjoy four of their next five games at home.

Alabama A&M 37, UAPB 21 — The Golden Lions have played better the past two weeks in wins over NAIA Langston and SWAC opponent Mississippi Valley State. Alabama A&M opened its season with wins over Tennessee State and Hampton. That was followed last week by a 45-13 loss to Jack Crowe’s Jacksonville State team. Alabama A&M gets back on track this Saturday afternoon in Huntsville.

Delta State 31, Ouachita 30 — OK, I picked against my Tigers last week and they beat the No. 16 team in the country. I’m superstitious. What can I say? If I pick against them again, maybe they will pull another upset. Ouachita is no fluke. The Tigers have won eight straight games dating back to early October of last year. They have yet to have a turnover in three games. They’ve outscored their three opponents 124-34. They believe. This might be the biggest Division II game in the country this week. Delta State is No. 9 nationally. The Statesmen have won 16 straight times against schools from Arkansas. Ouachita is No. 21, the first time a Ouachita team has ever been ranked in the Division II poll. The last time a Ouachita team was ranked, the school was in the NAIA. This should be fun. See you in Arkadelphia on Saturday night.

Henderson 27, Southern Arkansas 24 — Both teams picked up their first victories of the season last weekend. SAU won that five-overtime contest over a West Alabama team that had come in 3-0, and Henderson outlasted UAM by a score of 35-33 in a game that was moved to Arkadelphia because of problems with the light poles in Monticello. Give a 1-3 Henderson club the edge over the 1-2 Muleriders in this Thursday night game as the Reddies play for a second straight week at home.

Arkansas Tech 36, UAM 30 — The 1-3 Boll Weevils simply haven’t lived up to expectations. Tech, meanwhile, started the season 2-0 with wins over Northeastern State of Oklahoma and Incarnate Word. The Wonder Boys then dropped a close Thursday night game at West Alabama. They’ve had 16 days to prepare for this one, and they’re at home.

North Alabama 49, Harding 25 — Terry Bowden’s North Alabama team is No. 3 in the country after wins over Southern Arkansas, Carson-Newman, Henderson and West Georgia. The Bisons are 2-2, having been ripped by Delta State last week. Things don’t get any easier this weekend even though the game is in Searcy.

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A slice of pie

Friday, September 18th, 2009

It’s getting late on a gray Friday afternoon at the end of a long, gray week. And I suddenly find myself craving a slice of pie — not that cardboard stuff you might find in Sam’s Club and in far too many Little Rock restaurants but real pie.

I’m talking pie with the syrup oozing up through the meringue.

Arkansas just might be the best pie state in the South. We boast regular pies and fried pies. And we have people in all parts of the state who know how to turn out memorable pies.

I grew up on good pie. My dad always called pecan pie Karo nut pie (a term I still prefer since it gives it more of an Arkansas feel), and he always wanted a mincemeat pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Is it just me or is mincemeat pie getting hard to find? Growing up in Arkadelphia, we got our fried pies from Mrs. Frost (her husband was indeed named Jack Frost) at the Pig Pit in Caddo Valley.

These days, when I think of pie in Arkansas, I tend to think of road trips to DeValls Bluff. That historic Prairie County town on the banks of the White River boasts both Mary Thomas’ Pie Shop and Ms. Lena’s Pie Shop. Pie connoisseurs pick sides on which one has the best pies, kind of like deciding whether you like the cheesesteaks best in Philadelphia at Pat’s or Geno’s.

Mary Thomas has been selling pies along U.S. Highway 70 — just across the street from Craig’s Barbecue — for more than 30 years. Writer Michael Stern of Roadfood fame describes it this way: “The Pie Shop is an annex of Mary Thomas’ home, built out of a former bicycle shed, now filled with tools of the baker’s art. Mrs. Thomas starts making pies in the morning, and by lunchtime there might be half a dozen varieties available, the favorites including pineapple, apple, lemon, cream, coconut and sweet potato, all laid out in gorgeous golden brown crusts that rise up like fragile pastry halos around their fillings.”

Ms. Lena’s has not been serving pies for as long, having opened in the early 1990s. But it’s also worth the trip. To find Ms. Lena’s, continue east on U.S. 70 and then take a right onto Arkansas Highway 33. You will see Ms. Lena’s on your left after getting onto 33.

