Archive for November, 2010

The day sugar fell from the sky

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Sugar fell from the sky in midtown Little Rock at about 6 p.m. 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 hoped he would remember this moment.

I could even feel my eyes misting up as the memories came flooding back — memories of the drive in the Oldsmobile with my father for games at War Memorial Stadium when I was a boy, the anticipation building with each passing mile; memories of sitting with my friend Jeff Root and 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 original Miracle on Markham in 2002 and hoping that Austin would cherish the moment until he was an old man.

Isn’t that one of the reasons for attending such events? We’re there not only to enjoy the moment but hopefully to create some memories, perhaps having a story to tell around the dinner table 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

Arkansas’ 31-23 win over LSU 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 one when the fans stood for every play. We only sat during the television timeouts. And, goodness knows, CBS requires plenty of those.

At today’s Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting, Lunsford Bridges told me that he has been going to games at the stadium for more than 50 years and can’t remember the crowd ever being that intense.

And then Jim Rasco confirmed it. Rasco, the man I consider to be the state’s foremost sports historian, has been to at least one game in War Memorial Stadium each year since it opened in 1948. He agreed that Saturday was something special.

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

As I looked at my son when the clock hit 0:00, I hoped he would soak it in.

As was the case after beating Texas in 1979 and LSU in 2002, no one wanted to leave. The stadium was still packed 10 minutes after the game had ended. I hope he 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.

Bobby Petrino was surrounded by troopers (the more troopers surrounding 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 this Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous November day for college football, and (yes, I will reach for the following cliche) one could sense the electricity in the air while walking toward the stadium.

We parked in Hillcrest and made the trek down Harrison, Lee and Van Buren streets. Hillcrest residents sat in their yards talking about the game. You knew immediately it was not an average contest when you saw people who had charged $10 to park for the Louisiana-Monroe game now charging $30. There were fans wanting tickets — lots of them — at the intersection of Van Buren and Markham. 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 not soon to be forgotten.

I’ve never made a secret of my fondness for Little Rock games or the fact that I took the Little Rock side in the Great Stadium Debate.

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, Ole Miss no longer plays at Jackson, etc. When those who favored moving all home games to Fayetteville made the argument that this was no longer done in Alabama and Mississippi, it only strengthened my resolve.

“Good,” I would say. “That’s all the more reason not to change. This makes us even more special. And since when did we start using Mississippi and Alabama as examples of how to do things anyway?”

Parking in and walking through shaded residential neighborhoods is just better to me than parking down by Baum Stadium in Fayetteville and walking through parking lots to the stadium. I was fond of old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore when I would attend Orioles baseball games there in the 1980s while living in Washington, D.C. One of the things I liked was parking on residential streets and buying food from the people with grills set up in their front yards. Maybe I’m a slave to nostalgia, but Little Rock games are different in a good way.

As great as the Iron Bowl is (Alabama-Auburn is the best rivalry in major college football, and Ouachita-Henderson is the best rivalry in small college football), something was lost when that contest was moved out of Legion Field in Birmingham. I attended the Iron Bowl four times in Birmingham, and there was something to be said for having the same number of Auburn fans and the same number of Alabama fans packed into one place.

Shame on the city of Birmingham for letting Legion Field deteriorate to the point that an upper deck (which had proclaimed Birmingham as the Football Capital of the South across its front) had to be removed.

Congratulations again are in order to the War Memorial Stadium Commission members for the many improvements made during the past six or seven years. Now, make it priority No. 1 to fix those clocks! Why do there always seem to be clock problems when the Razorbacks play in Little Rock?

After entering the park, we made our way as always to Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party in the lot directly behind the new pressbox. 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. Thank God I love college football. Thank God I live in the South.

An integral part of the day is the time spent standing behind the vehicle while facing the stadium and watching the fans walk by. With a fried chicken breast in one hand, I greeted friends from all sections of the state. It is, in a sense, a big family reunion filled with people like me — people born in Arkansas who chose to stay here as adults, raise their families and do our best to improve this place we love.

A thought struck me: Mississippi has the Neshoba County Fair. People come and stay all week, walking from cabin to cabin and visiting with friends. Though it only lasts a few hours, this is my Arkansas version of the Neshoba County Fair: A chance to see friends and acquaintances from across Arkansas.

I turned around and gazed across the golf course at the tents. The tailgating scene there has exploded in the past decade. It’s not as fancy or as famous as Oxford’s Grove, but the War Memorial golf course is much bigger, much more accessible to the common man, less elitist, less of a clique. Knowing they only get two shots a year at doing it right, those who set up shop out on the golf course pour their energy into having a good time. I’ve had the pleasure of attending college football games in many states, and the War Memorial golf course is as good a pregame scene as one can find anywhere.

I won’t write about the game itself. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already read tens of thousands of words about the game.

I looked at Evan as he joined thousands of his fellow Arkansans in chanting “BCS! BCS!”

No, I’ve never been in this stadium when it was louder.

We returned to Brenda’s party after the game and listened to the Hog calls, the yells and the 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 father and mother.

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 (in fact, it was).

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.

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

Remember the day sugar fell from the sky.

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The path to the promise

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

In the previous post, I wrote about the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program, which was unveiled last week.

Though there are differences, the program is based on the El Dorado Promise, which was announced on Jan. 22, 2007.

The El Dorado Promise was made possible by a $50 million gift from Murphy Oil Corp.

The Arkadelphia Promise is being funded by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp.

These two programs will help make El Dorado and Arkadelphia shining stars for the southern half of our state. Interestingly, the initiatives have their roots in a pair of great Arkansans who both were born in 1920.

I’m talking about Charles H. Murphy Jr. of El Dorado and Jane Ross of Arkadelphia. For each of these two south Arkansas business leaders, the family wealth had its roots in the pine forests of the Gulf Coastal Plain. And for each, the betterment of Arkansas was a passion.

Murphy was born in El Dorado on March 6, 1920, to Charles H. Murphy Sr. and Bertie Wilson Murphy. His father had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. It wouldn’t be long before the elder Murphy owned 13 banks. He also built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and then built a railroad to supply that sawmill with timber.

“Land acquisitions in south Arkansas and north Louisiana led to oil exploration ventures, which provided royalties and operating interests,” John G. Ragsdale writes in a profile of Charles Murphy Jr. in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “Murphy’s father had him manumitted by court order at the age of 16 so he could legally transact business for himself, and Murphy entered the petroleum industry as an independent operator — not affiliated with some of the major companies already operating in the area — while in his teen years. When his father had a stroke in 1941, Murphy had to take over management of the various businesses.”

Charles Murphy Jr. had attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy, an institution that had been founded in Gulfport, Miss., in 1912 by Col. James Chappel Hardy (the school no longer exists). He also had received extensive tutoring, including French. Murphy was a voracious reader until his death in March 2002 at age 82.

Murphy and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their business interests in 1946 into C.H. Murphy & Co. The company changed its name to Murphy Corp. in 1950 and to Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. Charles Murphy Jr. would serve as president until 1972 and as board chairman until 1994.

“Murphy Oil Corp. developed from family timberlands in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana that were owned by Charles H. Murphy Sr.,” Ragsdale writes. “… When oil was discovered in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport in 1907, Charles Murphy Sr., the owner of timber and banking interests in Union County, decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development. When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area.”

Education was important to Charles Murphy Jr. He served 16 years on the state Board of Higher Education and 10 years on the Hendrix College board. In 1980, he established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“Beyond serving on boards and providing funding, he was active as a lecturer on economics, responsible civic actions, energy and education, never charging a fee,” Ragsdale writes.

Though Mr. Murphy was no longer with us by the time the January 2007 announcement of the El Dorado Promise was made, it was very much in his spirit.

The same goes for Arkadelphia’s Jane Ross. Though she is no longer with us, she would have been immensely pleased by what occurred last week.

Ross was born in Arkadelphia on Dec. 23, 1920, to Hugh Thomas Ross and Esther Clark Ross. She graduated from college at Henderson in 1942 and became a photographer for the Navy. Photography was her passion, and her family sent her to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., to study color photography.

“When Jane Ross returned to Arkadelphia following the war, she opened a studio, Photos by Ross,” Christin Northern writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She owned and operated this portrait studio from 1948 to 1955. … Although Ross’ first love was photography, she gave it up as an occupation in 1955. The death of her father and family obligations outweighed her love of photography. Jane Ross was heiress to her family’s southwest Arkansas timber fortune. J.G. Clark, Ross’ grandfather, began an empire in the forest products industry in the 1880s. After her father’s death in 1955, Ross operated the large timber enterprise.

