Archive for June, 2011

Rebuilding the Georgetown One Stop

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

In the comments section of a previous post, a reader reprinted a letter to the editor that appeared Wednesday in The Daily Citizen at Searcy.

I want to give the subject a separate post, though, so fans of the fried catfish at the Georgetown One Stop will see it.

Here’s the letter from Val Valdez of Beebe: “As you know, there has been a devastating flood at the White River. Many homes have been inundated with water. There is also a business there called One Stop, where you can get a delicious plate of catfish. Upon visiting there, the water was table high throughout the building. The proprietor is a stout, hardened woman that goes by the name of Joan. She desperately needs our help. She plans to open the restaurant once more to serve the public.

“Folks, if you enjoy going there and enjoy the fare, consider sending her some help. She is redoing the inside completely. Most, if not all, of the appliances have been destroyed by the high water. She would appreciate whatever you can do.

“I myself do like the fish, along with the closeness of the surroundings. I have seen employees from Searcy banks, companies and vans from churches there, and many more. Look to your heart if you will.”

The letter writer said donations could be sent to:

Georgetown One Stop

209 Main

Georgetown, AR 72143.

It’s Joanna, not Joan.

Joanna Taylor, to be exact.

She came to Georgetown in 1997, weary of living in the city of Little Rock and looking to start over following a divorce.

Her sister, Jeannie, had purchased the gas station and convenience store there, and Joanna went to work for her. Before long, Joanna was serving lunch and breakfast to the farmers who worked in the surrounding White River bottoms.

Word got out about the quality of the catfish Joanna purchased daily from commercial fishermen on the White River. Soon, dinner was added to the mix as people made the trip to Georgetown from Searcy and even as far away as Little Rock.

You once saw the term “White River catfish” on restaurant menus across the state. Now, however, the vast majority of the fish served in restaurants comes from fish farms or even out of the country.

Finding river-caught catfish in a restaurant is no longer an easy thing.

Before this spring’s record flood, the cost at the Georgetown One Stop was $9 for all you can eat. I’m sure Joanna could raise the price a buck or two after she reopens and still be busy.

Here’s how Tim Bousquet described the place in a 2004 Daily Citizen story: “Just before the pavement ends at the Georgetown boat ramp, there on the left sits what looks like an abandoned filling station. There’s no sign, and a sketchy patch of gravel may once have been a parking lot. A concrete slab serves as front stoop, and a rickety wooden door is entrance to an ancient metal shell of a building, the Georgetown One Stop.

“You have arrived. Have a seat and a pleasant woman — that’d be Joanna Taylor — will drop by with some iced tea. No need for a menu — the only choice here is sweetened or unsweetened tea, and it’s just assumed everyone wants catfish.

“While you’re waiting for your meal, you might strike up a conversation with some of the other customers. Like you, they likely come from somewhere else — Little Rock maybe, or Batesville, more than a few from Searcy — and are usually in a mood for a little chatting up.”

Joanna told the reporter she wouldn’t ever expand: “I couldn’t do this if I got any bigger. There’s not enough fresh fish in the river, so I’d have to use frozen fish like the chain restaurants. That would ruin everything.”

Here’s how David Koon put it in a glowing 2009 Arkansas Times review: “Half the joy of going to the One Stop is the decor. This is Real Arkansas at its finest: a low-ceilinged room with the kitchen so close you can literally hear the grease popping. In the dining room, every surface is covered with photographs of smiling visitors, some of them mugging with fish they’ve caught or deer they’ve killed. In the men’s restroom, a water heater squats in the corner, slowly sinking through the floor, and you have to hold the toilet lid up with your knee to keep it from slamming down.

“There is no menu at the Georgetown One Stop. Everybody gets the same thing. You go in, and sit down. Taylor appears from the kitchen, takes your drink order (get the sweet tea) and asks if you’re ready for some fish. After about 10 minutes, she reappears with manna: a big oval plate, covered from edge to edge in beautiful catfish fillets, a handful of fries and a hushpuppy or two. On the side: a bowl full of sliced onion and homemade tartar sauce. Best of all, if you manage to finish what you’ve been served, Taylor will keep bringing fish as long as you’re willing to eat it.