Ms. Lena passed away in January 2005, but her family has kept the place going. Saturday, by the way, is the day for fried pies — peach, apple, apricot, chocolate, coconut and more. If you call (870) 998-1204 in advance of your trip, they can tell you what they have. The last time I checked, the fried pies were only $1.50 each.

Whole pies often are available on some other days of the week. As I said, call in advance for a whole pie and the hours.

Where else are great pies in Arkansas, both fried and the conventional variety? I need your pie tips.

Where are the best pies in Central Arkanas? In Southwest Arkansas? In Southeast Arkansas? In Northwest Arkansas? In Northeast Arkansas? In the heart of the Ozarks in the north-central part of the state? In the Ouachitas out around Mena and Waldron?

Do they call it Karo nut or pecan? And, finally, where should I get my mincemeat pie for Thanksgiving? In Little Rock, I’m thinking Franke’s.

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Broken windows

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

In an earlier post that laid out an agenda for the state’s largest city, I mentioned the “broken windows” theory and the need for the city of Little Rock to adopt such an approach.

The “broken windows” theory was the work of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a March 1982 article in The Atlantic.

They wrote at the time: “Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. … Vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers — the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility — are lowered by actions that seem to signal ‘no one cares.’ We suggest that ‘untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.”

When the “broken windows” theory was introduced, it gained immediate attention from academics and government policy wonks. Someone had finally made the connection between disorder and urban decay. In language that mayors across America could understand, Wilson and Kelling made the case that if you control disorderly behavior in public places, a significant drop in serious crime will follow.

It’s amazing how many cities — including Little Rock — failed to follow that simple advice. They chose instead to hold “listening sessions” with gang members (who will ever forget then-Mayor Jim Dailey holding court with gang leaders with bandannas pulled over their faces?) and to create midnight basketball leagues. They eschewed using the resources to instead crack down on vagrancy, vandalism and panhandling.

In New York City, however, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani adopted the approach. Crime in the city’s subways fell by 75 percent in the 1990s. What happened wasn’t that complicated. The police simply returned to their old tradition of maintaining public order in addition to fighting crime.

In a 2006 article in The American Interest, Wilson and Kelling wrote:  ”The urban American public was upset by signs of disorder such as graffiti, public drunks, aggressive panhandlers, street-corner drug dealers and hostile gangs of youth. When the police were first formed in American cities they took such matters seriously, but as other agencies developed that supposedly were interested in human distress, and with the rise in serious crime rates, the police increasingly confined themselves to investigating offenses.”

Wilson and Kelling went on to write: “High levels of public disorder could indirectly increase crime rates. This would happen as disorder discouraged honest people from using the streets, thereby leaving public spaces available for small-scale offenses and then more serious ones. We used the metaphor of a building with a broken window: If it were not promptly fixed, more windows would be broken. And so if public disorder were not eliminated, more disorder and then more serious crime would become commonplace. … We believe that when the police work to restore order and do so in a decent and lawful fashion, they have produced an important public good. We doubt it is necessary to justify that result; it is, we think, self-evidently good.”

As one might expect, the theory has its critics. But like Wilson and Kelling, I believe the benefits are self-evident. And I believe an aggressive approach is needed now in Little Rock — not only by the police department but also by code enforcement officers — to once again make this city a place that those from all parts of this largely rural state look forward to visiting.

Your thoughts?

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Football’s other Randy Moss

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

When one mentions NFL football and Randy Moss in the same breath, most people will think of the wide receiver for the New England Patriots. That Moss played his college football at Marshall University, played his first seven years of pro football for the Minnesota Vikings and then was traded in 2005 to the Oakland Raiders. In April 2007, Moss was traded to the Patriots.

This season, however, there’s another Moss associated with the NFL. It’s Hot Springs native Randy Moss, the thoroughbred racing analyst for ESPN/ABC. This fall, Randy is also working for the NFL Network. Frankly, I can’t think of a better fit. I’m biased because Randy is a friend and a former newspaper colleague. But I can tell you he understands all sports and is among the best analysts of any type on television.

Now living in Minnesota, Randy is among the native Arkansans who have done well on the national stage. Randy, who grew up hanging around Oaklawn Park, attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock with the intention of becoming a pharmacist. Soon, however, he decided it would be more fun to handicap horses than to fill prescriptions.

