Archive for December, 2012

My Christmas reading list

Friday, December 21st, 2012

If you’re out there scrambling for last-minute Christmas gifts, you should consider heading to your nearest independently owned bookstore and buy some books.

Books long have been among my favorite Christmas gifts.

I have two books I want to recommend for this Christmas. Both have been released this year, and both are written by erudite Arkansans.

Both of these authors were kind enough, in fact, to appear with Blake Eddins and me on Fresh Talk 93.3 FM in Little Rock this week to talk about their books.

The first book on my list is “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage” by Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.

The second book on my list is “Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State” by Little Rock food and travel writer Kat Robinson with photos by Grav Weldon.

Literature, history, food, Arkansas — all things I like. Whenever I take a break from reading one, I pick up the other.

Let’s start with Ruth’s book.

In 1996, Ruth was leading an eight-county effort to attain national scenic byway status for the Arkansas segment of Crowley’s Ridge, the natural formation that extends 200 miles from just below Cape Girardeau, Mo., to Helena. Ruth needed an attraction in far north Arkansas to promote, and she thought Piggott might provide just such an attraction.

“The Delta Cultural Center and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena anchor the southern end,” Ruth said at the time. “Identifying a northern anchor for the ridge, however, was somewhat problematic.”

She finally focused on the fact that Paul and Mary Pfeiffer had called Piggott home. The couple moved to Piggott in 1913 and eventually acquired 63,000 acres in the area. The Pfeiffers had the first electric refrigerator and stove in Piggott and later led efforts to provide electricity for the entire town.

They also had a daughter named Pauline, who in 1927 became Ernest Hemingway’s second wife. The marriage lasted until 1940, and during that time there were regular visits to Piggott. Hemingway wrote parts of “A Farewell to Arms” along with short stories in the Pfeiffer barn, which had been converted into a place for him to work.

Ruth learned that the Pfeiffer home was for sale. ASU bought the home, which is now the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum & Educational Center. After a short break for the holidays, the museum will reopen Jan. 2 and be open each Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and each Saturday from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m.

Along the way, Ruth determined that she had gathered enough information for a book.

“When I began researching Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway and her family nearly 15 years ago, I was surprised at what little attention the Pfeiffers had received,” she writes in the preface to the book. “Though the Pfeiffers were mentioned by many Hemingway scholars, this family’s impact on Ernest Hemingway and his writing career essentially was neglected. Today, that hasn’t changed significantly, and much of what is written is inaccurate or does not capture the family’s true contributions. Only a few writers, such as Michael Reynolds, have suggested the breadth of the Pfeiffers’ influence, and it was Reynolds who convinced me that this book should be written.”

Ruth attributes the lack of attention to two things:

1. The Pfeiffers were an extremely private family and never publicly discussed their relationship with Hemingway.

2. Pauline died before her former husband did.

“His other three wives had the good health and the good sense to outlast him and contribute their own views of life with Hemingway, thus balancing out the record, if not actually setting things straight,” Ruth writes. “In spite of the greater attention given to Hemingway’s other wives, Pauline lived and worked with him during his most productive period as a writer and bore two of his three children. Thus she deserves more than to be dismissed as a man-chaser who went after Hemingway and broke up his marriage, got what she deserved when the same thing happened to her and ultimately wound up in an unmarked grave.

“Even Pauline’s uncle, Gus Pfeiffer, acknowledged as Hemingway’s financial backer, is mostly ignored except as the man who wrote occasional big checks that helped Hemingway get through the rough spots. Yet Uncle Gus had a profound influence on Hemingway’s career, including gathering research materials, providing sound advice and enabling him to live the lifestyle necessary for his writing success.”

Ruth believes that Pauline actually was a naive women who became “enamored of Ernest beyond all ability to judge or care about right and wrong. Not only did Pauline have the misfortune to fall in love with him, but she continued to love him until the day she died. It is questionable whether Ernest ever truly loved her, though a strong sexual chemistry existed for a time. More likely, he loved everything she brought to the marriage — her family money, her editorial skills, her strong belief in him and her devotion to his every need.”

Ruth admits that Pauline made bad choices.

“Though witty and intelligent, she had little ambition of her own and chose to promote the man she loved rather than attempting anything in her own right,” she writes. “Perhaps her greatest failing was in her role as a mother. When married to Ernest Hemingway, one often had to choose between being a wife and being a mother. Pauline chose being his wife, and in the end she lost both her husband and, to a degree, the respect of her children.”

