Archive for November, 2009

Eating across Arkansas

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

It’s fitting that on the night before Thanksgiving — when those of us across Arkansas are busy in the kitchen or at least thinking about what we will eat the next day — the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” program will feature an episode taped in our state.

Overeating will certainly be the norm.

In tonight’s episode — which will air at 9 p.m. — host Adam Richman will go out to the Osborne family’s farm for one of those giant barbecue platters. One Osborne platter is usually enough to feed my family of four for a week, though I haven’t had one in years. When my wife once asked if she could just have the barbecue sandwich, she was told: “Take the whole platter and just say thank you.”

You’ve likely been to an Osborne family barbecue at one time or another if you live in Arkansas. If not, we can tell you that the platter consists of a whole chicken (and not a small one), a beef rib that appears to be more of an elephant rib, a slab of brisket, sausages, a jumbo pulled pork sandwich and one of those turkey legs like you find at the Arkansas State Fair.

Richman next travels to Cotham’s (we assume this is the original location in Scott and not the lunch joint next to the state Capitol) to try to eat four Hubcap burger patties stacked on one bun. I’m getting a bit ill just writing this.

Next, he heads to the Mean Pig in Cabot for a pulled pork sandwich that has something called Shut Up Juice on it. According to the show’s publicist, more than 4,000 people have tried to eat a whole sandwich with Shut Up Juice spread on it and just 64 have succeeded.

Frankly, I don’t want my barbecue sandwich to make me scream. The medium sauce at Craig’s in DeValls Bluff is about right for me.

At any rate, I’ll be watching tonight to see how our state is portrayed.

A question: What is on your Thanksgiving menu? And if you’re reading the post after Thanksgiving, still feel free to share with us what you had that day. I love hearing about the unique dishes that many Arkansas families add to the traditional turkey and dressing.

I’m one of those who believe Thanksgiving to be the ultimate holiday for men. It always falls during the week. There’s plenty of football to watch on television. You’re allowed to eat too much. You’re allowed to take a nap. You don’t have to buy anyone a gift or even a card.

You find your inner child as you even begin the day by watching a parade on television. And when else would you feel obligated to actually watch a Detroit Lions home game? After all, it’s a tradition.

Have a nice Thanksgiving.

College football — Week 13

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

We were 5-0 with our picks last week to bring us to 56-28 for the season. That was not a good thing for the Arkansas schools, mind you, since we picked four of the five to lose.

The Hogs took care of business at War Memorial Stadium. You know your team’s offense is rolling when you score 42 points in an SEC game and everyone states that the offense was “out of sync.” How quickly have Ryan Mallett and Bobby Petrino spoiled us?

A bad season for Arkansas State got even worse Saturday as the Red Wolves were thrashed on the road at Middle Tennessee State. With a record of 2-8, Steve Roberts’ team badly needs victories over two of the weakest teams on its schedule, North Texas and Western Kentucky, in the final two games of the 2009 season.

UCA, meanwhile, continues to lose close games, falling to 5-6 with a four-point loss at McNeese State. The Bears’ six losses have been by margins of three, three, three, four, four and five points.

UAPB was thrashed on the road by a rejuvenated Prairie View A&M program. Prairie View is a school that once set an NCAA record for the most consecutive losses.

And Arkansas Tech ended its season with a loss in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs to Terry Bowden’s North Alabama club, which boasts more than 20 Division I transfers. The Wonder Boys, however, should be proud of their final 9-3 record. Two of those losses came to North Alabama, which likely will win the Division II national title. The other loss came to West Alabama, which made it to the second round of the playoffs. The Gulf South Conference continues to be the SEC of Division II. It was good to see an Arkansas school get one of the conference’s three playoff berths this year.

Here are this week’s picks:

Arkansas 38, LSU 35 — Les Miles is to clock management what Mark Mangino is to proper nutrition. It sure would be fun to be in south Louisiana listening to talk radio this week. At least they have the undefeated Saints. How often through the years have the Saints rather than the Tigers been that state’s football bright spot? This game could be billed as the “give me Liberty or give me Cotton” game. A loss likely puts Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis. A win likely puts Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl at Arlington. Would it not be neat for the first Cotton Bowl to be played in Jerry Jones’ new stadium to pit Arkansas against Nebraska? It would come 45 years after an Arkansas team on which Jones played defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl to win a national championship. Jerry could host a reunion of those two teams. The media coverage would be tremendous. His stadium would be packed on Jan. 2 with people wearing red. So can Arkansas win under the lights at Baton Rouge? Those Razorback fans who think it’s going to be easy are delusional. But this Razorback offense gets better by the week. We’ll stay on the bandwagon and predict that the Hogs win late in what will turn into a track meet.

Arkansas State 29, North Texas 21 — We keep thinking the Red Wolves will win again. This would be a good week to do so. In fact, I’m planning to be in Joneboro to see if they can down the Not So Mean Green. North Texas is 2-9. The wins have come over Ball State and Western Kentucky. The losses have been to Ohio, Alabama, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida Atlantic, Troy, Louisiana-Monroe, Florida International and Army.