Moss left pharmacy school when Arkansas Gazette sports editor Orville Henry offered him a full-time position as the newspaper’s handicapper and Oaklawn correspondent.

As a young sportswriter at the rival Arkansas Democrat, a fortunate turn of events occurred for me soon before the start of the 1982 race meet at Oaklawn. Jeff Krupsaw, who had been covering Oaklawn for the Democrat, took a job at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. With Krup headed to NOLA just before the start of the live meet, Democrat sports editor Wally Hall had to scramble.

It just so happened that I had been sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald during my four years of college and had spent a good part of my wayward youth in the Oaklawn press box. So I got the assignment — pretty much by default since no one else understood racing — as the Democrat’s 1982 Oaklawn beat writer.

Of course, Randy was both handicapping and writing stories. I only wrote stories. Terry Wallace made the picks for the Democrat in those days. Still, it was fun competing that year against someone who already had become somewhat of an Arkansas celebrity.

Less than a week after the Arkansas Derby that spring, Wally called me into his office. He said: “I’ve got some bad news for you and some good news for the paper.”

The bad news for me was that Moss was leaving the Gazette to go to work for the Democrat. It was virtually unheard of in those days for a well-known writer at the Gazette to depart for the Democrat. Moss was the first big-name defection in the newspaper war. Orville Henry’s defection wouldn’t occur for several more years. It meant I no longer would cover Oaklawn on a daily basis. But it was good news for the newspaper since it also meant that the Democrat was on the rise.

Before the Moss hire, Wally had promised me that I would accompany him to his first (and my second) Kentucky Derby. Even with Randy Moss on board, Wally was true to his word. So the Democrat had three people at that year’s Derby, a sign of the kind of money that was beginning to be spent as the newspaper war heated up.

I would leave the newspaper for a time, only to return as Wally’s top deputy in 1985. In that position, I was technically Randy’s supervisor. Randy spent his autumns at Louisiana Downs back then. Nowhere on the sports battlefield against the Gazette was the competition more heated than in the area of Friday night high school football. I was determined that Randy should join all of our writers in covering games on Friday nights.

You know what? He never complained. He would finish handicapping the Saturday card and then drive from Louisiana Downs to Texarkana, El Dorado, Magnolia, Camden, Hope or wherever else in south Arkansas I had him covering a game. And he put as much effort into his high school football stories as his Kentucky Derby stories. He was a pro.

Randy left Little Rock for the Dallas Morning News back when Dave Smith was putting out the best newspaper sports section in America at Dallas. He later moved to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Randy even worked for Oaklawn for two years. Randy has now been an analyst for ESPN’s thoroughbred racing coverage for a decade. He had first cut his teeth in television doing reports from the Oaklawn press box for Little Rock television stations.

If you enjoy thoroughbred racing, you’ll enjoy Randy’s new blog for the Daily Racing Form at www.mossblog.typepad.com. He’s now become even more famous among amateur handicappers for his Moss Pace Figures.

If you have the NFL Network, you can also look for him there this fall. It’s not a bad step up for a guy we had covering Camden Fairview games back in 1985.

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College football — Week 3

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

After a week off, the Razorbacks open Southeastern Conference play against Georgia as ESPN sends its top team to Fayetteville to telecast the contest. And after a tough trip to Nebraska, the Red Wolves have an open date. UCA returns to action following an open date with a trip to Western Kentucky. And there’s an early season showdown in the Gulf South Conference as Valdosta State takes on Ouachita at 7 p.m. Saturday in Arkadelphia.

The record last week was 5-2. Harding won in three overtimes over Southwest Baptist in a game I had predicted would be high scoring and could go either way. The problem is I predicted Southwest Baptist would win. I also thought Arkansas Tech could get it done on the road against West Alabama. That didn’t happen as the Wonder Boys lost a close one.

The record for the season is 12-3. Here goes for this week:

Arkansas 38, Georgia 35 — OK, call me a total homer. But I’m just not impressed by Georgia. I spent last weekend in Georgia (the things I do for you people) and read everything I could get my hands on regarding the Bulldogs. They were not impressive in an opening loss to an Oklahoma State team that turned around and lost to Houston the next week (Houston, for gosh sakes!). And they barely hung on against a less-than-vintage South Carolina team, breaking up a fourth-down pass at the end to win 41-37. That crazy game featured a kickoff return for a touchdown, an interception return for a touchdown, a safety, a blocked extra point and 24 penalties. Arkansas and Georgia do not have two of the SEC’s better defenses. The Hogs outscore the Bulldogs in a track meet.

