As we drove across Alabama last Friday afternoon, my thoughts turned back to a trip to Birmingham that I had made more than three decades earlier.
It was November 1981.
I was a student at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia while also holding down two jobs — sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald and sports director of radio stations KVRC-KDEL.
I also was a fan of University of Alabama Crimson Tide football. My favorite teams — in order — were Ouachita in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, Arkansas in the Southwest Conference and Alabama in the Southeastern Conference.
A bit of history is in order here: When my father played football at Ouachita in the 1940s, he had a teammate from south Arkansas named Sam Bailey. Bailey’s college football career had begun at Magnolia A&M (now Southern Arkansas University), which was a junior college at the time.
Bailey had grown up in tiny Sandyland near Smackover. The United States was entering World War II when he graduated from high school, and he joined the armed services. By the time he was discharged, he had a wife and a 2-year-old son.
Bailey worked in the oil fields after the war to support his family and also played in an independent basketball league.
In 1946, Elmer Smith was hired to resurrect the Magnolia A&M athletic program, which had been suspended in 1942 due to the war.
Here’s how an SAU news release put it back in 2008 when Bailey was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame: “There were no practice facilities, uniforms or an on-campus playing field. Smith happened to see Bailey playing basketball on an independent team at Stephens and liked what he saw. He encouraged Bailey to visit the campus in Magnolia and showed his family where they would live, a very small trailer.
“When Bailey told Smith he had never played football, Smith gambled one of his 22 allowed scholarships on someone who had never even seen a football game. In Bailey’s first season, the Muleriders were only 4-5, but they soared to a 9-2-1 record in 1947, including a tie with McNeese State in the Cajun Bowl at Lake Charles. La.”
Because Magnolia A&M was a junior college, Bailey had to transfer following his sophomore season. He played as a junior and a senior as Ouachita’s quarterback. After graduating from Ouachita, Bailey joined Smith’s staff back in Magnolia.
The Muleriders, now representing a four-year school called Southern State College, won AIC titles in 1951 and 1952. Bailey also coached baseball, and his teams captured AIC titles in 1953, 1954 and 1956.
Smith joined Paul “Bear” Bryant’s staff at Texas A&M in 1954. Bailey followed Smith to College Station in 1956. When Bryant left for Alabama following the 1957 season, Bailey went with him. He would spend more than three decades on the Alabama staff as Bryant’s right-hand man.
Bailey started at Tuscaloosa as the freshman football coach. He was appointed assistant head coach in 1966. In 1969, Bailey was named assistant athletic director. Bryant had the athletic director’s title, but Bailey ran the department. Alabama’s track and field facility is named for Bailey.
The friendship between my dad and Sam Bailey gave me a tie to Alabama football. Bryant was among my childhood heroes.
In 1981, Bryant was in line to pass Amos Alonzo Stagg as the winningest coach in major college football history. It was fitting that for Bryant to reach 315 wins, his team had to win the greatest major college rivalry in the country, the Iron Bowl against Auburn (Think about it: Sam Bailey played in the greatest small college rivalry — the Battle of the Ravine — and coached in the country’s greatest major college rivalry, the Iron Bowl).
The Iron Bowl was played at Birmingham’s Legion Field in those days (which ironically is reached by driving down Arkadelphia Avenue), and the two schools would alternate as host. Though the media focus was on Bryant, Auburn was the home team.
I wrote a letter on Siftings Herald stationery to David Housel, Auburn’s sports information director, requesting media credentials. I told him that though we were a small newspaper, we were one of the closest daily newspapers to Bryant’s hometown of Fordyce.
Housel, the epitome of a Southern gentleman who went on to become Auburn’s athletic director, wrote me back. He noted that he was expecting hundreds of writers from across the country, most of them from newspapers much larger than mine. But because he liked my chutzpah, he would find a way to get me in the main press box.
I visited about that game with Housel several years ago when he was in Little Rock for the SEC women’s basketball tournament.
It was an afternoon game, and those with media credentials were asked to meet at a downtown Birmingham hotel on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 28, and then take police-escorted chartered buses to Legion Field.
Here was my problem: The Arkadelphia High School Badgers, in their third season under head coach John Outlaw, were in the state semifinal game. I had to handle the radio play-by-play duties of Arkadelphia’s game against Alma and then write a story for the newspaper.