UAPB 38, Texas Southern 35 — UAPB is 5-4. Texas Southern is 4-5. The two schools meet at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas on Saturday afternoon for the Lone Star Classic. We think Monte Coleman’s much improved Golden Lions can end their season on a high note.

UCA 24, North Dakota 17 — How on earth do you end your season at home with a nonconference game against North Dakota? We’re not sure. The Fighting Sioux are members of a crazy conference known as the Great West. It’s made up of 10 schools from New Jersey to Texas to California. What a travel nightmare. You’re in New Jersey and in the Great West? West of Ireland? At any rate, this is a 5-5 team that has wins over Northwestern State of Louisiana, South Dakota, Stony Brook (in the much anticipated Potato Bowl), Cal Poly and Southern Oregon. The losses have been to Texas Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Sioux Falls, Southern Utah and UC-Davis. What the heck? Call us homers. We’ll pick all the Arkansas schools to win on this final full week of the regular season.

A week in Little Rock

Friday, November 20th, 2009

It was a smart move on the part of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau to be one of the sponsors of last night’s taping of the NBC “Holiday on Ice” special at the Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

Right there next to the ice was a banner promoting the website It will be seen by people across the country a week from Sunday when NBC airs its annual “Holiday on Ice” special from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. Sure, there will be NFL games on Fox and CBS that afternoon. But millions of Americans — especially women — will be watching “Holiday on Ice.” I’m told the special will include the musicians and skaters having fun in Little Rock in the days leading up to the taping.

What this does is add to Little Rock’s emerging reputation as a historic, charming, funky, fun Southern city with lots of amenities. You wouldn’t have thought of central Arkansas as the place where NBC would film this show. And that adds to the reputation of this as a place that’s full of surprises.

Brian Boitano led a cast of skaers that included Michael Weiss, Elvis Stojko, Steven Cousins, Caryn Kadavy and others. REO Speedwagon, formed way back in 1967, was there to performing “Keep On Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” This is a group whose 1981 album “Hi Infidelity” sold more than 10 million copies.

Rick Springfield was also there. He’s 60 now, which makes me feel old. And, of course, he performed “Jessie’s Girl,” his hit single from 1981.

A lot of baby boomers will relate to REO Speedwagon, Rick Springfield and Brian Boitano, who won that Olympic gold medal 21 years ago. And they will be watching NBC during the long Thanksgiving weekend and hearing about Little Rock.

It made me think about my week in Little Rock.

At noon Monday, I heard a panel of former Razorback quarterbacks speak. I was part of a crowd of 300 people at the Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting that day. Former Alabama and Kentucky head football coach Bill Curry will be the speaker next Monday at the final meeting of the season for what has become one of the top clubs of its type in the country.

Just before 6 p.m. Tuesday, I drove down the street to the Clinton School of Public Service to hear John King, who is in the news after being named as Lou Dobbs’ replacement in prime time at CNN

On Wednesday night, I grabbed a great dinner at El Dorado on Asher Avenue — one of a plethora of authentic Mexican restaurants now in the city — before heading to one of the finest basketball facilities of its type in the country (UALR’s Jack Stephens Arena) to watch a college basketball game.

On Thursday night, I ate good sushi in North Little Rock and then walked with my wife and youngest son over to the “Holiday on Ice” show.

During the lunch hour Friday, I was at the Clinton Library to hear a fascinating talk by David Walker, who ran the U.S. Government Accountability Office for almost a decade.

On Saturday, I plan to attend a Southeastern Conference football game at War Memorial Stadium. The SEC, of course, is the home of the finest college football in America.

All of this in the course of six days. All of this within minutes of my home. All of this without having to leave work early. I didn’t even mention that President Clinton was in town for several days, doing a series of events. Dick Morris was even in town. I doubt the two men met with each other!

Despite the city’s problems — and there are a lot — in many ways these are the good ol’ days in Little Rock.

Memphis blues

Friday, November 20th, 2009

I’ve written about Memphis before. It’s a city where I spent a lot of time in my job with the Delta Regional Authority and a city I’ve always enjoyed visiting.

It’s a city blessed with that great location on the Mississippi River and a fascinating history. It also has been a city cursed in recent decades with high crime rates, spiraling poverty rates, rapid outmigration and racial tension. Little Rock has its own problems, but those problems often pale in comparison to what’s happening two hours down the road in Memphis.

As a place that’s important to tens of thousands of people who live in east Arkansas, it’s important to all Arkansans that Memphis does well. The late Willie Morris of Mississippi, who might just be my favorite writer, once said that the two most imporant cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans. In that vein, it would be safe to say that the most important city in east Arkansas is Memphis.

I sometimes find myself feeling sorry for Memphis, even in the realm of sports. Memphis residents love to talk about sports. The city, in fact, has three all-sports radio stations. Driving around the Delta, I often would alternate between shows on 560 AM, 680 AM and 730 AM out of Memphis.