“In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some of the control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple.”

Whipple proved to be a shrewd manager of the foundation’s assets. He also turned out to be one of the South’s most innovative bankers. He took over Merchants & Planters Bank of Arkadelphia, which had been founded in 1911, and eventually transformed it into a regional banking company known as Horizon Bancorp. Following the sale of Horizon, Whipple formed Summit Bancorp in February 2000. It now has 20 branches stretching from Little Rock into southern Arkansas.

Whipple also runs a timber management company known as Horizon Timber Services and is the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. He describes it as “a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisition. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you. Here in Clark County, the strong history of the forest industry as well as the future growth excites me.”

While Whipple was building his banking empire, another interesting development was taking place down the street from his Arkadelphia office. In 1986, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mack McLarty, Rob Walton and others joined up with foundations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create a community development bank holding company. The goal was to use the proceeds from commercial banks to fund rural development activities rather than paying dividends to stockholders.

Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp has now become the largest and most profitable rural development banking organization in the country. The first bank it purchased was Arkadelphia’s Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in 1988. Since then, other banks have been purchased across Arkansas and in the Mississippi Delta. Southern Bancorp has grown stronger than ever under the leadership of Phil Baldwin.

A 2005 article in Arkansas Business described it this way: ”Baldwin has brought fiscal discipline to an organization that previously seemed unable to reconcile its two halves, the commercial banking enterprise and the nonprofit organizations it supports.”

“Not only do I believe that you’ve got to stay in the black, but I think you’ve got to be high performing,” Baldwin said at the time.

How fortunate is a town the size of Arkadelphia to have two banking corporations such as Summit and Southern headed by visionaries such as Whipple and Baldwin?

It was fitting that they were front and center at last week’s announcement of the Arkadelphia Promise.

 Baldwin said one of the transformational goals of Southern for the communities in which it operates is to reduce high school dropout rates and increase college attendance.

“It sends the message that every child in Arkadelphia willing to work hard and succeed academically can attend college,” he said of the scholarship program.

Meanwhile, Whipple described it as “one of the best economic events that has ever happened to Arkadelphia as well as being a tremendous educational benefit for every graduate of Arkadelphia High School.”

In El Dorado and Arkadelphia, the dreams of Charles Murphy Jr. and Jane Ross live on.

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The Arkadelphia Promise

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

I’ve told the story often.

The event was so traumatic that I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Saturday, March 1, 1997.

I was downstairs in our Little Rock home, paying bills.

Melissa was upstairs with our 4-year-old son and the new arrival, who was five weeks old (we had taken little Evan to a restaurant for the first time the previous evening — a Cajun place in west Little Rock called Big Mamou).

The tornado sirens went off. I told Melissa to come downstairs and bring both boys.

As Melissa walked down the stairs, she said to me: “Channel 11 is reporting that a tornado has destroyed downtown Arkadelphia.”

“Oh, television news people always exaggerate,” I quickly replied.

Just to be sure, however, I decided to call my parents’ home in Arkadelphia. When I got the “all circuits are busy” recording, I began to worry a bit. What if the television report proved to be true?

About 10 minutes later, the phone rang. It was my father, calling on his cell phone. Our home was fine. His downtown business was fine. But a mere block away from his business, the damage was incredible.

In what would go down as one of the worst tornadoes in Arkansas in the 20th century, 60 blocks of my hometown had been partially or completely destroyed.

I wasn’t accustomed to hearing my father’s voice quiver, but it indeed quivered as he said: “Call the governor and tell him to send in the National Guard. Main Street is gone.”

I was working for the governor at the time, so he knew I could get through quickly.

I hung up and called the Governor’s Mansion.

When the state trooper answered, I said: “This is Rex. I need to speak to the governor as soon as possible. It’s an emergency.”

“He’s on the phone,” the trooper answered. “I’ll get him a message and let him know you’re holding on the line and that it’s important.”

About a minute later, I heard the familiar voice of Mike Huckabee.

“Governor, I just spoke to my father in Arkadelphia,” I said. “He’s downtown, and much of the business district has been destroyed.”

He interrupted me: “I know. I was just on the phone with Percy Malone. He’s standing in the rubble of what once was his drugstore. I’m about to send in the National Guard.”

I drove to the Mansion, where we set up a command center that later was moved to the state Capitol as the magnitude of the destruction across the state became apparent. It would be a long day. Tornadoes had cut a swath across the state that Saturday from southwest Arkansas to northeast Arkansas, killing 25 people. To put it into contenxt, more people were killed by storms that day than were killed by storms in Bill Clinton’s entire 12 years as governor.

The next day, I rode in a National Guard helicopter with the governor from Arkadelphia all the way to Newport to view the damage. On Monday, we were back on the helicopter to fly to Hickory Ridge and Marmaduke in northeast Arkansas. There had been heavy damage in each of those towns before the storm exited the state.

On Tuesday, March 4, President Clinton came home to Arkansas and took part in a walking tour of what remained of downtown Arkadelphia.

Following the tour, a small group of us sat in a room at Elk Horn Bank and Trust (now Southern Bancorp). There was no electricity. The room was lit by candles.

Knowing I was from Arkadelphia, the president whispered this to me: “Don’t quote me (I figure that after almost 14 years it’s OK now), but most towns in the southern half of the state could never recover from something like this. Given the fact it has two universities and strong banks, Arkadelphia has a better chance to come back than almost any other town south of Little Rock would have.”

It’s interesting that he mentioned the banks.

I thought of President Clinton’s comments last week as people filled the football stadium at Arkadelphia High School. They were there to see the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program unveiled. The initiative is modeled on the El Dorado Promise, though there are key differences. It’s something that will change the face of my hometown forever, and it’s being made possible by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp. No longer will the families of Arkadelphia High School graduates have to worry about coming up with the money to pay college tuition and fees as long as their children meet certain standards.

Ross Whipple, the chairman of the Ross Foundation, is also the chairman of Summit Bank, which he began in February 2000. Whipple is recognized as one of the region’s top bankers. Meanwhile, Phil Baldwin’s leadership has solidified Southern Bancorp’s position as the largest and most profitable rural development banking organization in the country.

It’s unusual for any town anywhere to have two banking corporations as strong as Summit and Southern headquartered in the same community. It’s especially impressive that visionaries such as Whipple and Baldwin work within blocks of each other on Main Street.

Bill Clinton’s March 1997 comment about the importance of strong banks resonates today.

In a video message, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “More than a decade ago, you not only rebuilt Arkadelphia after a devastating tornado, you built it stronger. Today, you have been given another chance to get smarter, to prepare yourself to succeed, to pursue your dreams. I don’t think we celebrate success enough in education.”

Here’s how the website www.arkadelphiapromise.com explains the program: “The goal of the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship is to increase the college-going rate for local students, reduce the number of students dropping out of college for financial reasons and provide for a more educated workforce. The Arkadelphia Promise is a game-changing effort — making a college education not just a dream but a reality for every child in Arkadelphia. A college degree is a passport to future prosperity for individuals, and a more college-educated workforce makes Arkadelphia a more attractive community in which to locate a business.”

Indeed, this is a game-changing initiative for Arkadelphia.

“Students who never considered college an option will now be free to achieve success that will better their future, their community and our state,” said Gov. Mike Beebe.

The superintendent of the Arkadelphia School District, Donnie Whitten, called it “the most significant event in the history of our school district.”

He’s right. I’m biased since I attended that district from the first through the 12th grade, but I always believed I received an excellent education in Arkadelphia. Because it was a college town, there seemed to be a greater commitment to education in Arkadelphia than you might find in other south Arkansas towns. A number of my teachers were the spouses of Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University employees. Now, there’s a pot of gold waiting at the end of the public education rainbow.

To be eligible for an Arkadelphia Promise scholarship, Arkadelphia High School graduates must be Arkansas Academic Challenge scholarship recipients and plan to immediately attend college after graduation. Academic Challenge is now mostly funded by the lottery. It provides annual scholarships of $5,000 for those attending four-year schools and $2,500 for those attending two-year schools in Arkansas.

All students enrolled in the Arkadelphia School District as of Nov. 16 — from kindgarten through 12th grade — can receive the full scholarship upon graduation regardless of the date of original enrollment. A sliding scale will be in effect for new enrollees.