“And what catfish. I have eaten catfish all over the South — hot, cold, good, bad, muddy, bland, delicious and terrible — but this is the best ever: gorgeous, buttery morsels of pure white flesh, surrounded by the lightest imaginable cornmeal batter and just the right seasoning. Fries and hushpuppies, done in the same grease — amazing. But the fish at Georgetown One Stop is what truly will leave even someone who knows what good fish is supposed to taste like at a loss for words. For a foodie, it’s transcendent. For a catfish fanatic, it’s like coming home. After eating all I could, finally putting down my fork in surrender gave me a little pang of regret. There is nothing more that I can say. You must experience it for yourself.

“Yes, Virginia, Real Arkansas does exist. Just when I begin to doubt it — to believe that nobody cares about making great food anymore — I luck across someplace like the Georgetown One Stop. There is love there, my friend. Yes. There is love.”

I take it David liked the fish. And he’s right. It’s sublime.

For those who love rural Arkansas and historic places, the road trip to Georgetown is also fun. I wrote about it on this blog back in April of last year.

You pass through Kensett, the old lumber mill and railroad town that produced Congressman Wilbur Mills and baseball great Bill Dickey. You head southeast on Arkansas Highway 36 with the Little Red River on your left.

West Point, which was incorporated before the Civil War and was once a steamboat stop, has a boat ramp on the Little Red. The West Point Cemetery has been there for decades.

You pass a sign that says “Road Ends In 12 Miles.”

Georgetown is literally the end of the road — where Arkansas 36 runs into the White River.

There’s no bridge there. The Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge spanning the river in 1908. The Great Flood of 1927 damaged the bridge, and it was never repaired. The railroad ceased serving Georgetown in 1946.

Some historians believe it to be the second settlement established by European explorers in what’s now Arkansas, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make Georgetown the oldest existing town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community.

French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

The 2010 census showed Georgetown with a population of 124 people, down from 126 in the 2000 census.

It might shrink a bit more after this year’s flood as people choose not to rebuild.

Prior to the flood, the Georgetown One Stop served fish from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Wednesday through Saturday.

Let’s hope Joanna keeps going.

If you want to help her out, you have the address now.

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Olden Murry and the amazing Mike Trimble

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

During my stint as political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the best sentence I ever read was written by Mike Trimble.

It was so good, in fact, that I don’t remember how it ended.

It was 1993 and Trimble, who had earned the reputation of being one of the state’s great storytellers at the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Times magazine, had been enlisted to help me with the newspaper’s first shot at putting together a package on the Best 10 and Worst 10 state legislators.

In his introduction to the package — which took up almost an entire section — Trimble wrote this about the Arkansas House of Representatives: “In the House, where the shallow end runs the length of the pool, …”

Like I said, I don’t even remember how the sentence ended.

In yesterday’s Southern Fried post about Murry’s, the famous east Arkansas catfish joint that was once at DeValls Bluff but is now on U.S. Highway 70 between Hazen and Carlisle, I noted that writer John Egerton had quoted Trimble in his 1987 book “Southern Food.”

Trimble had described the original Murry’s as a place that “appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.”

I also noted in the previous post that Max Brantley and I had run into each other on a recent Saturday night at Murry’s. In the post Max wrote on his Arkansas Blog, he included a link to a transcript of a lengthy interview Ernie Dumas conducted with Trimble as part of the Gazette oral history project.

That project is part of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas (in the way of full disclosure, I have the honor of being on the Pryor Center board).

The Gazette published its final issue in October 1991, and the oral history project began in 2000 with funding from the Patterson family of Little Rock, the Arkansas owners of the newspaper prior to its purchase by the Gannett Corp.

Former Gazette and New York Times reporter Roy Reed was the project director for the Pryor Center.

In the interview with Dumas, Trimble was asked about a Gazette feature story he did on catfish cook Olden Murry.

A former Gazette reporter who had left the newspaper to work for the office of Disability Determination for Social Security read the story and filed a complaint against Murry.

“Olden Murry had worked for the Corps of Engineers on a snagboat for a time and had an injury to his arm,” Trimble said. “He was mangled in a winch, I think, and as a result had been getting a disability payment for several years. In getting Mr. Murry’s history, he told me about that. … And I reported this and also reported the long hours he put in at this restaurant.”