I was in a hotel room in downtown St. Louis on the night of April 7, 2008, watching the Memphis Tigers blow that big lead down the stretch and lose to Kansas in overtime in the NCAA title game. I grieved for the city, knowing what a boost in morale this would have been for people who were hungry for something good to happen.

Having failed in its long effort to secure an NFL franchise — the old Houston Oilers went to Nashville after one lonely season in exile at Memphis — Memphis finally secured an NBA franchise. But that team has been terrible. It has a bad owner and has been poorly managed. The Fed-Ex Forum is a gorgeous downtown facility, but most seats are empty these days whenever the Grizzlies play. The recent effort to bring Allen Iverson to the team was a disaster. The 34-year-old guard played only three games with Memphis, all in California. He began an indefinite leave of absence on Nov. 7 to deal with a “personal issue” and then was waived by the team earlier this week.

Over at the University of Memphis, head football coach Tommy West was fired earlier this month and went out firing at the school. During a news conference, he said: “Put something in it, or do away with it. One or the other. That’s what they should do. … There’s a negativity here that, in the end, eats you up. It’s hard to win. In today’s game, it’s harder to win than it has ever been. And if you have to fight battles around your own program and around your own campus and around your own city, it’s hard. It makes it very difficult.”

Take that, Memphis.

This all comes in the same year that John Calipari took off for Kentucky, leaving forfeited games in his wake.

There simply are no bright spots when it comes to the Grizzlies. But, at the college level, the Tigers appear to have a bright young basketball coach in Josh Pastner. The Tigers came close to knocking off Kansas earlier this week, falling 57-55 in a nationally televised game and proving that Memphis basketball is still relevant. And Pastner’s recruiting efforts have been outstanding thus far. At least one recruiting ranking now has Memphis at No. 1 based on current commitments.

Columnist Geoff Calkins wrote in The Commercial Appeal earlier this week: “In the seven months since Pastner was given the Memphis coaching job by default, he has persuaded half a dozen elite recruits to play for the Tigers. Imagine what Pastner will do when he has a full year to recruit. Which is a joke, of course. The guy can’t do better than this. Because this is impossible. This was the job that couldn’t be done. There was no way anyone could replace John Calipari. There was no way any other coach could get national recruits to come to a Conference USA school. Without Calipari, Memphis would go back to being a nice, plucky regional program. Instead, Memphis is No. 1.”

By the way, central Arkansas basketball enthusiasts will have a chance to see this Memphis team when the Tigers play UALR at 2 p.m. on Dec. 12 in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

The city received another dose of great news Wednesday when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $90 million grant to the Memphis public schools. The seven-year project is designed to raise teaching levels. Under the plan, the most talented teachers will be moved into the classrooms where they are needed most. The district will now pay top-tier salaries approaching six figures.

The best news of all, though, is that Memphis has a new mayor. Finally. It’s not that he’s a fresh face. The city’s new mayor, A.C. Wharton, previously served as Shelby County mayor. Wharton is not spring chicken, either. He’s 65. But after 18 years, the controversial, often incompetent Willie Herenton is gone from the Memphis mayor’s office, having retired from his fifth term on July 30 under the cloud of a federal investigation.

Wharton cruised to victory last month with 60 percent of the vote against 24 opponents (that’s right — 24) in the special election to replace the man they called King Willie. Memphis badly needed a change at the top, and Wharton provides just that as he serves the final two years of Herenton’s term. Wharton said his victory marked the end of an era “apathy, of divisiveness, of hatred, of discord.”

Once can only hope he’s right. A Commercial Appeal investigation revealed that between 2004 and July of this year, Herenton managed to steer an extra $240,000 of government money into his pockets. Herenton’s salary as mayor was $171,500.

As Calkins wrote back in August: “Willie Herenton wants you to know that he is not crazy. Just as Richard Nixon wanted you to know that he was not a crook. Just as Roger Clemens wanted you to know that he did not take steroids. Just as Bill Clinton wanted you to know that he did not have sexual relations with that woman. Just as Larry Craig wanted you to know that he was not gay. All these centuries later, that other Willie — Shakespeare — had it right, didn’t he? Thou dost protest too much.”

Good luck, Memphis.

The Grizzlies stink. Your college football team is just as bad. You will never have an NFL franchise. Razorback fans are hoping for the Cotton Bowl rather than your Liberty Bowl. The Pyramid is still empty. And you even lost the Mid-South Fair.

But Mayor Herenton is out of office. Something positive finally happened in your public schools. You stumbled upon one of the most exciting young coaches in college basketball. So stop being so down on yourselves, Memphis residents. You’re beginning to make the infamous Arkansas inferiority complex seem minor.

Your city is authentic, funky and fun, far from one of those manufactured New South cities. I’ll be back soon.

My breakfast with Walter

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

In an earlier post, I mentioned the breakfast I shared with Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, the president of Philander Smith College.

During the course of our breakfast conversation, Dr. Kimbrough talked about his upbringing in Atlanta and the effect that the Atlanta University Center has had on that city. The Atlanta University Center consists of historically black colleges and universities — Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Morehouse, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee, is an all-male institution with about 2,900 students. Formerly the Atlanta Baptist Seminary, it has a strong tradition. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who became its president in 1940, was a mentor to Dr. King and delivered his eulogy in April 1968. Morehouse students and graduates played a central role in the civil rights movement.