It is Ruth’s contention, though, that the support of the Pfeiffer family enabled Hemingway to develop the literary style that brought him international recognition.

“Despite her faults, Pauline and her family deserve recognition for the major impact they had on Ernest Hemingway financially, emotionally and artistically,” she writes.

“Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow” provides that recognition.

On to pie.

Way back in 1983, famed “Roadfood” authors Jane and Michael Stern did an interview with People magazine.

When asked what part of the country had the best regional cooking, Michael Stern responded: “The Deep South. It’s a stewpot of different influences and dishes. There’s New Orleans Creole, Louisiana Cajun, Southern fried chicken, barbecue, catfish, Arkansas pies, country ham and redeye gravy.”

Yes, he singled out Arkansas for pie.

Asked directly who serves the best pie, he said later in the interview: “Arkansas is the greatest pie state. We found terrific Karo-nut pies in a converted tool shed called Family Pie Shop in DeValls Bluff.”

Enter Kat Robinson, a former television producer turned food blogger turned communications pro for the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

In the foreword to “Arkansas Pie,” North Little Rock writer Eric Francis states bluntly: “If I’m hungry and I’m in Arkansas, I let Kat Robinson tell me where to eat. I’d be a fool not to.”

In a 2011 response to a website posting in which a bunch a Yankees presumably said Arkansas was identified with “jelly pie” (something none of us had ever heard of), Kat responded: “It’s true, Arkansas has no official state food. But there are foods that originate here. We host the Hope Watermelon Festival, which claims the world’s largest melons, and the Cave City Watermelon Festival, which serves up the (academically asserted) world’s sweetest melons. We produce a fantastic amount of rice and soybeans. … We love sassafras tea and rice smothered in chicken gravy (and rice with just sugar and butter to boot). Our state produces fabulous cheese straws, funnel cake mix, yellow corn grits and muscadine wine.

“We like our pies — oh heavens we do — but we prefer them meringued or creamed or with a little coconut in them.”

After reading Kat’s book — and staring at Grav’s beautiful photos — I’m prepared to agree with Stern that Arkansas is America’s top pie state.

“I suppose in some states a restaurant might be like as not to have pie,” Kat writes. “Here in Arkansas, we love pie. We love its infinite diversity and its infinite combinations (to paraphrase the old Vulcan maxim). We claim so many varieties that the head swivels.

“In Arkansas around the holidays, pecan pie is so prevalent that a dinner table is empty without one. Feuds have broken out over the superiority between sweet potato and pumpkin pie. Restaurants compete over which has the tallest meringue on its coconut or chocolate pies, and you can tell the progressing weeks of summer based on what pie shows up at Sunday dinner.

“Our oldest and most famous restaurants, for the most part, are known for their pies. Every innovative young chef seems to have a special one. Almost every drive-in, diner, family-style restaurant and soul food shack has its own version, and it’s nary a barbecue restaurant that doesn’t have a grand fried pie. You can even find good pie in Chinese restaurants, at service stations and inside flea markets and antique stores. Pie is everywhere in Arkansas.”

The majority of my favorite Arkansas restaurants are in this book — the Bulldog at Bald Knob, Burge’s at Lewisville, the Colonial Steak House at Pine Bluff, Ed & Kay’s at Benton, Franke’s in Little Rock, the Hurley House in Hazen, the Kirby Restaurant at (you guessed it) Kirby, Mama Max’s at Prescott, Neal’s Cafe at Springdale, the Oark General Store in Oark, the Pickens Store at Pickens, Ray’s at Monticello, Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales at Lake Village, Sweet Treats at Lamar, the Wagon Wheel at Greenbrier, the White Pig in North Little Rock and Wood’s Place at Camden to name just a few.

Here’s to good reading.

And good eating.

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From Greasy Slough to Screaming Wings

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour describes duck hunting this way: “The camaraderie and collegiality you get in duck hunting is totally different from other hunting because you’re together and form a bond of shared experience. You may be an ambassador or a governor. But when you duck hunt, you can always be a 17-year-old.”

I thought about those words on my most recent duck hunt in east Arkansas as my hunting companions and I laughed, told jokes and generally acted like a bunch of 17-year-old boys.

My host, mind you, is past the age of 80. I’m past the age of 50. It really didn’t matter.