Based on what has happened in El Dorado, the Arkadelphia School District should expect its student population to grow.

On Jan. 22, 2007, officials from Murphy Oil Corp. announced a donation of $50 million to create the El Dorado Promise scholarship program. The motto was simple — go to school, graduate, get a scholarship. The scholarship money was made available for use in schools both inside and outside Arkansas.

“For students, this is life changing,” El Dorado superintendent Bob Watson said that day. “Students who have worked hard but would not have been able to attend college because of financial limitations now have the means to do so.”

Since the El Dorado Promise was created, families have moved to the city from 31 states and 13 foreign countries so their children can attend the public schools. The El Dorado School District, after years of declining student populations, has had a 4 percent enrollment increase. The percentage of El Dorado High School graduates who enroll in college exceeds both the state and national college enrollment rates. Almost a quarter of those students are first-generation college students.

Last spring, former President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker for what’s known as academic signing day. Members of the El Dorado High School class of 2010 enrolled in schools ranging from Johns Hopkins University to the University of Michigan.

Two years following the original announcement, Murphy Oil officials announced an expansion of the program to allow more flexibility for students and their families. The expansion meant that students with scholarships and grants covering tuition now have the option to apply the El Dorado Promise funds toward other expenses such as room, board, books and additional fees.

“Living in Arkansas and getting the lottery scholarships is wonderful, but now living in El Dorado just got a lot better,” Watson said when the expansion was announced.

Arkadelphia and El Dorado are two of my favorite towns.

Now, they have something else in common — something very special.

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College football — Week 13 (Bayou Bengals visit)

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

I’ve come to love this tradition of Arkansas playing LSU at historic War Memorial Stadium every other year on the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Following a morning duck hunt with my father near Arkadelphia (yes, there are a few ducks in that part of the state if you know where to go), I made the drive to Little Rock on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1994. I was joined by my brother-in-law and nephew. We watched LSU beat Arkansas 30-12. We then drove back to Arkadelphia for a supper of leftover turkey and dressing. If only I could hunt ducks with my father one more time. Those were special days.

Two years later, after a similar duck hunt with my dad, my brother-in-law and nephew joined me on the drive to Little Rock to watch LSU defeat the Hogs 17-7 in the rain.

Those were the dreadful Danny Ford years.

By the start of the Houston Nutt era in 1998, I was visiting my in-laws in south Texas for Thanksgiving. But as my boys (ages 5 and 1 at the time) played on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 27, at Cole Park overlooking Corpus Christi Bay, I sat in the car with the radio on. I could pick up WWL-AM out of New Orleans. I listened as Arkansas defeated LSU to move to 9-2.

I was back in Corpus Christi for Thanksgiving in 2000. I watched CBS in my room at the Holiday Inn overlooking the bay that Friday afternoon as a mediocre Arkansas team defeated LSU 14-3.

Fortunately, I was in the stands with my wife and oldest son (the youngest son — age 5 at the time — elected to give up his ticket and go bowling instead with an older cousin) in 2002 as the Hogs scored with nine seconds left to win Miracle On Markham I by a score of 21-20.

Sitting on the top row of the east side, I could see the thousands of fans leaving the stadium after LSU hit a late field goal to go up 20-14 on an Arkansas team that had not moved the ball all day. When Matt Jones completed a long pass following the kickoff to put Arkansas in LSU territory, many of those fans turned around and began running back into the stadium. Some didn’t make it in time for the touchdown. It’s an image that will stay with me the rest of my life.

Like others in the stadium that day, we stayed in the stands for a full 15 minutes after the game to cheer. It’s a special memory.

I recall walking up Van Buren Street to my car, listening to joyous fans blow their car horns in all directions. The parties lasted late into the evening that Friday.

We were in the stands again on Nov. 26, 2004, as Houston Nutt lost for the first time in Little Rock, 43-14.

We were back in the stands four years ago as two Top 10 teams squared off. Arkansas was 10-1 coming in, LSU was 9-2. The Tigers won, 31-26. Prior to the game, I had watched LSU fans shell out $500 in cash for tickets. They had driven to Little Rock with no tickets, willing to pay whatever was necessary to see this big game.

Two years ago, we were there for Miracle On Markham II. Evan chose football over bowling and was glad he did. Arkansas scored with 21 sconds remaining to win by a score of 31-30. We were sitting right behind the LSU bench as Arkansas fans yelled at Les Miles: “You blew it, Lester.”

I plan to be there again Saturday. Will it be another classic?

It’s 10-1 LSU against 9-2 Arkansas. If Auburn takes care of business the day before in the Iron Bowl, the winner of the Arkansas-LSU game could be headed to the Sugar Bowl.

Hopefully, the weather forecast holds up — clear and cool (highs only in the 50s). In other words, perfect for college football.

The goal last Saturday night in Starkanistan is what it always is — simply to escape with a victory.

Arkansas did that, 38-31, in two overtimes. Don’t worry about style points. Get the win and get home.

In fact, Bobby Petrino did exactly what I would have done in the first overtime after the Bulldogs had come up empty on their possession — run the ball up middle three times and then call on freshman kicker Zach Hocker, who has been almost perfect this fall.

Hocker’s miss made us hold our breaths a bit longer, but indeed the Razorbacks escaped as Knile Davis ran for a career-high 187 yards and Ryan “Vanilla Ice” Mallett threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns. Mallett now has 229 completions on the season, breaking the school record of 225 completions that he set last year.

Arkansas is now an amazing 9-2 in overtime games. The Razorbacks could be 11-0 if not for short missed fields goals that should have been made in losses at Knoxville and Baton Rouge. Fortunately, Hocker’s miss wasn’t one of those “misses we’ll long remember.”

Even more impressive is the fact that eight of the nine overtime victories have come outside the state of Arkasas. The Hogs are 3-0 in overtime games at Starkville with wins of 16-13 in 1996, 17-10 in 2000 and 38-31 in 2010.

The Bulldogs, a solid team in their second year under Dan Mullen, did exactly what they wanted to do offensively — keep the ball away from Mallett and Co. by controlling the line of scrimmage against Arkansas’ often suspect defense.  Mississippi State led in time of possession, 37:24 to 22:36. Quarterback Chris Relf was a solid competitor, completing 20 of his 34 passes for 224 yards and rushing for another 103 yards.

Total yardage for the game was almost even — 488 for Arkansas and 486 for Mississippi State. But the teams went about it in different ways. Arkansas had 183 yards on the ground and 305 yards through the air. Mississippi State had 262 yards on the ground and 224 yards through the air.

Mallett has now thrown for a touchdown and had a completion of at least 25 yards in 23 of his 24 games as a Razorback. I’m confident Arkansas can score some points on LSU’s stellar defense.

Can the Arkansas defense, in turn, stop an LSU offense that struggles at times? Sad to say, I still lack confidence in this defense.

I went 3-1 on the picks for last weekend, making the record 66-25 heading into the final week of picks.

On to this week’s games:

Florida International 34, Arkansas State 28 — The Red Wolves fell to 4-7 following a 35-19 loss Saturday to a good Navy team. Red Wolf sophomore quarterback Ryan Aplin broke the school record for passing yards in a single season with 2,813 yards. The old record of 2,721 yards had been set by Cleo Lemon in 1998. Aplin should be fun to watch the next two seasons. Navy is 8-3, having posted its eighth consecutive season with at least eight victories. It was the first time this season for the Red Wolves to be held to fewer than 24 points. A frustrating season ends Saturday with a trip to Florida International. The Panthers began the season 0-4, losing by scores of 19-14 to Rutgers, 27-20 to Texas A&M, 42-28 to Maryland and 44-17 to Pitt. But they’ve come alive in conference play. FIU is 5-1 in the Sun Belt Conference with victories over Western Kentucky, North Texas, Louisiana-Monroe, Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette. The only conference loss has been to Florida Atlantic.

Arkansas 31, LSU 29 — Let’s be specific: Zach Hocker will hit a 52-yard field goal as time expires as the Razorbacks win Miracle On Markham III. Thousands of people will hurl sugar cubes onto the field. Arkansas wasn’t the only team that struggled last Saturday. Houston Dale almost pulled off an upset in Baton Rouge. LSU trailed Ole Miss, 36-35, with 4:57 left. But Patrick Peterson returned a kickoff 34 yards to midfield. Stevan Ridley scored the winning touchdown with 44 seconds left, and the ol’ grass eater Les Miles survived after having lost to Nutt’s Rebels the previous two seasons, 31-13 two years ago in Baton Rouge and 25-23 last fall in Oxford. It’s time for LSU to run out of miracles, and where better to come up empty than the aging gridiron on Markham Street?

