Archive for September, 2011

Newport-Batesville: A thing of the past?

Friday, September 30th, 2011

I often find myself on the road on autumn Saturdays, driving to and from Ouachita football games.

I listen to college games on the radio, everything from the LSU Tigers on WWL-AM to the Iowa Hawkeyes on WHO-AM. When the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy listening to Bill Keedy do the color on Arkansas State University football broadcasts. Coach Keedy’s passion for the Red Wolves and for the game of football itself is contagious.

“I just sit up there in the booth and try to explain football to the listeners in a way I think they can understand,” Keedy told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Three Rivers edition (a product of the newspaper’s promotions department) a couple of years ago. “Broadcasting has given me the chance to be around football, a game that I love.”

Keedy, an Arkansas State graduate, is in his 12th year as a part of the school’s broadcast crew. In Newport, though, he’s not known as a broadcaster. He’s instead known as one of the best high school football coaches ever.

Keedy had a successful run as the head coach at Paragould High School in the early 1970s. Following the 1975 season, he received a large raise to go to Sylvan Hills. But after just one season as the head coach there, he returned to his hometown of Newport in 1977.

Keedy compiled a 175-48-3 record at Newport before retiring. His overall record as a head coach was 199-55-4.

He was the district coach of the year 17 times, and his teams reached the playoffs 19 times.

Newport won state championships under his leadership in 1981 and 1991. Greyhound teams also reached the championship games of 1988 and 1989. The Greyhounds made it as far as the semifinals eight times.

Keedy later was inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

It made me sad — very sad — when I heard that Coach Keedy had tears in his eyes Wednesday night during a special meeting of the Newport School Board. The school’s administration has decided to end one of the oldest high school football rivalries in the state — Newport vs. Batesville.

They’ve met 92 times through the decades.

For years, the game was played on Thanksgiving Day. My father was the head coach at Newport for the 1948, 1949 and 1950 seasons. Years later, I would pull out the old “Lakeside” yearbooks he kept at our home and marvel at the size of the crowds for those games. The black-and-white photos told the story.

This was a big deal.

Batesville has grown steadily through the years as a college town in the Ozark footballs. Like many Delta towns, Newport has lost population and suffered economically.

Still, it’s amazing that Newport School District administrators would so quickly end a tradition that dates back almost a century.

“A lot of schools have lost their tradition, but we have found a way to maintain ours,” Keedy told the school board members. “Don’t let us lose our tradition. If we continue to lose kids, then people, there will be a time to holler calf-rope. I just don’t think that time is now. I was told we had 56 kids out for spring football, and we dress around 35 right now. Fifty-six kids are how many kids Searcy has, and they beat Batesville.”

Keedy said of current Greyhound coach Jeromy Poole: “We didn’t hire him to drop Batesville, we hired him to beat Batesville, and I meant that as a compliment. I think he is a fine, energetic young man who has the best for this program in mind. I think he is trying to build this program back up, and I think he can do it.”

Keedy, like most folks in Newport, was blindsided by the decision to end a treasured northeast Arkansas tradition.

“I have talked to many people who feel the way I do,” he said. “Without this coming before the school board or without us having any knowledge of this, something is just not right. The time for this was in June when we could have had time to evaluate and prepare and maybe come up with a compromise.”

The board took no action Wednesday.

Coach Keedy’s son, Billy Keedy, announced his resignation from the school board because of the strain it was causing him.

“I have watched as minor issues have become major problems,” he said.

So will the administrators — some of whom are still relatively new to Jackson County and lacking any sense of history and place, change their minds?

“It’s a tradition that’s maybe the oldest in the state,” the elder Keedy said. “The traditional game against Batesville has always been the game. Back in the old days, it didn’t matter if you lost every game. If you beat Batesville, you had a successful season.

“I found out through the rumor mill and then found out from the Batesville paper. Our school board was not aware of this taking place.”

“We are not out to do away with the rivalry,” the school’s superintendent, Larry Bennett, claimed in an interview with KAIT-TV in Jonesboro. “It’s just that we need to regroup so that we can be competitive, and there are going to be people who disagree with that. It’s just a numbers game and safety. They’ve got two to three times the number of student-athletes that we have.”

Yet what about the fabric of the community — its history, its traditions?

Were those things even taken into consideration?

Were the players asked their opinions?

“What I would have loved to see happen is maybe have a compromise,” Coach Keedy said. “Give us two more years to try and build our numbers up. If Batesville continues to grow and Newport continues to decline, then I think you have to seriously consider dropping.”

About 100 people attended Wednesday night’s special board meeting.

John Pennington, who once played for the Greyhounds, put it this way: “It’s part of what makes small town America great. Friday night in America. Batesville vs. Newport. It’s what Friday night in America is all about. It’s a big deal, and it’s one of the bigger gate receipts for both schools. … It’s important.”

At least it used to be important.

With the decline in population in large parts of south and east Arkansas, we’ve seen numerous high school football programs become mere shadows of their former selves — Crossett, Forrest City, Marianna and Hughes to name a few.

Camden High School — once the home of the mighty Panthers — no longer even exists.

But is it wrong for a smaller school such as Newport to play a larger school such as Batesville, to try to overcome the odds one Friday night each year and occasionally pull an upset?

No Newport-Batesville football game?

We might as well just declare that Arkansas can no longer compete in football with Alabama, that the Razorbacks should stop trying to beat Kentucky in basketball and that we’ve called off duck season while we’re at it since those mallards are so hard to bring down with steel shot.

Let’s also call up St. Louis and tell the Cardinals to forfeit to the Phillies since the pundits don’t think they can win that series.

If my dad were still around, he would be as sad as Coach Keedy.

Post to Twitter

College football: Week 5

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Last week’s record was 9-0.

Yes, 9-0.

Frankly, I wish that had not been the case.

I picked Alabama last week, but I thought the Razorbacks would play well. They didn’t.

Yes, it’s a nonconference game Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, but it’s pivotal. With a loss to Texas A&M, this fragile squad will start doubting itself and could be headed to an 8-4 season at best.

With a victory, 10-2 still sounds possible. Not easy, but possible.

A friend — a former sportswriter who has watched Arkansas football for decades — sent me this earlier in the week: “Conventional wisdom: Petrino got outcoached. Not necessarily. I think Nick Saban and the Bama staff were very well prepared for Petrino’s offense — for example, the way Alabama played the crossing route in the red zone and the fake field goal. Clearly, Saban saw something about the Hogs’ special teams that he thought he could exploit.

“But I don’t know whether or not Tyler Wilson missed some opportunities. My guess is that he did because Petrino was hopping mad at him after almost every series. It reminded me of Petrino’s experience with Casey Dick, who managed to put up decent numbers but was forever checking down to D.J. Williams instead of throwing the ball downfield. I would imagine that Petrino’s offense is quite complicated and takes a quarterback some serious game time to learn how to make the right decisions. Wilson may not be there yet.”

Here’s what we have seen the past three seasons: Petrino’s teams tend to get better as the year goes along.

That’s why I’m picking Arkansas this week.

Am I going with my head?

Or am I going with my heart?

I also hated the fact that the Gulf South Conference teams from Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia went 5-0 last week against the Division II teams from Arkansas. Sure, I had picked the GSC straight down the line, but I was hoping for better from Henderson, Harding, UAM, Arkansas Tech and Southern Arkansas.

Again this week, there are five Arkansas schools playing GSC opponents, including a battle of Division II Top 25 teams as No. 6 Delta State hosts No. 25 Ouachita on Saturday night in Cleveland, Miss.

We don’t think the Arkansas schools will go 0-5 again this week against the GSC.

So who from the state wins?

Read on.

We’re 26-7 on the season. Here are the picks for Week 5:

Arkansas 35, Texas A&M 29 — You know how ugly the stats were last week — 17 yards rushing on 19 carries, etc., etc. Texas A&M is good, but the Aggies aren’t to be confused with the Tide. This is, after all, an Alabama team that won its Southeastern Conference opener for a 20th consecutive time; an Alabama team that is 4-0 against Arkansas in the Petrino era; an Alabama team that has outscored the Hogs 146-55 in the past four games. The Aggies have a bigger hangover than the Hogs after blowing that 17-point halftime lead at home to Oklahoma State. You want hope for the Arkansas passing game? Consider the fact that A&M gave up 438 yards through the air to the Cowboys, an OSU school record. Arkansas gains more than 400 yards through the air and wins a shootout Saturday as former Razorback Jerry Jones smiles from his private box.