In the previous Southern Fried blog post, we told you about the latest book from Wild Abundance Publishing Co. of Memphis. It’s titled “A Million Wings” and focuses on 12 duck clubs along the Lower Mississippi Flyway — three in Missouri, one in Kentucky, three in Arkansas, three in Mississippi and two in Louisiana.

The Arkansas clubs featured in the book are Greasy Slough near the upper Bayou DeView in northeast Arkansas, the Coca Cola Woods near Wynne and Screaming Wings near Stuttgart.

“Greasy Slough has never been a hunting club for the faint of heart,” writes Susan Schadt of Memphis, the book’s author. “Take, for instance, the Tag Shack. The shack is a rickety monument to the antics and aberrations of hunters at Greasy in pursuit of the perfect hunt. The Tag Shack is indeed a shack. The tool shed-sized edifice is a simple structure, but that’s not a problem for the overly zealous members who illuminate the property map on the wall with car headlights and play games of extreme one-upsmanship to be the first to ‘tag’ their favorite hole for the morning hunt.

“Originally, the club used a ‘first in time rule’ to determine who got to hunt which hole. It was not unheard of for members to drive to the property at 2 a.m. or earlier in order to stake claim on their hole of choice. They would sleep in the blind, in the boat or in their trucks, warding off all other comers, until first shooting light.”

Club member Hughes Lowrance remembers “waiting to see who was going to show up because there were no cell phones and no one knew where anyone was. If someone was being nice, they’d flash their light at you to let you know they were out there.”

Massive poker games would take place at a hotel in Jonesboro. At about 2 a.m., teenage sons would be sent out to hold the holes.

“Holding the hole was not only a lonely and potentially scary vigil; it could be a very frigid one as well,” Schadt writes. “Charlie Lowrance remembers holding a hole one freezing night with his Uncle Collie and being so cold that they resorted to building a fire in the bottom of the metal boat for warmth.”

The club consists of more than 1,000 acres of timber and farmland on the northern end of the Bayou DeView. J.H. “Jim” Crain formed the Greasy Slough Outing Club in November 1945. The property included timber that could be flooded, a reservoir and Greasy Slough. Crain sold 33 memberships in the club for $1,000 each.

There are now 26 members. About half are from Memphis. The other half are from Arkansas.

Schadt notes that the club still has some of the Crain family as members and maintains a beneficial relationship with the adjacent Crain farm when it comes to attracting ducks.

As one of the Lowrances put it: “We can pick Greasy out from the air at 30,000 feet, and that’s why we think ducks can pick it out. As they come down the flyway, the first flooded timber they see is Greasy. We are the most northern club in the area, and we’re surrounded by rice fields.”

Schadt writes: “Many members have had the same opening weekend guests, many of whom are neighbors in Memphis, for 20 years. Guests are treated to some of the South’s finest hunting in some of its more famous holes, including the Grasspatch, the Lowrance Hole, the Big Woods Hole, the Carter Hole and the Lil’ Marty.”

The next Arkansas club featured in the book, Coca Cola Woods near Wynne, is owned by Memphis businessman John Dobbs Jr.

Everett Pidgeon, whose family bought the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Memphis in 1909, acquired the property over a three-year period at a price of $1.20 an acre. There was only one small cabin there at the time. Pidgeon moved a house from Snow Lake to serve as the lodge.

“During that era, the property known as Morton’s to close family and friends was used as a hunting club on weekends and a place to entertain their Coca-Cola clients during the week,” Schadt writes. “As its reputation for great hunting and good times spread among customers, friends and locals, it became referred to as ‘that Coca-Cola place’ and before long the unofficial nickname was Coca Cola Woods.

“Typically a men’s-only retreat, Bobby Pidgeon Jr. has fond memories of trips to the camp with his grandmother before opening day of duck season transformed it into an all-male bastion. When he came of age to hunt, he ‘enjoyed camaraderie and fellowship with my dad’s friends, and also with my friends, some of whom I’ve known and hunted with for 47 years now.”’

Schadt notes: “During those days there were no blinds so hunters stood in the water behind trees. Hunters followed a strict set of rules. There was no hunting after noon, and hunters were not allowed to walk ducks up. While the ducks have certainly appreciated these considerations, they are also drawn to the property’s natural features, including a creek that splits the back part of the property in half and the extensive flooded green timber. Hunters from St. Louis to New Orleans came to enjoy this duck-filled paradise.”