Spelman, a women’s college with about 2,300 students, began in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. In April 1884, John D. Rockefeller paid off the school’s debt. The name was changed to Spelman Seminary in honor of Rockefeller’s wife, Laura Spelman.

Clark Atlanta University is the product of the 1988 consolidation of Clark College and Atlanta University. Atlanta University was founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association with later assistance from the Freedman’s Bureau. Clark College was founded in 1869 by the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

What Dr. Kimbrough witnessed during his years in Atlanta was this: Talented black students would come to Atlanta from across the country to attend college and then stay there following graduation. Their contributions helped Atlanta become the South’s largest and, in many ways, most dynamic city. While the authorities in Birmingham were turning fire hoses on black citizens, Atlanta was billing itself as “the city too busy to hate.”

Dr. Kimbrough believes Philander Smith and its neighbor a few blocks away, Arkansas Baptist College, can become a smaller version of the Atlanta University Center. With articulate, dynamic presidents — Fitz Hill at Arkansas Baptist and Walter Kimbrough at Philander Smith — these schools are now in a position to attract more financial support from the Little Rock business community, recruit additional students and help give new life to the neighborhoods that surround their campuses.

Here’s the vision: Some of the graduates from elsewhere fall in love with Little Rock and decide to stay. They buy homes near their alma maters and chose to raise their families in those neighborhoods. Young, successful couples, in turn, revitalize a historic part of Little Rock.

Dr. Kimbrough, who spent five years at Albany State University, says there is far less racial tension in Little Rock than there was in Albany and the rest of south Georgia. He remembers that his first impression of Little Rock in 2004 was how nice the people were. With the increasing array of cultural activities in the city — including his own “Bless the Mic” lecture series and the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service — Dr. Kimbrough believes Little Rock is in a position to be a mecca for students from other states. Already, almost 40 percent of Philander Smith’s students come from outside Arkansas. Two of the school’s strongest alumni chapters are in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Dr. Kimbrough also wants Philander Smith to be known for its social justice initiative. He defines social justice as “ensuring equity for people regardless of their backgrounds. You don’t want people to be automatically disadvantaged just because they belong to a particular group.”

Of course, once equal opportunity is ensured, it’s up to the individual how much he or she achieves. That’s why Dr. Kimbrough makes giving back to the community a part of the initiative.

“Very few colleges in the state have a truly distinct identity,” the Philander Smith president says. “What are we going to be known for? As a small school, we need to establish our identity.”

Both the Philander Smith and the Arkansas Baptist presidents have made clear that they expect their students to give back. In their minds, the goal of college is not just to obtain a degree and be able to make a lot of money.

During our breakfast, Dr. Kimbrough spoke of the low percentage of parents who attend parent-teacher conferences at some schools in the Little Rock School District.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “You have to make time for your children. You have to make time for your community. It’s not all about yourself. Those are the kinds of things we’re trying to stress with the social justice initiative. We’re giving students a chance to discuss issues such as these. We want to be a part of developing the next generation of leaders for this city and state.”

Kimbrough also established the school’s black male initiative. The Philander Smith website describes it this way: “After looking at the abysmal graduation rates, the president pulled together a committee to begin to look for new ways to engage the men on campus. Through a series of special events for the men, the black male initiative provided opportunities for men to connect with each other, and with faculty and staff. The support of the Philander community was enlisted to serve as mentors for the males on campus. The goods news is that they came together and embraced the concept of being their brother’s keeper. Their goal is to impact lives through involvement and support as the males strive for their objective — to graduate.”

Dr. Kimbrough told me: “We want this to be a model program that others can adopt. A lot of these guys are now sharing the problems they face for the first time. They had never talked about their problems before.”

Earlier this year, Philander Smith purchased and razed what had been the Brick House liquor store across the street. The school also has purchased abandoned houses on Chester Street. Participants in the Black Male Initiative then painted a fence and helped clean the lot where the liquor store had been.

Over at Arkansas Baptist, Fitz Hill has bought more than a dozen homes and even a car wash in the neighborhood surrounding his school.

And the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has formed the University District Partnership in an effort to improve the neighborhoods surrounding UALR.

Partnership director Ron Copeland told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette back in March: “Twenty or 30 years ago, redevelopment often focused on major corporations as anchors. What we’ve seen is private businesses often merge or move or fail. Philander Smith, UALR, Arkansas Baptist College, UAMS — these are major institutions that will be there for the next century. So, to the extent that they have a strong physical and economic presence in their areas, they will continue to be anchors well into the future. … Our advisers tell us that commerce follows people. Our emphasis is creating a quality of life that will attract families, and then businesses and services will follow them.”

Dr. Kimbrough said that when he’s selling potential students on Philander Smith, he’s also selling Little Rock as a city. He would like to see programs such as the social justice initiative and the black male initiative receive national recognition.