I have so many memories of watching games from the stands there, covering games as a sportwriter there, broadcasting games there and even playing there when I was a center in high school.

Perhaps there will be some more special memories created as the sun sets and a game that began in the sunlight ends under the lights Saturday.

Happy Thanksgiving and go Hogs.

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Greenwood in the Delta — Part 2

Friday, November 19th, 2010

It was a major economic development coup for Greenwood, Miss., when that city was chosen as the site to film a major motion picture, “The Help,” which is based on a best-selling novel by Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett.

The estimated economic impact of the project is almost $12 million.

“Preserving our historic buildings has been our No. 1 asset other than the people,” Mayor Carolyn McAdams told the Delta Business Journal earlier this year.

As I noted in a recent post, Greenwood is a treasure trove for those who love historic preservation, Southern heritage and good food.

“The city is revitalizing downtown’s Howard Street with brick pavers, light fixtures and traffic lights more fitting with the historic feel of the area,” Greta Sharp wrote in Delta Business Journal. “Where possible, the city is placing utilities underground. The city parking lot on Fulton Street is getting a facelift and construction on a multimillion-dollar airport control tower begins soon.

“Additionally, Main Street Greenwood is working with property owners to restore and renovate building fronts in the Johnson Street and Carrollton Avenue area thanks to a facade grant project. … There are 14 facade projects in the works for this year with four already completed. In the 42-block downtown area, Main Street focuses on organization, design, promotion, economic restructuring, recruitment and retention.”

The 2004 New York Times article that I referenced in the earlier post on Greenwood mentioned Ben Hussman of Little Rock and Little Rock native Ann Jennings Shackelford, who now runs the wonderful B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Miss. They were attending the Viking Cooking School in downtown Greenville when the article was written. The cooking school, a spa, the wonderful Alluvian Hotel and much of the downtown revitlization is all thanks to Fred Carl’s decision to locate Viking Range Corp. in his hometown of Greenwood.

In the process, he has attracted thousands of culinary pilgrims such as Hussman and Shackelford during the past seven years to a town that just keeps getting better.

Taylor Holliday wrote in that New York Times article: “Mr. Carl originally planned to locate Viking in Jackson, Miss., where it would be easier to recruit top management, but soon, feeling disloyal and guilty, he said to himself: ‘To heck with it. I’m going to do it in Greenwood or I’m not going to do it anywhere.’

“In addition to building the factory, he turned his attention to the center of town, restoring a 1903 opera house and former cotton market buildings to be Viking’s headquarters and later renovating the old car dealership. Then (in 2003), the Alluvian opened in what had been the Hotel Irving, ‘an abandoned, horrible eyesore,’ Mr. Carl said. He saw the restoration as a ‘chance to do something special for Greenwood.’

“While the outside of the hotel is now pristine 1917, the inside is elegant 21st century — a cream-and-wine-colored decor accented with bold local art. The lobby’s first and lasting impression is made by Bill Dunlap’s large canvas ‘Delta Dog Trot,’ in which a larger-than-life dog seems to be stepping out of the dramatic, orange-hued alluvial plain of the Yazoo basin, whose inhabitants Tennessee Williams is said to have once called Alluvians.

“Building a $175-a-night hotel in the poorest part of the country might seem a little risky, but Viking knew it would fill the rooms Sunday through Tuesday with dealers in training, and it populates them the rest of the week with executives on corporate retreats, stove groupies in town for custom tours, cooking-school enrollees and travelers on the hotel’s Delta Discovery packages featuring food and blues tours.”

Carl told an interviewer earlier this year: “My initial intent was to provide lodging for our dealers and distributors who were coming to the Viking headquarters in Greenwood, but also to bring more in-depth exposure to the company and its products.”

Holliday ended the article on this note: “One evening last month, a friendly man at the high-style Giardina’s bar issued a visitor a coveted invitation to his other regular hangout, the Cotton Row Club. It’s a men’s social club of sorts, an ancient dive in the alley behind the Viking offices that’s seen decades of poker playing and chewing the fat, where five quarters buys a beer out of the Coke machine and a bit more gets a shoeshine from a popular old-timer called Hambone.”

Back on June 28, L.V. “Hambone” Howard died at age 72 following complications from a stroke. It marked the end of an era.

If you go to the Southern Foodways Alliance website at www.southernfoodways.com, you can find more about “Hambone” and the Cotton Row Club.

“The Cotton Row Club has been a fixture in downtown Greenwood for as long as anyone can remember,” says the website’s introduction for a series of interviews that were recorded back in 2003. “Located just off the Yazoo River and behind the legendary Cotton Row, this building is rumored to be the second oldest building in town. Once a stable and blacksmith shop, it eventually became a hangout for cotton buyers and other businessmen sometime during the first half of the 20th century.”

The owner at the time of the interviews was Stacy Ragland, who began coming to the club in the 1950s, began working there in the 1970s and later bought the place.

“You can’t get food here,” the introduction stated. “Sure, there are peanuts at poker games and a potluck during the Super Bowl, but this is not a restaurant. Rather, it’s a private little hideaway and watering hole for local businessmen and their friends. … Stop in, though, and get a beer out of the Coke machine.”

Last year, a 16-minute documentary titled “The Last Kings of Cotton Row” was created by Matt Boyer for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. The documentary features “Hambone” along with Ragland (who owned the club for almost 40 years) and Tommy Gregory Sr., the last remaining old generation cotton broker on Greewood’s Cotton Row.

“Hambone” is gone, but his memory lives on.

In the October 2007 issue of Here’s Greenwood, Laura Barnaby wrote: “L.V. Howard, or Hambone as he is universally known, has been preaching almost as long as he has been shining shoes, both of which he started doing as a youth. … Unless you attend McKinney Chapel Baptist Church, where he is assistant pastor, you’re most likely to see Hambone cruising the streets of downtown Greenwood, running errands for various folks and delivering newspapers. It’s hard to catch Hambone not in constant motion, but your best bet is to track him down early mornings or late afternoons at the Cotton Row Club down Ramcat Alley, where he has been shining shoes since 1986.

“The Cotton Row Club and Hambone — both downtown fixtures — are a good fit. The club, which was owned by W.A. ‘Smitty’ Smith, used to be a favorite gathering place for cotton brokers and other businessmen during the cotton capital’s heyday. Stacy Ragland, who started working there in the 1970s, had just bought the place from Smith when Hambone started there.”

Someone posted this during the summer as part of an online discussion about the Cotton Row Club: “The golden age of the Cotton Row Club was really something by all accounts — a way of life and business that is gone forever. In many ways, it is very sad to those of us who knew Greenwood many years ago.”

Yes, things change.

The cotton era ended in Greenwood. But thanks to Fred Carl and Viking Range, a new era has begun in recent years.

Greenwood is well worth a visit.

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College football: Week 12

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Things rarely are easy in Starkville for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Four years ago, I went to Starkville to watch the Razorbacks wrap up the SEC West title against the Bulldogs. The Hogs won, but there was nothing easy about it.

Most of us remember when Arkansas made the trip to Starkville in 1998 with only one loss (the Stoerner Stumble the previous week at Tennessee) and lost to the Bulldogs.

In 2002, an 8-3 Arkansas team left Starkville with only a 26-19 victory over a 3-8 Mississippi State team.

Arkansas did exactly what it was supposed to do against UTEP last Saturday night in Fayetteville. And the previous week’s win over South Carolina looked more impressive than ever in light of the Gamecocks’ thrashing of Florida in The Swamp.

So Arkansas should win in Starkville on Saturday night. Just don’t expect a rout. Yes, it’s fun to look forward to a 10-1 LSU team taking on a 9-2 Arkansas team in Little Rock on the Saturday after Thanksgiving with a possible spot in the Sugar Bowl on the line. But there’s business on the road to take care of first.

I only went 5-4 last weekend. That makes the record 63-24 for the season. Arkansas State and UCA were disappointments last Saturday with losses to teams they should have defeated.

And I made a mistake I should never make — underestimating the strength of the Division II schools from Arkansas. I had picked North Alabama to defeat Harding in Searcy and Southwest Baptist to defeat Arkansas Tech in Russellville. Both of the home teams won.