UCA 31, Western Kentucky 30 — OK, call me a homer again. But consider the fact that the Bears have had two weeks to prepare for this game. Consider the fact that several rating services had Western Kentucky ranked going into the season 120th out of 120 Division I football teams. Consider the fact that the Bears could have and should have won against a team from Hawaii that is much better than the Hilltoppers. Since beginning its transition from Division I-AA to Division I during the 2007 season (as stated earlier, I refuse to use that FBS and FCS stuff), Western Kentucky is 7-0 against Division I-AA teams. Come Saturday night, that record will be 7-1.

Mississippi Valley State 40, UAPB 38 – These are two bad college football teams. Mississippi Valley State lost its opener against Arkansas State, 61-0. UAPB was ripped in its opener by a Division II UAM team that is now 1-2. The Golden Lions did come back a week later to beat an NAIA team at home. Give Mississippi Valley State a slight edge since the game is in Itta Bena.

Valdosta State 37, Ouachita 34 — The Ouachita football program is on its best run since the 1980s, having won seven consecutive games dating back to the middle of last season. The Tigers have scored a combined 100 points in their first two games this year. In last week’s 48-14 win at West Georgia, Ouachita raced out to a 41-7 halftime lead. It was one of the best halves of football I have ever seen a Ouachita team play. If the Tigers can string together four quarters like last week, they have a chance to upset this traditional Division II power from Georgia. Perhaps having their play-by-play man pick against them will inspire the Baptist Bengals. If you don’t have a ticket in Fayetteville, you owe it to yourself to drive to Arkadelphia for Saturday night’s game. It should be fun.

Henderson 39, UAM 31 – Monticello is the place where the late, great Sporty Carpenter once took a nationally ranked Reddie team, was upset by the Boll Weevils and uttered this famous quote: “Lightning struck the outhouse, and we were in it.” This Henderson team is 0-3 but played well in losses to Division 1-AA McNeese State and Terry Bowden’s Division II national power from North Alabama. UAM beat UAPB but looked terrible in losses to Tarleton State and Delta State. Scott Buisson is still there as the quarterback, but he doesn’t look like the Scott Buisson of last year. Henderson quarterback Roch Charpentier left school this week. He was Henderson’s all-time passing leader with 4,512 yards in 21 games. But his replacement, redshirt freshman Nathan Nall, went the distance two weeks ago against McNeese when Charpentier was suspended. Nall was 12 of 26 for 123 yards and a touchdown. I’ll stick with the Reddies. If the real Buisson shows up, though, all bets are off.

Delta State 45, Harding 24 — The Bisons are 2-1 and improved since last year. But they can’t hang with the nationally ranked Statesmen on the road.

West Alabama 27, Southern Arkansas 24 — This is the Thursday night Gulf South Conference television game of the week. West Alabama is off to a 3-0 start and plays for a fourth straight week on a Thursday. Southern Arkansas has started 0-2 in the Bill Keopple era with losses to national powers North Alabama and Valdosta State. West Alabama is not to be confused with those two schools. The Muleriders have a chance in Magnolia.

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The fifth and finest season

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Back in the days before simulcasting, Instant Racing and “electronic games of skill,” Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs advertised its live race meet as The Fifth Season.

It was a fitting moniker. That’s because Oaklawn is what’s known in the business as a destination track — a place where people bring friends and family members for the day, perhaps even take a vacation there.

There are few destination tracks left in this country. Saratoga in upstate New York is one. Delmar in southern California is another. Keeneland in Kentucky is yet another. Churchill Downs in Louisville is a destination track only during the week of the Kentucky Derby. The same is true with Pimlico in Baltimore.

When I lived in Washington in the 1980s, I would make the short trip to Baltimore on Saturdays in the fall with a fellow racing enthusiast named Jim East, who at the time was the Washington correspondent for the Tulsa Tribune. The old Pimlico complex in the inner city would be almost empty on those fall Saturdays. You could hear the discarded tickets rustle when the wind would blow. Try going to Churchill Downs at a time other than Derby Week. I’ll put it this way — you won’t have a hard time finding a seat.