“Outside recognition will change the game for us,” Kimbrough says. “It will give Philander Smith more validity. We want to become a model for how we educate our students.”

In the process, a historic part of Little Rock could be revitalized.


Monday, November 16th, 2009

It was with great delight that I picked up Saturday’s Wall Street Journal and found a half-page spread on Eureka Springs. The article appeared in a special section on retirement planning and living.

Eureka Springs simply could not have received better publicity than this. This article will be read by exactly the kind of people the town should be targeting — well-educated, well-traveled, wealthy, sophisticated, nearing retirement age.

Like many Arkansans, I’ve often found myself frustrated with Eureka Springs and its leadership (or lack thereof). I just never felt that Eureka Springs had lived up to its potential as a nationally recognized tourism destination. It seemed there was always a fight brewing — the mayor was fighting with members of the city council, the business owners up on the highway were fighting with the business owners downtown, etc., etc.

I would say to myself: “The boom that occurred in Branson should have occurred in Eureka Springs. All of that tax revenue could have gone to our state.”

As I have grown older, however, my position has changed. I now find myself saying: “Thank goodness that the boom that occurred in Branson didn’t occur in Eureka Springs. All of that traffic, all of those music theaters with faux patriotic themes and all of those outlet malls would have ruined the place. Eureka Springs is authentic, not manufactured to attract tour buses filled with elderly folks from Illinois.”

And I now think the infighting is part of the eclectic charm of the place they used to call Little Switzerland.

Still, as Eureka Springs further defines itself, its best niches will be:

1. Well-to-do couples who travel there to enjoy its spas, restaurants and art galleries. After all, Eureka Springs has a 125-year tradition of providing mineral baths and steam treatments. Spa services have expanded in the past decade, and that’s a trend that needs to continue. The spas must become even more upscale to reach this demographic. Eureka Springs also needs to continue to increase the size of its artisan community and become one of the top arts and cultural destinations in the region.

2. Retirees. They will bring their talents and their volunteer spirit. They will drive up home values. They will provide a source of income for restaurants and shops in the months when tourism lags.

There always will be a place for the motorcycle enthusiasts driving through the Ozarks and the church groups in town to see the Great Passion Play. But an even brighter future could rest on well-to-do older couples who come to visit and later decide to stay.

The Wall Street Journal article is aimed at those very couples. It tells the story of Steven Hudson and his wife, Patsy, who decided to move out of the New Orleans area when they retired. They were looking for a place on the water that was far enough inland to avoid hurricanes. They wanted hills or mountains and a four-season climate.

“The beauty of the area fascinates us,” Steven Hudson says. “There is a true sense of community here. Everybody is very friendly.”

The article also tells the story of Jaci and Robert Lang, who retired to Eureka Springs from their home near Chicago. Then there are Tom and Fran Carlin, who moved to Eureka Springs from San Diego. Fran Carlin is an artist specializing in mosaics who works out of a studio in her home.

The writer of the article, Ann Carrns, describes Eureka Springs as a town “noted for its well-preserved Victorian buildings, frequent festivals and active arts community. … Eureka Springs now claims some 200 working artists who work in varied media and display their creations in 20 local galleries. … And from spring through fall, there are almost weekly festivals on themes as varied as blues music, gay pride, Native Americans and remote-controlled airplanes.”

It’s just the sort of article those who love Eureka Springs should hope for. And, in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, it’s reaching the proper demographic.

A trio of questions for you:

1. Where’s your favorite place to stay in Eureka Springs? It can be a bed-and-breakfast inn, a hotel or a motel. Just don’t say “in my car while parked on Spring Street.”

2. What’s your favorite restaurant in Eureka Springs and why? What do you order when you are there?

3. If I were to choose a spa in Eureka Springs, which one should I choose?

College football — Week 12

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Saturday was a marvelous day for football. The weather was more like what you would expect to find in late September rather than the middle of November. In case you’ve forgotten, it can get awfully cold in Fayetteville for a night game in the middle of November.

This past Saturday night, however, I never put my jacket on in Fayetteville.

My football Saturday had started by being the first person in the door when C.J.’s at Russellville opened at 11 a.m. Is there a better hamburger in the state than what’s served at C.J.’s? If so, cast your vote. I want to know about it.

From there, it was off to the campus of Arkansas Tech University for the noon kickoff of the NCAA Division II playoff game between the Wonder Boys and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Nick Graziano, the Wonder Boys’ senior transfer from the University of Nevada, is the real deal at quarterback. He was 33 of 54 passing with no interceptions, four touchdowns and 465 yards.

UNC-Pembroke, mind you, came in with a 9-1 record and ranked No. 11 in Division II. At 8-2 coming in, Tech was ranked No. 21. But we suspected all along that the visitors from the East Coast had not seen the kind of speed one sees in the Gulf South Conference.

The Gulf South is to Division II what the SEC is to Division I — the finest football conference in the land. Those Arkansans who have never checked out a Gulf South game need to make it a point to do so next fall. It was never a game Saturday afternoon. Tech jumped out to a 24-0 lead and won going away, 41-13.