Trimble received a call from the former reporter who was now working for the government. He was informed that Murry had been drawing full disability for years.

In an attempt to protect Murry, Trimble told the caller: “To be perfectly honest, I was real drunk when I went out there. I’ve got to admit I was real drunk when I was talking to him, and I don’t know if any of that stuff is right.”

Indeed, Murry’s has long been known as a brown-bag restaurant, in the tradition of a lot of the old restaurants across the river in the Mississippi Delta.

Fortunately for Olden Murry, the deputy U.S. attorney was a fan of the restaurant. So was U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers.

The Social Security bureaucrats were informed that Murry had no money saved. In other words, it would be a waste of time to go after him.

Dumas said in the interview: “He hired all of his kinfolks down there, and I don’t think he ever finished a week with a penny.”

According to Dumas, the Social Security Administration was told, “‘The restaurant is yours. You can have it. It’s yours. Just tell us when you want to take possession.’ And Murry would just leave. And they finally just said the hell with it and dropped the whole thing. And he didn’t get any more benefits.”

Once things were resolved, the deputy U.S. attorney rented a bus and took a group to DeValls Bluff for a feast of fried catfish, fried crappie, turnip greens and black-eyed peas.

It reportedly was quite a night.

Olden Murry is gone, but Becky and Stanley Young carry on his legacy nightly at one of Arkansas’ best restaurants.

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Arkansas’ best fried catfish?

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

We live in a state blessed with restaurants that know how to fry catfish correctly.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, it was difficult to find good fried catfish in a restaurant. They just didn’t know how to cook it the right way.

But Arkansas offers a bonanza of catfish dining opportunities.

To name a few: I can head to the northeast and visit the Georgetown One Stop at Georgetown (now that the water level of the White River has dropped and the community is no longer an island), partake of the buffet at Dondie’s White River Princess on the banks of the White River in Des Arc or venture to Who Dat’s in Bald Knob.

I can head to the southwest and visit The Fish Net near Arkadelphia or go down to the far southwest corner of our state and out in the woods for the perfectly fried catfish at Spruell’s Cafe at Doddridge.

Heading a bit to the south from Little Rock, I can find my way to Dorey’s at Leola, Leon’s at Pine Bluff and the Catfish Kitchen at Dumas.

In the far northern part of the state, there’s Fred’s Fish House at Mammoth Spring.

Here in Little Rock, my favorite is the Lassis Inn.

Heading west on Interstate 40, I can make the stop at The Fish House in Conway or the Catfish “N” on the banks of the Arkansas River at Dardanelle.

Heading east on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis, I can order fine fried catfish at Nick’s in Carlisle and Gene’s in Brinkley.

In between those two stops is some of the best fried catfish anywhere. Not just in Arkansas but anywhere. It’s the catfish cooked up by Stanley Young at Murry’s on U.S. Highway 70 between Hazen and Carlisle.

I began patronizing the original Murry’s in DeValls Bluff when I was a child. My grandparents lived at Des Arc, and we would often make a “road trip” from the Prairie County seat in the north to the Prairie County seat in the south in order to eat catfish at Murry’s or barbecue at Craig’s.

When I was in my 20s, there were times when I would load up the car with hungry friends for a trip to DeValls Bluff. We would eat a pork sandwich at Craig’s (medium sauce; I can’t handle the hot there) for an appetizer and then make the short drive over to Murry’s for the catfish.

I miss that rabbit warren of trailers that housed the original location, though I always had the feeling when eating there that a grease fire in the kitchen would quickly incinerate us all.

While the current location doesn’t have the ambiance of the old place, the food is as good as ever. And Becky Young is the best hostess you’ll find anywhere.

I always see someone I know at Murry’s.

On a Saturday earlier this month, I went to Memphis to watch the pros golf at the St. Jude Classic. I was accompanied by my 14-year-old son and one of his friends. Hot and hungry, we decided to stop at Murry’s on the way home.

We had just ordered when in walked Little Rock journalist and political provocateur Max Brantley and Judge Ellen Brantley along with an eclectic group of friends.

