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.”
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.
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.