Now the Wonder Boys must travel to Florence, Ala., to play Terry Bowden’s University of North Alabama squad that was ranked first in the country before being upset in the final game of the regular season by West Alabama. North Alabama defeated Tech, 42-17, back on Oct. 3. We expect it will be much closer this time around.

After the Tech game, we made the drive to Fayetteville, arriving early enough to grab something at Foghorn’s down by Baum Stadium. Then, we watched another amazing performance by a quarterback. With the quality coaching of Bobby Petrino, Ryan Mallett gets better each game. He was 23 of 30 passing for 405 yards and five touchdowns against a Troy team that had won seven consecutive games.

This was not Eastern Michigan. This was a decent opponent. But the Razorback offense is clicking at this point. It will be interesting to see if the offensive magic continues Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.

The two quarterbacks I saw lead their teams to victory Saturday were a combined 56 of 84 passing for 870 yards and nine touchdowns with only one interception.

So on the same day, I had the best hamburger in the state, saw the only two college football games being played in the state, saw both Arkansas teams win, saw one of the best Division II quarterbacks in the country and saw one of the best Division I quarterbacks in the country. It was a perfect Saturday.

Playing on the road, Arkansas State and UCA continued to disappoint us. We had picked all four Arkansas schools — Arkansas, Arkansas State, UCA and Arkansas Tech — to win Saturday.

ASU benched quarterback Corey Leonard, the school’s all-time leader in total offense, and played redshirt freshman Ryan Aplin instead. The freshman was 20 of 27 passing for 168 yards, but it wasn’t enough in a 35-18 loss to Howard Schnellenberger’s Florida Atlantic squard. The Red Wolves fall to 2-7 overall and 1-4 in the Sun Belt Conference.

UCA, meanwhile, has now lost five games by a total of 18 points. Saturday’s loss was by a score of 17-14 on the road at Sam Houston State. The Bears fall to 5-5 overall and 2-4 in the Southland Conference. I bet this season has aged Coach Clint Conque by a decade.

What’s especially frustrating is that both ASU and UCA were supposed to have great seasons this year. That’s why we keep picking them, thinking they will live up to their potential. We’ll pick against both this week and see what happens.

We were 2-2 last week, making us 51-28 for the season.

Here are this week’s picks:

Arkansas 38, Mississippi State 21 — Here’s a reality check: Both of these teams are 2-4 in the SEC and tied for last place in the SEC West. Thus the game Saturday is a battle to see who will be alone in last place for at least a week. So why is it such a tough ticket? It’s a hot ticket because Arkansas fans can see the progress. They know where this program is headed under Petrino. And they know they may have something really special in Mallett. The Bulldogs are 4-6 overall with one of the toughest schedules in the country. The wins have come over Jackson State, Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and Kentucky. The losses have come to Auburn, LSU, Georgia Tech, Houston, Florida and Alabama. The Hogs go to 7-4 overall with a win Saturday, meaning a berth in the Cotton Bowl will be on the line the following week when they head to Baton Rouge to take on LSU.

Middle Tennessee 31, Arkansas State 28 — We just don’t see the Red Wolves getting it done of the road at this point against a Middle Tennessee team that is 7-3. The Middle Tennessee losses were to Clemson, Troy and Mississippi State. The wins have come over Memphis, Maryland, North Texas, Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette.

McNeese State 35, UCA 32 — The Bears’ five losses have been by margins of five, four, three, three and three points. So we will pick them to lose by three in Lake Charles. McNeese is 8-2 and tied for first in the Southland Conference with Stephen F. Austin. McNeese’s losses were to Tulane and Stephen F. Austin. The victories have come over Henderson, Appalachian State, Savannah State, Northwestern State of Louisiana, Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State, Sam Houston State and Texas State.

Prairie View A&M 24, UAPB 14 — The Golden Lions have had two weeks to prepare for a road game against a Prairie View team that is 7-1 overall and 6-0 in the SWAC. Prairie View secured its first SWAC Western Division title Saturday with a 34-14 victory over Alcorn State. Faced with scheduling problems, Prairie View plays only nine regular season games this year. So this is the final game of the regular season for Prairie View. But the Panthers have secured a spot in the SWAC championship game on Dec. 12 at Legion Field in Birmingham. UAPB is much improved in its second year under Monte Coleman with records of 3-2 in conference and 5-3 overall.

North Alabama 38, Arkansas Tech 34 — Graziano has been on fire the past several weeks. I would not be suprised if the Wonder Boys pull the upset. They’re playing with confidence. But we’ll stick with the home team for now.

The arts in Arkansas

Friday, November 13th, 2009

In late September, I wrote a column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about what the Arkansas Arts Center means to our state. I referred to the opening of the “World of the Pharaohs” exhibition as a high-water mark in the 50-year history of what’s now the arts center. This exhibition was brought to Little Rock by Warren and Harriet Stephens and will run through July 5.

Officials at the arts center hope the current exhibition will attract 300,000 people during its run of slightly more than nine months. People are traveling not just from Arkansas but from surrounding states to view an exhibition that includes statues, sculptures, mummies, jewelry and Egyptian art spanning more than 3,000 years of history.