Oaklawn no longer uses The Fifth Season in its advertising since it’s now a destination 12 months a year. Personally, though, I have no real desire to be there when the horses aren’t running. I care nothing about video games or anything else one might find in a casino. My previous job with the Delta Regional Authority often found me at meetings in Tunica casinos, since those happened to be the nicest meeting facilities in the Delta. My wife would ask: “Did you play anything?” No, I would answer. I do tend to like the steakhouses one finds in a casino and always figured I could get a better return on my investment by spending my money on a shrimp cocktail and a New York strip.

At the races, I am what I suppose is one of those rare individuals who can enjoy a full racing card without placing bets. I simply like to watch thoroughbreds compete. I like the jockeys. I like the owners. I like the colorful characters you find at the track. As a newspaper writer, I could find more good stories at the track than anywhere else.

So I’m glad the video games are doing well at Oaklawn. You won’t find me there. For one thing, I no longer want to be in enclosed rooms where people smoke. But the success of these games means purses will be higher than ever when the horses run again at Oaklawn in January, February, March and April.

I’ve been thinking of Oaklawn lately because of the success of Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird at Saratoga in recent weeks. I feel fortunate that my two sons have inherited my love of watching great thoroughbreds run. I made sure my 12-year-old was with me on April 5 to watch Rachel Alexandra compete in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn. After she had won the Martha Washington by eight lengths back on Feb. 15, it had become apparent that this filly was special. At the Fantasy Stakes, she stretched the margin out to almost nine lengths.

Less than a month later, on the first day of May, she ran one of the greatest races ever run by a filly, winning the Kentucky Oaks by 20 and 1/4 lengths. Jockey Calvin Borel, an Oaklawn regular through the years, put it best that day: “I’ve been in the business 30 years, and I’ve never rode a horse like this.”

A day later, Calvin would win the Kentucky Derby aboard Mine That Bird.

Billionaire Jess Jackson bought Rachel Alexandra after the Oaks victory and paid a $100,000 supplemental fee to enter her in the Preakness Stakes. I sat on my couch at home on May 16 (wishing I were in Baltimore), watching the race with former racing writer Kane Webb. We looked on in awe as Rachel beat the boys, coming out of the No. 13 post position to become the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924.

Rachel Alexandra’s summer campaign included wins in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont, the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth and the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga last Saturday against older males horses. She was spooked by the roar of the crowd at Saratoga and bucked off Borel during the post parade. But she won by a head on an off day. Consider this: Only five other fillies had ever run in that race. Only two had ever finished in the money. No filly had ever won the Woodward Stakes. She was, in fact, the first 3-year-old filly to win a Grade 1 dirt race against older males in New York since 1887.

She has now won nine straight races. My son and I got to see a beautiful animal who might go down as the best filly ever. And we saw her at Oaklawn.

And moving to the male side of things, what about Summer Bird, owned by Dr. Kalarikkal Jayaraman and Dr. Vilasini Jayaraman of Hot Springs? Summer Bird finished third in the Arkansas Derby on April 11. But he came back to win the Belmont Stakes. After finishing second to Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell, Summer Bird won the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga last month. He might be the top 3-year-0ld male this year. And once again, we saw him run at Oaklawn.

We, of course, saw Smarty Jones run as a 3-year-0ld at Oaklawn. We saw Afleet Alex run as a 3-year-old at Oaklawn. We saw Curlin run as a 3-year-old at Oaklawn.

Are you detecting a pattern here? Are you seeing that Oaklawn is becoming the best place in the country to watch the nation’s top 3-year-olds prep for the Triple Crown?

Oaklawn assistant general manager David Longinotti put it this way earlier this year: “The focus of our season is the 3-year-old racing. It’s kind of the focus of the racing world as horses prepare for the Kentucky Derby, and we think this is the best place in the country to do that.”

The Kentucky Oaks, the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes, the Travers Stakes and the Woodward Stakes all sent strong messages to trainers who will have top 3-year-olds next year. The message is this: Oaklawn is a good place to prep their horses in the late winter and early spring. One can expect the quality of racing to be as good, if not better, than ever before.

There were those of us who once thought the “glory days” of the late 1970s and early 1980s would never return to Oaklawn. I think we need to reassess our feelings. The glory days are now.

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College football — Week 2

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

I went 7-1 in the first full week of college football. And it should have been 8-0.