Arkansas State 38, Western Kentucky 28 — The 2-2 Red Wolves open Sun Belt Conference play Saturday afternoon in Bowling Green, Ky., against a Western Kentucky team that’s 0-3. The Red Wolves ran up a lot of points against UCA in Jonesboro last Saturday night, and this marks a good time for Hugh Freeze’s squad to build on that momentum. The Hilltoppers have lost 14-3 to Kentucky, 40-14 to Navy and 44-16 to Indiana State. The losses to Navy and Indiana State came in Bowling Green. In other words, Western Kentucky is not very good. ASU is 2-2-1 against Western Kentucky through the years and 1-0-1 in games played at Bowling Green.

UCA 24, Stephen F. Austin 21 — This is certainly a game that could go either way as a struggling pair of 1-3 teams square off on the purple-and-gray turf in Conway. UCA started the season well, beating Henderson at home and then taking Louisiana Tech to overtime on the road before falling. The Bears haven’t been competitive the past two weeks in blowout road losses to Sam Houston State and Arkansas State. Stephen F. Austin started the season by beating tiny McMurry, 82-6, but has since lost by scores of 34-23 to Northern Iowa, 48-0 to Baylor and 35-26 to Texas State. We’ll give the Bears a slight advantage since they’re playing at home for the first time in a month.

Alabama A&M 17, UAPB 14 — Since that embarrassing loss to Langston in the Delta Classic at War Memorial Stadium, the Golden Lions have run off three consecutive victories with triumphs over Alcorn State, Prairie View A&M and Clark Atlanta. Could the Golden Lions go to 3-0 in the SWAC on Saturday when they travel to Huntsville, Ala., to take on Alabama A&M? Of course they could. But we’re giving a small homefield advantage to a 2-2 Alabama A&M team that started the season 0-2 with losses of 21-20 to Hampton and 21-6 to Southern and has since come back with victories of 21-6 over Tuskegee and 20-14 over Grambling.

Ouachita 37, Delta State 34 — This is one of the games of the week in NCAA Division II. It also may be the classic example of going with my heart instead of my head. Hear me out. Ouachita is 3-0 with victories over East Central Oklahoma, UAM and Texas A&M-Commerce. Delta State is 4-1. Its only loss was by a point on the road to Northwestern State from NCAA Division IAA, 24-23. Delta State is ranked No. 6 nationally in the American Football Coaches Association Top 25. Ouachita broke into the poll this week at No. 25. The Statesmen have given up more than 30 points the past two weeks in wins of 47-32 over Arkansas Tech and 34-31 over Henderson. Ouachita, meanwhile, has scored more than 30 points in each of its three games — 31 against East Central, 38 against UAM and 39 against Texas A&M-Commerce. So it’s safe to assume the Tigers will score plenty of points. Here’s betting (hoping?) that this is the week Delta State is edged out. It’s not as if the Tigers haven’t shown they can play with the Statesmen in recent years. Ouachita demolished Delta State two years ago, 38-14. And a horrible call (which the GSC commissioner admitted to two days after the game) cost Ouachita the victory last year. The scoreboard showed Delta State a 33-27 winner in what should have been a 34-33 Tiger victory.

Henderson 29, West Georgia 23 — Henderson is 1-3, but the Reddies looked much better last week in the loss to Delta State following a change at quarterback. West Georgia is 2-1, but Henderson has dominated this series, having won five straight and six of the past seven games against the Wolves. The Reddies go on the road and bring a big win back to Arkansas.

Central Missouri 42, Arkansas Tech 30 — The Mules of Central Missouri are 3-1 and ranked 19th nationally in Division II. The lone loss was 23-6 to Missouri Western. The wins have come by scores of 42-24 over Missouri Southern, 45-38 over Emporia State and 54-30 over Truman State. Tech is 1-3, its only win having come against Southwest Baptist of Bolivar, Mo., on the road. With the game being played at Central Missouri, this just doesn’t appear to be the week the Wonder Boys get well.

Harding 31, West Alabama 27 — The Bisons are 2-2 and now must make the long trip to Livingston, Ala., to take on the 3-1 West Alabama Tigers. West Alabama struggled to beat Arkansas Tech last week, 17-12. The Tigers have started 3-1 for the third year in a row, but they haven’t been 4-1 since 1991. Harding leads this series, 9-7. The Bisons’ ground game will make the difference in this one, which you can label a mild upset.

North Alabama 51, Southern Arkansas 29 — Terry Bowden brings a team to Magnolia that’s ranked No. 2 in Division II. The 4-0 Lions should have no problem with a Mulerider team that’s 1-3. North Alabama has won nine consecutive games against Southern Arkansas.

Valdosta State 41, UAM 22 — Valdosta State brings the team ranked No. 5 in Division II to Drew County to take on a 2-2 UAM club that won its first two games but has now dropped back-to-back contests to Ouachita and West Georgia. Valdosta is 4-0 and has won eight of the nine games against UAM through the years. The Blazers are 4-0 in games played at Monticello. Valdosta is seeking its first 5-0 start since 2007.

Post to Twitter

A fond farewell to Klappenbach

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

It’s bad news.

Bad news indeed.

This is the final week of business for the Klappenbach Bakery at Fordyce, which for the past 36 years has graced the downtown of the Dallas County seat. After Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, it’s among the most famous things to come out of Fordyce.

I first learned of the closing early last week when I opened my copy of Arkansas Business. The drive through the pine woods of south Arkansas will never be the same.

Today, the editors at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wisely decided to start a lengthy feature story on the Klappenbach Bakery on the front page. I say “wisely” because there are certain places that can define a town, a county, a region.

The bakery was one of those places.

I understand the situation. Honestly, I do.

Norman and Lee Klappenbach are tired.

Norman is 80.

Lee is 77.

A bakery is the kind of business where you need to arrive at work by about 3 a.m.

John Worthen writes in today’s statewide newspaper: “The Klappenbachs’ son, Paul Klappenbach, 47, grew up in the business and has been working full time at the bakery for the past seven years. The 65-hour workweeks have sapped his energy, he said, and he has been unable to find an assistant baker.”

Paul Klappenbach told the newspaper: “You can’t sustain yourself working these kinds of hours. I’m going to find something else to do.”

The Klappenbachs moved to Fordyce in 1975 from Walla Walla, Wash. Lee Klappenbach was originally from the area.

John Worthen called me yesterday when he was working on his story. Here’s what I told him: Often, you identify a place by a restaurant. When I think of DeValls Bluff, I think of meals I’ve enjoyed at Craig’s. When I think of Brinkley, I think of Sunday nights in the back room at Gene’s. When I think of Pine Bluff, I think of Bobby Garner’s cheeseburgers at the Sno-White Grill. When I think of Fordyce, I think of the Klappenbach Bakery.

You get the idea.

Often, though, when the hard-working owners of these establishments pass away or decide to retire, there’s no one to take their place. The kids have no interest in the long hours and limited revenues. And buyers can be hard to find, especially in areas of south and east Arkansas that are losing population.

Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

That means we better enjoy these independent establishments while we still can. In large parts of rural Arkansas, we’re left with only convenience stores with fried chicken and “tater logs” under heat lamps.

A case in point is Shadden’s near Marvell. I’ll never forget that Thursday afternoon in the spring of 2010. I was on my way to Mississippi on U.S. Highway 49. As I passed the Shadden’s store just west of Marvell, I noticed that one of my favorite places to eat barbecue in the Delta was closed.

I hoped nothing was wrong.

I had no way of knowing at the time that it was Wayne’s Shadden’s final full day of life. He died the following day at age 77.

Shadden’s was a place people heard about and then drove many miles to visit. The Klappenbach Bakery also was such a place.

Wayne Shadden’s wife, Vivian, said she was tired and had no plans to keep the store open. The kids were far away. One son was in Washington state. The other was in California. One daughter was in Texas. Another daughter was in Virginia.

Sixteen months later, Shadden’s remains closed, a black wreath still on its front door.