The Arkansas Arts Center has extended its hours for this event. The hours are from 9 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. each Tuesday, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Wednesday through Friday and from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. on weekends.

Soon after that column was published, I received a delightful letter from Jeane Hamilton, an honorary lifetime member of the arts center board. I had noted in the column how the late Winthrop Rockefeller had taken on the Arts Center as a pet project, believing that Arkansans should have access to some of the same cultural amenities to which he had access back in New York.

“We would not be what we are today without the arrival of Win Rockefeller in our midst,” Ms. Hamilton wrote. “It was my memorable experience to be one of the three young women to go up to (Rockefeller’s ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain) for a late Sunday luncheon with Win and Jeannette in February 1959. … Our mission was to ask Win to be chairman of our forthcoming fund-raising campaign. We were then thinking in terms of a Little Rock Community Arts Center.

“After we presented our ideas to Win, I will never forget what he said: ‘Well, girls, if we are going to build an arts center, it needs to be an Arkansas Arts Center serving the whole state of Arkansas.’ Win agreed to serve as vice chairman for a statewide campaign. He also suggested the idea of an Artmobile that would travel throughout the state, which he and his brother, David, later gave to us. The rest is history.”

And what a marvelous history it has been.

In 1959, when those three Little Rock women made the trip to Petit Jean, the public high schools in Little Rock were closed. The televised images of the Little Rock Central High School crisis of 1957 were fresh on the minds of people across the country. Economic development had come to a halt.

Nan Plummer, the current Arkansas Arts Center director, wrote me after the column about “an arc from those dreadful days of 1959 to the celebration of ‘World of the Pharaohs,’ encompassing 50 years. … I am keenly aware of this trajectory — all the names of our great benefactors and founders you cite are on the walls around me, if not on my lips, every day. It’s both exhilarating and humbling to work in an art museum, where the creative intention of geniuses to communicate their ideas from the distant and not-so-distant past fills the rooms, and where the benevolence of so many over so long a time makes all our efforts, big and small, possible.”

You owe it to yourself to visit this remarkable exhibition. While there, think of the cultural amenity the Arkansas Arts Center has become for the people of our state during the past five decades.

Flaming fall review

Friday, November 13th, 2009

There was a time when tourism promoters in Arkansas would refer to it as the “flaming fall review,” the changing of the colors in the Ouachita Mountains, the Ozark Mountains and other parts of the state.

A sure sign of autumn in Arkansas is seeing the charter buses filled with retired people from places like Texas and Oklahoma, where a mesquite is considered a tree rather than a bush. Just two weeks ago today, a friend from the Mississippi Delta called me. She was on the way to Harrison for a weekend that would be spent looking at the leaves.

It’s starting to get late for fall colors in some parts of our state. The weekly fall foliage report  from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism stated yesterday: “Travelers will notice a small amount of late-season color remaining during the weekend, but nothing widespread.”

Still, there always seems to be a late-season burst here in Little Rock. I can remember years when I thought the colors actually were at their best on Thanksgiving. And with the temperature at 39 degrees this morning when I stepped out to get my newspapers (yes, plural. I am a dinosaur. I like to read things on paper, and I still get more than one newspaper at home), I was in an autumn kind of mood.

I sat in with Tommy Smith on KABZ-FM, 103.7, for a couple of hours yesterday, and we discussed favorite rural drives in Arkansas. It’s likely a little late for the colors to be at their peak on most of these drives, but these are fun drives most times of the year if you simply want to get in the car and get away for the day:

1.  Take Highway 10 west out of Little Rock all the way to Danville. Then, take Highway 80 west through Blue Ball and Union Hill to Waldron.

2. As an alternate route, once you get to Danville, take Highway 27 south all the way down to Mount Ida.

3. Take Highway 8 west out of Arkadelphia and go through Alpine, Amity, Glenwood, Caddo Gap, Norman, Black Springs, Big Fork and Board Camp all the way to Mena.

4. Take Highway 21 from Clarksville all the way to Berryville. Make sure to stop for a hamburger at Ozone.

5. As an alternate route, take a right off Highway 21 at Boxley onto Highway 74 and follow that road over to Jasper and eventually east to Bass.

6. The Pig Trail (Highway 23) remains a classic north of Ozark. Rather than taking a left at Brashears onto Highway 16, stay on Highway 23 all the way to Eureka Springs. As a shorter loop, turn right at Cass onto Highway 215 and follow it to Oark. You can then take Highway 103 south back down to Clarksville.

7. Highway 7 from Hot Springs north to Harrison is also a classic. But I think that the drive south out of Hot Springs on Highway 7 all the way to the Louisiana line should be rated more highly as a rural excursion. You go through some of the state’s most beautiful forests along that route. One drawback this fall is that part of the road has been under water due to flooding along the Ouachita River.

8. Take Highway 69 from Batesville to Melbourne. At Melbourne, get on Highway 9 and take it all the way to Mammoth Spring.