The Pidgeon family sold the club to Harvey Robbins of Tuscumbia, Ala., in 1995 and it was renamed Harvey’s Duck Club.

When Dobbs bought the property three years ago, he officially changed the name to Coca Cola Woods.

The club’s manager and lead guide is Rusty Creasy, who began hunting at age 8 and calling at age 10. Brother Mike Creasy and their uncle, Harvey Shue, also serve as guides.

“Rusty Creasy is a special guy,” Dobbs says. “He has been around the club since he was born, and he cares deeply about his job and about being a good host and guide.”

Dobbs adds: “Historically it has been known for great duck hunting, but more importantly it has been known for the adventures and stories people tell about their experience at Coca Cola Woods. Now it’s a place for everyone, just the guys or our families or three generations of families. Some people hunt ducks their entire lives and never see the things we see at Coca Cola Woods with the quality of ducks and camaraderie.

“As a man, sometimes it’s hard to identify this feeling, but when you’re out there, there’s a realization that you’re doing what you’re meant to do. There’s no thinking about other problems. The focus in on killing the ducks. It all goes back to man’s most primal instincts as hunters and gatherers and doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Next, Screaming Wings.

Russell McCollum placed a full-page ad in the Daily Leader at Stuttgart in 1952, urging landowners to flood their fields to attract ducks.

“McCollum’s marketing ploy surely contributed to Stuttgart’s undisputed reputation as Duck Hunting Capital of the World,” Schadt writes. “After some 50 years as a commercial hunting operation known interchangeably as Wildlife Acres, McCollum’s and Russell’s, this property is now a private retreat in the capable hands of Witt Stephens of Little Rock.”

The land on which the club sits was purchased by Otis McCollum in 1925.

“Otis McCollum was a visionary,” Schadt writes. “To transform the land into a magnum-size commercial hunting operation, he enlisted the aid of water management engineer T.J. Fricke and built a series of levees that created the ideal conditions for hunting. Today there are more than 15 miles of Otis McCollum-built levees in the Bayou Meto basin.”

His nephew Russell bought the land in 1952 and charged visitors for daily hunts.

“Soon referred to as Russell’s by those in the know, it accommodated as many as 1,400 shooters per year,” Schadt says. “There was no advertising. Duck hunters from around the country came to experience the thrill of world-class duck hunting replete with local guides fully loaded with sharp wits, tall tales and an expert feeding chuckle that all but guaranteed a limit of mallards.”

Buck Mayhue began guiding on the property in 1951 and became the club’s manager in 1959 when Russell McCollum developed health problems.

The book states: “Buck’s one-year trial as manager turned into a career spanning 42 years and counting. He has managed the land and duck hunts for Russell McCollum, Russell’s daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Mike Smith, and now for Witt Stephens. While many envy his dream job, make no mistake, for Buck the hunt is strictly professional.”

“It’s like going to the office,” he says. “When I’m out there, I’m all business. When I pull that duck caller out, I’m serious.”

Witt Stephens Jr. began looking at the property in 2005.

“The owners wanted to sell the property in a private manner and knowing of Witt’s longstanding interest, they sent a cryptic message through a mutual friend, Mike’s brother, Steve Smith, and soon the deal was sealed. It was a perfect fit. Buck was, of course, inseparable from the property and although initially skeptical of new ownership, he is a firm believer in Witt’s vision for the land.”

He says: “I’m 110 percent committed to this operation. I was happy when Witt took over. I was so afraid that somebody would make a bean field out of those woods out there.”

The book tells how Witt Jr. learned to shoot on his father’s cattle farm at Prattsville, where the man known as Mr. Witt spent his weekends. It talks about the person often known around Little Rock as Little Witt “trying to breathe” on the way to the farm. That’s because Mr. Witt smoked his ever-present cigars as the longtime driver named Finley steered the car south out of Little Rock.

Mr. Witt would always start meals at Prattsville with a prayer. Finley would add loudly at the end, “And Jesus wept.” That, by the way, isn’t in the book.

Soon after buying the property, Witt Jr. was having dinner with friends when the name of the winery Screaming Eagle came up. One thing led to another, and the name Screaming Wings was chosen for the club.

A spacious lodge was built on the historic property.

“There are no public roads into, out of or around Screaming Wings, ensuring prime hunting conditions,” Schadt writes.