The wooden building that housed Shadden’s is almost a century old. Inside, the walls were covered with newspaper clippings and photos. I have several bottles of Shadden’s barbecue sauce at home, bottles I pull out like fine wine on special occasions.

Turkey Scratch native Levon Helm would have Wayne Shadden’s barbecue sauce shipped by the case to his home in Woodstock, N.Y.

I’m also reminded of an interview I did with Bobby Garner at the Sno-White a couple of years ago. The Pine Bluff landmark first opened in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Garner purchased the restaurant in February 1970 from Roy Marshall, who had owned it the previous 27 years. Though he’s not sure how the restaurant got its name, Garner once had figures representing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs attached to the outside of the building. Those came down the day Garner received a visit from a local lawyer who had been hired by the Walt Disney Co. to ask for royalty payments.

There are still some notable things at the restaurant — one of the few remaining Lou Holtz dolls and even a cardboard cutout of John Wayne that looks out over the dining room.

“I haven’t been broken into since I hired him,” Garner says, grinning slyly.

The chances are that if you’re in Sno-White, so is Bobby Garner. He’s there six mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. and even comes in on Sunday mornings to clean up.

“I’m the only one who has a key,” he says.

Bobby is now 75.

“I checked with my board, and they said Sno-White doesn’t have a retirement plan,” he jokes.

But what happens when Bobby Garner decides he has had enough?

Will it be what happened when Wayne Shadden at Marvell died and the Klappenbachs at Fordyce retired?

I suspect so.

Here’s part of what I wrote about Sno-White for Roby Brock’s Talk Business magazine: “None of the coffee mugs match, which is part of the charm of a place like Sno-White. On the table where Garner sits down to visit, there’s a mug that says ‘Sparkman Sparklers,’ the name of a girls’ basketball team from Dallas County that was nationally known in the 1930s. It’s as if Sno-White has become the repository of south Arkansas history.

“There used to be quite a few locally owned, full-service restaurants in Pine Bluff like Sno-White. But as the city has lost population and economic vitality through the years, their numbers have declined. Garner rattles off the names of the competitors that are now only memories. There was John Noah’s Restaurant over by the Norton Lumber Mill. There was the Wonderland. The Country Kitchen out on the Dollarway Highway is about the only comparable place to Sno-White these days. Restaurants aren’t the only thing disappearing in southeast Arkansas.”

This is what Bobby Garner told me that morning as I sipped my cup of coffee: “Most of my friends have either died or moved. There’s a void there.”

Just as there will be a void in Fordyce at the end of this week.

There are still independently run restaurants scattered in small towns across our state that have been around for decades.

Enjoy them while you can. You never know when the end will come.

Post to Twitter

Jeff Long: Right man at the right time

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

I’ve had the pleasure this month of spending time with Jeff Long, the athletic director at the University of Arkansas, in preparation for a feature story I’m writing on him for the October issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

After decades of having Frank Broyles as the voice and face of the Arkansas athletic program, some Arkansans had a difficult time adjusting to this “Yankee” from Ohio, who brought new ways of doing things to The Hill.

It’s not easy filling the shoes of Broyles, an Arkansas icon. Like many other Arkansas boys who were raised in the 1960s and 1970s, I considered Coach Broyles a hero.

But understanding how things work in the modern world of college athletics, I’ve become convinced that Long is the right man at the right time.

Here’s how the Arkansas Life story starts: “Try as he might, University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long cannot completely escape the shadow.

“The shadow is that of John Franklin Broyles, the still-energetic, charismatic, 86-year-old former head football coach and athletic director, the man Long replaced on Jan. 1, 2008.

“Long’s office is in the Broyles Athletic Center. He looks out his window and sees Frank Broyles Field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. There’s simply no getting away from the Broyles name.

“It’s said that you never want to be the person who replaces the legend. Instead, you want to be the person who replaced the person who replaced the legend. Long ignored that axiom.

“An Ohio native with no previous connection to the state or its flagship university, Long wasted no time putting his stamp on the athletic deparment. A commonly heard refrain in those first couple of years of the Long regime was that the new athletic director was ‘getting rid of all of Frank’s people.’ Sportswriters who covered the department would refer to Long’s team as ‘the suits.’

“In reality, the man who had left the athletic director’s job at the University of Pittsburgh was making the types of changes necessary to modernize the program and increase its revenues. The model of ‘the old head football coach turned athletic director’ — think Broyles at Arkansas, Vince Dooley at Georgia, Tom Osborne at Nebraska, Bo Schembechler at Michigan — is almost a thing of the past. Southeastern Conference athletic directors these days are, in essence, the CEOs of multimillion-dollar corporations.

“The University of Arkansas athletic department isn’t just any multimillion-dollar corporation, mind you. The Razorback athletic teams it fields long have been a part of the very essence of who Arkansans are as a people. It can be debated whether the obsession is healthy. But what’s not open to debate is that for thousands of Arkansans, their very identity is tied up in the exploits of teenagers playing football, basketball and to a lesser extent baseball at the University of Arkansas.”

Jeff Long had wanted to be a professional football player. When he realized that wasn’t in the cards, he wanted to be a coach. Somewhere along the line, he decided he was better suited to be an administrator.

“It was a tough decision,” he says of leaving coaching. “Dreams change.”

Long earned seven varsity letters in football and baseball at Ohio Wesleyan, graduating in 1982 with a degree in economics. He then headed to Miami of Ohio, long known as the Cradle of Coaches, to earn his master’s degree in education and serve as a football graduate assistant coach.

From there, Long took jobs at North Carolina State, Duke and Rice.

The life of a college football coach is one that usually revolves around lots of moves.

Long first followed Tom Reed from Miami of Ohio to North Carolina State when Reed got the N.C. State head coaching job in 1983. Reed was dismissed following three 3-8 seasons as head coach of the Wolfpack.

Long, still following his dream of coaching major college football, worked as a volunteer at Duke. The school began paying him just before the 1986 season, but Long was soon out of a job again.

“I couldn’t find work,” he says. “It was suggested that I might want to coach and teach at the high school level, but I wasn’t quite ready to make that move.”

In 1987, he received a break when Reed (who by then was working for Schembechler at Michigan) invited him to come to Michigan as a part-time coach for the 1987 season.

“It was demanding work,” Long says. “I was splicing and hanging up film in the middle of the night. I was rarely home. I really enjoyed working with kids, but I wondered if I would ever get to the highest levels as a coach.”

An administrative job at Rice opened up at the end of the 1987 season, and Long went to Houston. Nine months later, he was back in Michigan as an administrator as Schembechler took on the athletic director’s job.

The frequent job shifts were over. Long would remain at Michigan for a decade, working his way up to the position of assistant athletic director.

“I decided during that period that my goal was to become an athletic director,” he says.

Schembechler left Michigan in 1990 for a front office position with the Detroit Tigers. Long worked for five athletic directors during the decade at Michigan.

“By 1998, it was clear it was time to move on,” he says.

After a brief stay at Virginia Tech as associate athletic director, Long’s first chance to be an athletic director came at Eastern Kentucky. He worked at the school for almost three years.

“I hadn’t been at Virginia Tech long, but the athletic director, Jim Weaver, gave me permission to pursue the job at Eastern Kentucky,” Long says. ”I had been asking myself whether I could handle the job of athletic director. Could I lead a department rather than working for someone else? Would people follow me?”

Long found the answers to those questions in the Bluegrass State.

While working at Michigan, Long had gotten to know an associate athletic director at Missouri named Joe Castiglione.

Castiglione is now one of the most high-profile athletic directors in the country at Oklahoma.

“I wasn’t looking for another job,” Long says of the offer Castiglione made for him to come to Oklahoma. “I liked it at Eastern Kentucky. Oklahoma, though, was planning a major stadium expansion, and Joe asked me to come over and take a look at what they had planned. I was just blown away. I knew I wanted to work at that level.”

Long became the senior associate athletic director at Oklahoma in December 2000, just before the Sooner football team won the national championship.

“One of my first jobs was to plan the parade to celebrate that national championship,” he says.

Long also helped oversee a $69 million stadium expansion and the sale of 7,250 premium seats.