Max later would write in his Arkansas Blog: “The crowd wasn’t as big as the throng a few miles west at Nick’s in Carlisle, but I don’t know why. Boss Stanley Young has been frying catfish for 41 years, following in a half century of Olden Murry’s footsteps.”

Max included a link to John Egerton’s classic book “Southern Food.” I happen to have a copy of the book, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1987, sitting on my desk.

Here’s what Egerton, with whom I was privileged to have dinner last year at Ashley’s, wrote back then: “Our catfish finale was on a side street in the little town of DeValls Bluff, where we stopped, as Mike Trimble wrote in the Arkansas Gazette, ‘at what appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.’ Actually, it is Murry’s Cafe, a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers and prefabricated rooms. Olden Murry has been frying fish for the faithful there for about 20 years, before which he was a riverboat cook on the Mississippi. On the wall inside the cafe is a photograph of U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. It is autographed to Olden Murry, ‘the best cook in Arkansas.’ With generous allowances for political overstatement, Bumpers may have been right on target.

“Here is a man with 45 years of cooking experience whose reputation is secure, not only for the catfish he prepares but for the steaks, chicken, quail, frog legs, barbecue, shrimp, oysters and veal. He makes his own meal-based and flour-based batters and breading to dredge his seafoods and meats in, and he keeps the formulas to himself. He buys catfish both from fishermen on the nearby White River and from commercial processors. He completely empties and refills his deep-fat fryers with fresh cooking oil at least twice a week — a sure sign of devotion to quality — and he cooks his fish quickly at high temperatures, the better to seal in flavor and produce a crisp, crunchy crust. ‘I go by looking at the fish and listening to the grease to tell when it’s done,’ Murry said. ‘Every batch is different, so you have to pay attention.’ No automatic timers or fixed temperature controls for him.

“There is no sign of any kind outside Murry’s Cafe, and there are none out on the highway, but it is not at all unusual for 200 or more people to show up there on any given night, many of them having driven 60 miles from Little Rock. Most of the people who work at Murry’s are members of his family, including a majority of his seven children. Murry’s is a home-folks kind of place — the same staff serving consistently fine food to mostly regular customers in plain and unpretentious surroundings. It seems to be an invincible combination.

“The day Ann and I stopped there, it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Olden Murry was just about to open for business. A fisherman who called himself Catfish John was there with 100 pounds of dressed fresh White River catfish, and soon he and Murry consummated a deal for them. Then the veteran chef heated his fresh oil to just the right temperature, rolled some of Catfish John’s finest fillets in the secret batter and fried them for us. The plates he brought to our table were like advertising pictures — the crisp golden fish, long slivers of french fries, a mound of creamy coleslaw, a ring of fresh onion, a length of dill pickle, a pepperoncini pepper, a wedge of lemon, a smoking-hot corn cake that looked and tasted like a hushpuppy’s rich first cousin. Everthing was artistically arranged, prepared to perfection and delicious. Olden Murry, a Rembrandt of the kitchen, had just completed another masterpiece.”

A Rembrandt of the kitchen.

I like that.

I daresay Stanley Young also is a Rembrandt of the kitchen.

Egerton wrote that Olden Murry cooked far more than catfish.

So does Stanley. My son, Evan, had the frog legs on our most recent trip there and pronounced them the best he has ever had.

Max wrote on his blog how his host declared that Stanley has the best chicken fried steak in the state and some of the best steaks.

I’ve had both the steaks and the chicken fried steak at Murry’s. Yes, they’re good.

As always, we began our meal that Saturday night with an order of Stanley’s onion rings as an appetizer. Max wrote that they come out “crisp and stay crisp, with fat hunks of sweet, moist onion inside the crackly coat.”

Looking for an evening road trip now that summer has arrived?

You would be wise to head over to Murry’s one night. Stay off the interstate. Take U.S. 70 the entire way — much slower and much more relaxing — so you can enjoy the cypress trees in Hills Lake, the giant pecan trees on the Pulaski-Lonoke county line, the Anderson minnow ponds, the fields of rice and soybeans and the downtowns of Lonoke and Carlisle.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

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Giving Bobby Petrino for Father’s Day

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Searching for the perfect Father’s Day gift?

If the person you’re buying for loves college football, here’s an idea: Buy him a ticket to “Talking Football with Bobby Petrino,” an event scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, July 18, at Chenal Country Club in Little Rock to benefit the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

It’s going to be a fun evening.