Witt Jr. says: “We plant corn or rice and leave them in some of the fields. We never hunt out in the fields. It’s purely for the ducks. In the afternoon they’ll come out and feed, and in the morning they’ll roll into the flooded timber to loaf, feed and find thermal cover.”

Sam Leder, who has been working on the property for more than two decades, has taken over the club’s day-to-day management.

“You can’t be exposed to it every day and not appreciate the natural beauty of it,” Leder says. “Not many people get to see the things that Buck and I get to see, the wildlife and the way nature works.”

The book “A Million Wings” offers a glimpse into that world. It will make quite a Christmas gift for the waterfowl lover in your life.

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“A Million Wings” — Duck hunting at its finest

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

The folks at Wild Abundance Publishing Co. have done it again.

Just in time for Christmas 2012, the publishing division of ArtsMemphis has released “A Million Wings,” a beautiful collection of essays and photographs from a dozen of the top private duck clubs along the Lower Mississippi Flyway.

Three of those clubs are in Arkansas. They are:

– Greasy Slough, which is in northeast Arkansas near the upper Bayou DeView.

– Coca Cola Woods near Wynne.

– Witt Stephens Jr.’s Screaming Wings near Stuttgart.

The coffee table book also features three clubs in eastern Missouri, one in western Kentucky, three in Mississippi and two in south Louisiana.

Susan Schadt, the president and CEO of ArtsMemphis, produced her first book in 2008. It was titled “First Shooting Light: A Photographic Journal Reveals the Legacy and Lure of Hunting Clubs in the Mississippi Flyway.”

Two years later, she released “Wild Abundance: Ritual, Revelry & Recipes of the South’s Finest Hunting Clubs.”

The first book in the series focused on clubs in Arkansas and Mississippi. The photographer was Murray Riss, who established the photography department at the Memphis College of Art. The Arkansas clubs featured in “First Shooting Light” were:

– 713 in Lee County near the north end of the St. Francis National Forest.

– Bayou DeView/Section 13 Farms in Woodruff County.

– Bear Bayou near Humnoke, which was founded in the 1940s by the Marks family of Stuttgart.

– Blackfish Hunting Club in Crittenden County.

– Circle T near Wabbaseka, which was established in 1959 to entertain customers of Central Transformer Corp. of Pine Bluff.

– Five Lakes Outing Club on Horseshoe Lake in Crittenden County, which has been around since 1901.

– George Dunklin Jr.’s Five Oaks Duck Lodge in Arkansas County. Dunklin will soon become the national president of Ducks Unlimited.

– Greenbriar Hunting Club near Stuttgart. Referred to by locals as the Old Winchester Club, the club was founded in 1945 by John Olin of Illinois.

– Hatchie Coon Hunting & Fishing Club between Marked Tree and Trumann, which was established by a group of Memphis residents in 1889.

– The Snowden family’s Kingdom Come near Stuttgart.

– Menasha Hunting & Fishing Club between Gilmore and Turrell, which dates back to 1902.

– Mud Lake Hunting Club near Hughes, which also dates back to 1902.

– The famed Claypool’s Reservoir near Weiner, which was purchased by Wallace Claypool of Memphis in 1941 and was the site of a well-known NBC national television program in December 1956.

The concept of “Wild Abundance,” meanwhile, was to take some of the South’s best chefs and put them in the region’s top hunting clubs. One of the nine chefs in the book is Lee Richardson of Little Rock (I’m anxious to find out what Lee’s next adventure will be).

“Wild Abundance” featured the photography of Lisa Waddell Buser. She is back with dozens of great shots in “A Million Wings.”

Schadt calls Buser a “talented and tenacious photographer who was truly unstoppable in her pursuit of these shots. She was able to capture the slightest movements on a rest lake while standing on a two-by-four railing 40 feet off the ground. She tracked, step for step, a hunter in pursuit of a wild pig. She waded through muck, downed logs and various temperaments shouldering 20 pounds of gear. And while she smiled through the entire season and was always willing but demure, her voice is loud and clear.”

In his foreword to “A Million Wings,” 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III writes: “I learned that being an outdoorsman was not just about hunting. The sportsmen I met were truly stewards of the land. They were involved with Ducks Unlimited, marsh projects and property management. I was immediately pulled into that contagious culture so I was committed to conservation very early. … This is what outdoorsmen do: They work together to make a difference for wildlife and embrace the preservation of precious habitat for all time.”

Love understands that the average duck hunter will never be invited to any of the clubs in the book. But he knows why they want a glimpse inside those clubs.