“I realize now that I never would have been the athletic director at Pittsburgh had I stayed at Eastern Kentucky,” Long says. “Joe gave me a whole new perspective on the importance of things such as image and branding.”

Long was the athletic director at Pitt from 2003 until he was approached by Arkansas in 2007.

“It was not a good time to leave Pitt, but I guess there’s never a good time to leave,” he says. “When I was working at Oklahoma, I had come over to Fayetteville and toured the Arkansas football stadium. I also had been to Bud Walton Arena. I liked what I saw. This was a program that was competing at a high level in multiple sports.

“I was anxious to see if my management style would work in the Southeastern Conference.”

Almost four years later, that style appears to be working just fine.

Post to Twitter

College football: Week 4

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

This is the game Razorback fans have been waiting for since the clock ran out at the Sugar Bowl in January.

Arkansas is 3-0.

Alabama is 3-0.

Both teams are ranked.

More than 100,000 fans will be in attendance at one of college football’s most famous venues.

Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson will be in the broadcast booth. Cute little Tracy Wolfson will be on the sideline.

A CBS Sports national audience will be watching the game.

This is the type of game you were wanting the Razorbacks to be in when Bobby Petrino was hired.

A game that really matters.

A game that football fans across the country will watch.

So why all of the gnashing of teeth this week?

I sometimes think Arkansas fans subscribe to this maxim: “Always expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.”

We said before the season began that the goals in the first three games were to win all three, get out of them without major injuries, get the starters some quality time and get the backups some time.

Arkansas accomplished those goals. But a number of Razorback fans seem to be in a state of depression after that less-than-stellar second half against Troy last Saturday night in Fayetteville.

Look, you couldn’t expect this team to remain focused for 12 consecutive quarters while running up the kind of big leads it ran up in the first three games. Look on the bright side: The second half against the Trojans gave Petrino and his staff something to harp on in practice this week.

That staff, which works as hard as any coaching staff in college football, has been designing plays and schemes for Alabama since spring practice. You think they were going to unveil any of those against Missouri State, New Mexico or Troy?

Of course not.

So rest easy.

Arkansas will play well. It might not win, but the Hogs won’t embarrass you Saturday.

After you recover from that game, you can watch UCA travel to Jonesboro to take on Arkansas State. The Bears simply aren’t the same team without Nathan Dick at full speed at quarterback. With Dick experiencing concussion problems, this might not be as good a game as the last time the two schools met on a football field. ASU scored in the final seconds to win that 1997 game.

Most of the state’s Great American Conference teams, meanwhile, must go up against former league foes from the Gulf South Conference. The GSC should hold the upper hand this weekend.

We were 7-2 last week, making us 17-7 on the season.

On to the picks for Week 4:

Alabama 30, Arkansas 27 — The Tide moved to 3-0 with a 41-0 victory over North Texas in Tuscaloosa. Trent Richardson had 167 yards rushing, including touchdown runs of 58 and 71 yards. Eddie Lacy had 161 yards rushing, including touchdown runs of 43 and 67 yards. It was the first time in the storied history of Alabama football for two Bama backs to gain more than 150 yards in the same game. Arkansas must find a way to slow Richardson and Lacy on Saturday. Alabama will attempt to use its ground game to eat up the clock and keep Arkansas’ explosive offense off the field. The Alabama defense is stout, and that might be an understatement. North Texas had only 91 yards of offense. At halftime, the visitors had 25 yards and one first down. Petrino, though, is among the best in the business at coming up with an offensive game plan when on the big stage. If only I had the same faith in Willie Robinson on the defensive side of the ball. For Arkansas to stand a chance, it’s going to need to score a lot of points. A low-scoring game certainly favors Alabama. Bama has the better talent, but the talent gap has narrowed. I’ll say just what I said last year: Alabama should win; Arkansas might.

Arkansas State 35, UCA 20 — It was fun to listen on the radio to the first part of ASU’s game at Virginia Tech last Saturday afternoon as I drove south through the “pine tunnel” to El Dorado to see Ouachita take on UAM in the Boomtown Classic. The Red Wolves jumped to a quick 7-0 lead in that game. That would be the highlight of a 26-7 loss to No. 13 Viriginia Tech, but the Red Wolves didn’t play badly. On the other hand, UCA did play poorly in its 31-10 Southland Conference loss to Sam Houston State down in Huntsville, Texas. After the Bears had almost defeated Louisiana Tech the previous week in Ruston, UCA fans were expecting a better performance in the conference opener. Dick left the game with a concussion in the second quarter. His replacement, sophomore Wynrick Smothers, was just 7 of 17 passing for 99 yards. Hugh Freeze has generated genuine excitement in Jonesboro. The Red Wolves should roll before a crowd of about 30,000.

UAPB 35, Clark Atlanta 32 — The Golden Lions get to play in the Edward Jones Dome at St. Louis as part of the Gateway Classic. UAPB steps down in classification to take on Clark Atlanta. The last time the Golden Lions stepped down in classification, they lost their season opener to NAIA Langston at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Since that time, Monte Coleman’s squad has won two consecutive SWAC games. Last week, UAPB scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat Prairie View A&M, 36-29.

Ouachita 34, Texas A&M-Commerce 24 — The Tigers ran their record to 2-0 overall and 2-0 in the GAC with a 38-20 win in the Boomtown Classic against previously undefeated UAM. Ouachita had 519 yards of offense in that game, with 302 of it coming on the ground. A&M-Commerce fell to 0-2 with a 63-17 loss to Midwestern State in one of the three games that made up the Lone Star Football Festival last Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. This is a Thursday night game in Commerce. Ouachita is off to a good start in trying to make it four consecutive winning seasons for the first time at the school since 1965-68.

Delta State 28, Henderson 17 — The Reddies were a disappointment last week, tallying only 139 yards of offense in a 24-21 loss at Arkadelphia to Southwestern Oklahoma. Henderson fell to 1-2. The Reddies just aren’t the same team they were in 2010 when they earned a share of the GSC championship with Nick Hardesty at quarterback. Delta State comes to Arkadelphia with a 3-1 record and a No. 6 national ranking in the American Football Coaches Association Division II Top 25. Delta went on the road last week to beat Arkansas Tech in Russellville, 47-32.

West Georgia 24, UAM 21 — UAM started the Hud Jackson era 2-0, but the Boll Weevils came back to earth a bit last weekend as Ouachita won convincingly. Still, this is a well-coached team that’s much more disciplined than last year’s UAM squad. The Boll Weevils face a 1-1 West Georgia team that’s the weakest in the GSC. Still, we’ll give a slight advantage to the home team as the Weevils make the long trip east.

North Alabama 42, Harding 33 — Harding has had nine days to prepare for this game after a 75-0 win over what was basically an intramural team, Shepherd Tech of Memphis. The 2-1 Bisons must travel to Florence, Ala., to do battle with a 3-0 North Alabama team that’s ranked No. 2 nationally. In the second game of last Saturday’s Lone Star Football Festival at Cowboys Stadium, North Alabama beat then No. 3 Abilene Christian, 23-17. Terry Bowden’s Lions are loaded with Division I transfers.

Valdosta State 49, Southern Arkansas 21 — Valdosta State is ranked No. 5 and is 3-0. The Blazers never trailed last week in beating then No. 6 Albany State, 30-27. Southern Arkansas fell to 1-2 with a 24-21 loss in Magnolia to Southeastern Oklahoma. Mulerider quarterback Tyler Sykora completed 23 of 35 passes for 218 yards. The Muleriders, who should improve on last year’s 1-10 record, simply can’t hang with Valdosta State after the road trip to Georgia.

West Alabama 29, Arkansas Tech 28 — West Alabama ran its home winning streak to seven games and its season record to 2-1 with a 45-7 win last week over Central State. This week sees West Alabama on the road against a 1-2 Arkansas Tech squad that has struggled early. This should, however, be an interesting game. I’ll pick West Alabama but wouldn’t be at all surprised if Tech were to win at home.

Post to Twitter

The next great Southern city?

Friday, September 16th, 2011

I recently came across a copy of the October 2003 edition of Little Rock magazine, a pretty nice monthly publication that had a short run before folding due to its inability to turn a profit.