Famed sportscaster Pat Summerall, a 1971 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee, will serve as the master of ceremonies for the dinner, which will celebrate Petrino’s success last year and allow the coach to preview his 2011 Razorback team.

Tickets are $150 each and tables of 10 are $1,500 each.

Those wishing to reserve seats should call the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame at 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at 821-1021.

The Hall of Fame will use the proceeds from the dinner to help complete a conference center adjacent to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Museum at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

On Dec. 5, the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded $1 million for the construction of the conference center. Completion of the facility will, in essence, finish out the arena.

The conference facility will be built in unused space under the stands that originally was intended for a basketball practice court for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. When UALR built an on-campus facility, the practice court at Verizon was no longer needed.

The cost of the public-private partnership is $2.24 million. The conference center will be operated by the Hall of Fame, which is working to raise the remainder of the funds needed for construction.

Once completed, the center will accommodate 500 people for a seated dinner and 750 people for a reception. It will be designed so space can be divided for smaller meetings.

The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inducted its first class in 1959 and has inducted more than 330 men and women since that time. If you haven’t visited the Hall of Fame Museum, you should do so. It opened in April 2007 following a $4 million capital campaign led by one of my favorite Arkansans, Little Rock attorney William H. “Buddy” Sutton.

Once the Fourth of July passes, a lot of Arkansans will begin to focus seriously on the upcoming college football season. Many will relish the opportunity to salute Petrino on the evening of July 18.

In just his third season as the head coach at Arkansas, Petrino led his team to the Sugar Bowl, becoming the only head coach to ever lead two schools to their first BCS appearances.

Looking back, there’s no doubt Petrino’s hiring in December 2007 energized and unified the Razorback fan base. In Petrino’s three seasons as the head coach, Razorback teams have broken almost every school passing record. For the first time since joining the league, Arkansas led the Southeastern Conference in scoring in 2009. It led the SEC in passing offense in both 2009 and 2010.

The Arkansas program under Petrino’s leadership advanced from five wins in 2008 to eight wins in 2009 to 10 wins in 2010. The Razorbacks won 10 games last year for only the eighth time in school history and only the second time since 1989.

Last year’s team broke or tied 12 single-season school records.

In addition to the chance to honor Petrino on July 18, it will be just as special to hear from Summerall, one of the signature voices in the history of sports broadcasting in America.

It’s safe to say that few inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame have done as much for the organization through the years as Summerall. He lent his name for 11 years to the Pat Summerall Celebrity Classic golf tournament, which raised money for the Hall of Fame.

Earlier in the day on July 18, Summerall will take part in the Legends Celebrity Golf Classic at Chenal Country Club. Petrino and members of his coaching staff also will participate in the golf tournament. Lunch will be served at 11 a.m. with a 12:30 p.m. tee time.

There are a limited number of slots available for four-member teams. The cost is $2,000 per team. Those wanting to enter a team in the tournament should call the Hall of Fame as soon as possible.

A large number of other Hall of Fame inductees will participate in the golf classic. They include Cliff Harris, Ken Hatfield, John McDonnell, Joe Foley, Larry Lacewell, Nelson Catalina and others.

Arkansas sports celebrities such as former Razorback quarterback Clint Stoerner and UALR head men’s basketball coach Steve Shields also will take part in the golf classic.

Summerall is a Florida native, but Arkansans long have considered him one of their own because he was a Razorback in college.

He was born in May 1930 at Lake City, Fla., where he starred in basketball, football, baseball and tennis in high school. Summerall later would say that basketball was his favorite sport as a high school athlete (he was an all-state selection in both football and basketball), but he was recruited to play football in college.

Summerall was a defensive end, tight end and placekicker for the Razorbacks from 1949-51.

The Detroit Lions drafted Summerall in the fourth round of the 1952 NFL draft. Summerall played during the preseason for the Lions but broke his arm early in the regular season. He was traded to the Chicago Cardinals and played for the Cardinals from 1953-57.

Summerall ended his career with the New York Giants from 1958-61. During the 1959 season, he was 30 for 30 on extra point attempts and 20 of 29 on field goal attempts.