I knew better than to pick UAPB to beat UAM. For gosh sakes, I’m the biggest proponent of the Gulf South Conference. I write stories about the conference for Arkansas Sports 360 and did a radio show for several years on GSC football. The GSC is to NCAA Division II what the SEC is to NCAA Division I. It’s not unusual for a GSC team to step up and beat a Division I-AA team.

I knew the Boll Weevils had talent. But I had real questions about team unity following a 45-16 UAM loss at Tarleton State. I also thought UAPB would be better in its second year under Monte Coleman. Apparently, the Golden Lions aren’t better. UAPB led 3-0 at the half at home last Saturday, but UAM scored 27 unanswered points in the second half to win in a rout and keep me from going 8-0. Hats off to the Weevils.

I guess you also would have to describe my beloved Ouachita Tigers’ 52-6 win over Texas College as an upset since The Associated Press in Little Rock picked the NAIA Steers over Ouachita. Noah?

With the Razorbacks and the UCA Bears open this weekend, the focus falls on Arkansas State’s trip to Nebraska. Steve Roberts, whose team shocked Texas A&M on the road last year, has perhaps his most talented team ever in Jonesboro. By the way, Roberts will be the speaker Monday at the Little Rock Touchdown Club at the Embassy Suites. We begin serving lunch at 11 a.m., and the program begins at noon.

Let’s go to the predictions:

Nebraska 40, ASU 28 — Nebraska opened the season with a 49-3 win over Florida Atlantic from the Sun Belt Conference. The Red Wolves will represent the Sun Belt much better this Saturday in Lincoln before finally wearing down in the fourth quarter.

UAPB 21, Langston 20 — I should know better than picking the Golden Lions. Langston is 2-0 after wins of 43-0 over something called New Mexico Prep and 31-6 over Lincoln University in Missouri. But Langston is an NAIA school, a member of the Central States Football League. That conference consists of six NAIA schools from Texas and Oklahoma. An NCAA Division I-AA team should always beat an NAIA team. Shouldn’t it? So why do I not feel good about this pick?

Delta State 38, UAM 34 — Which is the real UAM team? The one that stunk at Tarleton State or the one that rolled in the second half at Pine Bluff? Delta State is ranked 10th nationally in NCAA Division II. The Statesmen were upset by Texas A&-M at Kingsville in their first game but have had two weeks to prepare for their trip to Monticello. It should be a fun game to watch. If I weren’t in Georgia on Saturday, I would be at the Cotton Boll.

Arkansas Tech 35, West Alabama 29 — The Wonder Boys are 2-0 after wins over Northeastern State from Oklahoma and Incarnate Word from the Holy Land. West Alabama is 2-0 after wins over Belhaven and Harding. The Thursday night GSC television game of the week should be fun. We think Steve Mullins’ Wonder Boys will get it done on the road.

Southwest Baptist 22, Harding 21 — Harding won its home opener 17-15 over Missouri Southern but struggled in a 33-19 loss at West Alabama last week. Again, it’s a question of which team shows up.

North Alabama 46, Henderson 30 — The Reddies have also been two different teams. They lost their opener, 54-38, to Southeastern State of Oklahoma before coming on strong last week. The Reddies had traditional NCAA Division I-AA power McNeese State on the ropes in Lake Charles before losing last Saturday, 27-24. Terry Bowden is back in coaching, though, and North Alabama is loaded. The team even includes a number of transfers that Papa Bobby sent from Florida State. North Alabama is ranked No. 3 nationally this week in NCAA Division II. You might want to go to Arkadelphia to watch this one. Kickoff time is 6 p.m.

Ouachita 35, West Georgia 27 — Ouachita, as noted, is 1-0. Going back to the middle of last season, Todd Knight’s Tigers have won six straight games. West Georgia is 0-2 after losses to Wingate and Lambuth. But the Wolves should play Ouachita well in the first conference game ever played in their new multimillion-dollar stadium.

Valdosta State 47, Southern Arkansas 24 — Valdosta State is ranked No. 18 in NCAA Division II after having been upset, 31-24, by Newberry in the opener. Southern Arkansas lost its opener, 41-9, to North Alabama. It’s brutal for Bill Keopple to have to open his career as head coach with back-to-back games against North Alabama and Valdosta State. Keopple will get things turned around in Magnolia, but it will take time.

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