That issue of the magazine contained an article by John Brummett on the Vision Little Rock process. Brummett described that process as “300 of the city’s finest people voluntarily spending two years at the behest of the City Board of Directors compiling a report submitted in January 2002 on where the city needed to go over the next decade. … Nothing much came of it. Bob East, one of three chairmen of Vision Little Rock, says he’d hoped the city would take the report and run with it, availing itself of the political capital and energy of the 300 mobilized citizens and putting an infrastructure and public safety tax to an expedited vote.”

East told Brummett at the time: “I’m disappointed at the lost momentum.”

Turn the clock forward almost eight years as 54 percent of those who turned out in a special election voted for a sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $31.6 million a year for operations while also approving a separate sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $196 million during the next decade for capital improvements.

This week’s special election marked the city’s sixth attempt since 1981 to get a sales tax increase approved. Only two of those attempts have been successful. The previous time an increase was approved was 1994.

I see similarities between what happened almost two decades ago and what happened this week.

The gang situation had reached its zenith in Little Rock in 1994, and people had quite simply had enough.

I’ve always thought the low point for the decade of the 1990s was the Friday night when Chef Andre was shot in front of a full house at his restaurant in that converted Hillcrest home. I remember being in the newsroom of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when we received the news. I grieved not only for Andre and his family but also for Little Rock.

The year 1994 was also when the HBO documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” ran over and over and over again.

There were Bloods. There were Crips. There was a city that looked hopeless to HBO viewers around the world, a sort of Detroit of the South.

Those of us who loved Little Rock had had enough. A majority of us voted for a half-cent sales tax to, among other things, beef up the police force. The gangs weren’t totally eradicated, but progress occurred. Little Rock had blossomed into (dare I say it) sort of a hip Southern city by the end of the century.

It’s 2011, and many of us had again become concerned about the state of the city.

Here’s how Mayor Mark Stodola put it in his State of the City address back in March: “The city enacted a half-penny city sales tax in mid-year 1994, some 17 years ago. The rate has never increased. In 1995, the first full year of collecting our half-penny sales tax, we had a total of 1,537 employees. … Now we have 1,542 employees on the payroll for a net gain of five employees. Consider for a moment that in 1994, when our tax began to be collected, we had a total of 869 employees in our police and fire departments. Now, 17 years later, we have 1,106 employees in our police and fire departments, for a net increase in the area of public safety of 237 employees. Obviously, it is apparent that all of our other operating departments have been cut so that we do everything possible to ensure that public safety is our first and foremost obligation.”

Despite the increased number of folks working at the police and fire departments, there are severe problems. Cars and trucks are failing apart. The police headquarters is far from adequate. The communications system is on its last legs.

Problems in other areas also are severe. Little Rock doesn’t have nearly enough code enforcement officers. Street resurfacing has become a thing of the past. City parks are woefully maintained.

I took a history-loving visitor from Washington, D.C., to MacArthur Park this summer and immediately felt the need to apologize. Tall weeds and trash were everywhere. I was embarrassed for my city.

“Enough is enough,” we said in 1994.

“Enough is enough,” we said again on Tuesday.

While Little Rock has its share of urban decay, that decay is not as widespread as in the cities of some of our neighboring states — think Jackson in Mississippi, Memphis in Tennessee, St. Louis in Missouri.

“Enough is enough,” we said Tuesday. “We don’t want to be Jackson, Miss.”

But this is a huge amount of new money for City Hall, which is why in yesterday’s post I urged everyone to be vigilant so this money is spent in the wisest possible manner.

Here’s how Jim Lynch put it in a Tuesday guest column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “$511 million in new taxes is almost equal to $1 million in new taxes paid every week to City Hall for the next 10 years. Please think about this scenario again – $1 million deposited every Monday morning in the City Hall treasury for the next 10 years.”

If invested wisely, that money can set the stage for greater private investments and the attraction of smart, talented, creative people to Little Rock.

Yet it’s far from certain how wisely the money will be spent.

Let’s go back to that 2003 Brummett article. He wrote: “The story of Vision Little Rock and its aftermath is one encompassing all the plots, subplots and contradictions of modern civic life in the capital city. It is a story of pervasive distrust of the city’s political leadership even as the mayor enjoys wide public approval. It is a story of a city in a veritable cultural renaissance that can’t fill potholes or keep its patrolmen in low-mileage cars. … It is, at the moment, a city with blurred vision.”

Pervasive distrust of the city’s political leadership.

A city with blurred vision.

The more things change. . .

We can only hope the vision clears a bit as this extra $1 million a week begins pouring in come January. Actually, we can do more than hope. We can attend meetings of the board. We can call board members. We can write letters to the editor. We can hold elected officials’ feet to the fire.

Brummett had a separate column in the back of that October 2003 issue of Little Rock magazine.

That column also bears quoting since its words ring as true today as they did eight years ago.

Brummett took offense at “the occasional pointlessness of slogans as designed by advertising and marketing consultants and adorned with cosmetic inanity. It’s better simply to be than to brag, and it’s better to do the job than to crow you’ve done it. Baseball players call it letting their bats do the talking. That’s because they don’t know any better than to use cliches.

“One should understate in a manner akin to the way old money reveals itself without effort or spectacle. Let it be seen, but do not expose it. Real quality resides in the passive voice.

“So it should be with the city of Little Rock, which has had its ups and downs — with the ups holding their own — over the last decade or so, first as city leaders paid consultants for the privilege of going around saying, ‘I’m big on Little Rock,’ then to talk about ‘Little Rock — city limitless.’

“The bigger the boosters got on Little Rock, the smaller the percentage of voters agreeing to tax increases for infrastructure and services. The more limitless the boosters proclaimed the city to be, the more limited the city budget became.

“Our city might well save a few consulting dollars by simply being rather than bragging.

“The fact of the matter is that Little Rock is not bad. Our bat can do some pretty fair talking. We’re better than Shreveport, better than Jackson and better than Mobile even with all those camellias and Bellingrath Gardens.”

So let’s harken back to yesterday’s blog post.

The next great American city in the South?

A city in a park?

Forget all of that for the next decade.

Let’s focus on how we invest that extra $1 million a week (see the suggestions in yesterday’s blog post).

Do that and our bats indeed will do the talking. We won’t have to come up with a slogan. That’s because others across the country will be able to proclaim in the fall of 2021 that Little Rock has become the next great Southern city.

I can dream, can’t I?

Post to Twitter

That new Little Rock tax

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

The first thing they need at Little Rock City Hall is a good editor.

There’s that line the mayor likes to use about being the “next great American city in the South.”

I guess that’s so we won’t be confused with the “next great French city in the South.”

If you’re going to engage in rank hyperbole, at least make it a bit less convoluted: “The next great Southern city.”

I went to my polling place along Mississippi Street early Tuesday morning and voted for both the three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase and the five-eighths of a cent sales tax increase.

I did so reluctantly, knowing the dire straits that would otherwise be faced by our policemen and firefighters with their unfilled positions, worn-out vehicles, antiquated communications system and mold-filled police headquarters.

I’ll readily admit that I was reluctant in part due to my dismal experience with the city in trying to save one of this state’s most historic structures, Ray Winder Field. That whole process was a sham. It was wired from the start.

I wish I had been wise enough not to become involved. I wish I would have realized that the cause was hopeless.

There was no interest in saving an important part of our state’s history.

There was no interest in providing a badly needed baseball facility for the youth of a city that has fallen far behind its neighbors when it comes to providing baseball fields, softball fields, soccer fields and the like.

There was only an interest in receiving a payment from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, a pittance when you consider what was lost.

You have to wonder about the priorities of any city that turns its back on children and instead sells off valuable parkland for parking lots.

I also have my doubts about the $22 million that’s going to be put into a so-called research and technology park. Having worked as a presidential appointee for several years on economic development issues, I can list the cities that have tried similar projects with decidedly mixed results.

It’s not as if Little Rock is on the cutting edge in this respect.

Here’s how The Economist recently put it: “Build a magnificent technology park next to a research university; provide incentives for chosen businesses to locate there; add some venture capital. This is the common recipe for harnessing higher education and industry to spur economic growth as prescribed by management consultants touting the ‘cluster theory’ developed by Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter.