Collectors of Sports Illustrated are familiar with the classic photo from December 1958 of a Summerall field goal kick sailing through the snow at Yankee Stadium for a 13-10 Giants victory over the Cleveland Browns on the final day of the regular season.

The Giants had to win to force a tiebreaker playoff game. The Browns needed only a tie to clinch the Eastern championship. With the score tied 10-10 and time running out, Summerall was sent in to try a 49-yard field goal in the swirling wind. He had missed a 31-yard field goal attempt several minutes earlier. The 49-yard kick was good.

Summerall scored five points — a field goal and two extra points — in what sometimes is called The Greatest Game Ever Played. The Giants lost 23-17 to the Baltimore Colts on Dec. 28, 1958, at Yankee Stadium for the NFL championship. It was the first NFL playoff game to go into sudden death overtime.

The game marked the start of the NFL’s nationwide surge in popularity as a large audience watched Chris Schenkel and Chuck Thompson call the contest on NBC.

The final game of Summerall’s professional playing career was the 1961 NFL championship game as the Giants were defeated by the Green Bay Packers.

After his playing career, Summerall began work as a broadcaster. He spent 32 years working for CBS Sports, serving as the voice not only of the network’s NFL telecasts but also for its coverage of the U.S. Open in tennis and the Masters in golf. He even called the play by play for professional basketball games and five championship fights.

Summerall was an iron man in the early days of his broadcasting career, serving as the sports director for WCBS-AM in New York from 1964-71 while hosting the station’s four-hour morning program. At the same time, he did work for the CBS Radio Network.

The 1994 Masters was Summerall’s final event for CBS before moving to Fox. John Madden, who had begun working NFL games with Summerall in 1981, moved to Fox with him.

In 1999, Summerall was inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame, joining broadcasters such as Mel Allen, Red Barber, Jack Brickhouse, Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Howard Cosell, Ernie Harwell and Chick Hearn.

During most of the 1970s, Summerall had teamed with Tom Brookshier on NFL broadcasts. They worked Super Bowls X, XII and XIV together.

The pairing with Madden that began in 1981 would last 22 seasons. They worked eight Super Bowls together. Summerall and Madden’s last game as a team was Super Bowl XXXVI. Following the game, Summerall announced his retirement, and ABC signed Madden to work with Al Michaels on Monday night games.

Fox, however, talked Summerall into working on regional telecasts in 2002 and 2006. The Dallas-area resident also broadcast the Cotton Bowl for Fox from 2007-10. His voice can still be heard on the opening of Masters coverage on CBS.

Bobby Petrino, members of his coaching staff, Pat Summerall, lots of Hall of Fame inductees — it’s going to make for quite an evening on July 18.

There! I’ve done your Father’s Day shopping for you. All you have to do is call the Hall of Fame.

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Hugh Freeze gets his chance

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Below is an excerpt from the feature story I wrote for the June issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Pick up the June issue to read the whole story (along with a short essay I wrote on the demise of Ray Winder Field).

How do you think Hugh will do?

___

In his 2006 book “The Blind Side,” author Michael Lewis describes Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis.

“Its founder, Wayne Allen, had long been distressed by the absence of the Bible from public schools; the white outrage over busing was a chance to do something about it,” Lewis writes. “In the year after the court decision — on Jan. 24, 1973 — that forced the city to deploy 1,000 buses to integrate the public schools, the parents of white children yanked more than 7,000 children out of those schools.

“From the ashes arose an entire, spanking new private school system. The Briarcrest Christian School — originally named the Briarcrest Baptist School — was by far the biggest. It was a system unto itself: 15 different campuses, inside 15 different Baptist churches. Its initial enrollment was just shy of 3,000, and every last one of them was white.”

Briarcrest was where a Mississippi native named Hugh Freeze first made a name for himself.

He spent 13 years there as a coach, teacher and administrator. In football, he was the offensive coordinator and defensive backs coach from 1992-94 as Briarcrest teams reached the state semifinals twice. He was the head football coach from 1995 through 2004. He led Briarcrest to six consecutive state championship games. Briarcrest won two of those title games, in 2002 and 2004.

Freeze’s record as football coach at the school was 99-23.