Of the six Division II schools in Arkansas, three of them (Henderson, Ouachita and Harding) finished with teams strong enough to compete effectively in the Division II playoffs. Unfortunately, none of those teams were selected.

Congratulations to Henderson for winning a share of the Gulf South Conference championship. The Reddies especially ought to be in the playoffs. Just think, they would have been the outright champion if not for a bad decision to put time back on the clock at the end of a game at West Alabama.

The new conference consisting of the six Arkansas Division II schools and three schools from Oklahoma is going to be great.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1986 to serve as the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat, I decided I needed to adopt a college football team since I love the sport. I adopted the U.S. Naval Academy as my team since my sister’s husband had played football there. Afternoon games in Annapolis are something special. I rarely missed one during the four years I lived in Washington.

You can enjoy the pageantry of the midshipmen marching in to watch the game. You can see a college football game. You can then go down to the harbor for some seafood. It always made for a great day.

Where other teams might have a “ring of honor” with the names of past players, Navy has the names of famous naval battles in U.S. history — Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, etc.

When Lou Holtz was the head coach at William & Mary, he took his team to play Navy in Annapolis.

He later quipped, “When I went into the stadium and saw the schedule they play, I knew we didn’t have a chance.”

The Navy program now is much stronger than the one that played in that stadium in the late 1980s. And the Red Wolves will play Saturday on a field named after Arkansas’ own Jack Stephens, a graduate of the academy.

On to this week’s picks:

Arkansas 35, Mississippi State 24: The Bulldogs didn’t show it in a 30-10 loss last week at Alabama, but this is a quality Mississippi State team. The other two losses were by only three points to Auburn at home and by 22 points to LSU in Baton Rouge. The seven wins have come over Memphis, Georgia, Alcorn State, Houston, Florida, UAB and Kentucky. Just think where this program would be if Cam Newton had indeed ended up in Starkville? Perhaps headed for probation but with maybe nine rather than seven victories. Watch out for those Mississippi state troopers on your drive east Saturday. They just love to ticket Arkansans.

Navy 31, Arkansas State 28 — I’m not sure how else to say this: The Red Wolves had no business losing to Western Kentucky in Jonesboro last Saturday afternoon. ASU overcame a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to take a 28-21 lead, but the Hilltoppers (who had the nation’s longest Division I losing streak prior to a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette a few weeks ago) scored a touchdown as time expired in regulation. A two-point conversion play in overtime then gave Western Kentucky a 36-35 victory. That dropped the Red Wolves to 4-6 on the year. The Hilltoppers are 2-8. Navy is a solid 7-3. The losses were to Maryland, Air Force and Duke. The wins have come over Georgia Southern, Louisiana Tech, Wake Forest, SMU, Notre Dame, East Carolina and Central Michigan.

Texas Southern 27, UAPB 20 — An up-and-down season for the Golden Lions ends in Houston on Saturday. UAPB is 5-5 overall and 4-4 in the SWAC following a 52-30 loss to Jackson State in Pine Bluff last Saturday. To secure a winning season, Monte Coleman’s squad must upset a Texas Southern team that’s 7-3 overall and 7-1 in conference play. Texas Southern upset Grambling, 41-34, in overtime last week. The other wins have been over Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Alcorn State, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Southern University. Texas Southern has won six consecutive games.

McNeese State 24, UCA 17 — The Bears must also take on a hot team when they host a 6-4 McNeese State squad that has posted four consecutive victories. Those wins have come over Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State, Sam Houston State and Texas State. UCA is also 6-4 after a 20-13 loss in Conway last Saturday afternoon to Sam Houston State. A week after rushing for 246 yards in a win over Texas State, the Bears had only 57 yards on the ground. Sam Houston State led 20-6 after three quarters. Like UAPB, UCA has been inconsistent in 2010.

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Expunging a racist past

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

On its website, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., describes reporter Jerry Mitchell this way: “He has been called ‘a loose cannon,’ ‘a pain in the ass’ and a ‘white traitor.’ Whatever he’s been called, Jerry Mitchell has never given up in his quest to bring unpunished killers to justice, prompting one colleague to call him ‘the South’s Simon Wiesenthal.’

“Since 1989, the 50-year-old investigative reporter … has unearthed documents, cajoled suspects and witnesses, and quietly pursued evidence in the nation’s notorious killings from the civil rights era.”

I listened to Mitchell, a Texarkana native and a 1982 graduate of Harding University, speak last week at the Clinton School of Public Service. As I sat there, I thought of the role he continues to play in transforming the image of what once was perhaps the most racist daily newspaper in America.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Hodding Carter III once described the former owners of the Jackson newspaper this way: “The Hedermans were to segregation what Joseph Goebbels was to Hitler. They were cheerleaders and chief propagandists, dishonest and racist. They helped shape as well as reflect a philosophy which was, at its core, as undemocratic and immoral as any extant. They weren’t hypocrites. They believed it. They believed blacks were the sons of Ham. The Hedermans were bone-deep racists whose religion 120 years ago decided that question.”

Brothers Thomas M. Hederman and Robert M. Hederman migrated to Jackson from rural Scott County about the turn of the 20th century and found work as printers.

“They were hard working and parsimonious, and it wasn’t long before they took on the biggest printing job in town,” Kathy Lally wrote in The Baltimore Sun. “They bought The Clarion-Ledger in 1920 and left the paper along with their Baptist, teetotaling legacy to their sons.”

Lally wrote that the Hedermans “asserted their moral authority through their newspapers and their control of the First Baptist Church, the most powerful congregation in Jackson. They were able to proclaim themselves devout Christians while holding many of their fellow men — those of color — in contempt.”

A third-generation member of the publishing family, Rea Hederman, went to work at the newspaper in 1973 when he was only 28 and began trying to change things.

“It was really a terrible paper, about as bad a paper as you can get,” said former Mississippi newspaperman Lew Powell of Charlotte, N.C. “It was a mixture of incompetence and malevolence, especially on racial issues.”

Rea Hederman, embarrassed by his family’s past editorial positions, made significent changes before the newspaper was sold in 1982 to the Gannett Corp. Taking his part of the proceeds from that sale, Hederman bought a liberal icon among the Eastern elite, The New York Review of Books.

In a 2006 New York Observer profile, Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote: “The powerful attachment of adulthood can often be traced to the indignities of youth, and Mr. Hederman’s played out in the Deep South during the civil rights era. It was then, as a young editor, that Mr. Hederman learned about the dangers of editorial interference from above. … His relatives, and by consequence their newspapers, were pro-segregation and rabidly racist (as well as journalistically inept) — all of which mortified young Rea, even as he joined the family business.

”’Growing up in Mississippi, I went to an all-white school, and segregation was in full force, and I think at some point you just feel like you have to make a decision,’ Mr. Hederman said of his ideological split from those he grew up with. (Even some of his five offspring veered rightward, with one of his grown sons now ensconced at the Heritage Foundation).

“Mr. Hederman eventually became an editor at The Clarion-Ledger, where he proceeded to infuriate many of his family members by beefing up the news staff and by hiring, and covering, black people. His muckraking tendencies were unleashed on corrupt local figures — and sometimes on friends and members of the Hederman clan itself. Mr. Hederman described the period as ‘very rough,’ among other things: ‘I mean, the number of death threats I had, and reporters who worked for me had, was enormous. This was through 1982. It was way past the initial integration of public schools.’

“The newspaper’s turnaround was widely praised and won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. But all the while, Mr. Hederman had to wage daily battles with an extended network of relatives who felt that they had the right to decide what went into the paper. … The whole experience led to Mr. Hederman’s lifelong horror of editorial meddling and his ready eagerness not to do so at the Review.”

When the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 (after the sale to Gannett, though the project that won the prize began while Hederman was still in charge), Time magazine began its story this way: “When 200,000 people marched on Washington in 1963 to urge jobs and freedom for blacks, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger noted the rally dryly but reported the litter-clearance effort the next day under the headline: Washington Is Clean Again With Negro Trash Removed.

“Times have changed in Mississippi — and at the 146-year-old Clarion-Ledger. The state capital paper, whose modest daily circulation of 70,000 is Mississippi’s largest, crusades against corrpution and police brutality toward poor blacks. Last week the paper’s campaign for reform of the state’s allegedly inadequate, segregation-tainted public schools won the most coveted award in newspaper journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for public service.”

Two years ago, the newspaper endorsed Barack Obama for president.