9. Take Highway 9 north out of Morrilton and follow it to Choctaw. Then follow U.S. 65 north only as far as Clinton. Take a right at Clinton and drive along Highway 9 to Shirley and then on to Mountain View for music on the square.

10. For a nice drive through the south Arkansas woods, where the hardwoods loose their leaves later, take Highway 63 south from Pine Bluff to Warren to El Dorado.

 These are routes for looking at trees. I also love driving in the Delta, looking at the crops. We’ll come back with favorite east Arkansas drives at a later time.

What are your favorite rural drives in Arkansas?

Two leaders for Little Rock

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

No one denies that the continued growth of the institutions of higher education that call this area home is key to the future of Little Rock and Central Arkansas. In Pulaski County, however, the conversation too often ends after discussing the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Pulaski Technical College.

UAMS, UALR and Pulaski Tech must indeed be major players in the growth of this region. But the focus on higher education cannot end there. Little Rock is the home of two historically black colleges with long, proud histories — Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College. The two schools are within blocks of each other south of Interstate 630. They’re anchors for their neighborhoods.

And, to the lasting benefit of the capital city and our entire state, these institutions are led by two of the most dynamic leaders in Arkansas. If I had to make a list of people under the age of 50 (sadly, I no longer qualify) who will play important roles in moving Arkansas forward during the next decade, both Dr. Walter Kimbrough of Philander Smith and Dr. Fitz Hill of Arkansas Baptist would be on that list.

As I pointed out in a recent column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’ve known Fitz Hill since he was a child. The public schools in Arkadelphia became integrated when I was in the third grade. Fitz’ older brother and I were in the same grade and friends from the third through the 12 grades. I knew Fitz would be a leader. As a fellow Arkadelphian, I’m proud of what he has accomplished.

In fact, I’ve always thought Fitz could be the first black governor of Arkansas if he ever set his mind to the task. That said, I don’t think his interest is politics. He has found his mission at Arkansas Baptist. However, the old political strategist in me cannot help but play out the scenario in my mind — Fitz obviously would receive heavy support from black voters and others who would like to see a black governor. But lots of rural good ol’ boys, who loved him when he was “Coach Hill” at the University of Arkansas, would support him because they don’t necessarily view the world in black and white when it comes to this individual. They see him as Razorback red. In Arkansas, that is something that should not be underestimated among male voters. To put it delicately, many of these white males likely are voters who wouldn’t otherwise support a black candidate. Veterans would support their fellow veteran. Fitz served in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. receiving the Bronze Star. And educators no doubt would love to see a fellow educator in the Governor’s Mansion.

Enough of that. As stated, Fitz has found his mission as he attempts to transform not only Arkansas Baptist but also the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

As for Walter Kimbrough, I’ve watched his accomplishments with interest since he was hired in December 2004 as the 12th president of Philander Smith. He was 37 at the time, one of the youngest college presidents in the country. He grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a Methodist minister and his mother was an author.

I had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with him this morning at the Capital Hotel, and he told me he set his mind on becoming a college president at age 23. When he came to Philander Smith, he said the school was best known around Little Rock as “having some nice new buildings and a great choir.”

That was good, but he wanted more. On the school’s website, he lists Philander Smith’s mission as producing “academically accomplished students, grounded as advocates for social justice, determined to intentionally change the world for the better.”

Dr. Kimbrough’s “Bless the Mic” lecture series has drawn a long line of nationally known speakers to the Philander Smith campus and increased awareness of the school.

He also launched the Black Male Initiative in 2007. He was concerned that the six-year graduation rates at the school in 2006 were only 21 percent for black women and 11 percent for black men. In an article published earlier this year in Inside Higher Ed, Kimbrough said: “We deal with a lot of first-generation students, a lot of students who come from what I would consider to be horrible K-12 systems. If you admit students like that, you’ve got to do extra things for them. That’s the part that I didn’t see happening. We’ve admitted them, so what are we doing extra to really boost them? … Men really need to have these supportive and nurturing environments. It’s not just as simple as they need more tutoring. You could provide the tutoring, and the guys won’t come.”

The national six-year graduation rate for black students at four-year institutions is 40.5 percent. It’s 56.1 percent overall and 59.4 percent for white students. The graduation rate for black men trails the rate for black women significantly.

The Philander Smith president is involved in a number of Black Male Initiative events each year. They range from fashion contests to golf lessons to lessons on how to properly tie a tie.

He told Inside Higher Ed: “When institutions have these kinds of programs for any group, the so-called usual suspects attend, the guys who are already involved, who are in leadership positions, who are doing well academically. What we’re trying to do now is have events and then personally ask guys who never come to anything to come. We’re a small campus so we pretty much know everyone or know something about them. We clearly know the people who no one knows anything about. We know who they are.”

It would be wise for the white business leadership of Little Rock to support Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist. If Little Rock is to really become the “next great Southern city” or whatever the latest public relations slogan coming out of City Hall is, Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist need to thrive.

 We have two of the top HBCU leaders in America right here in Little Rock. They’re young, they’re articulate, they’re energetic. It behooves all of us to help them succeed.