“Hundreds of regions all over the world have spent billions on such efforts; practically all have failed. Yet others are following suit. … All of those are well-intentioned efforts to build Silicon Valley-style technology hubs, but they are based on the same flawed assumptions: that government planners can pick industries they want to develop and, by erecting buildings and providing money to entreprenuers and university researchers, make innovation happen.

“It simply doesn’t work that way. It takes people who are knowledgeable, motivated and willing to take risks. Those people have to be connected to one another and to universities by information-sharing social networks.

“Regional planners and some academics get very defensive when asked to produce evidence of cluster theory’s success. They commonly tout Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park as examples of the success of government-supported clusters. Research Triangle Park is a 50-year-old project that achieved success decades ago but lost momentum in the Internet era. And the success of Silicon Valley was achieved without government involvement.”

If we were intent on going down this path, we at least should have done it on a regional basis. If I learned anything in the years I spent with the Delta Regional Authority, it’s the importance of regionalism. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital are tremendous economic engines for the capital city and the state. Rather than Little Rock going its own way, it would have been nice if Children’s Hospital, UALR and UAMS had taken advantage of what the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County is already doing at the Bioplex between Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Almost 1,500 acres of Pine Bluff Arsenal property was deeded to the alliance a decade ago by the U.S. Department of Defense. Situated next to these 1,500 acres are the Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research, the FDA’s Arkansas Regional Laboratory and what remains of the Pine Bluff Arsenal.

Just last month, the FDA signed an agreement with the state that will establish a joint center to enhance regulatory science. NCTR has about 550 workers, 150 of whom have their doctorates. When I was at the DRA, we sank money into the Bioplex because we believed in the potential of private businesses taking advantage of what’s already there.

Rather than Pine Bluff going one way and Little Rock going another, it would have made more sense for the Little Rock-based entities to cooperate with the folks to the southeast. Little Rock city officials, in turn, would have better served the citizens by sinking that $22 million into even more road, sidewalk and parks improvements.

Don’t get me wrong. I like living in Little Rock. If I didn’t like the city, I wouldn’t be raising my two sons here. But it’s high time the folks at City Hall realize that in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, you attract young, smart, creative people by having a high quality of place. Frankly, that has a lot more to do with quality schools, parks, trails, restaurants, bars, wifi connections, sports facilities and cultural amenities than it does with research parks.

Talented people who are new to a city can quickly sense if it’s going to be the right place to live. It either has that creative vibe or it doesn’t. It also needs to be clean and efficient.

I remember shaking my head last week on a trip from my office downtown to Riverdale. First, I dodged potholes on Broadway that could swallow a small car. Along Cantrell Road, the weeds adjacent to the River Trail — something that has the potential to be among this city’s landmark amenities — stood four to five feet tall in places.

I crossed a railroad overpass into Riverdale, and the weeds were just as tall on either side of that bridge.

If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that City Hall was making things look as bad as possible so people would vote for the two-tiered tax proposal.

I know, I know. The budget is tight. I’m not a conspiracy theorist.

Yet when the additional dollars start rolling in come January, I hope the city will concentrate at the outset on taking care of what it already has before setting off on some wild building spree.

The beauty of the statewide effort in 1996 to pass a one-eighth of a cent increase in the state sales tax for conservation and parks improvements (I worked on that campaign) was that we promised voters we would not build additional state parks. Instead, we would make the state parks we already had the best in the nation.

In the end, I did what many of my fellow white males in my age and income groups did — I turned out and voted for both taxes.

Now, I’ll watch closely and hope the Little Rock media keep the heat on in the years ahead to ensure the money is spent wisely.

I know of virtually no one who disputed the needs of the Little Rock Police Department and the Little Rock Fire Department. These extra tax dollars should make us a safer city.

It’s in the other areas that the priorities become fuzzy.

How do we make this the next great Southern city?

Some ideas:

– Waste no time hiring those additional code enforcement officers that are promised and then have the most rigid code enforcement in the country. Remove dilapidated buildings and homes rather than letting them rot year after year.

– Finish the Little Rock portion of the River Trail.

– Add as many miles of new sidewalks and streetlights as possible to make this the next great walkable city in the South.

– Truly create a system of city parks that’s the envy of the region. That slogan “City In A Park” (the city probably paid some advertising agency good money for that) rings hollow in a town where they sell off ballparks for parking lots.

– Have the smoothest streets of any city this size in the country and make sure the right of ways are mowed and kept free of trash.

If you have a safe city with the above attributes, you might be amazed what entreprenuers in the private sector can accomplish without government subsidies.

Heck, mayor, we might just become the next great American city in the South.

Post to Twitter

College football: Week 3

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Another easy win for the Hogs in Week 2.

An amazing performance by Arkansas State as the Red Wolves rout Memphis before almost 30,000 spectators in Jonesboro.

A game in which UCA falls just short in its bid to upset Louisiana Tech at Ruston.

A contest in Pine Bluff in which UAPB bounces back from its embarrassing loss to NAIA Langston to win the Golden Lions’ SWAC opener.

It was an interesting Week 2 for this state’s teams.

We went 6-3 on the week, making us 10-5 on the season.

The games we missed were Henderson-Harding, Southern Arkansas-Southwestern Oklahoma and UAPB-Alcorn State.

Harding’s 63-14 victory in Week 1 over Southern Arkansas had been impressive, but the Bisons killed themselves with turnovers in a loss to Henderson at Searcy. The Reddies converted four Bison fumbles into 28 points and won 35-21 despite managing only 189 total yards, including 16 rushing yards. Henderson seems poised to contend for the first Great American Conference championship if it can get its offense rolling. Last year’s star quarterback, Nick Hardesty, is sorely missed.

Given the margin of the loss in Week 1 to Harding, there just didn’t seem to be a way for Southern Arkansas to go on the road and defeat a 1-0 Southwestern Oklahoma team. But the Muleriders did just that, 31-22. Give them credit for shaking off what had been the school’s worst defeat in Magnolia since 1917.

We readily admitted that we find it impossible to predict UAPB’s SWAC games. This much is evident: The SWAC is a mere shadow of its former self with its members now routinely losing nonconference games, often to smaller schools. Once the conference season begins, few teams have any consistency, a prognosticator’s nightmare.

Oh well. On to Week 3.

Arkansas 48, Troy 20 — This is a better opponent than the Razorbacks’ first two foes, which isn’t saying much given the lack of competition Arkansas faced against Missouri State in Fayetteville and New Mexico in Little Rock. Troy, traditionally one of the better teams in the Sun Belt Conference, lost its opener to Clemson, 43-19. The Trojans led that game, 16-13, at halftime. Corey Robinson was 24 of 42 passing for 258 yards against Clemson. Troy has had two weeks to prepare for this game. It won’t matter. Arkansas will win going away, but the Hogs at least will have to break a sweat Saturday night in Fayetteville. We’ll see if they can find a running game prior to the visit to Tuscaloosa a week later.

Virginia Tech 41, Arkansas State 27 — What a night in Jonesboro. ASU picked up its first victory of the Hugh Freeze era with a 47-3 win over a Memphis team that may be the worst football squad in that school’s history (which isn’t exactly glorious when it comes to football). Virginia Tech is ranked No. 13 and brings a 2-0 record into Saturday afternoon’s game at Blacksburg. The Hokies have won their three previous games against Arkansas State by scores of 63-7 in 2002, 50-0 in 1997 and 34-7 in 1994. Expect the Red Wolves to hang around a bit longer this time.

UCA 30, Sam Houston State 28 –It’s the first conference game of the year in the Southland Conference and the earliest Southland opener since 1999. UCA opened its season by beating Henderson at home and then saw its upset bid at Louisiana Tech fall just short in overtime. Sam Houston hasn’t played since a 20-6 win over Western Illinois back on Sept. 1. Despite 16 days to prepare, the Bearkats will lose at home to the talented visitors from Conway. Look for Nathan Dick to have a big night passing for the Bears.

UAPB 21, Prairie View A&M 19 — Who knows? I’m throwing a dart against the wall here. UAPB loses to NAIA Langston in Week 1 at War Memorial Stadium and then comes back to defeat Alcorn State a week later. Meanwhile, Prairie View is demolished in Orlando, 63-14, by Bethune-Cookman on Labor Day weekend and then raillies from 14 ponts down in the fourth quarter to defeat Texas Southern in Houston, 37-34. Like I said, no rhyme, no reason, no consistency.