“If Col. Robert McCormack, the longtime publisher of the arch-Republican Chicago Tribune, is spinning in his grave as a result of that paper’s endorsement two weeks ago of Democrat Barack Obama, imagine what sort of posthumous somersaults the brothers Thomas and Robert Hederman must be doing after this morning’s editorial in the Mississippi paper they controlled for a half century,” historian Robert McElvaine wrote at the time. “… No major media organ was more intransigent in its support for segregation and its opposition to the civil rights movement. … In the days when the Hederman brothers owned the paper, it frequently warned of the horror of ‘miscegenation.”’

In a 2002 PBS interview, Bill Minor (who for many years was the Jackson correspondent for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans) called the newspaper “an instrument of perpetuating the system of segregation on a daily basis. … The owners, the Hederman family — none of them wrote anything as far as I know, but they hired people who would write and express that point of view. And some of the worst things were some columnists that they had. And some of them had daily columns, and they would insult blacks on a regular basis.

“Bigotry would be at the soul of it in my estimation, although I would say 90 percent of them would go to church on Sunday and be in the amen pew, so to speak. They would give to some charitable causes of the church, maybe to do something over in Africa, you know, and so they absolved themselves in their own minds. But in their own town, in their community, they were bigots.

“They really promoted segregation through their paper in different ways. And of course we learned in later years, and suspected back then, that they were being fed these reports from the State Sovereignty Commission, which I used to call the KGB of the cotton patches. I mean, it was this arm created in the state supposedly to maintain a segregation strategy, but they had these investigators. And they would hire some private eyes to follow all sorts of people who were civil rights workers. But they would also watch some people who were not civil rights workers, even some whites, and there was a file on everyone that they thought was doing something to break down the system of segregation.”

For more than two decades now, Jerry Mitchell has worked to uncover buried stories from the civil rights era and bring former Ku Klux Klansmen to justice. In that sense, this Harding graduate continues the redemption of The Clarion-Ledger, almost 30 years after the newsroom reformer Rea Hederman left the South for New York.

“I think Jerry Mitchell deserves a great deal of credit,” Minor said. “And you have to give the newspaper credit for giving him the time, the liberty and the freedom because he’s a one-man operating team. He doesn’t have an investigating team working with him. He’s working by himself, working the telephone and working sources. He meticulously builds all these files and knows all the people. … It’s redemption, it really is. It has a redeeming value for the state. I wish more people appreciated it down here.”

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Greenwood rocks!

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Are you headed to Starkville for the University of Arkansas’ Nov. 20 game against Mississippi State now that it looms large on the schedule?

I have a suggestion: Take U.S. Highway 82 across the Mississippi Delta and stay in Greenwood on Friday night before the game and Saturday night after the game.

For those traveling from Central Arkansas, the “southern route” is much more relaxing than fighting the big-truck traffic on Interstate 40 along with the traffic in Memphis.

The route many Arkansans take is Interstate 40 east to Memphis, Interstate 55 south to Winona and U.S. Highway 82 east to Starkville.

Here’s the “southern route”: U.S. Highway 65 south to Lake Village and then U.S. Highway 82 east all the way to Starkville. U.S. 82 will take you through Greenville, Indianola, Greenwood and Winona on your way to Starkvegas.

From Greenville to just east of Greenwood, you’ll be in the Mississippi Delta. The rest of the trip is across gently rolling hills. U.S. 82 is a four-lane road all the way across Mississippi. The only thing that really slows you down are the many stoplights at Greenville.

It’s just 53 miles from Greenville to Greenwood.

Greenwood to Starkville is only another 86 miles.

Greenwood has become one of my favorite towns in the South.

A 2004 New York Times story by Taylor Holliday described it this way: “Highway 61 has long beckoned lovers of the blues, who head south out of Memphis into the Mississippi Delta to the towns and plantations where blues was born and the juke joints where it lives. Only recently, however, has a new breed of traveler turned off onto Highway 82 and driven past billowy cotton fields and glistening catfish ponds to the small town of Greenwood. These visitors are on a Delta pilgrimage of another kind — to the home of the Viking range.

“Once known as the cotton capital of the world, Greenwood, a town of 18,000 people, is now becoming a cooking capital with worldly aspirations, boasting not only some legendary Southern restaurants, but the factories where Viking products are made, the kitchens where they are demonstrated, a first-rate cooking school and a Viking-owned luxury boutique hotel called the Alluvian. … Not that old times have been forgotten. Strolling around downtown Greenwood is like walking into one of those 1970s William Eggleston photographs that invoke a faded version of the 1940s Delta.

“Not a building has been built or torn down, it seems, since Greenwood’s last heyday, the post-World War II years when cotton was still king. Not far from the grand Leflore County Courthouse, several blocks of sturdy early-20th-century red-brick commercial buildings, from modest to modestly magnificent, sit in various states of use. Some are boarded up, and many are just hanging in there — weathered, dusty thrift stores sell women’s white dress gloves and vintage T-shirts while 1970s-style storefronts house throwbacks like the Super Soul Shop, which sells church suits for men and boys. But other buildings are newly refurbished, several of them now housing various parts of the Viking empire.”

Things have only gotten better in the years since that article was published.

If you can still get a room at the Alluvian (www.thealluvian.com), by all means do so. The hotel — which will remind you of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel — boasts 45 rooms and five suites. Its walls are filled with an art collection featuring Mississippi’s finest artists. It also allowed one of the Delta’s most famous restaurants, Giardina’s, to be reborn. The restaurant features steaks, seafood and Italian cuisine.

If you can’t find a room at the Alluvian, there are plenty of nice motels out on U.S. 82. There’s a Best Western, a Comfort Suites, a Hampton Inn and a Holiday Inn Express.

You can then drive downtown to have Friday dinner at Lusco’s, Giardina’s, the Delta Bistro, the Crystal Grill, Webster’s or Yianni’s. Let’s take them one at a time:

1. Lusco’s — This is, quite simply, one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Here’s how Michael Stern tells its history at www.roadfood.com: “Cotton planters around Greenwood came to know Charles ‘Papa’ Lusco in the 1920s when he drove a horse-drawn grocery wagon to their plantations, bringing supplies from the market he and Marie ‘Mama’ Lusco ran. Mama sold plates of her spaghetti at the store, and Papa built secret dining rooms in back where customers could enjoy his homemade wine with their meals. The clandestine cubicles remained, giving Lusco’s a seductively covert character that Karen Pinkston, a third-generation Lusco, and her husband Andy don’t ever want to change.

“Mama and Papa were Italian by way of Louisiana, so the flavors of the kitchen they established are as much Creole as they are Southern or Italian. Gumbo, crab and shrimp are always on the menu, and oysters are a specialty in season — on the half shell or baked with bacon. Because so many regular customers are big spenders from well-to-do cotton families, the menu is best known among them for its high-end items. Lusco’s T-bone steaks are some of the finest anywhere: sumptuous cuts that are brought raw to the table for your approval, then broiled to pillowy succulence. Pompano has for many years been a house trademark (when available, usually the spring), broiled and served whole, bathed in a magical sauce made of butter, lemon and secret spices.”

Give me the pompano whenever it’s available and pull the curtain on my private booth.

2. Giardina’s: ”Giardina’s, in fact, has humble roots,” Stern writes. “It opened in 1936 as a fish market. Gradually it became popular among cotton growers, known for those private booths where bootleg booze could be drunk in secrecy. As King Cotton lost its economic hegemony late in the 20th century, Giardina’s fortunes waned along with those of Greenwood, the South’s cotton capital, and eventually it closed its doors. But then Viking came to town in 1989 and the presence of the stove maker turned everything around. The Mississippi Heritage Trust awards Viking has won for rehabilitation of local properties include the transformation of the historic Irving Hotel from a ratty embarrassment to a stylish boutique called the Alluvian. For us, the Alluvian’s greatest attraction, beyond its feather beds and 300-thread-count sheets, is the fact that is the new home of Giardina’s, a Mississippi Delta legend.”

Give me tamales here as an appetizer. Again, I’ll go pompano for the entree — same as Lusco’s. And, again, pull the curtains on my booth.

3. Delta Bistro — Chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts is a Mississippian who was born in Oxford and raised in Jackson. She stayed in Oxford after graduation from Ole Miss to help friends open several restaurants. Those included Proud Larry’s, Yocana River Inn and Jubilee. This place doesn’t have the history of  Lusco’s, but the food is as good as almost anything you will find in Memphis or Little Rock.