Freeze’s success was not limited to football. He was the girls’ basketball coach for 12 seasons, leading Briarcrest to eight consecutive state championship games and winning four of those — 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2005. His record as a girls’ basketball coach was an eye-popping 305-63.

But it took more than that to make Hugh Freeze famous outside the Mid-South.

It took “The Blind Side” — first the 2006 book and then, even more so, the 2009 movie.

In the movie, Coach Freeze becomes Coach Cotton. The coach is portrayed by Little Rock actor Ray McKinnon, a Georgia native with a rich Southern accent.

Briarcrest becomes Wingate Christian School in the movie.

Still, it’s the story of Michael Oher, the Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman who was raised in Memphis — a poor black boy adopted by prosperous whites, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. In the movie, Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy. Bullock won the Academy Award for best actress. The film itself, directed by John Lee Hancock, was nominated for best picture.

Hugh Freeze doesn’t mind being known as the man who urged the school’s principal to admit Oher, as the man who first taught this future first-round NFL draft pick the sport of football. In fact, Freeze and Oher still exchange text messages on a regular basis.

Lewis describes the coach this way (based on the time Oher entered the school in 2002): “Freeze was only 33, and with his white-blond hair and unlined face might have passed for even younger than he was — if he weren’t so shrewd. His shrewdness was right on the surface, so it had an innocent quality to it, but it was there just the same. Slow to speak and quick to notice, Hugh Freeze had the gifts of a machine politician. He was a man of God — if he hadn’t been a football coach, he said, he’d have liked to have been a preacher — but he was also, very obviously, adept at getting his way on earth without any help from the Almighty. He’d coached at Briarcrest for eight years.”

Hugh Freeze is comfortable with his past. Now he wants something more. He wants to be known as a successful NCAA Division I head football coach. And he’s trying to do it in the most unlikely of places — Jonesboro.

The rain is falling steadily on this spring morning as the new head football coach at Arkansas State University sits in his office in the school’s football complex, which is located in one end zone of a stadium where the seats are rarely filled to capacity.

Hugh Freeze still looks like that young man Michael Lewis described in “The Blind Side.”

He greets a visitor warmly and then reflects on a Nov. 29, 2010, speech to the Little Rock Touchdown Club. On that late fall day, his life began to change.

The club was meeting for the final time of the season on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Several hundred people, including some of Little Rock’s top business leaders, had gathered for lunch at the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock to hear the first-year offensive coordinator at ASU.

Freeze, who does lots of motivational speaking (he’s a favorite of FedEx founder Fred Smith), was at the top of his game that day. He wowed ‘em.

Freeze was scheduled to leave the state after the speech on a recruiting trip. He never made it.

As it turned out, things were changing quickly in Jonesboro.

The Jonesboro Sun had reported that morning that Steve Roberts’ future as ASU’s head football coach was in doubt. Roberts failed to participate in the Sun Belt Conference’s weekly teleconference with the other league coaches that day.

At 1 p.m., just as Freeze was finishing his speech in Little Rock, the ASU athletic department announced that a 4 p.m. news conference would be held on campus.

An hour later, ASU wide receiver Dwayne Frampton posted this to his Twitter account: “My head coach is fired.”

ASU’s athletic director, Dean Lee, made it official at the 4 p.m. news conference. Roberts, whose final two seasons in a nine-year stint as ASU’s head coach had ended with 4-8 records, was out. The killer for Roberts had been a loss at home to lowly Western Kentucky. WKU had tied that game on the final play of regulation and then won in overtime with a two-point conversion play.

As news of Roberts’ departure made its way across the state, a cry went up from those who had heard Freeze speak in Little Rock: There’s no need for a search. The best man for the job is already on the staff.

Lee heard that outpouring of support for Freeze.

“It was a snowball effect that came out of Little Rock that day,” Freeze says. “There were great comments, and I was gratified to hear them. I have no doubt they were helpful in this process.”

Indeed, ASU long has tried to build support for its football program in central Arkansas with limited success. In Freeze, it seemed, the school had a coach who could connect with the Little Rock business elite.

The search didn’t take long.

On Thursday of that week, Freeze was named as ASU’s new head coach. Among those in attendance at the news conference was Freeze’s old friend from Memphis, Sean Tuohy.

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