Harding 59, Shepherd Technical 7 — This is pretty much a scrimmage for the Bisons, but Harding is counting Thursday night’s contest in Searcy as a varsity game. What’s Shepherd Technical? It used to be something called Shepherd Film Academy in Memphis. The school fields an independent team that plays junior colleges, NCAA Division III teams and, in the case of Harding, a Division II team. Shepherd lost its first game, 23-0, to Lon Morris, a junior college that fell to Arkansas Baptist in Little Rock last Saturday.

Ouachita 28, UAM 22 — Ouachita is 1-0 after a 31-18 win over East Central Oklahoma last Saturday night in Arkadelphia. Tiger quarterback Casey Cooper was 19 of 35 passing for 334 yards and two touchdowns. But the Ouachita secondary struggled, giving up 348 yards through the air. UAM is 2-0 in the Hud Jackson era, upsetting Arkansas Tech in Week 1 and shutting out hapless Texas College, 41-0, last week. UAM beat Ouachita last year in Arkadelphia, 37-31. Even though Ouachita is the only college program in the state to have posted three consecutive winning seasons, the Tigers fell to the Boll Weevils in all three of those seasons. Ouachita leads the series, 37-32-1. The two schools play at old Memorial Stadium in El Dorado in the third annual Boomtown Classic, and it may turn out to be the best college game in the state this weekend.

Delta State 39, Arkansas Tech 27 — Delta State is ranked 10th nationally in NCAA Division II. The Statesmen won their opener over Elizabeth City State in overtime, 28-21; lost the second game, 24-23, to Northwestern State of Louisiana; and defeated Fort Valley State in their third game, 27-7. Tech bounced back from its fourth-quarter collapse against UAM to beat Southwest Baptist on the road in Bolivar, Mo., 31-20. Tech scored 24 of its points in the first half as quarterback Preston Conder threw three touchdown passes.

Southeastern Oklahoma 42, Southern Arkansas 32 — Southeastern Oklahoma opened its season last Saturday with a 30-23 win over Central Oklahoma. Southeastern had a balanced attack with 257 yards rushing and 237 yards passing. Southern Arkansas evened its record at 1-1 by upsetting Southwestern Oklahoma, 31-22. The Muleriders had a strong rushing attack led by Mark Johnson. Southern Arkansas has already equaled its win total of last season.

Henderson 20, Southwestern Oklahoma 15 — Southwestern showed a lot of weaknesses in its loss to Southern Arkansas. Henderson, however, can’t expect to have two fumble recoveries for touchdowns as it did in the first half against Harding. The Bisons led that game in total offense, 357-189. Still, due to a stout Henderson defense, we’ll give the Reddies the upper hand in Arkadelphia as the two teams play on the new artificial turf at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium.

Post to Twitter

College football: Week 2

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

It will be quite a Saturday of college football in our state since Arkansans can attend college games at any of six locations.

Games are scheduled for Little Rock, Jonesboro, Arkadelphia, Searcy, Pine Bluff and Monticello.

In other words, there will be college games in almost every part of the state. You have no excuse not to get out and see a college game Saturday.

We went 4-2 with our predictions in Week 1.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was a huge disappointment, losing to an NAIA school in the Delta Classic at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium last Saturday.

There’s simply no excuse for an NCAA Division I-AA school (again, we refuse to use that FBS and FCS stuff) to EVER lose to an NAIA school.

It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season for the Golden Lions.

Even with that upset, we appeared to be well on the way to a 5-1 week as Arkansas Tech led UAM, 31-10, at the end of the third quarter on a windy Saturday night in Monticello.

I was in the stands for that game and was considering leaving early. After all, the Wonder Boys were dominating the contest. Then, one of the most amazing turnarounds I’ve ever witnessed occurred.

UAM outscored Tech 28-0 in the fourth quarter to go to 1-0 in the Hud Jackson era. Jackson is a quality coach and brought three assistants with him from UCA. If they all stay, this will be a program to watch in a couple of years. I still believe the Weevils will struggle at times this season, but the program is without a doubt headed in the right direction.

Our family will be split Saturday.

I’ll head to Arkadelphia to see Ouachita open its season against East Central Oklahoma.

My wife and youngest son will be at War Memorial Stadium to watch Arkansas slaughter New Mexico.

On to the picks for Week 2:

Arkansas 51, New Mexico 17 — Well, we got half of the equation exactly right last week. We called it Arkansas 51-17 over Missouri State, and the Hogs won 51-7. What the heck. We’ll go with 51-17 again this week. Colorado State beat the Lobos, 14-10, last weekend. Trailing by four, New Mexico had the ball at the Colorado State 15 with 23 seconds left. But quarterback Tarean Austin fumbled when he was sacked, and Colorado State recovered that fumble. It would be nice to see the Razorbacks better establish their running game this week.

Arkansas State 37, Memphis 31 — The Hugh Freeze era at Arkansas State opened with a 33-15 loss to Illinois (we had predicted 36-22). Meanwhile, Memphis fell last week to Mississippi State, 59-14. A longtime observer of the Memphis sports scene tells me this just might be the worst Tiger team he has ever seen. A big crowd should be on hand in Jonesboro on Saturday night to pull the Red Wolves through. ASU has played Memphis more than any other opponent in school history. This will be the 56th meeting in a series that Memphis leads by seven games. An Arkansas State victory would extend its winning streak in home openers to seven games. However, note that ASU has lost eight consecutive nonconference games.

Alcorn State 40, UAPB 30 — It’s a bit hard to get excited about the Golden Lions after the egg laid against Langston. The SWAC, however, is perhaps the most difficult conference to predict in America. Alcorn State began the year with a 21-14 loss to Grambling in a game played at Shreveport. Monte Coleman, now 13-21 as the head coach at UAPB, needs his team to win its home opener.

Louisiana Tech 32, UCA 23 — Clint Conque takes his Bears to Ruston, where he was once an assistant at Louisana Tech. UCA looked good at times in its 38-14 win over Henderson before a record crowd at Conway’s Estes Stadium. If quarterback Nathan Dick has a good night passing, the Bears could hang with Louisiana Tech for at least three quarters. Louisiana Tech is 0-1. Danny Hrapmann’s 49-yard field goal with 2:32 remaining lifted Southern Mississippi to a 19-17 victory over the Bulldogs in the rain at Hattiesburg.

Arkansas Tech 34, Southwest Baptist 30 — Coach Steve Mullins runs a first-class program at Tech. Even with a freshman quarterback, I have a hard time believing the Wonder Boys won’t bounce back from that epic collapse against UAM. Southwest Baptist will be playing for a second consecutive week at home in Bolivar, Mo. The Bearcats began the season with a 28-19 win over Bacone College, a tiny NAIA school from Muskogee, Okla. Southwest Baptist trailed 19-7 at the half of that game.

Harding 21, Henderson 19 — It’s the biggest game to date in the young life of the Great American Conference. Both of these teams are capable of winning a conference championship. The Reddies earned a share of the Gulf South Conference championship a year ago, but it was evident in Conway that they miss quarterback Nick Hardesty. Still, the Reddies are loaded with talent with 16 starters returning off the championship team. Harding was impressive in its season opener as the Bisons rolled over hapless Southern Arkansas in Magnolia, 63-14. Harding set school records for rushing yards in a game (515) and rushing touchdowns (seven). The Bisons were the only team in NCAA Division II to rush for seven touchdowns. Henderson leads the all-time series, 28-17-1, but Harding has won the past six meetings in Searcy. The game is in Searcy so we’ll give a slight edge to the Bisons. It should be a heck of a game.

Ouachita 27, East Central Oklahoma 24 — Ouachita starts the season a week later than anyone else. Did you know that Ouachita has the best winning percentage during the past three seasons combined of any college program in the state? UCA is second, and the University of Arkansas is third. Ouachita is also the only college program in Arkansas that has had three consecutive winning seasons. The key question is how much the graduation of quarterback Eli Cranor will affect the Tigers. A Conway product, Casey Cooper, will get the start at quarterback Saturday night in Arkadelphia. East Central is 1-0 after a 31-21 win at Incarnate Word in San Antonio last week. East Central won its first and only Lone Star Conference North Division title last year. Ouachita has a 10-4 advantage in the overall series.