4. Crystal Grill — If you go to dinner on Friday night at Lusco’s, Giardina’s or Delta Bistro, make sure and have lunch Saturday at the Crystal Grill before heading over to Starkville for the 6 p.m. kickoff. Here’s how the Southern Foodways Alliance describes the place at www.southernfoodways.com: “Food has been served on this corner of Carrolton Avenue and Lamar Street for almost a century. The place began as a little diner called the Elite Cafe and evolved into the Crystal Grill under the ownership of Jim Liollio. His brother-in-law, Mike Ballas, who was raised in Greece and came to Mississippi in the 1940s, soon became a partner and eventually took over and shaped the Crystal Grill into what it is today: a 200-seat restaurant with the biggest menu around. … Some of the waitresses have been there for 40 years, and locals have brought their children and their children’s children through the same front doors for Sunday dinner for decades. Sunday dinner is an experience in itself and a great way to get some local color.”

Whatever you order, make sure to save room for a slice of chocolate or coconut pie.

5. Webster’s — Viking employees Matt Gnemi and Robert McBryde bought this restaurant, which has been around since 1975, in 2005. It was orignally known as Ricky’s Bar and later as Jubilee’s. It has been Webster’s since 1979. The new owners filled the inside with Delta photographs and refinished the hardwood floors. There’s often live music here.

6. Yianni’s — It will be about 11 p.m. before you get back to Greenwood from Starkville on Saturday night, so you might save Yianni’s for Sunday brunch. A reviewer at www.tripadvisor.com wrote back in June: “The Sunday brunch at Yianni’s from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. is the best brunch buffet ever created in the South. This is not your chain restaurant brunch. This is a Southern remedy fantastic food treat for all generations — home cooked, excellent variety of egg casserole, grits casserole, fried chicken, Cajun shrimp and an amazing bread pudding. I brought my family there, and we loved it. I recently went to New Orleans to a big brunch place, and the brunch at Yianni’s was far superior in quality and Southern fare.”

We’ll see you in Greenwood.

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Life’s not fair

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

I looked on helplessly as an official possibly cost my team an important victory last Saturday afternoon.

So you think you have a problem with the Southeastern Conference officials? You ought to try those in the Gulf South Conference on for size.

Here was the situation: The team I follow religiously, the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University, had blown a 17-point lead and now trailed the Statesmen from Delta State University, a traditional power in NCAA Division II.

Both Ouachita and Delta State compete in the GSC, which generally is recognized as the SEC of Division II.

Ouachita had come into the game with a record of 5-3. Delta State was 6-3. Both teams needed a victory to keep their hopes alive for a spot in the Division II playoffs.

With the score tied 27-27, Delta scored a touchdown with 4:22 left in the game to go ahead. Ouachita blocked the extra point.

Trailing 33-27, Ouachita could still win the game with a touchdown and an extra point. With time running out, the Tigers marched down the field in Arkadelphia (from my right to left as I called the action on the Ouachita Football Network). On second down from the Delta State 17, senior quarterback Eli Cranor found sophomore wide receiver Brett Reece on the left side of the end zone for what should have been a touchdown to tie the game.

The extra point would have given Ouachita a 34-33 lead with just more than a minute remaining in the game.

An official was right on the play. He blew the call.

I watched usually mild-mannered people go crazy down below.

On the next play, Cranor completed a swing pass to Jaime Harris, but the receiver lost his footing at the line of scrimmage for no gain.

On fourth-and-seven, Cranor kept the ball and came close to a first down. The chains came out, and Cranor was inches short.

Delta State took over on downs with 1:12 left. The quarterback took a knee twice, and the game was over.

Ouachita’s playoff hopes were dead due to a clearly blown call.

Ironically, a blocked extra point in overtime and a Reece reception in that same west end zone (yes, A.U. Williams Field runs east-west rather than north-south) had led to a dramatic 24-23 Tiger victory over Terry Bowden’s nationally ranked North Alabama team two weeks earlier.

Todd Knight began coaching at Ouachita in 1999, and I’ve never missed a game — home or away — in his almost 12 seasons as the head coach. I can tell you that I’ve never seen him as dejected as he was after Saturday’s loss to Delta State, the school where he was the head coach before returning to his alma mater.

For the players on the team, it was a hard lesson: Life is not fair. But they will experience a lot of unfair things in their adult lives and probably ought to get used to it now.

They knew they had scored, but alas there are no replays in Division II football.

They will have to live with the results, a finish most of them will remember the rest of their lives.

Heck, I’m 51 and I was upset the remainder of the weekend. I wanted to say I was so upset I couldn’t eat supper Saturday, but you know better than that. Still, writing this post gets me worked up all over again.

I know. I take college football too seriously like so many other Southern males. And, yes, there are plenty of life lessons that I still need to learn.

But one thing I’m convinced about is that everyone should have some great passions in life. It’s important that we not lose a sense of perspective, but it’s also important to have things you really get fired up about.

I’m passionate, for instance, about Ouachita football. I have been since childhood when I would walk the two blocks from my house to the practice field to watch practice each fall afternoon. As noted, I haven’t missed a game since 1998, and the only reason I missed a couple of games that season is that I was managing Gov. Mike Huckabee’s campaign. I didn’t feel I could be out of the state during that stretch run.

I’ve also never been one to follow the crowd. While I enjoy SEC football and seeing the Razorbacks do well, I much rather be at Ouachita games each Saturday. There’s something so much more pure and accessible about football at the Division II level. And I kind of like going one direction when most people are headed the other way. For instance, I’ve worked for Republicans through the years in a state that, at least until last week, was heavily Democratic.

Republicans instead of Democrats (though I still split my ticket and vote for those Democrats I know and like).

Tigers instead of Razorbacks (though I root for the Hogs).

It’s just the way I’m wired. Heck, I even grew up a Saints fan, subscribing to the Saints Weekly back in junior high and watching losing season after losing season.

Now, the Saints are the defending Super Bowl champions, a red political tide is sweeping our state and Ouachita is having a third straight good season. I’m not sure how to act.

I do, however, feel a bit sorry for those who haven’t found some passions in their lives, whether it’s collecting old guns, hunting ducks, watching foreign films, cooking, hiking, reading mystery novels or keeping up with European soccer standings.

Everyone should have a passion. Or two. Or three. My wife tells me I have far too many.

And my passion for Division II football in Arkansas will probably increase with the formation of a new conference made up of the six Arkansas schools and three schools from Oklahoma. Those of us of a certain age still lament the passing of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, and this is as close as we’re ever going to get to bringing back the AIC.

The death of the AIC in the 1990s was perhaps inevitable. UCA was growing too large for the other schools in the conference and was anxious to make the move from the NAIA to NCAA Division II. Arkansas Tech and Henderson, doing their best to “keep up with the Jones,” made the decision to follow UCA into Division II.

The Gulf South Conference, which is based in Birmingham, decided to accept not only UCA, Tech and Henderson but also UAM and Southern Arkansas.

That left the two private schools that play football, Harding and Ouachita, stranded. After playing an independent schedule, Harding and Ouachita joined the Lone Star Conference for several years before finally being welcomed into the GSC.

Still, there was a problem that persists to this day. With 11 GSC schools playing football — the six Arkansas schools, one in Mississippi, two in Alabama and two in Georgia — and only eight conference games, there would always be two conference schools that each team would not play. Unfortunately, the rotation is such that the Arkansas schools don’t always play each other. In fact, there were seasons when there was no Battle of the Ravine, reason enough to form a new conference.

UCA is probably where it needs to be now, playing at the Division I-AA level in the Southland Conference.

Beginning with the 2012 football season, the eight conference games for each Division II Arkansas squad will include the five other teams from Arkansas and the three schools from Oklahoma. Ouachita will always play Henderson, Tech will always play Harding, Southern Arkansas will always play UAM and so on.

I can’t wait. Like a told you, I’m passionate.

I’m also still mad at the GSC official who blew the call Saturday. But life’s not fair, is it?

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College football — Week 11

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

A week ago, I wrote this: “OK, I know I sound like a homer again in picking the Razorbacks to win this road game. I correctly picked Arkansas to lose to Alabama but then turned around and picked the Razorbacks to defeat Auburn on the road. After eight games, Arkansas has yet to put together that one contest when the offense, the defense and the kicking game all come together for four quarters. I get the sense they’re due against another 6-2 team.”

Indeed, the Razorbacks did what the Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t do: They whipped the South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia.