Fortunately, I was young. I decided that I would finish my duties in Arkadelphia and drive through the night to Birmingham.
The Badgers were upset by Alma (the team they had defeated in the state championship game two years earlier). I wrapped up the broadcast, wrote the newspaper story and headed toward Lake Village after midnight.
I crossed the Mississippi River and then drove east on U.S. 82 through Greenville, Greenwood, Winona, Starkville and Columbus. The sun was coming up as I crossed into Alabama.
Auburn, in its first season with Pat Dye as head coach, played well. Alabama had to come from behind in the second half to win, 28-17.
Realizing that I was witnessing history, I got as close as possible to Bryant as he walked off the field. I attended his postgame news conference and went back to the press box to call in a story to the Arkansas Democrat. I would finish college in the next couple of weeks and had already agreed to go to work for Wally Hall at the Democrat in December.
I took so long that I missed the chartered bus that was taking writers back downtown. As I left the press box, it was getting dark. I wasn’t sure what to do, but then a car pulled up beside me.
The driver, who also had a press pass dangling from his belt, could see that I was a sports writer in need of a ride.
“You want a ride downtown?” he asked.
“I sure do,” I said.
He then stuck out his hand and said, “Clyde Bolton.”
I smiled and immediately replied, “I have several of your books!”
Clyde Bolton of The Birmingham News was among the South’s most famous sports writers in those days. He retired a decade ago from the newspaper business but is still writing books.
He dropped me back at my car, and I decided to head west until I got tired. Not having slept since Thursday night, I made it only as far as Tuscaloosa. I found a motel room, bought myself a big steak to celebrate what had been a memorable day and went to bed by 9 p.m.
I still have the Sunday newspapers I bought the next morning.
Those memories came flooding back as David Sharp, the Ouachita athletic director, and I drove to Birmingham last week. Ouachita was playing in Tuscaloosa the next afternoon against Stillman College. Since the Crimson Tide was also at home, the closest hotel room we could find was in Birmingham.
I’m in my 30th year of doing Ouachita’s radio play-by-play. I actually started 34 years ago but lived in Washington, D.C., for a few years in the late 1980s and didn’t see Ouachita games. I adopted the Naval Academy as my team and attended all the home games at Annapolis.
Years ago, I would have predicted that I would have given up my strange fall hobby of going to college football games every Saturday by now. Yet the older I get, the more important these trips become to me.
Good food, of course, is a big part of any college football road trip. David and I left Friday morning in time to have ribs for lunch at Central Barbecue near the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. And we drove over to Bessemer, Ala., on Friday night for the Greek snapper at the famous Bright Star, which has been in downtown Bessemer for more than a century.
When I think of college football road trips, I think of all the things I’ve seen. The small college circuit can really give you some interesting experiences — seeing the World’s Largest Peanut in Durant, Okla., and the World’s Largest Pecan in Seguin, Texas, for instance. First-time visitors are always disappointed to discover that these big nuts are made out of concrete and plastic.
I think of friends who are no longer with us, especially the great Mac Sisson, the longtime Ouachita sports information director with whom I spent hundreds of hours and covered thousands of miles on football Saturdays.
I miss him.
And I think of my current friends — people such as the aforementioned David Sharp, my friend of more than 30 years; Jeff Root, with whom I grew up in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia. He has been my partner on the broadcasts for more than a quarter of a century.
On Friday nights, as mentioned in a Southern Fried post earlier this week, I co-host a high school scoreboard show from 10 p.m. until midnight. That will mean some short nights in the weeks ahead. In two weeks, for instance, I will get home about 12:30 a.m. following the scoreboard and get up at 5 a.m. in order to meet Jeff in Arkadelphia. We’ll leave at 6:30 a.m., have breakfast at the Pitt Grill in New Boston, Texas, and drive to Durant to broadcast Ouachita’s afternoon game against Southeastern Oklahoma.
Creatures of habit, we’ll probably drive downtown after the game to see the big peanut and then have dinner at the Branding Iron in Durant. We’ll likely get back to Arkadelphia shortly before midnight, and I’ll get home to Little Rock about 1 a.m.
Why do I continue to do this at age 53?
I do it because I love it. September, October and November mean football road trips.
It’s who I am.
It’s what I do.