“The stunning photographs and the heartfelt stories in ‘A Million Wings’ inspire people,” he writes. “While everybody will not play golf at Augusta National or play in the U.S. Open, they watch. They watch, they see it and it inspires them to play the game; it inspires them to play the game better.

“Like Augusta National, the private retreats shared by the individuals on these pages may seem like the ultimate experience. But these are the places that do the work to keep duck hunting alive. And through their stories and these photographs, they are inspiring people to get out there and hunt and to gain a better understanding of the sport. And like in golf, the big clubs and the professional game are a small part of the whole story, but they motivate people to grow the game. The families and the members in these clubs are the ones who motivate the rest of us. They are the ones who are growing the sport.”

Schadt explains the book’s name: “Witnessing the phenomenon of a million collective wings is a rare sight. Yet most sportsmen enthusiastically recollect massive numbers of ducks, millions of wings, seen in a single day, over multiple seasons or throughout a lifetime. Some exhibit decades of patience in anticipation of the possibilities and all extol the limitless pleasure they derive from a flight of ducks.

“The third in our series of collectible books that seeks to chronicle and preserve the unique culture and tradition of American duck hunting is a journey into that world, dedicated to the lure of nature and conservation efforts to restore and perpetually protect habitats and populations of migrant waterfowl.

“Our journey along the migratory route of the Mississippi Flyway follows the lower Mississippi Valley through Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. We begin in St. Charles County, Mo., at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, one of the finest confluences in the world, and conclude in the coastal marshes and bayous of southwest Louisiana.

“Our Wild Abundance Publishing team was welcomed wholeheartedly into this culture. We blessed the ducks; we traversed the timber and flooded wheat fields; ‘we’ shot a wild pig; we painted our faces; we were in full gear at 4:30 a.m.; we stood knee deep in water; froze our fingers and toes and we sipped circa 1895 whiskey. We learned about food plots and acorns, hens and drakes, when to shoot, when not to shoot and a few new jokes. We were fully immersed, thankfully not with a waderful of cold water but with respect, guidance and patience by our mentors.

“We felt the pleasure of anticipation, the beauty of the silence, the noises of the waking morn and the thrill of the first sight of ducks. We became part of the team, as eager as our subjects. The rare photographic glimpse into the 12 private retreats is a gift to be shared and is only eclipsed by the passion, trust and time the lodge owners and club members bestowed upon us.”

The historic duck clubs are part of our heritage in this part of the country. I couldn’t put the book down until I had flipped through all 260 of its pages. I’ve written at length on the Southern Fried blog about several of this state’s legendary duck hunters, men such as Wiley Meacham of Monroe County and the aforementioned George Dunklin Jr. of Arkansas County. While impressed with their ability to call and shoot ducks, I’m most impressed by their dedication to the land and their conservation efforts.

“Throughout our journey, we certainly saw hundreds of thousands of wings,” Schadt writes. “Those spectacular displays made for great photographs and unforgettable stories. But ultimately, they point to the dedication of all the sportsmen in this book and across the country. The most amazing story is the way that outdoorsmen have worked together with truly remarkable results. Thanks to them, future generations will experience awe-inspiring moments, poignant memories and the astonishing prospect of a million wings.”  

 

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Football thoughts for Arkansas and ASU

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

It has been one of the crazier sports afternoons I can remember in Arkansas, and my involvement with sports in this state goes back a few decades.

I’m reminded of that Sunday before Labor Day in 1992 when I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and covering Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign rally in downtown Hot Springs.

It already was becoming clear that the next president of the United States would be a guy who grew up in Hot Springs, and here he was back in his old stomping grounds.

When I called the newsroom in Little Rock to see how much room I had for my story, I was told to “keep it short.”

“Keep it short?” I said. “How could there possibly be a bigger story in Arkansas today?”

The answer from the other end of the line: “Frank Broyles just fired Jack Crowe after one game.”

Oh.

I kept the story short.

This reminds me a lot of that day. It’s a day when I wish I were back in my old role as assistant sports editor at Capitol and Scott (but only for a day).

I was with Coach Broyles at lunch today. I should clarify that: There were several hundred of us who had lunch with Coach Broyles at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock. It was the day of the annual Broyles Award, the brilliant idea conceived by David Bazzel in 1996 that now draws national attention to the city.