But I don’t think even the most optimistic Hog fan was expecting the rout we saw on ESPN last Saturday night. Rarely has the Ol’ Ball Coach been whipped as thoroughly as this. Yes, this was the game in which all three phases came together.

On offense, Knile Davis rushed for 110 yards, scored three touchdowns and was selected as the SEC Offensive Player of the Week.

Ryan Mallett was 21 of 30 passing for 303 yards and a touchdown. Cobi Hamilton caught seven passes for 111 yards and a touchdown. Arkansas held the ball for 34:20.

The defense, meanwhile, came up with two interceptions and one fumble recovery while holding South Carolina to just 190 yards through the air and 105 yards on the ground.

In the kicking game, Zach Hocker booted a 51-yard field goal, the longest for a Razorback kicker since Kendall Trainor was playing back in the 1980s.

Be honest: Have you seen a bigger smile on Bobby Petrino’s face since he came to Arkansas than the one he was flashing after Hocker’s field goal? It was his way of saying to opponents: “If we get inside your 35, we’re coming away with points.”

Arkansas has now outscored its opponents 183-85 in the first half. The Hogs have scored a touchdown on their first or second possession in every game but the opener. Now at 7-2 overall, Arkansas went 3-0 against the SEC East for only the second time since joining the conference in 1992. The other time was four years ago.

So where do things stand as we approach the middle of November?

If the Razorbacks run the table and go 10-2, I now think Arkansas could find itself in the Sugar Bowl as long as Auburn goes undefeated and makes it to the national championship game. Fans should bring sugar cubes to throw on the field at War Memorial Stadium in the event a 9-2 Arkansas teams defeats LSU on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

If Auburn slips up, however, a 10-2 Arkansas team is instead in the Capital One Bowl or the Cotton Bowl.

If the Razorbacks lose to either Mississippi State or LSU and finish 9-3, they could still find their way into the Capital One Bowl. But it becomes a long shot. If Florida has just three regular-season losses (and at least performs well in the SEC championship game), the Capital One takes the team from its state over Arkansas. Or the Capital One Bowl takes a 9-3 Alabama team that has lost to Auburn while 11-1 or 10-2 LSU plays in the Sugar Bowl. All of those scenarios put the Hogs in the Cotton Bowl.

In fact, the Cotton Bowl now is likely the worst-case scenario. Even should Arkansas lose to both Mississippi State and LSU, the folks in Arlington would love an 8-4 Arkansas team. Would you rather have an 8-4 Arkansas team or a 9-3 Mississippi State team when it comes to selling tickets? Think about it.

Here’s what it boils down to for Arkansas: Finish 10-2 and go to the Capital One Bowl or maybe the Sugar Bowl.

Finish 9-3 or 8-4 and go to the Cotton Bowl.

I went 8-0 last week — that’s right, 8-0 — to go to 58-20 for the season on picks. I wish I hadn’t gone 8-0 since I had picked against Ouachita. I would rather the Tigers have held onto that 17-point lead they had in the third quarter against Delta State.

On to this week’s picks:

Arkansas 49, UTEP 14 — SEC fans will remember Mike Price from his short stay as head coach at Alabama. Price didn’t even make it to his first game due to that little misunderstanding down in Pensacola (“It’s rolling, baby, it’s rolling”). UTEP is 6-4. The wins have come over UAPB, New Mexico State, Memphis, New Mexico, Rice and SMU — not exactly a tough group of opponents. The losses have been to Houston by 30 points, UAB by 15 points, Tulane by 10 points and Marshall by four points. The goals for Saturday night in Fayetteville are to build a big lead early, get the starters some work for a half, don’t get anyone injured and then rest the starters down the stretch. That Nov. 20 trip to Mississippi State looms large. Nothing will come easy in Starkville this year.

Arkansas State 35, Western Kentucky 20 — The Red Wolves won in the rain at Jonesboro way back on Tuesday night of last week in a game played before the ESPN2 cameras. The victim was Middle Tennessee State. The score was 51-24 as ASU improved its record to 4-5 overall and 4-2 in the Sun Belt Conference. The Red Wolves led only 23-17 at the half, but Middle Tennessee turned the ball over on five consecutive possessions in the second half. Ryan Aplin was 16 of 27 passing for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Western Kentucky ended the longest Division I-A losing streak in the country back on Oct. 23 with a 54-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Hilltoppers are 1-8 with losses to Nebraska, Kentucky, Indiana, South Florida, Florida International, Louisiana-Monroe, North Texas and Florida Atlantic. There’s no reason for Steve Roberts’ team not to take care of business in Jonesboro on Saturday afternoon.

Jackson State 34, UAPB 31 — The Golden Lions went to 5-4 on the season last Saturday with a 49-20 homecoming victory over 0-9 Mississippi Valley State before 14,687 fans in Pine Bluff. UAPB scored on four of its first five possessions. Quarterback Josh Boudreux had 329 yards passing and 51 yards rushing. He threw for five touchdowns and ran for two more. The challenge is much greater this Saturday afternoon in Pine Bluff against a 6-3 Jackson State team that has victories over Delta State, Tennessee State, Mississippi Valley State, Alabama A&M, Southern University and Prairie View A&M. The losses have come to Grambling State, Texas Southern and Alabama State.

UCA 27, Sam Houston State 24 — The Bears have been up, down and back up again. They won their first three games, lost their next three games and have now won three consecutive games. They thrashed Texas State down in San Marcos on Saturday by a score of 49-17 to go to 6-3 overall. UCA led 42-3 at the half. The Bears had 498 yards of offense in the game, including 246 yards on the ground. Nathan Dick was 27 of 41 passing for 252 yards, and Terence Bobo rushed for 178 yards and three touchdowns. Sam Houston State lost its first two games to Baylor and Western Illinois. The Bearkats then won four consecutive contests against Gardner-Webb, Lamar, Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana. They’ve lost their past three games to Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern State and McNeese State by respective margins of three points, three points and five points to leave their record at 4-5. UCA just seems to be a hotter team right now.

South Alabama 39, UAM 29 — Henderson played Division I-AA South Alabama well last Saturday in Mobile before falling 37-31. The Jaguars are 9-0 in only their second season of football. It could have been a much different season for UAM had senior quarterback Scott Buisson stayed well. Buisson should roll up some yardage on Thursday night in Mobile, but I believe South Alabama will win and UAM will finish the season with a disappointing 4-7 record.

Southwest Baptist 41, Arkansas Tech 37 — This isn’t your father’s Southwest Baptist, the team that Division II schools from Arkansas used to whip on a regular basis. I watched good Ouachita teams struggle to beat Southwest Baptist in both 2008 and 2009. The Bearcats lost their first two games to Central Missouri and Truman State before reeling off seven consecutive victories. The streak ended last Saturday with a loss to Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State. A young Tech team has struggled to a 3-7 record. Unfortunately, the Wonder Boys must end their season against a talented 7-3 nonconference opponent.

North Alabama 24, Harding 21 — This is a game Harding is capable of winning. The Bisons get better with each passing week. North Alabama is No. 15 nationally and 8-2 overall but did fall to Ouachita in Arkadelphia last month. Harding is 5-4, but the four losses have come by seven points, three points, five points and five points. The Bisons destroyed Arkansas Tech by a score of 42-7 last week. Their option offense is clicking these days. Kale Gelles rushed for 257 yards and four touchdowns against the Wonder Boys.

Henderson 33, West Georgia 21 — Talented senior quarterback Nick Hardesty plays his final game as a Reddie on Saturday afternoon in Arkadelphia. Hardesty was 23 of 43 passing for 359 yards and three touchdowns in the loss to South Alabama. Henderson is 6-4 overall and 5-2 in conference, but one of the losses was a controversial one at West Alabama in which the referee put a second back on the clock after it had appeared to run out. That gave West Alabama the chance to score on the final play. Had Henderson won that game, the Reddies would be tied for the GSC lead. As it is, the best Reddie team since the late Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter was coaching will have to be content to finish the season with a 7-4 record against a West Georgia squad that comes in with records of 3-6 overall and 2-5 in conference.

Ouachita 39, Southern Arkansas 27 — Nothing ever comes easy for Ouachita in Magnolia, and Saturday should be no exception even though the Tigers are 5-4 and the Muleriders are 1-8. Five of Ouachita’s nine games have come down to the last minute of play in this crazy season. They are 2-3 in those games. Holding onto that big lead against Delta State last Saturday would have kept Ouachita in contention for a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs. Now, they must consider the trip to Columbia County to be their bowl game.

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