Southwestern Oklahoma 39, Southern Arkansas 24 — The Muleriders’ loss at home last week to Harding was the school’s worst loss in 53 years (dating back to a 52-0 defeat at the hands of Louisiana College in Pineville, La., in 1958). It was the worst Mulerider loss in Magnolia since a 51-0 loss to Northwestern State of Louisiana in 1917. Southern Arkansas is 4-17 since the start of the 2009 season. Southwestern Oklahoma began its season with a 31-28 victory over Northwestern Oklahoma.

UAM 50, Texas College 10 — Let’s get right to the point: Texas College is awful. Ouachita began its season against Texas College the past two years. The Tigers won 52-6 in 2009 and 70-0 in 2010. Texas College began its season a week ago with a 58-0 loss to Lamar. The Weevils will be 2-0 in the Hud Jackson era.

Post to Twitter

Ouachita at 125

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

I can count on one hand the number of Little Rock Touchdown Club meetings I’ve missed since the club was formed in 2004. I especially hated to miss Tuesday’s speaker, former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings, someone I’ve long admired.

But my alma mater called.

Ouachita Baptist University celebrated its 125th birthday Tuesday.

On Sept. 6, 1886, the school opened its doors.

In a wonderful new book titled “Ouachita Voices,” my old history professor, Dr. Ray Granade, writes this: “Ouachita trustees chose as president a minister with impressive educational credentials named John William Conger who, at age 29, had already presided over a Tennessee college, founded an Arkansas one and headed Prescott High School. His charisma rested on erect posture, handsomeness, unfailing courtesy, self-confidence and genuine interest in people. ‘Dr. Jack’ combined strong-minded optimism and determination with a deep interest in the poor’s welfare, concerns that shaped the school’s course.

“Elected three months before Ouachita opened, Conger operated under a renewable two-year contract that made him solely responsible for everything. He assembled a six-member faculty (including him and his wife), prepared building and grounds, and advertised a school created not ‘as a financial speculation, but solely upon an educational basis,’ and ‘not run as a money-making institution.’ Free tuition for all ministers ‘irrespective of denomination,’ and their children, and a variety of other discounts, encouraged attendance but inhibited income.”

At Ouachita’s Founders Day celebration Tuesday, a number of Conger’s descendants were in attendance, tying the past to the present. One of them even carried Conger’s walking cane.

1886: It was the year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, Coca-Cola was invented and construction began on the Eiffel Tower.

The Arkansas Baptist State Convention appointed a self-perpetuating board of trustees for a new college, which then met in Little Rock on April 8, 1886, to hear proposals from eight Arkansas cities.

After 72 ballots, the telegram came the next day: “College located at Arkadelphia.”

Arkadelphia was the state’s eighth largest city by the 1880 census. Five institutions were started there within a decade, and the city became known as the Athens of Arkansas.

By late 19th-century Arkansas standards, Arkadelphia was a highly progressive place.

Granade notes that “Arkadelphia’s first telephone system and waterworks arrived in 1891, electricity soon thereafter; two banks served the town after 1888; baseball games took place after 1887 in a 500-seat ballpark; and Arkadelphia Bottling Co. provided portable versions of fountain drinks.”

Many educational institutions opened across the state between 1875 and the end of the century. Most of them didn’t survive. Ouachita did.

Of the 11 private colleges and universities I now represent, Ouachita is the only one south of Little Rock.

Ouachita survived thanks to a string of strong presidents and other administrators along with dedicated faculty members.

I think of the men and women who served on Ouachita’s faculty during my formative years — people such as Francis McBeth, Joe Nix, Jim Ranchino and Bill Vining, all of whom were nationally known in their fields and all of whom stayed in Arkadelphia at salaries far below what they could have commanded elsewhere.

My parents — Ouachita class of 1947 and class of 1948 — hailed from Benton and Des Arc. They met in college and jumped at the first opportunity following graduation to return to Arkadelphia and establish a business. Long after graduation, they remained in love with Ouachita.

I was raised just blocks from the Ouachita campus in a house my family still owns. Those who know me understand that Ouachita is far more than my college alma mater. It is an integral part of who I’ve been since birth and who I’ll be until my death.

My earliest childhood memories are centered on the fall afternoons spent hanging out at the Ouachita football practice field. There were the other sports events I attended (I would be nervous at school all day if there were a Ouachita-Henderson basketball game that night), the concerts, the plays (in the third grade, I had the chance to be in a Ouachita production of “Our Town”), the lectures.

As noted, both of my parents attended Ouachita. So did my older sister (class of 1972).

Most people took for granted that I would attend Ouachita. Being a strong-willed person at the age of 18 (now, as the father of a strong-willed 18-year-old boy, I understand), I had different ideas.

I decided I would go after the Grantland Rice Scholarship, a four-year scholarship to Vanderbilt University for prospective sportswriters that was sponsored by the Thoroughbred Racing Association. Members of the Arkansas Racing Commission and the management of Oaklawn Park were enlisted to write letters on my behalf.

Interestingly, the president of Ouachita at the time, Dr. Daniel R. Grant, had come back to Ouachita (where his father had been president) after a distinguished career as a political science professor at Vanderbilt. It was Dr. Grant, in fact, who had written what then was considered the best college textbook on state and local government.

To his credit, Dr. Grant also worked to help me earn that Vanderbilt scholarship.

I finished as first runner-up (which got me no money) and made the decision to stay home and attend Ouachita.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Following a luncheon Tuesday, I asked Dr. Grant to sign my copy of “Ouachita Voices.”

Here’s what he wrote: “I hate to admit it, but I’m glad you didn’t get that Grantland Rice Scholarship to Vanderbilt University, and did come to Ouachita. Sometimes being No. 2 out of 500 applicants is best.”

That made my day. You see, Dr. Grant is among my heroes because he turned Ouachita around when the school was experiencing a rough patch.

He writes in “Ouachita Voices” that his opportunity to serve as president in 1970 “came during an unusual time when university presidents came and went in a hurry. It was a time of student demonstrations against the Vietnam War and a growing drug culture. ‘New college president’ stories were legion, and I think I heard all of them. Presidents’ average tenure during this era was said to be only 2.3 years.

“The search committee called me in early summer of 1969 and didn’t try to conceal Ouachita’s problems: a sharp enrollment drop; a $300,000 operating deficit and a similar deficit projected for 1970; very low faculty salaries on the national rating scale; strong criticism and weak support from Arkansas Baptist leadership; a deplorable condition of campus buildings; and faculty morale and public relations at a record low.”

Despite all of that, Dan Grant chose to “come home” to Arkadelphia.

He said a Vanderbilt colleague described the decision as being based on “God, father and alma mater.”

Dr. Grant’s father had been Ouachita’s president from 1934-49, steering the school through the depths of the Great Depression.

Dr. Grant writes of his father’s struggles to “keep Ouachita’s doors open, regain accreditation, pay of the burden of a mortgaged endowment and house a growing student body with renovated barrack structures.”

The first call Dan Grant made when he decided to become Ouachita’s president was to Dr. Ben Elrod, who at the time was president of Oakland City College in Indiana. Fortunately for Ouachita, one of the nation’s premier fund-raising experts answered the call to become Ouachita’s vice president for development.

Working together, Dan Grant and Ben Elrod rebuilt the campus during the next decade.

When Dr. Grant retired in 1988, Dr. Elrod left the job I now hold in order to serve as Ouachita’s president from 1988-98. He was replaced by my friend Dr. Andy Westmoreland, who served as president until accepting the presidency of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 2006.

Since 2006, Dr. Rex Horne has led Ouachita. Enrollment this fall is at a 10-year high, and Dr. Horne’s dream of changing the student housing situation for the better has become a reality in just five years.

Now that I work for 11 college presidents, I more fully understand how demanding that job is — and how crucial an inspirational president is to the success of any institution of higher learning.

Grant, Elrod, Westmoreland and Horne — it has been a string of talented presidents who have led Ouachita these past four decades.

I can hear Gene Stallings speak another time.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have been anywhere but Ouachita on the occasion of her 125th birthday. Long may she flourish.

And go Tigers.

Post to Twitter