David and the good folks at the Rotary Club of Little Rock did their usual fine job. We have seen a number of past winners — men such as David Cutcliffe, Ralph Friedgen, Mark Mangino, Randy Shannon, Gene Chizik and Gus Malzahn — go on to become head coaches.

In fact, several of those men have become head coaches and already been fired as head coaches in the crazy world of college football.

This year’s Broyles Award winner, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, was an impressive speaker and is apparently among the finalists for the head coaching job at Boston College. He hails from New Jersey so knows how to relate to coaches and recruits in the Northeast.

I had just returned to my office when the news broke of Bret Bielema’s hiring at the University of Arkansas.

Within minutes of that, we learned that Gus Malzahn would be leaving Arkansas State University to be the head coach at Auburn University.

As I said, it has been a wild afternoon.

On paper, Bielema seems to be the real deal. He’s just 42 and is leaving his first head coaching job. When Barry Alvarez stepped down after the 2005 season, Wisconsin kept things in the family and promoted Bielema from defensive coordinator to head coach. He’s 68-24 as a head coach with four seasons of 10 or more victories.

There are, of course, those who will say: “That’s the slow, plodding Big Ten. This is the SEC, brother.”

My answer: “That guy Alabama hired from Michigan State has worked out pretty well, brother.”

I will grant you that Bielema (I’m still at the point where I have to double check my spelling when I type the name) likely doesn’t know much about those of us in the South. He played at Iowa. He was an assistant coach at Iowa and Kansas State before taking the coordinator’s job at Wisconsin.

He’s Midwestern all the way.

Come to think of it, Washington and Benton counties are more Midwestern than Southern these days (but that’s another post for another day, and I don’t want to be heckled when I address the Fayetteville Rotary Club on Thursday of next week).

Still, the Razorback program needs the support of people in all 75 Arkansas counties, from the Delta to the Gulf Coastal Plain to the Ozarks to the Ouachitas.

I think the first thing Mr. B (that’s easier to spell) should do to endear himself to fans statewide is to announce that we’re going back to traditional Arkansas uniforms for all 12 games.

Anthracite is out.

Traditional uniforms, good defense and a tough brand of football are in.

I can hear the cheers now.

My friend Kane Webb now lives in Kentucky but is a native Arkansan and understands Arkansans as well as anyone I know. Kane offers five other pieces of advice that would show Bielema is learning about this unique state and its traditions.

Not that Kane, the editor of Louisville magazine, really thinks all of these things will happen, but here goes:

1.  Announce that the Hogs will play at least one meaningful game a year in War Memorial Stadium and continue to play at least two games total there every year.

2. As soon as possible, revive the Texas series. The hell with nonconference cream puffs. This is tradition!

3. Schedule a barnstorming tour to every chamber banquet, Rotary Club meeting and diner from border to border.

4. Recruit like a maniac, especially in Texas and Louisiana.

5. Pray.

And how about poor ol’ Arkansas State?

Two head coaches stop by for a year each before heading off to the SEC. ASU actually has had three coaches do that. You might remember that Ray Perkins dropped by for a single season (and built a big fence around the practice field to make sure some spy from Grubbs didn’t look in).

I wouldn’t want to be around Gov. Mike Beebe this afternoon. He did so much to promote Malzahn and his program.

I’m hoping that Arkansas State will simply promote its defensive coordinator, John Thompson, to head coach. East Carolina didn’t give John long enough (two seasons) in his only previous stint as a head coach.

Thompson and I go way back. When I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper in 1979, he came to Arkadelphia High School as the defensive coordinator (the late John Outlaw was the head coach). The Badgers won the state championship that first season.

Thompson has been the defensive coordinator at five SEC schools — Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina, Florida and Ole Miss. He has seen more than 40 players go on to the NFL.

He can coach. He can recruit.

He’s a Forrest City native who knows this state like the back of his hand and could recruit Arkansas high schools well. And after his many stops, he might just be ready to settle down in Jonesboro and make a long-term commitment to ASU.

The Red Wolves are on the football map thanks to Malzahn and Hugh Freeze. Now, they need continuity.

Keep John Thompson in Jonesboro rather than letting him follow Malzahn to Auburn in order to serve as the defensive coordinator at a sixth SEC school.

That’s what I hope will happen.

That’s enough for now. I need to catch my breath after this memorable sports afternoon in Arkansas.

Oh yeah, we’re still waiting for Arkansas Tech to hire a head coach.

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